Abbas to visit Saudi Arabia amid differences over US Jerusalem recognition

After the announcement, the group met Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

December 19, 2017 03:04
3 minute read.
Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud walks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas

Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud walks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a reception ceremony in Riyadh in 2015.. (photo credit: REUTERS/FAISAL AL NASSER)

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will travel to Riyadh Tuesday to discuss the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Palestinian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Bassam al-Agha said Monday.

Al-Agha told the Voice of Palestine that the trip reflects "ongoing coordination" between Abbas and the Saudi monarch. But it comes amid Palestinian wariness over what is viewed in Ramallah as a weak Saudi response to Trump's move, which upended seven decades of US policy on Jerusalem and elicited protests and denunciations from Tunisia to Indonesia.

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Immediately after Trump's announcement, the Saudi royal court condemned it as being "unjustified" and "irresponsible" but not much has been heard from Riyadh since then. The Saudis failed to send a high level representative to the emergency Islamic Conference Organization summit in Istanbul last week that was chaired by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and attended by Abbas and Jordan's King Abdullah.

Meanwhile, senior Palestinian leaders were due to weigh up alternatives for formulating a new strategy for dealing with Israel, the US and the international community at a meeting in Ramallah Monday night. The leaders, including the PLO executive committee, the Fatah Central Committee, Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and ministers and security chiefs were expected to stress that the US has forfeited its role as a mediator and to discuss abrogation of the 1993 Oslo Agreement although analysts thought it unlikely such a step would actually be taken. More likely, they said, would be a decision to use the International Criminal Court to pursue cases against Israelis, for alleged war crimes and over settlement construction which most of the international community views as illegal.

Hamdallah said in advance of the meeting that the US move "will never give any legitimacy to Israel in Jerusalem or on any inch of our land and can never change the identity, nature and history of Jerusalem which is a Palestinian Arab Islamic Christian city and the eternal capital of the Palestinian state. There cannot be a Palestinian state without Jerusalem being its capital and without that there can never be peace in the region or the entire world." The sense of a muted Saudi reaction to the US move was shared by Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who led a delegation of the institute to Riyadh that coincided with Trump's announcement. The group met three Saudi ministers and the secretary-general of the Muslim World League on the eve of Trump's announcement, Satloff wrote in Foreign Policy. No one mentioned Jerusalem.

After the announcement, the group met Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. "If we hadn't asked him directly about Trump's announcement, it may never have come up," Satloff wrote. "He certainly didn't come to the meeting to vent." When the group asked the crown prince about Trump's move "he limited himself to a single word of disappointment about the president's decision-literally-and then quickly turned to where Riyadh and Washington could work together to limit the fallout and restore hope to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process."

Regarding Israel, the crown prince "struck an unusually positive note", speaking about "the promising future that awaited Saudi-Israeli relations once peace was reached and operationally he committed himself to bringing that about." Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Al Azhar University in Gaza, said the muted Saudi reaction to Trump, which has been accompanied by statements by Saudi political analysts advocating normalization with Israel, reflects a desire to avoid friction with the US. "They are waging war on Yemen, they have a bad relationship with Qatar, they are going into more than a cold war with Iran. They would like to keep the US on their side on all these issues. Maybe that's why they are refraining from speaking about Jerusalem. They don't want to provoke Trump. They need his backing." Despite Saudi indifference over Jerusalem, Abbas does not want to lose Saudi political and financial support, Abusada says.

It will be Abbas's second visit to Riyadh within a month. Al-Agha, the Palestinian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, denied that Abbas had come under pressure to make concessions to Israel during the first visit, saying such reports had no basis in truth and aimed to undermine Saudi-Palestinian relations.

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