Palestinians promise ‘no embarrassment' in Saudi-Israel normalization talks

Securing Palestinian approval is crucial as it would eliminate a significant obstacle, paving the way for substantive discussions aimed at a landmark agreement.

 Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends the China-Arab summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia December 9, 2022.  (photo credit: SAUDI PRESS AGENCY/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends the China-Arab summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia December 9, 2022.

US diplomats have obtained assurances from Palestinian officials that they will neither publicly reject nor undermine the White House-promoted normalization talks between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

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A diplomat from the US State Department told The Media Line that the Palestinian Authority has pledged not to publicly criticize any potential normalization deal with Israel, to avoid embarrassing Saudi Arabia.

An American official, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the subject, indicated that the Biden Administration was working closely with Saudi Arabia. They aim to develop a financial and political package intended to placate the Palestinians and prevent a response similar to that generated by the 2020 Abraham Accords, which established diplomatic ties between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain.

The diplomat confirmed that talks are centered around a “generous financial package that will lift the Palestinian economy out of its current state.”

“Saudi Arabia is a huge country with enormous political weight and massive natural resources, and we have no chance standing against it. Therefore, we’re requesting inclusion in their negotiations with the Americans,” a Palestinian Authority official in Ramallah familiar with the situation told The Media Line.

 US SECRETARY of State Antony Blinken meets with Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, in January.  (credit: MAJDI MOHAMMED/REUTERS)
US SECRETARY of State Antony Blinken meets with Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, in January. (credit: MAJDI MOHAMMED/REUTERS)

Paving the way for substantive discussions

Securing Palestinian approval is crucial as it would eliminate a significant obstacle, paving the way for substantive discussions aimed at a landmark agreement.

“The Palestinians have no option but to tag along hoping that they can cut a good deal now that they have been asked to present their conditions. They cannot afford to object because normalization is going to happen regardless. So, they hope they can get something substantial this time and improve their current position,” Jordanian political analyst Osama Al Sharif told The Media Line.

Palestinian approval or acquiescence would give Saudi Arabia the legitimate cover it needs to proceed with potential normalization talks with Israel.

Nour Odeh, a political analyst based in Ramallah, told The Media Line that in exchange for Saudi normalization, the Palestinians can expect financial aid, projects, and investments, but limited political gains. “Thus, Riyadh will try to buy the consent of the PA,” she said.

Odeh does not foresee an imminent deal on the horizon. She adds that, given the current Israeli government, Saudi Arabia’s pursuit of normalization “makes no sense. I’m unsure if this path to normalization is politically wise.”

US President Joe Biden is the catalyst behind these diplomatic efforts

He recently sent three of his senior advisers to Riyadh for a reported meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, commonly known as MBS. Their goal was to “discuss bilateral and regional matters, including initiatives to advance a common vision for a more peaceful, secure, prosperous, and stable Middle East region interconnected with the world,” the White House said.

Dr. Jonathan Rynhold, head of the Political Studies Department at Bar-Ilan University, told The Media Line that the Palestinians have limited options available.

“I don’t think that the Palestinians have much leverage with the Saudis, because the most important thing to the Saudis is what the Americans can do for them in terms of security,” he said.

Saudi Arabia is looking for US collaboration to initiate a civilian nuclear program, secure a NATO-style defense pact, and gain broader access to American weaponry.

“This requires Senate approval, and it will take a long time given that the US is getting ready for presidential elections next year,” notes Rynhold.

The unofficial demands are less ambitious than claims previously made by the Palestinians. However, these demands suggest that the Palestinians are open to cooperation and will not obstruct a normalization agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel if their conditions are met.

On Monday, both US and Israeli media outlets reported that a Palestinian delegation is en route to Washington to negotiate the incentives the Palestinian Authority will receive in return for approving the Saudi-Israeli normalization agreement.

“That’s not to say that the Palestinians have no influence, but I suspect they would have more influence in Washington particularly in Congress than in Riyadh,” says Rynhold.

He attributes this to Democrats—including those who are pro-Israel but view the two-state solution as an “article of faith,” and to younger Democrats who tend to be more sympathetic toward the Palestinians.

“The Palestinians ideally would like there would be no progress until a final resolution with the Israelis is reached,” says Rynhold.

On a parallel track, US and Israeli officials are closely discussing potential “concessions” that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government could extend to Saudi Arabia regarding the Palestinian issue.

According to Saudi and Palestinian officials, Palestinian leaders are calling for Israel to cede control of specific areas in the West Bank and dismantle some illegal Israeli settlements as prerequisites for any US-mediated deal to establish diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. These requests are far less ambitious than their past public demands.

