The US administration is relentlessly seeking to normalise relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and the negotiations have recently become more direct between the parties concerned.
Shuttle trips by diplomats participating in the talks have increased and contributed to the spread of narratives that a diplomatic breakthrough that will reshape the Middle East is looming.
Leading the talks are US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and his deputies Brett McGurk and Amos Hochstein. For the Saudis, the focal point is Defence Minister Khaled bin Salman, the brother of Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, and National Security Adviser Musaed Al-Aiban.
For the Israelis, the main negotiator is Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, a former ambassador to the US and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s most trusted aide.
There are no Palestinian negotiators, but Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Diplomatic Adviser Majdi Khaldi is the point of contact kept informed of developments in the talks.
In a sign of the seriousness of the talks, a Saudi delegation visited the Palestinian president in Ramallah on Tuesday. It was led by non-resident Saudi Envoy to the Palestinians Nayef Al-Sudairi, who was appointed last month.
His arrival in Ramallah marks the first time Saudi Arabia has sent a delegation to the West Bank in three decades.
Al-Sudairi said during a meeting with the Palestinian president that Riyadh is “working to establish a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.” He pointed to statements made by Bin Salman last week, “in which he indicated his great interest in the Palestinian issue and the Palestinian people.”
Al-Sudairi, who is also Saudi ambassador to Jordan, was recently appointed Saudi Consul-General in East Jerusalem. During his visit, he said that Saudi Arabia is planning to open a consulate in East Jerusalem.
A Gulf diplomatic source in London told Al-Ahram Weekly that the Saudi delegation’s visit to Ramallah was exploratory and aimed to find out “where the Palestinians stand.”
“What are their demands? How can we move the peace process forward,” he asked.
US officials close to the talks said last month that the Palestinian Authority (PA) is seeking “irreversible” steps that will advance its bid for Palestinian statehood in the context of the US-brokered Saudi-Israeli normalisation talks.
Among the demands are US backing for recognition of Palestinian statehood at the UN, the US reopening its consulate in Jerusalem that historically served Palestinians, the transfer of West Bank Territory from Israeli to Palestinian control, and the demolition of illegal Israeli outposts in the West Bank.
Speaking to the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in New York last week, Abbas warned against trying to sideline his people’s demands in any possible normalisation agreement.
“Those who think that peace can prevail in the Middle East without the Palestinian people enjoying their full legitimate national rights would be mistaken,” Abbas said at the UNGA.
Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, who did not travel to New York to attend the UNGA, said in an interview with the US channel Fox News that a normalisation pact with Israel would be “the biggest historical deal since the Cold War.”
He added that he hopes the deal will “reach a place that will ease the life of the Palestinians,” without giving further elaboration.
But Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan called in his country’s speech at the UNGA for the establishment of an independent state based on the 1967 borders. “The security of the Middle East region necessitates the expedited pursuit of a just and comprehensive solution to the Palestinian issue,” he said.
“This solution should be built upon the foundation of international legitimacy resolutions and the Arab Peace Initiative, guaranteeing the Palestinian people’s right to establish their independent state based on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital,” he added.
In 2002, Saudi Arabia proposed an “Arab Peace Initiative” that offered Israel security and “normal relations” with 57 Arab and Muslim countries in exchange for its withdrawal from Occupied Palestinian Territories and the creation of an independent Palestinian state.
The top Saudi diplomat reiterated the Kingdom’s rejection and condemnation of “all unilateral actions, considered violations, and blatant breaches of all international laws.”
“These actions contribute to undermining regional and international peace efforts and hinder the paths of political solutions,” he said.
Riyadh insists that any deal with Israel must include a component advancing efforts to establish a Palestinian state, concessions that Israel shows no sign of accepting.
Alongside Israeli goodwill gestures towards the Palestine cause, Saudi Arabia made other demands in exchange for normalisation with Israel, above all security guarantees from the US and a Saudi peaceful nuclear programme.
There is already a strong move forming in the US Congress against granting Riyadh’s demands for a security umbrella and a peaceful nuclear programme. In Israel, allies of the Israeli Prime Minister pledged not to give the Palestinians any concessions, no matter how marginal.
The US view on the recent developments is that a stunning diplomatic breakthrough is possible within the next few months.
However, the reality of the situation is that Saudi-Israeli normalisation is a difficult and complex issue and that the Biden administration is unlikely to achieve its goals in the early months of 2024 before preparations for the next US presidential elections.
“There are talks taking place, but there is no imminent agreement. Riyadh is holding consultations with the Palestinians and Arab and regional partners. The talks are not for bilateral normalisation between Saudi Arabia and Israel, and the current diplomatic efforts are not disconnected from the Arab Initiative for comprehensive peace in the region,” the Gulf diplomatic source told the Weekly.
He did not mention Iran’s role in the Saudi calculations of normalisation with Israel, but recent months have witnessed a significant improvement in Riyadh’s relations with Tehran, and diplomatic relations between the two countries have been resumed through Chinese mediation.
Saudi Arabia invited Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to visit Riyadh recently, and there are high hopes that the warmth in relations will lead to easing the conflict in Yemen and improving conditions in Iraq and Lebanon.
However, it is significant to note the change in the Iranian language regarding a possible rapprochement between Riyadh and Tel Aviv.
Several months ago, the language of Iranian officials was that the matter was an internal Saudi one. Today, the Iranian language is sharper amid warnings of US-Israeli attempts to spoil the recent rapprochement between Tehran and Riyadh.
On Sunday, Iran’s president said in an interview with the US network CNN that US-sponsored efforts to normalise Israeli relations with the Gulf Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, “will see no success.”
At a news conference in New York on the fringes of the UNGA, Raisi told the network Sky News that such a deal would be a “stab in the back of the Palestinian people and their resistance”.
Raisi said he hoped that the relationship between Tehran and Riyadh could be expanded further, but he intimated that it could be jeopardised if the Saudis improve relations with Israel.
“Under no circumstances are the regional countries willing for the Islamic countries to abandon the sacred principle of the plight of the Palestinian people because the liberation of the holy city of Jerusalem is at the core of the belief of all Muslims,” he said.
Iran has never encouraged a Saudi-Israel deal, but this is its most clear warning yet about any further rapprochement, especially if this turns out to be an implicit alliance against it.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 28 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly