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Saudi commitment to Palestinian statehood unclear after crown prince interview

Mohammed bin Salman's failure to mention specific concessions over Israel normalisation deal raises eyebrows among Palestinians
A plaque used to reserve the seat of the delegation from Israel, is seen during the UNESCO Extended 45th session of the World Heritage Committee in Riyadh on 11 September 2023 (AFP)
Israel's seat at the Unesco extended 45th session of the World Heritage Committee in Riyadh, on 11 September 2023 (AFP)

Saudi Arabia has long maintained that it wouldn’t restore ties with Israel until Palestinians got their own state - but that position appears to have become less clear this week. 

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman gave his first wide-ranging English language interview on Wednesday to Fox News, and spoke at length about Saudi negotiations with Israel over a normalisation deal.

But during the discussion there was no mention of Palestinian statehood, civil and human rights, or any other specifics.

“For us, the Palestinian issue is very important. We need to solve that part,” Saudi Arabia's de facto leader told Fox News. “We hope that it will reach a place, that it will ease the life of the Palestinians and get Israel back as a player of the Middle East.”

Pressed on what kind of things he wanted to see for Palestinians, he was tight-lipped.

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“That's part of the negotiation,” he responded. “I want to see really a good life for the Palestinians,” he added vaguely, without elaborating.

Despite not indicating what Riyadh's concessions would look like, he called the potential normalisation deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia “the biggest historical deal since the end of the Cold War”.

For some Palestinian analysts, the comments were notable for what was omitted. 

“Bin Salman’s interview with Fox News [was] very disturbing,” Hani al-Masri, director general of Masarat, the Palestinian Centre for Policy Research and Strategic Studies, told Middle East Eye. 

“He did not say a word of anything about the peace initiative, ending the occupation, the Palestinian state, the right to self-determination, and the right of return for refugees.

“This means that he does not want to commit himself to anything, and this reflects a great willingness for excessive flexibility and illegal bargaining.”

Palestinian cause 'fig leaf for autocrats'

Saudi Arabia has held out on normalising ties with Israel since 2002, mindful of the Arab Peace Plan, which calls for an independent Palestinian state in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

But in recent months, Washington has spearheaded efforts to strike a deal between the Gulf kingdom and Israel.

In exchange for normalising ties, Saudi Arabia reportedly wants security guarantees from the United States, help in developing a civilian nuclear programme, and fewer restrictions on US arms sales.

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Its bargaining chips on Palestinian rights are much less pronounced. 

“Usually, the negotiator puts forward… the maximum demands and changes his position if the other party offers [something] worth bargaining for,” said Masri. 

“However, starting with a very low ceiling leads to major concessions for no significant return from the occupying state.”

He cited members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government rejecting any serious concessions, including the freezing of building illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land, as evidence of that low ceiling. 

“The Palestinian cause has always been a fig leaf for Arab autocrats,” tweeted Marwa Fatafta, a Palestinian policy analyst. 

“MBS doesn’t give an f about Palestinians or our lives. He’s waiting for the opportunity to [be] ripe before he strikes that normalization deal with Israel.” 

Abraham Accords failed to 'solve Palestinian issue'

On Thursday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told the United Nations General Assembly that there would be no peace in the region without full Palestinian rights and statehood. 

"Those who think that peace can prevail in the Middle East without the Palestinian people enjoying their full legitimate and national rights would be mistaken," he said, in reference to normalisation deals. 

In 2020, Israel established diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan as part of the so-called Abraham Accords brokered by former US President Donald Trump.

'Bin Salman’s interview with Fox News [was] very disturbing'

- Hani al-Masri, researcher

Although many observers said the Palestinian issue was not a central driver for normalisation, the UAE still billed the establishment of ties with Israel in the context of the conflict with Palestine.

Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the US, said at the time that Palestinians should be grateful for the normalisation deal with Israel, claiming that the accord would prevent the large-scale annexation of the West Bank - despite Israeli officials stating that they remained committed to such an action. 

Three years on, the Emirati position on the impact of normalisation appears to have cooled. 

Asked this week on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly whether the accords were meant to “solve the Palestinian issue”, UAE foreign affairs adviser Anwar Gargash said they were not. 

Instead, he claimed that Palestinians had been given a blank cheque by Arab countries, but “haven’t done anything” with the support. 

Since these normalisation deals were signed, however, the situation for many Palestinians has worsened. 

This year is shaping up to be one of the bloodiest in the occupied West Bank: at least 222 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces this year, including 38 children, according to a tally by Middle East Eye.

“There is still something that can be done by Palestinians and Arabs to prevent Saudi normalisation,” said Masri. “The first step is not being willing to participate in it or cover it.” 

He added that far-right extremism within Israel’s coalition government “provides a golden opportunity to prevent normalisation with it”. 

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