RAMALLAH, Palestinian Territories – Saudi Arabia on Tuesday sent its first delegation in three decades to the occupied West Bank to reassure Palestinians that it will defend their cause even as it forges closer ties with Israel.
In a sign of the thaw, Israel’s Tourism Minister Haim Katz visited Riyadh on the same day, for the first such high-level public mission to the oil-rich kingdom.
Washington has urged its Middle East allies Israel and Saudi Arabia to normalise diplomatic relations, following on from similar deals involving the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco.
The Palestinians have labelled those US-brokered agreements a betrayal of their plight and quest for statehood.
But Mr Nayef al-Sudairi, who headed the Saudi delegation, sought to reassure them that Riyadh stands by their side.
“The Palestinian matter is a fundamental pillar,” Mr Sudairi, the new ambassador to the Palestinians, said after meeting top Palestinian diplomat Riyad al-Maliki in Ramallah for talks and to present his credentials.
“And it’s certain that the Arab initiative, which was presented by the kingdom in 2002, is a cornerstone of any upcoming deal.”
The 2002 initiative proposed Arab relations with Israel in exchange for its withdrawal from the West Bank, east Jerusalem, Gaza and the Golan Heights, and a just resolution for the Palestinians.
Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas, 87, last week again stressed strong reservations to Arab countries building ties with Israel.
“Those who think that peace can prevail in the Middle East without the Palestinian people enjoying their full, legitimate national rights would be mistaken,” Mr Abbas told the UN General Assembly in New York.
Mr Sudairi’s 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.
When asked whether there will be a Saudi embassy in Jerusalem, Mr Sudairi recalled that there used to be a one in the Jerusalem district of Sheikh Jarrah, and said that “hopefully there will be an embassy there” again.
Washington has been leading the talks between Israel and Saudi Arabia – the guardian of Islam’s two holiest sites – on a potential normalisation seen as a political game changer for the Middle East.
The talks have covered security guarantees for Saudi Arabia and assistance with a civilian nuclear programme, according to officials familiar with the negotiations who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity.
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