JERICHO: Saudi Arabia, which has engaged in US-brokered talks with Israel to potentially normalise relations, Tuesday sent a delegation to the occupied West Bank for the first time in three decades.
It was led by the Saudi non-resident ambassador to the Palestinian territories, Nayef bin Bandar Al Sudairi, who met Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and top Palestinian diplomat Riyad Al Maliki.
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Al Sudairi told senior Palestinian officials Tuesday that Saudi Arabia supported the creation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, according to a statement from Palestinian officials.
He praised efforts to bring about peace in the region in accordance with the Arab Peace Initiative.
Al Sudairi described a decades-old Arab land-for-peace offer as a pillar of any normalisation of ties with Israel.
He told reporters in Ramallah his visit “reaffirms that the Palestinian cause and Palestine and the people of Palestine are of high and important status and that in the coming days there will be a chance for a bigger cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the state of Palestine”.
Referring to the prospect of normalisation with Israel, Al Sudairi said: “It is the normal thing among nations to have peace and stability.” “The Arab initiative, which Saudi Arabia presented in 2002, is a fundamental pillar of any upcoming agreement,” he added.
That referred to a proposal aired by Riyadh and later adopted by Arab states widely, under which Israel would get pan-Arab recognition only if it quit territories captured in a 1967 war, including lands where the Palestinians want their state.
Abbas said Al Sudairi’s visit “will contribute to reinforcing the strong ties between the two countries and the two fraternal peoples”.
Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen told Kan radio on Tuesday that any Saudi normalisation deal “will be one supported by the right wing” - a reference to religious-nationalist parties in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition that refuse to cede occupied West Bank land to the Palestinians.
In a speech, Netanyahu restated his position that Israeli military and economic prowess, rather than territorial concessions, are the keys to regional statecraft - given, among other factors, shared Arab concerns about the rise of Iran.
“Thanks to this strength, we are deterring our enemies.
Thanks to this strength, we are achieving peace with our neighbours,” he said.
Palestinian Foreign Affairs Minister Riyad Al Maliki called the meeting a “historical milestone to enhance and develop bilateral relations between the two sister countries and open up further prospects for cooperation in all fields.”
But it remained unclear what kind of Israeli concessions would be discussed in the Saudi-Palestinian talks. The deal depends on the willingness of Israel’s current government — whose Cabinet ministers have imposed sanctions on the Palestinian Authority and called openly for the annexation of the West Bank — to offer the concessions.
The Palestinian Authority also has not specified what it is willing to accept from the Israeli government.
Al Sudairi, the kingdom’s envoy to Jordan, was last month also named for the Palestinian territories post and appointed consul general for Jerusalem.
The delegation, which crossed overland from Jordan, was the first from Saudi Arabia to visit the West Bank since the 1993 Oslo Accords, which had aimed to pave the way for an end to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
The Saudi visit comes as Washington has been leading talks between Israel and Saudi Arabia on a normalisation that would mark a game changer for the Middle East.
Israel in 2020 established ties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, but Saudi Arabia has so far refrained from following suit until Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians is resolved.
However, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, last week said the two sides were “getting closer”.
On Monday, Shaikh Abdullah bin Rashid Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s ambassador to the US, said a peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel is “probably not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when”. “It seems like the moral compass is pointing towards peace,” he said at the American Energy Security Summit in Oklahoma City.
In recent months Israel has sent delegations to Saudi Arabia to participate in sports and other events including a Unesco meeting.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the United Nations on Friday that he believes “we are at the cusp” of “a historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia”.
Abbas, 87, had earlier voiced the Palestinians’ strong reservations.
“Those who think that peace can prevail in the Middle East without the Palestinian people enjoying their full, legitimate national rights would be mistaken,” he told the UN General Assembly.
The 1993 Oslo Accords were meant to lead to an independent Palestinian state, but years of stalled negotiations and deadly violence have left any peaceful resolution of the conflict a distant dream.
A recent escalation in violence has seen at least 242 Palestinians and 32 Israelis killed in the conflict so far this year, according to official sources on both sides.
The United States, which has brokered talks between Israel and the Palestinians in the past, has made no major push toward a two-state solution since a failed effort nearly a decade ago.
Netanyahu’s hard-right government has meanwhile been expanding Israeli settlements in the West Bank which are deemed illegal under international law.
Crown Prince Mohammad, speaking with US network Fox last week, said that the kingdom was getting “closer” to a deal with Israel but insisted that the Palestinian issue remains “very important” for Riyadh.