Saudi Arabia’s top envoy: No recognizing Israel without path to Palestinian state

Prince Faisal bin Farhan tells CNN the kingdom isn’t interested in rebuilding Gaza only to return to pre-Oct. 7 status quo in a way that sets up another round of fighting

Screen capture from video of Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan during an interview with CNN, January 21, 2024. (YouTube. Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
Screen capture from video of Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan during an interview with CNN, January 21, 2024. (YouTube. Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister said the kingdom will not normalize relations with Israel nor contribute to Gaza’s reconstruction without a credible pathway to a Palestinian state.

Prince Faisal bin Farhan’s remarks in an interview with CNN broadcast late Sunday were some of the most direct yet from Saudi officials. It puts them at odds with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has rejected Palestinian statehood and described plans for open-ended military control over Gaza.

The dispute over Gaza’s future — coming as the war still rages with no end in sight — pits the United States and its Arab allies against Israel and poses a major obstacle to any plans for postwar governance or reconstruction in Gaza.

Before the October 7 Hamas attack that triggered the war, the US had been trying to broker a landmark agreement in which Saudi Arabia would normalize relations with Israel in exchange for US security guarantees, aid in establishing a civilian nuclear program in the kingdom, and progress toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In September, Netanyahu had said Israel was “at the cusp” of such a deal, which he said would transform the Middle East.

In the interview with “CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS,” the host asked: “Are you saying unequivocally that if there is not a credible and irreversible path to a Palestinian state, there will not be normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel?”

“That’s the only way we’re going to get a benefit,” Prince Faisal replied. “So, yes.”

Earlier in the interview, when asked if oil-rich Saudi Arabia would finance reconstruction in Gaza — where Israel’s air and ground offensive has devastated vast swaths of the impoverished territory — Prince Faisal gave a similar answer.

“As long as we’re able to find a pathway to a solution, a resolution, a pathway that means that we’re not going to be here again in a year or two, then we can talk about anything,” he said. “But if we are just resetting to the status quo before October 7, in a way that sets us up for another round of this, as we have seen in the past, we’re not interested in that conversation.”

The Palestinians seek a state that would include Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Six Day War.

Israel views all of Jerusalem as its capital and the West Bank as the historical and biblical heartland of the Jewish people. It has built scores of settlements across the West Bank that are home to hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers. The last of several rounds of peace talks broke down nearly 15 years ago.

Death toll in Gaza said to top 25,000

The current war between Israel and Hamas, the fifth and by far deadliest, began when Hamas-led Palestinian terrorists broke through Israel’s defenses along the Gaza border and rampaged murderously through nearby communities, killing some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, taking around 250 people hostage to the Strip and shattering Israelis’ sense of security.

IDF troops operating in the Gaza Strip in pictures cleared for publication on January 21, 2024. (IDF)

Israel responded to the massive assault with an air, sea and land military campaign to destroy Hamas, remove it from power in Gaza, and release the hostages. Hamas has been the de facto regime in Gaza since 2007 when it seized control of the territory from the Palestinian Authority, which is based in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

According to the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza, over 25,000 people have been killed in the IDF campaign, mostly women and children. These figures cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires.

The IDF says it has killed over 9,000 terror operatives in Gaza, in addition to some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7. That figure was somewhat corroborated by US intelligence agency assessments over the weekend, in a Wall Street Journal report that said the IDF has killed 20-30% of Hamas’s fighters in the Strip. Israel blames the high civilian death toll on Hamas because it positions fighters, tunnels, and other terror infrastructure inside dense residential areas.

Displaced Palestinian youths carry empty jerrycans up a hill to replenish their supply at a makeshift tent camp in Rafah near the border with Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip on January 21, 2024. (AFP)

Some 85 percent of Gaza’s population of 2.3 million have fled their homes, seeking elusive shelter in the south as Israel continues to strike all parts of the besieged enclave. UN officials say one in four people in Gaza are starving as the ongoing fighting and Israeli restrictions hinder the delivery of humanitarian aid. Israel has rejected those claims, saying there no shortages of food in the Strip and alleging that existing problems were caused by the inability of the UN to properly distribute the goods once they entered the enclave.

The war has also stoked tensions across the region, with Iran-backed groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen attacking Israeli and US targets as the risk of a wider conflict grows.

Netanyahu under mounting pressure from all sides

Netanyahu has vowed to continue the offensive until “complete victory” is achieved over Hamas and all of the remaining 132 hostages are released.

But Israelis are increasingly divided on the question of whether that’s possible.

Hamas is believed to be holding the hostages in tunnels deep underground and using them as shields for its top leaders. Israel has only successfully rescued one hostage, while Hamas claims several have been killed in Israeli airstrikes or during failed rescue operations. More than 100 were released in a ceasefire deal in November in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian security prisoners held by Israel.

Families of the hostages, as well as other protesters, have set up a tent camp outside Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem and vowed to remain until a deal is reached with Hamas to bring the rest of the hostages home. Other protests have called for new elections.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on January 18, 2024. (Yariv Katz/Flash90/pool)

Netanyahu has ruled out another ceasefire and exchange, saying military pressure is key to freeing the captives. Hamas has said it will only release more captives in exchange for an end to the war and the release of thousands more Palestinian security prisoners.

The long-serving prime minister, whose popularity has plummeted since October 7, faces pressure from the US — Israel’s top ally — to shift to more precise military operations, do more to facilitate humanitarian aid and embrace postwar plans with broad support across the region.

But Netanyahu’s governing coalition is beholden to far-right parties that want to step up the offensive, encourage the “voluntary” emigration of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from Gaza, and reestablish Israeli settlements there.

Most Popular
read more: