Palestinians set out terms for agreeing to historic Saudi-Israeli deal

A cash boost of hundreds of millions of dollars and more control of land in the occupied West Bank are among Palestinian demands in the event of a three-way deal involving the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel, the BBC has learned.

Officials from the Palestinian Authority (PA) held talks in Riyadh with Saudi counterparts on Wednesday.

They were also due to see US officials.

The Americans are long thought to have been pushing for a landmark pact to normalise Israel-Saudi ties.

It would be underwritten by Washington and would include a major security deal the Saudis want to achieve with the US. But the prospects for such agreements face significant obstacles and remain distant.

“We don’t expect any imminent announcements or breakthroughs in the period ahead,” said White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on Tuesday.

However, given the scope for a historic realignment of ties in the Middle East, there is continuing speculation over the framework for any deal, with American shuttle diplomacy picking up again after trips by officials to Riyadh, Amman and Jerusalem this summer.

In 2020 three Arab nations, including the United Arab Emirates, normalised ties with Israel

US President Joe Biden is likely to see a Saudi-Israel deal as a breakthrough foreign policy prize he can present to voters ahead of next year’s election.

Saudi Arabia is a leader of the Arab and Islamic world. It has never formally recognised Israel since the creation of the state in 1948.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talked up the possibility last month, claiming: “We’re about to witness a pivot of history.”

Any deal, though, would be deeply controversial.

In return for recognising Israel, Saudi Arabia is said to be demanding US guarantees for advanced American-made weapons and, most contentious of all, a civil nuclear programme including in-country uranium enrichment.

Israel for its part would benefit from trade and defence ties with the Gulf superpower and further historic integration it has always sought in the region, following on from other Arab state normalisation deals brokered in 2020.

“These are mostly security and trade agreements. Fast forward to the year 2023, and we now see that Saudi Arabia also wants to get involved in this,” said Diana Buttu, a former legal adviser to the official Palestinian negotiating team in the now-moribund peace talks with the Israelis.

For a deal to succeed it would have to be seen to involve significant Israeli concessions to the Palestinians.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, needs to assuage his own public – historically opposed to Israel and deeply sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

Among demands of Palestinian officials is the transfer of parts of the West Bank currently under full Israeli control

Meanwhile, President Biden will also need to prove he has won significant gains for the Palestinians to get support from his Democratic Party. Many in the party reject the idea of any defence sweeteners for the Saudis due to the country’s human rights record and its role in the war in Yemen. They are also hostile to the idea of rewarding Israel’s current extreme nationalist governing coalition, which they see as exacerbating tensions in the West Bank and which has sparked unprecedented instability within Israel itself.

The team of top Palestinian officials in Riyadh – including the two men seen as closest to President Mahmoud Abbas, the PA’s intelligence chief, Majed Faraj, and Hussein al-Sheikh, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation – met Saudi national security adviser Musaed al-Aiban on Wednesday, according to a senior Palestinian official familiar with the discussions.

Their list of demands in return for engaging with the American-backed process was set out during a meeting with US Assistant Secretary of State Barbara Leaf last week in Amman. The Palestinian official told the BBC the demands include:

Transferring parts of the West Bank currently under full Israeli control (known as Area C under the 1990s Oslo peace accords) to the governance of the Palestinian Authority

A “complete cessation” of Israeli settlement growth in the West Bank
Resuming Saudi financial support to the PA, which slowed from 2016 and stopped completely three years ago, to the tune of around $200m (£160m) per year

Re-opening the US consulate in Jerusalem – the diplomatic mission to the Palestinians – that was shut down by President Donald Trump

Resuming US-brokered negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians from where they stopped under then-Secretary of State John Kerry in 2014.

Such concessions are very significant – reportedly already seen by the Americans as overreaching by the Palestinians. But they are a far cry from the official, publicly stated Palestinian position on Saudi-Israel normalisation – which is to reject it outright if it does not leave them with an independent state.

This follows the Arab Peace Initiative, a Saudi-led plan of 2002, which offered the Arab world’s recognition of Israel in return for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with its capital in East Jerusalem.

The current approach reflects the deep “bind” the Palestinian leadership is in, according to Ms Buttu.

“Palestinians by and large don’t want to be part of any of these normalisation deals because [the Arab world’s support] is the only tool that we have left,” she said.

“We’ve been told that we’re not allowed to violently resist. We’re told that we’re not allowed to pursue legal measures to demand an end to the occupation. We’re told that we’re not allowed to pursue boycotts, divestment and sanction.”

“The Palestinian Authority is now questioning: should we instead be trying to get our demands heard and realised, or should we do what we did in 2020 which was to ignore it? And again it’s a bind – no matter what the Palestinian Authority does on this, it is doomed to fail,” Ms Buttu told the BBC.

In 2020, three Arab countries – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco – normalised ties with Israel in deals brokered by the US under President Trump. A fourth, Sudan, also pledged to take steps towards diplomatic ties with Israel that year. But the process stalled amid opposition in the country and a military coup the following year.

They were seen as a historic shift in relations between old adversaries in the Middle East, involving diplomatic, trade and security ties. But critics highlighted the significant US inducements also involved, including access to top-shelf American-made weapons for Arab autocracies.

At the time, the PA was frozen out of discussions as it boycotted diplomatic ties with the US in response to President Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian “deal of the century” – a peace plan heavily weighted towards Israel – and his move of the US embassy to Jerusalem. The PA saw the normalisation deals as a “betrayal” of Arab solidarity.

Instead, engaging with the Saudis this time may be a way to remind Riyadh of the basis of the Arab Peace Initiative – the goal of an independent Palestinian state – rather than being left out of the process completely, suggested another senior Palestinian official.

But there are significant risks for the Palestinian leadership – already deeply unpopular with its own public – in becoming involved if the benefits are perceived as negligible.

Polling after the UAE-Israel normalisation in 2020 suggested the overwhelming majority of Palestinians saw that deal as an abandonment of the Palestinian cause that served only the interests of Israel.

Any Israeli concessions to the Palestinians are almost certain to be rejected by the ultranationalists in Mr Netanyahu’s coalition, amounting to a further stumbling block to any deal. Mr Netanyahu earlier this year brushed aside Palestinian concessions as a “check box” exercise that wouldn’t be part of any substantive American-brokered discussions with Saudi Arabia.


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