Saudi envoy links Israel normalisation talks to land-for-peace offer

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By Ali Sawafta

RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia’s first ambassador to the Palestinians described a decades-old Arab land-for-peace offer on Tuesday as a pillar of any normalisation of ties with Israel, an apparent attempt to signal that Riyadh has not abandoned the Palestinian cause.

Expectations of a landmark U.S.-brokered Saudi-Israeli deal have grown over the last week, though the timing and terms remain murky.

Among complicating factors are calls by Riyadh and Washington for the Palestinians to make diplomatic inroads as part of any deal – a prospect unpalatable to Israel’s hardline coalition government.

Saudi Arabia’s non-resident ambassador to the Palestinians – a role it unveiled last month – made a first visit to their seat of government in the occupied West Bank on Tuesday, presenting credentials also designating him “consul-general in Jerusalem”.

That title is touchy as Israel considers all of Jerusalem its own capital and rejects the Palestinians’ claim on East Jerusalem as capital of their hoped-for future state.

The ambassador, Nayef Al-Sudairi, 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.

Israel has been keen to pursue more peace deals with Arab states without giving up land, having won normalisation from the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and upgraded ties with Morocco and Sudan, in 2020 despite talks with the Palestinians having been frozen for years.

Dismayed at being sidelined in the 2020 diplomacy, the Palestinians have taken a more active role in the Saudi talks.

In a statement published by the official Palestinian news agency WAFA, President Mahmoud 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.

(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Peter Graff)

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