How Do Palestinians Deal with a Likely Saudi-Israeli Normalization


Sat, 16-09-2023 10:32 AM, Aden Time

Palestinian support for a possible normalization agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel depends on Riyadh’s solid and firm stance towards settling the Palestinian issue.

Dr. Azzam Shaath (South24)

The United States (US) administration is leading the political moves to reach an agreement between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Israel to normalize their relationship. The Biden administration seeks to sign such an agreement before the US 2024 Presidential Election. The White House looks at this as an achievement that would serve its external goals and strategic interests in the Middle East. It would also fulfil the Israeli aspiration to improve its regional position and deepen its legitimacy in a way that would polish Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's image within the Israeli society. 

However, the American efforts face two opposite approaches adopted by the two parties -- with regard to their interests and on the possibility of including the Palestinian cause as a settlement basis. 

Despite circulated information attributed to Israeli officials about an imminent peace agreement with Saudi Arabia, wherein the Palestinian issue is being treated as a secondary matter, Riyadh has continued to insist on applying the ’Arab Peace Initiative‘, proposed by the late Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in 2002. The Initiative called for “the establishment of an internationally-recognized Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital city, in addition the return of Palestinian refugees and Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied Golan Heights. On the other hand, the kingdom will recognize Israel and normalize relationships with it".

In response to these opposing stances, the American mediators are pressuring [1] the Israeli government to make significant concessions to the Palestinians. This would give momentum to forging of the agreement with Saudi Arabia and also motivate Palestinians to endorse it. This is based on the fact that the official Palestinian stance to endorse the agreement would be determined by Israel’s response to the Palestinian demands, even at their lowest limits, especially in light of the hardline coalition that governs Israel and the position of the extreme-right Israeli parties toward the Palestinian cause in general. 

This paper aims to discuss the calculations and the interests of the parties to the normalisation of ties, and the challenges the agreement faces, in addition to the Palestinian approach towards the agreement and its impact on the Palestinian issue.

Calculations and interests of the parties

Saudi Arabia demonstrated its readiness to reconsider its relationship with Israel, which was declared by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who told the ’Atlantic Magazine‘ in March 2022: "For us, we hope that the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians is solved. We don't look at Israel as an enemy, we look to them as a potential ally, with many interests that we can pursue together... But we have to solve some issues before we get to that." According to reports, the first US mediation attempts began in February 2022 with the then Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett paying a visit to Bahrain, with speculation that it was for holding secret talks with Riyadh. However, those talks didn't achieve any progress although they were preceded by several rounds of discussions during the era of former US President Donald Trump as part of the Abrahamic Accords in 2020. Benjamin Netanyahu, who returned to power in December 2022 at the head of a far-right government, said that normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia will be one of his central goals as an extension to the Abrahamic Accords which were signed in September 2020 during his previous tenure. In an interview with Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV ahead of his swearing-in, Netanyahu said he will seek to establish full diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia “as soon as I get into office”.

"I think we can end the Arab-Israeli conflict and achieve peace with the Palestinians, we just have to be creative about it," Netanyahu said. He described such a move to be "a quantum leap for an overall peace between Israel and the Arab world”, and said that it will change the region "in ways that are unimaginable”. [2]

The American mediation endeavors were renewed by Secretary of State Antony Blinken who intensified his efforts over the past months to reach an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel. However, these consultations have not yet yielded any agreement formula between the two parties, especially after Saudi Arabia put three preconditions to normalize relationships with Israel: The first one is building a civil nuclear reactor in the kingdom with the help of the US. The second precondition is to supply it with advanced American weapons, while the third is to reach a settlement or a political path to solve the Palestinian issue.

