In the early hours of Tuesday morning, dozens of Israeli military vehicles invaded a refugee camp in the Palestinian Authority (PA)-ruled territories in the West Bank.
The raid killed two Palestinians and left several others wounded, some with serious injuries. The raid came hours after a joint statement by Egypt, Jordan, and the PA called on Israel to stop its invasions of the Palestinian territories and other obstructive acts that undermine the pursuit of the two-state solution.
“We know very well that it is almost impossible for anyone, including the Americans, to pressure the far-right elements of the Israeli cabinet or for that matter [Likud Party leader Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu to show the required political commitment to stop incursions and talk politics,” said a well-informed Egyptian source.
However, “we have no alternative but to try and work around this very depressing situation and try to put political pressure on the US and the Europeans and to work within the Arab context to try to get some movement, even if limited, on the Palestinian front.”
On Monday, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi held a three-way Arab summit meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in Egypt’s coastal Alamein city.
The meeting came in the wake of a ground-breaking decision by Saudi Arabia to announce that its ambassador in Jordan, Nayef Al-Sudairi, would become extraordinary ambassador to the PA and Saudi consul-general in Jerusalem.
It also came against the backdrop of diplomatic speculation over plans by US diplomacy to soft-launch a process of normalisation between Israel and Saudi Arabia ahead of the presidential elections in the US next year and with a view to bolstering the foreign-policy credentials of the Joe Biden administration.
“It is clear where things are heading; the Saudis are weighing their options to decide whether to start the inevitable process of normalisation under the current Biden administration or to wait either for Biden’s re-election or for the election of a Republican to take over the White House,” said a Cairo-based Western diplomat partially informed on the US-Saudi talks.
But according to a Riyadh-based Arab diplomat, “it is most likely that something will start before the end of the Biden administration.”
He added that with the previous push towards Gulf-Israeli cooperation, especially with the UAE and Qatar, the Saudis do not want Riyadh to lag behind.
The same diplomat quoted Saudi officials as saying that normalisation with Israel was a “regional reality” that Saudi Arabia has no interest to deny.
He added that the timing of Riyadh’s announcement of Al-Sudairi as its extraordinary ambassador to the PA and consul-general in Jerusalem, for the first time since the PA was founded in 1994, is very significant.
This week, a senior Israeli official also arrived in the UAE for a three-way meeting with Emirati and Jordanian counterparts over future energy and water resources cooperation. For the last few months, Egypt and Israel have been discussing potentially upgrading their energy cooperation, including through the Gaza marine gas fields.
In June, Netanyahu announced his initial agreement to the development of fields in a project that will include Egypt, Israel, and the PA. They are estimated to contain over one billion cubic metres of gas.
According to an article published earlier this month by the US Institute of Peace by senior fellow Hisham Youssef, “for the Palestinians, it [the fields] could provide a much-needed boost to their lagging economy and the cash-strapped PA. On the Israeli side, it allows the Netanyahu government to claim it is assisting in improving living conditions in Gaza and could lead to less US pressure on issues like settlement expansion.”
“In the big picture, this is another example of how energy is increasingly becoming a focus for potential win-win agreements in the East Mediterranean.”
Youssef said that “the project was also discussed in meetings at Aqaba and Sharm El-Sheikh this spring, which aimed at de-escalating the Israeli-Palestinian situation.” He added that “in this context, the US and Egypt have in recent months leaned on Israel to greenlight the project.”
Energy cooperation is only one segment of wider Arab-Israeli, and Palestinian-Israeli, cooperation. In the words of the informed Egyptian source, “on the ground today, Israel and the Palestinians cannot disengage and all the threats that Abbas has been making on and off about announcing the dissolution of the PA are just not going anywhere.”
This is the reason why Egypt, in its capacity as the key partner to almost all elements of Palestinian-Israeli relations since the foundation of the PA, and Jordan, in its capacity as the custodian of the holy Muslim sites in Jerusalem, stressed along with Abbas in Monday’s meeting in Alamein that the basis for any future political talks between Israel and the Palestinians should be the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.
At an Arab summit meeting hosted in Beirut in 2002, then Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah offered the Arab Peace Initiative that was about land-for-peace. According to the Riyadh-based Arab diplomat, “today, over 20 years since the launch of this initiative, Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman wants to be the one who gets it implemented, even in a somewhat updated version that would not condition Arab normalisation with Israel on the return of Arab territories occupied by Israel in June 1967.”
Informed diplomatic sources say that in their talks with the US over the possible launch of a normalisation scheme, the Saudis insisted that in order for Israel to speed up the process of normalisation it needs to promptly start giving more to the Palestinians.
In the words of one diplomat, “the package that Mohamed bin Salman is pursuing is essentially based on a mega-security agreement between the US and Saudi Arabia.”
However, for the Saudi crown prince to be able to pass this deal in the teeth of conservative and opposed quarters within his own country, it must contain some clear gains for the Palestinians.
“If the UAE promoted the ‘Abraham Accords’ as a political deal to stop Israel from the annexation of further Palestinian territories in the West Bank, Saudi Arabia has to secure something bigger because ultimately, as the Israelis themselves acknowledge, normalisation with Riyadh is the big prize,” he said.
According to the Egyptian source, in line with these developments and with the fact that soon the Biden administration will be busy in the run-up to the US elections, the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, and Palestine decided in their meeting on Monday to agree to a US proposal of a five-way-talks mechanism that would bring the three countries together, along with representatives of both Israel and the US, to discuss political options for the next few months.
The source said that the first meeting would come before the UN General Assembly meets in New York in the third week of next month. “It will be later this month or early next month,” he said.
This first meeting will take place either in Sharm El-Sheikh or Aqaba and will start with an economy/security agenda. Political issues will come later, but there will be no expectation that this mechanism will provide an answer to the Palestinian-Israeli process. This would be an unrealistic objective even for the Saudis, the source said.
He said that de-escalation, cooperation, and the “eventual launch” of political talks are objectives that the Saudis would want before normalisation.
He added that the Palestinians, with the support of Egypt and Jordan, know that these are realistic and good enough objectives to work on for now, in view of the many political variables that relate to the future of the Netanyahu government and the Biden administration.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 17 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly