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Saudi envoy seeks to reassure Palestinians amid talks with Israel

Saudi envoy seeks to reassure Palestinians amid talks with Israel
September 26, 2023 Web Desk

JERICHO, Palestinian Territories (AFP) - A Saudi envoy on a rare visit to the occupied West Bank pledged Tuesday that the Palestinian cause will be "a cornerstone" of any normalisation deal the oil-rich kingdom may strike with Israel.

The delegation headed by Nayef al-Sudairi was Saudi Arabia's first in three decades to the West Bank, which Israel has occupied along with other territories since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The visit comes as 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 agreements a betrayal of their quest for statehood -- but Sudairi sought to reassure them that Riyadh stands by their side. "The Palestinian matter is a fundamental pillar," Sudairi told journalists after meeting top Palestinian diplomat Riyad al-Maliki in Ramallah. "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," Abbas told the UN General Assembly in New York.

'Getting closer' 

Sudairi, the Saudi envoy to Jordan, was last month also named ambassador for the Palestinian territories and consul general for Jerusalem. His 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, 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 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. The Saudi crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, last week told US network Fox that the kingdom was getting "closer" to a deal with Israel but insisted that the Palestinian cause remains "very important" for Riyadh.

In recent months Israel has sent delegations to Saudi Arabia to participate in sports and other events, including a UNESCO meeting.