Israel has downplayed the Saudi preconditions, especially those related to the Palestinian political settlement and opening new horizons to solve the Palestinian issue. Israel believes that Saudi Arabia ultimately won't block the path for normalizing of the relationship over the Palestinian issue. Israelis claim that the ‘Arab Peace Initiative’ is no longer viable after being neglected by Arab states, especially since they signed the Abrahamic Accords. Indeed, this is entirely related to the Israeli approach for arriving at a political settlement with the Palestinians coupled with the denial of their national rights as stipulated in the Arab Peace Initiative and other agreements signed with the Palestinian Liberation Organization. They include the Oslo Accords (signed between Israel and the PLO in 1993 and 1995) and the UN and UNSC resolutions. Israel has refused to commit to them over the course of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Moreover, Israel has repeatedly rejected Saudi Arabia’s precondition for nuclear cooperation with the United States and has asked Washington for clarification regarding this. The latest example of this rejection happened during the meeting on August 29, 2023, between Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant with Deputy Assistant to the President and White House Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk, US Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf and US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, in New York. Gallant apparently asked McGurk for clarification regarding a possible Saudi nuclear program as a precondition set out by the kingdom. In a statement issued by his office, Gallant “emphasised the importance of security arrangements” in expanding ties with regional neighbours and also stressed the “importance of preserving Israel’s qualitative military edge” in the region. Gallant sought clarifications about the American-Saudi talks and Riyadh’s security preconditions. He asked the American side questions regarding the Saudi demand to develop a civil nuclear program and also enrich uranium inside its territories, with US support. Israel also sought clarifications on the Saudi Arabia demand to purchase sophisticated weapons and military equipment from Washington, and its likely impact on Israel’s security in the region. [3]

However, the contrasting approaches between the two countries doesn’t negate the fact that all the sides, including the United States, have some interests that are pushing them to sign the agreement despite the challenges they face. These include:

- The US seeks to score a diplomatic achievement at the international and regional level by helping arrive at such an agreement, through its mediation efforts, which would be in the interest of US President Joe Biden ahead of the US 2024 Presidential Election. Washington is aware that a normalization agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel would serve its national security and strengthen the anti-Iranian axis. Moreover, it will benefit from the cooperation with Saudi Arabia to solve the energy crisis that has arisen due to the sanctions slapped on Russia, in the wake of the Ukraine war. [4]

- As for Israel, the deal would improve its regional position and bolster Netanyahu’s popularity. Additionally, it would pave the way for Israel to engage in new relationships with the regional states, especially the Arab countries. The deal would also increase economic investments between the two parties and open the way for developing the Israeli economy.

- The normalization agreement would help Saudi Arabia improve its military capabilities after receiving American sophisticated weapons. The agreement is also in keeping with the kingdom’s vision regarding developing its investments. Additionally, the deal would exclusively benefit Saudi Arabia in case tangible progress is achieved towards a political settlement between Palestinians and Israelis through gaining Palestinian national rights.

The impact of the “normalization” on the Palestinian issue

The Netanyahu government realizes the importance of building an official relationship with Riyadh. There have been repeated statements at both official and partisan levels as well as by experts on the advantages of Israeli-Arab ties. However, the agreement would encounter many obstacles which would put pressure on both the parties and the US too. The most important challenges include: 

-  The current Israeli coalition government, seen as the most right-wing in Israel's history with the presence of a hard-line Zionist ultranationalist party dominated by West Bank settlers, is likely to be an obstacle to any peace deal, especially on the Palestinian issue. The Israeli government under Prime Minister Netanyahu is unlikely to make any remarkable concessions to open the path of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, which have been frozen since 2014. The Israeli government is also not providing facilities to Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and the occupied city of Jerusalem. Moreover, the coalition government is unlikely to cease settlement movement in the occupied territory, confiscation of property, and Judaization or stop the daily attacks in the cities and villages of the West Bank. All of these are part and parcel of the ongoing Israeli policies since the formation of the Netanyahu government in December 2022. Moreover, the Israeli government doesn't believe in the "two-state solution" and denies all Palestinian rights. This is confirmed by the statement of Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich who said that Israel will not make concessions to the Palestinians as part of any normalization deal with Saudi Arabia, as has been demanded by Riyadh and Washington as part of a potential agreement.

“We will not make any concessions to the Palestinians. It’s a fiction,” Smotrich, who heads the far-right Religious Zionism party, told Army Radio on August 28. “This is an agreement that would benefit everyone. We are ready to provide many things to Saudis but not at the expense of our rights in the Western Bank.” [5]

- As a mediator between the two parties, if the US administration accepts the Saudi preconditions, it will need the US Congress’ approval for the sale of sophisticated arms and civilian nuclear cooperation with Riyadh. This in turn will also require strong support from the Israeli lobby in the United States. The US administration won't go ahead if the Israeli government doesn't back the Saudi defense agreement.

In light of these two challenges and others that face the normalization deal, the question here is: What are the priorities of Palestinians and how will they deal with the agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel?

