Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met on Wednesday with Saudi King Salman in Riyadh, seeking support for his efforts to galvanize Arab, Islamic and international rejection of US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital into sustained backing for the Palestinian cause.
But Israeli analysts say the Saudis, given their close alliance with the United States, are likely to press Abbas to halt his campaign against Trump’s move and instead to show openness to discussing American ideas for peacemaking that are expected to be presented soon.
The official Palestinian news agency Wafa said Abbas discussed with the Saudi monarch “the latest developments and contacts undertaken to protect Jerusalem from the imminent danger to it” as a result of Trump’s declaration. It said that Abbas “praised the international consensus supporting the Palestinian people and its just issue and rejecting the American declaration,” and that he commended “the firm positions of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia toward the Palestinian issue and the rights of our people.”
Salman, the official Saudi Press Agency reported, “reiterated the kingdom’s constant stances toward the Palestinian cause and the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people in establishing an independent state with east Jerusalem as its capital.”
Wafa quoted the king as saying the same thing in nearly identical wording.
The meeting, also attended by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir, PA Minister for Civil Affairs Hussein Sheikh and other officials comes after the two sides differed in their response to Trump’s December 6 Jerusalem declaration. In its immediate aftermath, the Saudi royal court condemned it as “unjustified” and “irresponsible.” But then the response became muted and there was no mention of Trump’s declaration at all in the Saudi account of the Wednesday meeting, leaving the distinct impression that the Saudis want the agenda to move on and the US to continue working up a peace plan now in its advanced stages.
Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, who met a delegation from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy after Trump’s declaration, voiced just one word of disappointment with it and then spoke of how Riyadh and Washington could work together to limit the fallout and restore hope to peace efforts, according to Robert Satloff, the institute’s director.
Abbas, for his part, has said repeatedly that the US has disqualified itself from being a mediator and has become a party to the conflict, and even depicted it as being a long-standing enemy of the Palestinians by bitterly accusing Washington of being a “partner” to Britain’s 1917 Balfour Declaration.
The Palestinians are boycotting US envoy Jason Greenblatt’s visit to the region and plan to do the same to Vice President Mike Pence when he comes in January.
In the view of Gabriel Ben-Dor, a Middle East scholar at the University of Haifa, “the Saudis want Abbas to lower the flames and stop inflaming everyone against the US and the recent pronouncement on Jerusalem.”
“The Saudis want peace and quiet, they want the US to play a prominent role in the Middle East, they want to weaken the radicals in the region, and the last thing they are interested in is the kind of rabble-rousing Abbas has been engaged in. He’ll be under pressure from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, that’s very clear,” Ben- Dor said.
Jerusalem and Islamic solidarity are important for Riyadh, but its overarching priority is countering Iran, Ben-Dor continued.
“The Saudis have made a major decision to take on the Iranians in the fight for mastery of the Middle East, and they want to be allied with the US in this huge effort, and everything else is subservient to this goal which is the primary force driving Saudi foreign policy today.”
Through this prism, Israel is seen by Riyadh as a “surreptitious strategic partner in the struggle with Iran. They would like to quiet down the entire Israeli-Palestinian issue to mobilize Arab support for standing up to Iran,” Ben-Dor said.
When the American peace plan is unveiled, the Saudis “will try to push the Palestinians to be more accommodating and compromising than they have been so far,” Ben-Dor predicted.
The New York Times
, in a December 3 report, cited Palestinian, Arab and European officials as saying that during a visit by Abbas to Riyadh in November, the crown prince presented him with a plan for a noncontiguous state with limited sovereignty and without a capital in east Jerusalem. The White House denied that this was its plan while the Saudis responded by saying they remain committed to the 2002 Arab League initiative calling for a state along the pre- 1967 lines with east Jerusalem as its capital.
Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudaineh also denied the report.
Abbas’s trip to Riyadh is a gain for the Saudis, according to Joshua Teitelbaum, a Saudi specialist at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan.
“It helps out the Saudis, who look to a lot of people in the Arab world as if they are selling out the Palestinians. By Abbas going there, it looks as if they are coordinating. He’s hoping they will intervene with the Americans to make sure the US peace plan is not so objectionable.
“The Saudis are probably telling him he should put the Jerusalem issue behind him and play ball with what the Americans are cooking up now. That there’s no other game in town. That it’s us and the Americans, who are the only ones who can move the Israelis,” Teitelbaum said.
As a country beset by myriad challenges, including a seemingly unwinnable war in Yemen, domestic reform, low oil prices, Muhammad bin Salman’s bid to consolidate power, and of course expanding Iranian influence, the Saudis are dependent on Washington.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s American pressure on the Saudis,” Teitelbaum said.
“The Americans could say, ‘You want help in Yemen, in other areas, you want more arms, you need help to get out of Yemen, then give us a hand with this Palestinian issue.”