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Riyadh appoints envoy to Palestinians and pushes for Saudi-Israeli ties

Saudi Arabia has appointed its first envoy to the Palestinian administration in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, a move widely believed to be related to United States efforts to establish diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The Saudi envoy to Jordan, Nayef Al-Sudairi, will now double as “non-resident ambassador to the State of Palestine,” the Saudi foreign ministry said in a statement on Saturday opinion. Saudi Arabia recognizes Palestinian statehood in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem – territories Israel seized during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

The announcement came amid mounting efforts by the United States to establish formal ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia for the first time.

It also followed speculation in Israel that Saudi Arabia — which has long resisted establishing formal ties until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved — may now be ready without Israel granting the Palestinians more autonomy.

“It's kind of a checkbox,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an interview last week. “You have to verify it to say you do it.”

But Saudi and Palestinian analysts said the appointment of Ambassador Al-Sudairi showed Riyadh was serious about treating Palestinians better.

“It's the Saudi way of communicating,” said Abdulaziz Alghashian, a Saudi expert on Riyadh's relations with Israel. “They say this is something more than a tick in a box.”

The Saudi ambassador to Jordan has long overseen the Palestinian issue informally, if not in name, in practice. The formal recognition of this dual role is “a response to the perception in Israeli circles that the Saudis don't really care about the Palestinians,” said Alghashian, who lives in Riyadh.

If an agreement is reached next year, it is likely to be a tripartite deal, with the US giving Riyadh more military support and aid for a civilian nuclear program, and Israel offering some sort of concession to the Palestinians.

On Sunday, the Israeli government, dominated by MPs opposed to Palestinian sovereignty, continued to downplay the relevance of the Palestinian component of the negotiations.

Eli Cohen, Israel's foreign minister, said in a statement Sunday radio interview that the announcement was largely symbolic. “The Saudis want to send the message to the Palestinians that they have not been forgotten,” Cohen said. But in reality “the Palestinian issue is not the main topic of the talks,” he added.

But the Palestinians felt heartened by the announcement — particularly by the claim that the ambassador would also serve, at least in name, as consul-general in Jerusalem. Israel has controlled all of Jerusalem since 1967 and has made the city its undivided capital, but the Palestinians hope that at least part of it will one day serve as the capital of a Palestinian state.

The appointment of a consul there is seen as support for these Palestinian aspirations, said Ibrahim Dalalsha, director of the Horizon Center, a Palestinian research group in Ramallah, West Bank.

“At a deeper level, from the Palestinian perspective, it is seen as a message that the Saudis will not abandon the Palestinians in their consultations with the US and Israel on a possible normalization deal,” he said.

But Mr. Cohen, Israel's foreign minister, said Israel would not allow Saudi Arabia to open a consulate for the Palestinians in Jerusalem.

“We do not allow countries to open consulates for the Palestinians in Jerusalem,” he said. “That's not compatible for us.”

Israel established diplomatic ties with three Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates, in 2020, ending years of isolation in the Arab world and leading to speculation that Saudi Arabia would be next. The Biden administration has now made Saudi-Israeli relations one of its top foreign policy goals.

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