Inside story

Saudi-backed EU venture aims to incentivize Israeli-Palestinian peace

Ministerial gathering on UNGA sidelines will see European, Arab, global actors form working groups to develop perks that conflict parties will be able to enjoy if they make a deal

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during the state funeral of late president Shimon Peres, held at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem on September 30, 2016. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during the state funeral of late president Shimon Peres, held at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem on September 30, 2016. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Saudi Arabia, the European Union, the Arab League and other international partners will unveil an initiative Monday aimed at incentivizing Israel and the Palestinian Authority to strike a peace deal.

The “Peace Day Effort” will be rolled out at a ministerial event on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Participating countries from three working groups will be tasked with coming up with the contents of a “Peace Supporting Package,” which will be presented to Israel and the PA upon the signing of a future peace agreement, a senior international official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel

One working group will outline potential peacetime regional, political and security cooperation mechanisms; a second working group will develop proposals for economic cooperation in areas such as trade, investment, innovation, transportation, natural resources and the environment; and a third working group will develop proposals for cooperation in humanitarian, inter-cultural and human security issues.

The initiative has been in the works for several years and is being presented as a joint effort by the EU, Saudi Arabia and the Arab League in cooperation with Jordan and Egypt. However, officials familiar with the project said the main driving force behind it is the EU’s Special Representative for the Middle East Peace Process Sven Koopmans.

The plan’s backers say they are looking to build on the Arab Peace Initiative — a 2002 proposal offering Israel diplomatic ties with the entire Arab League if the former reached a two-state solution with the Palestinians. That framework has taken a hit in recent years, as several Arab countries agreed to normalize ties with Israel without waiting for the creation of a Palestinian state. Even the API’s principal backer, Saudi Arabia, is in talks with the United States about normalizing ties with Israel.

The Peace Day Effort is also building on a 2013 offer by the EU to present an “unprecedented package of political, security and economic support” to both of the conflict’s parties once they reach a peace deal. The terms of such an offer were never fleshed out and the formation of the working groups will provide the sides an opportunity to do so.

Sven Koopmans (Tweede Kamer der Staten-Generaal / Wikipedia)

The initiative is separate from any peace negotiations, which do not appear to be in the offing. Israel is currently led by what is widely seen as the most right-wing government in its history, while the PA has slowly lost its legitimacy in the eyes of Palestinians amid allegations of corruption.

However, those behind the initiative believe there is still work that international actors can carry out in the interim, with the hope that providing additional carrots  will entice the parties to the conflict to come to the table to try and negotiate a peace agreement.

The working groups will aim to hold an initial assessment in December before presenting the Peace Supporting Package by September 2024, according to the senior international official.

Countries and organizations from around the world have been invited to take part in the EU-Arab effort, including the United States.

The Biden administration is expected to send a representative to the Monday event, but is not particularly enthusiastic about the idea, according to two sources familiar with the matter, who said that it clouds US efforts to advance a potential Israel-Saudi normalization agreement as well as the Negev Forum, which features already-created working groups aiming to advance regional cooperation in many of the same fields being discussed on Monday.

Addressing Monday’s event will be UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit, and the foreign ministers of several Arab countries.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addresses the media during a visit to the UN office in Nairobi, Kenya, May 3, 2023. (AP/Khalil Senosi, File)

Israeli and Palestinian officials were not invited to Monday’s event, as it focused on engaging the contributors to the Peace Supporting Package. However, the initiative’s backers are engaging with both of the conflict’s parties to hear what they would like included in the package, the senior international official said.

The EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell will be discussing the initiative with Israel’s Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and PA Foreign Minister Riad al-Maliki in separate meetings on the UN General Assembly sidelines this week.

The initiative is the latest effort by Saudi Arabia to engage in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as it negotiates with the Biden administration about a potential normalization agreement with Israel.

Earlier this month, Riyadh hosted a PA delegation and assured its participants that Riyadh “will not abandon” the Palestinian cause, even as it discusses normalizing ties with Israel, a US and an Arab official told The Times of Israel last week.

Diplomats gather at a meeting convened by Saudi Arabia on the sidelines of the UNGA in New York to discuss the Arab Peace Initiative on September 20, 2022. (Saudi Foreign Ministry)

There will be follow-up conversations between US, Israeli, Palestinian and Saudi officials on the UNGA sidelines about a potential normalization deal, but Riyadh will likely need several months to study the issue further before raising specific Palestinian-related demands in its talks with the Biden administration, according to the two officials.

Last month, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Jordan began serving as Riyadh’s first-ever nonresident ambassador to the Palestinians as well as its first-ever nonresident consul general to Jerusalem.

The Arab official explained that Riyadh has made clear to Ramallah that it is prepared to depart from its long-held public stance against normalizing ties with Israel absent an actualized two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that the PA has come to terms with this development and accordingly is asking for measures that fall short of immediate statehood.

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