Tuesday, 23 Apr 2024

As Saudis Consider Deal With Israel, Palestinians Seek Sway in Talks

When a group of three Arab states forged landmark diplomatic ties with Israel in 2020, the Palestinian leadership saw the process as a betrayal: The deals upended a decades-old Arab practice of ostracizing Israel until the creation of Palestinian state.

Three years on, amid efforts by the United States to broker a similar pact between Israel and Saudi Arabia, Palestinian leaders are taking a different tack: engagement.

On Tuesday, three senior Palestinian envoys are set to arrive in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, for discussions about what demands Saudi Arabia could make on the Palestinians’ behalf in exchange for forming ties with Israel.

That approach reverses the dynamic in 2020, when Bahrain, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates forged relations with Israel without consulting the Palestinians — let alone winning them lasting concessions. Back then, the Palestinians only condemned the process.

While there remains little Palestinian enthusiasm for the normalization process, the shift reflects how the Palestinian leadership now feels it has more to gain through involvement in the negotiations, at least at this early stage.

Since entering office in December, Israel’s far-right government has entrenched control over the occupied West Bank, announcing huge expansions of Israeli settlements, making the prospect of a Palestinian state ever being created even more remote. Engagement with Saudi Arabia offers the Palestinians a chance to sustain regional support for their cause when momentum for it is dwindling.

“Basically, they have internalized their past mistake,” said Ibrahim Dalalsha, an analyst based in Ramallah in the West Bank. In 2020, “they really felt that their reaction cost them,” Mr. Dalalsha said. Now, they have “rethought the whole process.”

“There is no other alternative for the Palestinians,” he added.

For their part, the Saudis are also seeking more significant concessions than those offered in 2020 to their neighbors the Emiratis.

As a quid pro quo for normalization, Riyadh wants greater military cooperation with the United States, as well as U.S. support for a civil nuclear program.

But it also wants Israel to make meaningful concessions to the Palestinians, and is considering what to ask for, according to diplomats briefed on the negotiations.

In 2020, the Emirati leadership secured only a symbolic gesture: the temporary postponement of plans by Israel to annex the West Bank. Analysts think the Saudis, mindful of their powerful role in the Middle East, want to win something more significant for the Palestinians.

“Saudi Arabia sees itself as the leading state on the Islamic level,” said Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian minister and a Ramallah-based analyst. “So they try to behave as such.”

The Palestinian and Saudi leaderships have been talking since April about what the Palestinians might gain from the talks. Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the semiautonomous Palestinian administration in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, visited Jeddah that month, and contacts have been maintained since. In a show of good will last month, the Saudis appointed their first envoy to the Palestinians, Naif al-Sudairi.

Publicly, Mr. Abbas’s office says that it wants Saudi Arabia to settle for nothing less than a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, all territories captured by Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

“There is only one demand: implementing the Arab Peace Initiative,” Majdi Khaldi, one of the three senior Palestinian officials traveling to Riyadh, said in a phone interview, referring to a Saudi-sponsored plan published in 2002 that called for the establishment of such a state.

Mr. Khaldi, a foreign policy adviser to Mr. Abbas, denied his government had made any smaller-scale proposals.

But in private, Palestinian officials have discussed pushing for concessions that are more modest, though mainly still unfeasible, according to six diplomats briefed on the discussions, who asked for anonymity in order to speak more freely, and a list of Palestinian talking points reviewed by The Times.

Those demands include the restoration of Saudi financial support for the Palestinians, which was phased out in recent years, after a leading Saudi official expressed frustration at perceived Palestinian ingratitude.

The Palestinians demands also include U.S. support for full Palestinian membership of the United Nations (the Palestinians have only observer status), and the transfer of more land to Palestinian administrative control in the West Bank. Since the 1990s, Mr. Abbas’s Palestinian Authority has exerted its limited autonomy in only 39 percent of the territory; Israel directly controls the remaining 61 percent.

The restoration of Saudi financial support could be a likely outcome of the Palestinian engagement, but the other demands appear overly ambitious.

The Israeli government, dominated by ministers who favor annexing the entire West Bank, is unlikely to cede territory.

And even if the Biden administration was to support Palestinian membership of the United Nations, then that would likely trigger a freeze on U.S. funding for the body, which receives roughly a fifth of its budget from Washington. Congress passed legislation in the 1990s that forces the United States to cut funding to any U.N. body that gives membership to the Palestinians.

But if the Palestinian leadership makes smaller demands, that would risk drawing further criticism from Palestinians who feel Mr. Abbas should not have engaged in the process at all.

“Any negotiations about a price for normalization are a strategic error,” said Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian opposition politician based in Ramallah. “They’re going to get nothing.” He added: “Any new normalization will only consolidate a system of apartheid and occupation.”

Some leading international, Israeli and Palestinian rights groups have accused Israel of practicing the crime of apartheid through its treatment of Palestinians, a charge that Israel denies.

But others feel Mr. Abbas hardly has a choice.

Boycotting the Saudi normalization process would risk alienating both the U.S. and Saudi governments, two powerful partners that Mr. Abbas can ill afford to ignore, Mr. Dalalsha said.

“If you ask the Palestinians, ‘Do you really expect anything to happen?’ they would say: ‘No, and we wish it won’t happen,’” Mr. Dalalsha said.

Nevertheless, he added, “They are keen not to be blamed for its failure.”

Patrick Kingsley is the Jerusalem bureau chief, covering Israel and the occupied territories. He has reported from more than 40 countries, written two books and previously covered migration and the Middle East for The Guardian. More about Patrick Kingsley

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