Rynhold suggests that the Palestinians should aim to put the Israeli government in a dilemma by clearly articulating, in writing, the commitments they seek from Israel.

“The best they could do is to weaken the current Israeli government and force Netanyahu to consider a different Israeli coalition government,” he says.

With the current coalition, Netanyahu “can’t do anything,” says Rynhold, adding that persuading this particular Israeli government to agree to a deal involving significant concessions to the Palestinians would be a tough sell.

“While the current Israeli government cannot agree to that, the Israeli public could accept it because Israel would retain security and military control,” says Rynhold.

“From the Palestinian perspective, greater civilian control over territory means fewer areas where Israelis can build settlements,” says Rynhold.

Late last month, The Wall Street Journal reported that Saudi Arabia had proposed resuming financial aid to the Palestinian Authority.

Riyadh’s monthly payment of approximately $20 million to the Palestinians was suspended in 2021 due to concerns about the Palestinian Authority’s inefficiency and allegations of widespread corruption.

Saudi Arabia has historically been a steadfast supporter of the Palestinian cause, both diplomatically and financially.

Such a normalization deal would be considered groundbreaking—potentially eclipsing even the impact of the Camp David peace treaty signed between Israel and Egypt in 1978—and could significantly influence other Arab and Muslim nations, encouraging them to follow suit.

Observers concur that the prime beneficiary of establishing diplomatic ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia would be the veteran Israeli prime minister.

“I think that Mr. Netanyahu would love it! He thinks if the Americans give the Saudis what they want on their security and the nuclear issue, then he doesn’t have to give anything on the Palestinian issue,” says Rynhold.

Odeh, on the other hand, argues that securing such an agreement could be crucial for President Biden, especially in an election year.

“Giving him something right now this big would be momentous and for the Saudis to simply give him something that may boost his chances to win reelection, they would have to get a lot more than what we are hearing,” says Odeh.

“Traditionally the Saudis and Gulf states prefer to deal with a Republican president. They don’t ask as many questions as the Democrats. Especially now with the progressive wing in the Democratic Party gaining more prominence,” she says.

In 2020, former President Donald Trump orchestrated a normalization agreement, officially known as the Abraham Accords, which established diplomatic relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain.

The announcement enraged officials in Ramallah, who accused the UAE of “stabbing them in the back.”

“Yes, the Trump/Kushner team did not pay any attention to the Palestinian side when they oversaw the negotiations between Israel and the two Gulf states. So, they were left out of any deal. This time it’s different. The Saudis want to tell the world that they did it after accommodating Palestinian concerns and minimum demands” says Al Sharif.

These reports represent a significant shift from the longstanding stance rooted in the Arab Initiative of 2002.

Recognizing Israel is a particularly sensitive matter for the desert kingdom, as it houses Islam’s two holiest sites. Consequently, establishing diplomatic ties with Israel becomes an exceedingly delicate and critical issue.

“That leadership of the Muslim world means a lot to the Saudi monarchy as it provides one of the pillars of its legitimacy for its rule,” says Odeh.

The Arab Peace Initiative 

The Arab Peace Initiative, also commonly known as the Saudi Peace Initiative, was introduced by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah at the 2002 Arab League Summit in Beirut, Lebanon, and received the summit’s endorsement. The initiative calls for the resolution of the Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli conflicts and a normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab countries, in exchange for full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), and the Gaza Strip, and resolution of the Palestinian refugee issue according to UN General Assembly Resolution 194.

“The Arab Initiative was never taken seriously by the successive Israeli governments or the United States. It was stillborn. But it was the benchmark that the Arab side had agreed to back then. The Abraham Accords changed everything and created a new trajectory. It’s a take it or leave it option now for the Palestinians and they can’t afford to leave it because they will be left out and lose any kind of leverage,” says Al Sharif.

Odeh contends that as long as King Salman is alive, normalization “won’t happen.”

“He’s a traditionalist who has a deep respect for the Arab Initiative of 2002,” Odeh adds.

“This Israeli government, which includes far-right extremist ministers like Smotrich and Ben Gvir—who show no respect for Arabs in general and harbor ambitions extending even to Saudi Arabia—would clash with the Saudi leadership’s desire to maintain its standing as the leader of the Muslim world,” Odeh notes.

“There’s already a form of ‘soft normalization’ occurring, particularly in the areas of security cooperation and surveillance technology. However, if one conducts a cost-benefit analysis, normalizing relations with this Israeli government at this moment might not be the wisest course of action,” Odeh explains.

Iran also commented on reports of potential normalization. On Monday, the Islamic Republic’s Foreign Ministry stated that the Palestinian issue remains a priority in all of its negotiations with Arab countries.