Reports of Saudi peace plan that would snub Palestinians cause alarm
Proposals ‘tilted towards Israel’ pressed on Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, officials say
Construction in the Israeli settlement of Brushin in the West Bank, in March 2015. A plan that the Saudi crown prince was said to be foisting on the Palestinians would offer them limited sovereignty and deny them Jerusalem as the capital. Photograph: Tomas Munita/New York Times
US poresident Donald Trump with Palestinian leader with Mahmoud Abbas in New York in September. Photograph: Doug Mills/New York Times
Jared Kushner, senior White House adviser, speaks during the Brookings Saban Forum in Washington on Sunday. Photograph: Alex Wroblewski/Bloomberg
In a mysterious trip last month, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, travelled to Saudi Arabia’s capital for consultations with the hard-charging crown prince about US president Donald Trump’s plans for Middle East peace. What was said when the doors were closed, however, has since roiled the region.
According to Palestinian, Arab and European officials who have heard Abbas’s version of the conversation, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman presented a plan that would be more tilted toward the Israelis than any ever embraced by the US government, one that presumably no Palestinian leader could ever accept.
The Palestinians would get a state of their own but only noncontiguous parts of the West Bank and only limited sovereignty over their own territory. The vast majority of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which most of the world considers illegal, would remain. The Palestinians would not be given East Jerusalem as their capital and there would be no right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants.
The White House on Sunday denied that was its plan, saying it was still months away from finalising a blueprint for peace, and the Saudi government denied that it supports those positions.
That left many in Washington and the Middle East wondering whether the Saudi crown prince was quietly doing the bidding of Trump, trying to curry favour with the Americans, or freelancing in order to put pressure on the Palestinians or to make any eventual offer sound generous by comparison. Or perhaps Abbas, weakened politically at home, was sending out signals for his own purposes that he was under pressure from Riyadh.
Even if the account proves incomplete, it has gained currency with enough players in the Middle East to deeply alarm Palestinians and raise suspicions about Trump’s efforts. On top of that, advisers have said the president plans to give a speech Wednesday in which he would recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, even though both sides claim it, a declaration that analysts and regional officials say could undermine the United States’ role as a theoretically neutral broker.
“There is constant speculation and guessing about what we are working on, and this report is more of the same,” said Joshua Raffel, a White House spokesman. “It is not reflective of the current state of the plan we are working on or the conversations we have had with regional players.”
The Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Khalid bin Salman, said in an email that “the Kingdom remains committed to a settlement based on the Arab peace initiative of 2002, including East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders. To suggest otherwise is false”.
Trump assigned the effort to reach what he calls the “ultimate deal” to his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, aided by Jason Greenblatt, his top negotiator, and other aides. After nearly a year of listening tours to the region, they are developing a comprehensive plan but have kept details under wraps.
“We know what’s in the plan,” Kushner said in a rare public appearance on Sunday at the Saban Forum, a Middle East conference in Washington hosted by the Brookings Institution. “The Palestinians know what discussions we’ve had with them. The Israelis know what discussions we’ve had with them.”
Salman’s meeting with Abbas happened less than two weeks after Kushner had visited the prince in Riyadh to discuss the peace plan.
Word of the proposal has shaken up a region already wrestling with multiple conflicts, astonishing Arab officials and Western observers alike. Palestinian officials from both Abbas’s Fatah party and its rival, Hamas, said they had found the plan insulting and unacceptable.
“If the Palestinian leadership were to accept any of the above, the Palestinian people would not let them remain,” said Hassan Yousef, a senior Hamas leader in the West Bank who is also a member of the Palestinian legislature.
Adding to the shock for Palestinians, according to Palestinian officials from Fatah and Hamas, as well as a senior Lebanese official and several other people briefed on the matter, was the claim that Salman had told Abbas that if he would not accept the terms, he would be pressed to resign to make way for a replacement who would.
Several of the officials said the prince had offered to sweeten the agreement with vastly increased financial support to the Palestinians, and even dangled the possibility of a direct payment to Abbas, which they said he had refused.
Khalid bin Salman, the Saudi ambassador, said Saudi Arabia fully supported “the Palestinian leadership under President Abbas” and “has not and will not interfere in the internal affairs of the Palestinians”.
