Saudi Arabia’s new ambassador to the Palestinian Authority cancelled a planned visit to the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem’s old city on Wednesday after a social media campaign by Palestinian activists warned that such a move would be considered a step towards normalisation with Israel.
The visit to the Israeli-occupied West Bank by Riyadh’s new envoy, Nayef al-Sudairi, who is also ambassador to Jordan, coincides with efforts to forge a tripartite agreement between the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel. The deal would include Riyadh normalising ties with Israel, a development that would go a long way towards ending Israel’s isolation in the Arab and Muslim world.
In a further sign of warming ties, Israel’s tourism minister Haim Katz is in Saudi Arabia at the head of an Israeli delegation to a United Nations World Tourism Organisation conference, becoming the first Israeli minister to visit the kingdom publicly. “Tourism is a bridge between peoples. Collaborating in tourism can bring people together and stimulate the growth of economies. I will seek to forge partnerships to promote tourism and Israel’s international relations,” he said.
Saudi Arabia has never had diplomatic relations with Israel and has traditionally linked a diplomatic breakthrough with progress towards the creation of an independent Palestinian state. The Palestinian leadership in Ramallah fears Riyadh may now be seeking a deal with Washington without Israel’s right-wing government making any significant concessions towards the Palestinians.
According to Palestinian sources, Mr Sudairi decided to cancel his visit to the Al-Aqsa mosque on the Noble Sanctuary, revered by Jews as the Temple Mount, after hearing about the sensitivity of the site from his Palestinian hosts.
When presenting his credentials to President Mahmoud Abbas, Mr Sudairi went out of his way to reassure his host that Saudi Arabia was not abandoning the Palestinian cause.
“Riyadh is working to establish a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital,” he said. He also referred to comments last week by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman stressing the need to ease conditions for Palestinians.
Prince Mohammed also said that “every day we get closer” to normalising ties with Israel, a sentiment echoed by Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, in his speech last week to the United Nations general assembly, when he said, “we are at the cusp of a historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia”.
While the parties are keeping tight-lipped over the details of the emerging deal, the key elements are known: a defence pact between the US and Saudi Arabia; a civilian nuclear programme for Riyadh; and Saudi normalisation with Israel.
However, the two far-right parties in Mr Netanyahu’s coalition, as well as politicians from his Likud party, have already made it clear that there can be no significant concessions to the Palestinians, no handover of West Bank land, no dismantling of illegal settler outposts and no settlement construction freeze.
US president Joe Biden also faces significant opposition to a deal from Democrats angry over Riyadh’s human rights record.