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'Peace comes at the end of this process, not the beginning'

Saudi minister: Peace with Israel ‘strategic option’ but not before 2-state solution

After Biden hails Saudi okay to Israeli overflights as first step to normalization, Riyadh’s foreign affairs minister says Palestinian statehood must come first

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman looks at his notes as he meets with US President Joe Biden at the Al Salman Royal Palace, Friday, July 15, 2022, in Jeddah. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman looks at his notes as he meets with US President Joe Biden at the Al Salman Royal Palace, Friday, July 15, 2022, in Jeddah. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — A senior Saudi minister described normalizing ties with Israel as a “strategic option,” while clarifying that a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians was a “requirement” before Riyadh would formalize ties with Jerusalem.

The remarks by Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir during an interview with CNN late Friday came after Riyadh announced that it would be opening its airspace to all civilian airliners in a move seen aimed at allowing Israeli overflights.

US President Joe Biden, who met with Saudi leaders on Friday while in Jeddah for a regional conference, called the decision the “first tangible step” toward normalized ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

But al-Jubeir poured cold water on the idea, insisting that the Gulf kingdom’s position on ties with the Jewish state have not changed.

“We have said that Saudi Arabia supports the Arab Peace Initiative. In fact, we offered it, and we have made it clear that peace comes at the end of this process, not at the beginning of it,” the senior diplomat said.

The 2002 proposal offers Israel full normalized relations with all 22 members of the Arab League if Israel agrees to a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders and with a just resolution for Palestinian refugees.

File: Saudi Arabia’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

The plan was never welcomed by Israel, which now argues that the Abraham Accords, which saw Israel normalize ties with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco, prove that the two-decade-old proposal is no longer relevant.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reiterated his own support for the Arab Peace Initiative during a Friday press conference with Biden in what also was seen as a rejection of US plans to advance Israel’s integration in the region without waiting for progress on the Palestinian track.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters on Air Force One en route to Jeddah that Biden “made the case” to Abbas for why Israel’s integration in the region can “reinforce progress on the Palestinian track.”

Nonetheless, the US insists that its efforts to expand the Abraham Accords will not replace its efforts to promote a two-state solution in what is seen as a swipe at the Trump administration’s strategy for advancing normalization, which moved the matter forward as a means for bypassing the Palestinians.

While Bahrain was widely understood to have agreed to normalize ties with Israel in 2020 after receiving Riyadh’s blessing, al-Jubeir said Friday that the countries that signed the Abraham Accords made their own “sovereign decisions.”

“We hope that those decisions will have a positive impact on Israeli domestic politics,” he added, falling in line with a common talking point by supporters of the accords, who argue that member countries will be able to leverage their new ties to push Jerusalem on the Palestinian issue.

US President Joe Biden, left, listens as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a joint statement in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, July 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

Still, the Saudi diplomat insisted that his country is “committed to a two-state settlement with a Palestinian state in the occupied territories with East Jerusalem as its capital.”

“We have… made it clear that peace [with Israel] is possible,” al-Jubeir continued.  “Peace is a strategic option…, but there are certain requirements that have to happen before this takes place.”

After Biden’s meetings with Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the countries released a joint communique where the two sides backed the two-state solution as the only way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“The leaders noted their determination to remain closely coordinated on efforts to encourage the parties to demonstrate – through policies and actions – their commitment to a two-state solution,” the communique states, adding that the two countries “welcomed all efforts that contribute to reaching a just and comprehensive peace in the region.”

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