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Saudi Arabia stresses link between Israel deal and Palestinian statehood

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Saudi Arabia has reiterated that it would not normalise relations with Israel without western recognition of an independent Palestinian state, in an apparent warning to the US against overselling the prospect of the kingdom forging diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.

Two days after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman held talks with US secretary of state Antony Blinken in Riyadh, the foreign ministry said the kingdom had “been steadfast on the Palestinian issue and the necessity that the brotherly Palestinian people obtain their legitimate rights”.

The ministry said it was releasing the statement in the wake of the talks between Prince Mohammed and Blinken on the Arab-Israeli peace process, and comments made by the US national security spokesperson.

The spokesperson, John Kirby, said on Tuesday that Washington was in discussions with Israel and Saudi Arabia “about trying to move forward with a normalisation arrangement”, adding that it had “received positive feedback from both sides”.

The US and Arab nations have been in talks over an initiative that would offer Israel the prospect of normalising ties with Saudi Arabia — long the grand prize for the Jewish state — and other Muslim nations as part of a broader plan to secure a sustainable settlement to the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But Arab officials say that can only happen if Israel commits to “irreversible” steps towards the creation of a Palestinian state.

The release of the statement by the Saudi foreign ministry underlined the sensitivity of the issue for Riyadh, which was edging towards a deal with the US and Israel before the October 7 Hamas attack triggered the war in Gaza.

Under that deal, Saudi Arabia would have moved to formalise ties with Israel in return for the US agreeing to a security pact with Riyadh and assisting it with the development of its nuclear programme.

US and Saudi officials were also discussing a Palestinian element to the deal that included freezing the expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, boosting support for the Palestinian Authority that administers limited parts of the territory, and establishing a pathway towards a two-state solution.

The eruption of the Israel-Hamas war put that process on hold, but Saudi Arabia, which is home to Islam’s two holiest sites, made clear it was not taking normalisation off the table. But there was a realisation that Riyadh would have to secure greater concessions from Israel for the Palestinians, including in Gaza, with more concrete steps towards the creation of a Palestinian state.

The Saudi statement said there would be “no diplomatic relations with Israel unless an independent Palestinian state is recognised on the 1967 borders”, the year that Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza during the six day war.

It called on permanent members of the UN Security Council to “expedite the recognition of the Palestinian state”, in a clear message to the US and its allies. The statement also said “Israeli aggression” in Gaza had to stop and called for “Israeli occupation forces” to withdraw from the strip.

“The Saudi message to the US is that there are red lines for Riyadh and it needs to have recognition of a Palestinian state, at least by the US and UN, as well as a serious commitment from Israel to take irreversible steps towards a Palestinian state before any normalisation,” said Ali Shihabi, a Saudi analyst close to the royal court. “The statement was a response to media reports and the lack of clarity in US statements that infer that Saudi Arabia is excessively flexible on this. It is not.”

Arab and Palestinian officials view international recognition of a Palestinian state as a key part of any new political process, rather than an outcome, and crucial to creating a pathway to a two-state solution. They believe it would also boost the legitimacy to any new Palestinian government that could potentially administer Gaza and the West Bank when the war ends.

Normalisation is viewed as one incentive that could encourage Israel to take steps towards a two-state solution. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly rejected any talk of allowing the establishment of a Palestinian state, and rebuffed any suggestions that the Palestinian Authority could have a role in governing Gaza after the war.

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