Interview'A Palestinian state is something I don't see happening.'

Saudi peace is possible without Palestinian state, says senior minister

Eli Cohen, who left the Foreign Ministry for Energy Ministry, says war emphasizes joint Iranian threat; argues against return to warm ties with Turkey as long as Erdogan rules

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Then-Foreign Minister Eli Cohen addresses the press at United Nations Headquarters, accompanied by family members of individuals kidnapped by Hamas, on October 24, 2023 in New York City. (David Dee Delgado/Getty Images/AFP)
Then-Foreign Minister Eli Cohen addresses the press at United Nations Headquarters, accompanied by family members of individuals kidnapped by Hamas, on October 24, 2023 in New York City. (David Dee Delgado/Getty Images/AFP)

Saudi Arabia would make peace with Israel even if Jerusalem refuses to move toward the creation of a Palestinian state, Energy Minister Eli Cohen claimed in an interview with The Times of Israel.

Speaking from his new office in Jerusalem last week, the former foreign minister stressed that security concerns regarding the Iranian axis would trump Riyadh’s demands that a two-state solution be part of a normalization package.

“Peace with Saudi Arabia is absolutely a possibility,” said Cohen. “The war of October 7 underscored the fact that Saudi Arabia needs this peace just as much as Israel, if not more. It will receive the tools, primarily from the US, to deal with the Iranian threat and Islamist terror.”

“Who attacked Saudi Arabia four years ago?” asked Cohen, referring to a 2019 strike on two key oil facilities inside the kingdom. “Iran and the Houthis.”

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

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told US Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week that he was prepared to normalize relations as part of rebuilding the Gaza Strip after the war, two US officials relayed to The Times of Israel, noting that he indeed is conditioning that deal on Israeli steps toward Palestinian sovereignty.

Saudi Arabia Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud attends a session during the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, January 16, 2024. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP)

However, the officials noted this condition falls well short of the expectation that Israel agrees to the immediate establishment of a Palestinian state.

Before the Hamas assault, Riyadh was bargaining hard for security guarantees from Washington, as well as assistance with a civilian nuclear program that would have uranium enrichment capacity, as part of a normalization deal.

“This war emphasizes how important a regional alliance, regional stability, is,” argued Cohen, “[and] that the one who threatens Israel and the moderate Muslim states is the Shiite axis.”

In this image provided by the UK Ministry of Defense, RAF Armorers (Weapon Technicians) prepare a Royal Air Force Typhoon FGR4 for air strikes against Houthi military targets in Yemen, in RAF Akrotiri, Sunday, Jan. 21, 2024. (Leah Jones/Ministry of Defense via AP)

Iranian proxies in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen have attacked Israel and other regional states since October 7.

“The first and main thing the Saudis want is their own security,” argued Cohen, “to deal with the threat hovering over them.”

He also insisted that Israel’s current Arab partners – and potential future allies – are rooting for the IDF to finish the job against Hamas: “The countries that most want us to operate against Hamas are the moderate Sunni countries that understand if we don’t eliminate Hamas, the terror through the proxies of Iran will reach them as well.”

Like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in recent days, Cohen largely ruled out a two-state solution.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on July 9, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/Pool/AFP)

“A Palestinian state is something that I don’t see happening,” said Cohen. “We saw that Israel retreated from Gaza, and Gaza turned into a terror state ruled by the Hamas terror group, funded by Iran.”

Senior US officials have been vocal in recent weeks about the need for a renewed peace process leading to a Palestinian state. Blinken said last week that Israel cannot achieve “genuine security” without a pathway to a Palestinian state, insisting such a move could help unify the Middle East and isolate Israel’s top rival, Iran.

“You’re not going to get the genuine security you need absent that. And, of course, to that end as well, a stronger, reformed Palestinian Authority that can more effectively deliver for its own people has to be part of the equation,” Blinken said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, left, walk as they meet during Blinken’s week-long trip aimed at calming tensions across the Middle East, Tel Aviv, Israel, January 9, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool Photo via AP)

The PA is “not the solution,” countered Cohen, echoing sentiments expressed by Netanyahu.

“We all understand the Palestinian Authority is problematic,” he continued. “The PA is the only place in the world that pays salaries to the murderers of Jews. It’s the only place in the world that pays incentives to murder people.”