It is known that the Palestinian official and partisan stances toward the Arab states and their policies are formed according to the level of relationships and ties between them. After the Abrahamic Accords, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and other Palestinian political parties affiliated with national, Islamic, and Leftist wings announced their rejection of the American-Israeli-Emirati tripartite agreement. They continued their sharp criticism of the UAE with the Palestinian Authority snapping ties with it and recalling the Palestinian Ambassador to Abu Dhabi. The UAE announced that "the agreement serves the Palestinian cause, and guarantees the cessation of the Israeli annexation plan in the West Bank and the Jordan Valley. It is intended to reach a fair and comprehensive peace based upon the principle of the two-state solution and the resolutions of international legitimacy." However, the Palestinian forces kept an unjustified silence when Qatar, which enjoys extensive trust from Palestinians, opened “a strategic dialogue" with the United States and agreed with it to achieve “Trump’s vision to solve the conflict in the Middle East”, which meant an implied endorsement of the so-called “Deal of the Century”. [6]

The Palestinian stance on a possible normalization deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel may differ for several reasons. The most important one is that Saudi Arabia confirmed its commitment to the Arab Peace Initiative as a precondition to reach an agreement with Israel. In this regard, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan announced that his country won't normalize ties with Israel without the establishment of the Palestine state and that real normalization and stability won't be achieved without giving Palestinians hope and dignity by establishing their own state. [7] Furthermore, the Palestinian Authority would be committed to maintaining its long relationship with the Saudi leadership and developing it. Saudi Arabia is considered one of the biggest Arab countries that supports the budget of the Palestinian Authority. Hamas too will avoid official criticism of the Saudi position. It has repeatedly sought to open communication lines and develop its relationship with the kingdom. It had also shown optimism for the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement and endorsed it. Hamas and the ‘Palestinian Islamic Jihad’ have strong ties with Iran which is their top backer.

The official Palestinian stance can also be gauged from their welcoming of Nayef Al-Sudairi as Saudi Arabia’s first-ever non-resident Ambassador to the State of Palestine and Consul-General in Jerusalem on August 12, 2023. Although this unprecedented move has political goals and is attributed to an imminent Saudi-Israeli normalization, Palestinian PM Mohammed Shtayyeh believes that it has important Saudi connotations in the face of the Israeli occupation.

Meanwhile, a Palestinian delegation, led by Hussein Al-Sheikh, Secretary General of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, is to visit Riyadh and meet Saudi leaders in September. He would urge the kingdom to pressure Israel to adopt a flexible approach towards the Palestinian cause and make concessions for Palestinians. These Palestinian moves began with meeting Saudi Ambassador Nayef Al-Sudairi and US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf in Jordan in two separate meetings. [8]

In this sense, Palestinian support for a possible normalization agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel depends on a Saudi solid and firm stance towards settling the Palestinian issue. This will be achieved if Saudi Arabia adopts the Palestinian stance and pressures Israel - with the help of the United States - to adhere to the Arab Peace Initiative or to what would be agreed upon between the Saudi and Palestinian leadership in order to secure the Palestinian rights. They have to take into consideration that the pending political settlement issues which aren't recognized by Israel require international and US intervention in order not to obstruct the normalization agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel if the kingdom insists on its position.

Accordingly, achieving the normalization agreement and securing the collective interests of the parties involved would depend on Israel's acceptance of serious engagement in the path of a political settlement of the Palestinian issue.

Dr. Azzam Shaath

Writer and researcher specializing in Palestinian affairs and human rights issues

● Note: This is a translated version of the original text written in Arabic


1- Axios: The Biden administration asked Israel to make big concessions to Palestinians, Al-Quds Al-Arabi, 26/8/2023


2- Muhannad Mustafa: Normalizing Relationships between Saudi Arabia and Israel: Motives and Obstacles, Ramallah،The Palestinian Center for Israeli Studies "Madar", 18/6/2023


3- The Israeli Security Concerns toward an American Support to the 'Saudi Nuclear", Sama News Agency, 30/8/2023


4- Muhannad Mustafa, ibid.


5- Smotrich statements, Sputnik Arabic, 29/8/2023


6- Azzam Shaath, The Palestinian Stance toward the UAE and Qatar..an Attempt to Understand, Al-Ghad tv channel, 20/9/2020


7- Saudi Foreign Minister: Normalization with Israel won't be achieved without the establishment of a Palestinian state, Monte Carlo, 20/1/2023


8- A high level Palestinian delegation travels to Saudi Arabia, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, 28/8/2023

PalestineSaudi ArabiaIsraelNetanyahuAbraham AccordsArab IsraeliUnited StatesPalestinian issueNormalizationBiden