'API is not what's on the table,' senior official says

Saudis putting aside Arab Peace Initiative amid Israel normalization talks – officials

Riyadh will continue to pay lip service to proposal conditioning peace with Israel on Palestinian state, but those involved in effort say kingdom ready to normalize ties for less

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

A Saudi diplomat listens to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech at the UN General Assembly on September 23, 2023. (Prime Minister's Office)
A Saudi diplomat listens to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech at the UN General Assembly on September 23, 2023. (Prime Minister's Office)

WASHINGTON — Saudi Arabia is quietly setting aside the Arab Peace Initiative that it sponsored more than 20 years ago, and is readying for the possibility of normalizing relations with Israel without first securing the establishment of a Palestinian state, three officials familiar with the matter have told The Times of Israel.

Publicly, Saudi officials continue to stress their support for the 2002 initiative, which offers Israel normalized ties with the entire Arab world once it reaches a two-state solution to its conflict with the Palestinians. The framework was again touted by Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan’s speech at the UN General Assembly on Saturday and by the kingdom’s ambassador to the Palestinians during his first visit to Ramallah on Tuesday.

But as Riyadh engages in talks with US President Joe Biden’s administration on normalization with Israel, officials involved say such public statements have devolved into lip service.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appeared close last week to acknowledge that Riyadh is prepared to normalize ties with Israel in exchange for concessions that fall short of statehood for the Palestinians.

“We hope it will reach a place that it will ease the life of the Palestinians,” he said, referring to talks with the US as an opportunity to boost Palestinians’ livelihood, rather than their political sovereignty.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre similarly refrained from talking about Palestinian statehood as the goal of the talks. “A normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia will include a serious component dealing with the fundamental issue between Israeli and Palestinian,” she said last week.

Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, left, and US President Joe Biden, right, shake hands next to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the G20 summit in New Delhi, India, September 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Evelyn Hockstein, Pool)

“The API is not what’s on the table,” said a senior official involved in the talks, referring to the Arab Peace Initiative. Nonetheless, the Saudis “are not going to come out and publicly declare that [it’s] no longer relevant because they staked a lot on that proposal.”

“Even if our talks succeed, I wouldn’t expect the Saudis to make such an acknowledgment. But especially now, when there’s still a chance that this won’t work out, they want to cover their bases,” the senior official added.

A senior Palestinian official agreed that Saudi Arabia is prepared to set aside the Arab Peace Initiative formula, normalizing with Israel before a Palestinian state has been established.

“The Saudis have made clear to us that they will not abandon the Palestinian cause, but it’s true that what is being discussed includes elements that are less than statehood. We’re talking about a pathway to getting there,” the Palestinian official said.

A senior Gulf diplomat also recognized that Riyadh is willing to settle for less than a two-state solution before normalizing ties with Israel, in light of the other measures Saudi Arabia is hoping to secure from the Biden administration as part of a deal, such as a NATO-like mutual defense pact, access to top-notch military equipment, and support for a civilian nuclear program.

The Saudis “care deeply about the Palestinians, and will not sell them out, but [they] also have their own interests that [they’re] looking to advance and that means making realistic demands,” the senior Gulf diplomat said, suggesting that conditioning normalization on immediate statehood would not be practical.

Saudi Ambassador Nayef Al-Sudairi (L) presents his credentials to Palestinian Authority diplomatic adviser Majdi al-Khalidi at the Palestinian embassy in Jordan on August 12, 2023. (Wafa)

A spokesperson for Saudi Arabia’s Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

Hussein Ibish, a senior scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, said that the Arab Peace Initiative had already been dealt a major blow in 2020 with the Abraham Accords, which saw several Arab countries reversing the proposal’s chronology for Mideast peace when they normalized ties with Israel.

“The Saudis themselves cannot really carry the Arab Peace Initiative entirely on their own,” Ibish said.

“They too are not insisting on ending the occupation before considering normalizing Israel because they recognize that this Israeli government and no sustainable Israeli government is going to discuss such a thing,” he added.

Saudi Arabia’s continued championing of the proposal is merely “public diplomacy,” which sends certain messages to Israel and important political signals at home, Ibish said.

He likened the comments from senior officials in Riyadh in support of the Arab Peace Initiative to ones made by counterparts in Jerusalem ruling out any gestures toward Ramallah as part of a deal, even as Prime Minister Netanyahu has acknowledged there will be a component dealing with the Palestinians.

US President Joe Biden (right) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York, September 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Explaining Saudi Arabia’s priorities in its talks with the US, Ibish said, “They are negotiating existential questions regarding the defense of their country… and they’re not going to put that on the line over maximizing what they get for the Palestinians.”

He speculated that Riyadh would be willing to suffice with steps such as providing significant financial aid to the Palestinian Authority, transferring Israeli-controlled territory in the West Bank to the PA, limiting strategic settlement activity, assurances that Israel will not take steps toward annexation of the West Bank, and a general commitment to a two-state solution.

Palestinian officials told The Times of Israel last week that they’re merely pushing for a mutual cessation of unilateral actions in the context of the normalization negotiations, in addition to other “irreversible steps” that can help create a “diplomatic horizon” for a future deal.

However, those steps may still be too much for the current Israeli government, as National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir warned Friday that both his far-right Otzma Yehudit party and the Religious Zionism party would bolt the government if any concessions are made to the Palestinians. A dozen Likud lawmakers have indicated a similar position.

The US has inquired into whether National Unity chair Benny Gantz or opposition chair Yair Lapid would be willing to enter the coalition in order to bring a Saudi normalization agreement across the finish line but received negative responses from both lawmakers, US and Israeli officials told The Times of Israel.

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