Israel has long accused the Palestinian Authority of encouraging terrorism and militant activity by publicly honoring attackers and by paying stipends to their families if they are killed or jailed in Israeli prisons.

A year of diplomacy

Cohen, 51, filled the role of foreign minister for all of 2023 with an internal Likud party rotation agreement. He moved to the Energy Ministry as Israel Katz replaced him as Israel’s top diplomat.

Despite leaving the Foreign Ministry, Cohen will continue to serve as a member of the security cabinet and will return as foreign minister in 2026, assuming the current government is still in power.

Outgoing Foreign Minister Eli Cohen (L) and his replacement Israel Katz shake hands at the ceremony in Jerusalem marking the handover, January 2, 2024. (Shlomi Amsalem/Foreign Ministry)

Describing his achievements over the year, Cohen stressed the continuing military aid from the US, the fact that few Western countries have pressed for an end to the fighting against Hamas, the 30 senior officials and world leaders who came on solidarity visits after October 7, and the delegations of family members of hostages that accompanied him for meetings abroad.

Before the war, Cohen oversaw the opening of 4 new embassies in Israel; agreements on 4 more embassies in Jerusalem; the opening of Israeli embassies in Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan on Iran’s border; opening Oman’s airspace to Israeli flights; and a free trade agreement with the UAE.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen meets with Azerbaijani Economy Minister Mikayil Jabbarov in Baku on April 18, 2023. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

But he also courted controversy during his tenure.

In his inaugural speech to the Foreign Ministry, Cohen said that Israel would “talk less” about the war in Ukraine, a statement many allies interpreted as an indication that the new government would not criticize Russia publicly. He also announced that he would be speaking with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov before fielding a call from any Ukrainian officials, leading to angry statements from Kyiv.

But Cohen visited Kyiv, patching up much of the bad feelings with Ukraine.

Libyan Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush speaks during a press conference with her Turkish counterpart at Turkey’s foreign ministry in Ankara, February 13, 2023. (Adem Altan/AFP)

In August, Cohen revealed that he’d met with Libya’s foreign minister, leading her to flee her country. Cohen was widely castigated for formally publicizing his meeting with Najla Mangoush, with opposition figures denouncing him for an “amateurish, irresponsible” lack of judgment, and senior government sources accusing him of inflicting serious harm on Israeli diplomacy.

He was also recently accused of politicizing his office by allegedly ordering diplomatic passports to be issued to prominent members of his Likud party, but ministry officials pushed back on those claims.

Cohen took part in the temporary warming of relations with Turkey, flying to the country in February after it was hit by an earthquake. But he recalled Israel’s ambassador as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blasted Israel for its campaign against Hamas and backed the continued presence of Hamas in Gaza.

Illustrative: IDF search and rescue teams work to find survivors after an earthquake in Turkey on February 10, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

“Erdogan is ungrateful,” said Cohen. “Israel was the first country that came in to help during the earthquake.”

Cohen said he spoke to Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan once after October 7: “I said it was obviously an act of terrorism. Israel obviously has to act.”

Cohen said that there would be no improvement in ties between the two countries “as long as Erdogan is president of Turkey.”

He also called for Israel to continue its support for Ukraine.

“We have to be on the right side of history, which is to support the sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine,” said Cohen.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen visits Bucha, Ukraine, February 16, 2023. (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

During his trip to Ukraine, Cohen was well-received by his counterpart Dmytro Kuleba after pledging $200 million in loan guarantees for healthcare and civilian infrastructure and assistance in developing a smart early warning system.

“We have to support Ukraine unequivocally. At the same time, we have to protect our security interests in the region, and Russia is a player in the region that we can’t ignore.”

Russia maintains a military presence in Syria, Israel’s northern and bellicose neighbor. The need to balance security interests at home and policy abroad has produced a relatively restrained response from successive Israeli governments, which have tried to maintain relations with both Moscow and Kyiv.

But amid the war in Gaza and Moscow’s condemnations of Israel and refusal to condemn Hamas, relations between Israel and Russia have eroded.

“To be on the right side of history is also to support Israel against Hamas,” Cohen added.

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