Saudi Arabia says no Israel deal without Palestinian peace

19 Aug 2020

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Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud attends a joint news conference with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in Berlin on August 19. — Reuters
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud attends a joint news conference with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in Berlin on August 19. — Reuters

Saudi Arabia said on Wednesday it will not follow the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in establishing diplomatic ties with Israel until the Jewish state has signed an internationally recognised peace accord with the Palestinians.

The UAE last week became the first Gulf state to normalise relations with Israel, in a historic US-brokered accord that raised the prospect of similar deals with other Arab states including Saudi Arabia.

But after days of conspicuous silence and in the face of US pressure to announce a similar deal, Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan ruled out the possibility until the Palestinian issue is resolved.

“Peace must be achieved with the Palestinians” on the basis of international agreements as a pre-condition for any normalisation of relations, Prince Faisal told reporters during a visit to Berlin.

“Once that is achieved all things are possible,” he added, in a comment that was consistent with Saudi Arabia's previous stance on the issue.

Prince Faisal's remarks are the kingdom's first official reaction since the UAE's landmark deal with Israel, which is only the third such accord the Jewish state has struck with an Arab country after Egypt and Jordan.

At a news conference with his German counterpart Heiko Maas, Prince Faisal reiterated criticism of Israel's “unilateral policies” of annexation and building settlements in the occupied West Bank as “illegitimate” and “detrimental” to a two-state solution.

'Biggest constraint'

Until now, Saudi Arabia had maintained a notable silence over the deal even as local officials hinted that Riyadh was unlikely to immediately follow in the footsteps of the UAE, its principle regional ally.

Amping up US pressure on the kingdom, President Donald Trump's son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner insisted on Monday that it would be in Riyadh's interest to formally establish ties with Israel.

Further putting the kingdom in the spotlight, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday said Israel was working on opening a corridor over Saudi Arabia for flights to the UAE.

But Saudi Arabia, the Arab world's biggest economy and home to Islam's holiest sites, faces more sensitive political calculations than the UAE.

Not only would a formal recognition of Israel be seen by Palestinians and their supporters as a betrayal of their cause, it would also hurt the kingdom's image as the leader of the Islamic world.

“The notion that Saudi Arabia will be next to normalise relations with Israel was far-fetched,” said Aziz Alghashian, a lecturer at Essex University specialising in the kingdom's policy towards Israel.

“The biggest constraint for Saudi-Israeli normalisation is not the fear of a domestic and regional backlash.

“Rather, Saudi Arabia deems it necessary to not normalise relations outside the framework of the Arab Peace Initiative that called for resolving the Palestinian issue, if it still wants to be seen as the leader of the Muslim and Arab world,” Alghashian told AFP.

In 2002, Saudi Arabia sponsored the Arab Peace Initiative which called for Israel's complete withdrawal from the Palestinian territories occupied after the Six-Day War of 1967, in exchange for peace and the full normalisation of relations.

But a shared animosity towards Iran, along with Saudi attempts to attract foreign investment to fund Prince Mohammed's ambitious Vision 2030 economic diversification plan, appear to be pushing the kingdom closer to Israel than ever.

In 2018, Riyadh quietly opened its airspace for the first time for an Israel-bound passenger plane.

Riyadh has also pursued a bold outreach to Jewish figures in recent years, even as it appears wary of a public backlash.