Abbas’s spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, dismissed the accounts of the Riyadh meeting and the Saudi proposals as “fake news” that “does not exist”, and said the Palestinians were still awaiting a formal proposal from the United States.
But the main points of the Saudi proposal as told to Abbas were confirmed by many people briefed on the discussions between Abbas and Mohammed bin Salman, including Yousef, the senior Hamas leader; Ahmad Tibi, a Palestinian member of the Israeli Parliament; several Western officials; a senior Fatah official; a Palestinian official in Lebanon; a senior Lebanese official; and a Lebanese politician, among others.
And word of the plan has worried even some of the United States’s closest allies, who are eager for clarification from the White House.
An adviser to President Emmanuel Macron of France, speaking on condition of anonymity, said French officials had heard a version of some of the Saudi proposals, which sounded very similar to Israel’s opening bid and was not acceptable to Palestinians.
He said that France had told the Americans that if they wanted to start discussions, they should proceed, but should remember that France and many other countries also have interests and concerns in the region.
Abbas was alarmed and visibly upset by the proposal, the Fatah official said.
Yousef, of Hamas, said in an interview that there was consternation that Abbas and his aides had not revealed and denounced the suggestions publicly.
“As long as they remain quiet about this, we do have fear of something like this happening,” Yousef said, adding that if Abbas received any offer, it is “very important” that he “tells the Palestinian people that ‘we were offered 1,2,3,4 and that we refused this offer’.”
While the proposals may sound far-fetched on their face, they have deeply alarmed Palestinian and Arab officials because they come in a context of fast-moving new dynamics in the region.
Relations with Israel
Salman (32) is very close to Kushner (36), both young men without much foreign policy experience who see themselves as creative reformers able to break with the ossified thinking of the past.
And the Saudi prince has made clear that his top priority in the region is not the Palestinian-Israeli issue, the fulcrum of Arab politics for generations, but confronting Iran.
Regional officials and analysts say they believe he might be willing to try to force a settlement on Palestinians in order to cement Israeli co-operation against Iran.
Western and regional officials said Saudi Arabia’s main goal seems to be normalisation of relations with Israel, which would be difficult if the Palestinian struggle remains a regional cause. Saudi Arabia currently has no official relations with Israel but they have been widely reported to have secretly co-operated for years on security issues.
But several of Salman’s foreign policy efforts so far have sputtered, reflecting what many officials and diplomats in the region say is a lack of understanding of basic regional dynamics, or a willingness to ignore them.
His move to isolate Qatar, in part for being too close to Iran, has if anything forced it to become closer to Iran. Last month, his gambit to pressure the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, to resign – to isolate Iran’s Lebanese ally, Hizbullah – backfired, leaving Hariri still in place and arguably stronger than before.
Alarms began to go off across the region last month, when Abbas started making phone calls to political leaders in the region after he had left Riyadh.
One Lebanese government official who received a call was most surprised by what he said was a Saudi suggestion that the Palestinians could have Abu Dis, a suburb of East Jerusalem, as their capital.
Abu Dis is separated from the city by a wall built as part of Israel’s separation barrier.
The Lebanese official said no Arab could accept that kind of gamesmanship, adding that no one could propose that to a Palestinian unless a person lacking experience was trying to flatter the family of the US president.
A senior Lebanese official and a Lebanese politician, both briefed on the discussions, said Abbas had been told he had two months to accept the deal or he would be pressured to resign.
A Palestinian official in Lebanon said one idea floated by the Saudis was to compensate the Palestinians for the loss of West Bank territory by adding territory to the Gaza Strip from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, a rocky desert plagued lately by jihadi attacks. A Western official said Egypt had already rejected that idea.
But the news on Friday that Trump would recognise Jerusalem as the Israeli capital suggested that ideas once considered beyond the pale are now seriously being considered.
Recognising an Israeli capital there, even without explicitly denying the Palestinians one, would overturn decades of consensus among international peacemakers that any change in Jerusalem’s status must come as part of a negotiated deal.
Palestinian officials have already said that move would threaten any chance of a two-state solution and could even provoke a new Palestinian uprising.
On Sunday, Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian negotiator, said in a statement that the move would create “international anarchy and disrespect for global institutions and law”.
He said the United States would be destabilising the region, discouraging supporters of a peaceful solution and “disqualifying itself to play any role in any initiative towards achieving a just and lasting peace”. – New York Times