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HomeNewsWill Saudi envoy to Palestinians overshadow Israel ties? – DW – 08/18/2023

Will Saudi envoy to Palestinians overshadow Israel ties? – DW – 08/18/2023

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Najif bin Bandar al-Sudairi, who also serves as Saudi envoy to Jordan, has been named as the first ever nonresident ambassador to the Palestinian Authority and consul general in Jerusalem. He remains based in the Jordan capital Amman.

Al-Sudairi will occasionally travel to Jerusalem to fulfill these two additional roles. Saudi Arabia will not, however, establish a permanent diplomatic residence in Jerusalem to deepen relations with the Palestinians, said Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen.

While al-Sudairi may meet with Palestinian officials, Cohen told Tel Aviv-based radio station 103FM that al-Sudairi would not have an official presence in Jerusalem. “That we will not allow,” Cohen said earlier this week.

Israel, Saudi Arabia grow closer

Al-Sudairi’s appointment comes at a time when Saudi Arabia and Israel are gradually building closer ties. Yet unlike the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan, the Saudi kingdom has not yet signed the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations after decades of tension.

However, Saudi Arabia has long indicated that it does not oppose this step. Last year, for example, Saudi Arabia for first very time allowed direct flights from Israel to Saudi destinations.

The Bahrain Foreign Minister is seen alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Trump and the UAE Foreign Minister
Bahrain, Israel and the UAE signed the historic Abraham Accords in Washington in September 2020Image: SAUL LOEB/AFP

Normalizing relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia is one of the foreign policy goals of US President Joe Biden. After the previous Trump administration mediated the signing of the Abraham Accords, Biden now wants to pave the way toward such an agreement between Jerusalem and Riyadh. This would carry even greater symbolic significance than previous agreements with other states.

Amid public solidarity for Palestinian Authority, Saudis shift foreign policy

Saudi Arabia does not see itself as yet another Arab state, said Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies. “Saudi Arabia is the leader of both the Arab and the Islamic world,” he told DW. “Under this capacity, they would like to have more than just a bilateral issue when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians.”

The appointment of al-Sudairi marks a certain Saudi foreign policy shift in favor of the Palestinian Authority. The kingdom had previously distanced itself under the rule of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In the crown prince’s thinking, the Palestinian Authority represented “an annoying obstacle blocking his relationship with Israel, which he wants to remove as fast as possible,” wrote Middle East expert Guido Steinberg of the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs in December 2018.

Saudi Arabia's Mohammed bin Salman is seen sitting in a chair
Saudi Arabia may strive to further normalize ties with Israel in the coming yearsImage: Leon Neal/Getty/AP/picture alliance

Crown Prince Mohammed’s standoffish attitude toward the Palestinian Authority, however, has not gone over well in the Arab world. “The Saudi leadership is very aware of its domestic audience and the continuing importance of the Palestinian issue among the Saudi population and throughout the Arab world,” Anna Jacobs, a Gulf states expert with the International Crisis Group, told DW.

Indeed, many Arabs continue to feel a strong sense of solidarity toward the Palestinian Authority. According to 2020 Arab Opinion Index, which polled people in 14 different Arab countries, 76% of respondents say Palestinian questions concerns all Arabs.

Iran remains a regional concern

The fact that Saudi Arabia has now appointed an ambassador to the Palestinians appears to be a response to this broad sense of solidarity. To be sure, Riyadh does not prioritize Palestinian concerns in its rapprochement with Israel, said Rabi.

“But it is important for Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Arab world, in order to improve its visibility, in order to just get some legitimacy when it comes to a possible normalization with Israel,” he said.

This sentiment was alluded to by al-Sudairi himself. His appointment underscores the Saudi leadership’s desire to strengthen relations with the “brothers of the State of Palestine and formally support them in all areas,” the diplomat said according to a video broadcast by Al Ekhbariya television channel.

Palestinians in Jenin rebuild lives after Israeli raids

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Israel’s rather mute response to al-Sudairi’s appointment probably stems from its many common interests with Saudi Arabia. This is particularly true with regard to Iran. While Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to settle their decadeslong enmity in March, thanks to Chinese mediation, their relationship remains tense, said Rabi. That’s why Saudi Arabia is hoping for further military support from the US.

Israel, too, see Iran as an existential threat. Indeed, Iran has repeatedly threatened to destroy the country, and Israel and Saudi Arabia are united in their opposition to Iran. The US, incidentally, also has a strained relationship with the country.

“To that extent, all sides — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and US President Joe Biden — have an interest in reaching an agreement,” said Rabi.

“That is why Israel should come up with a gesture toward the Palestinians that also satisfies Saudi Arabia,” he added. “Then rapprochement can go ahead.”

This article was originally written in German.

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