Saudi-led alliance pushes Palestinian statehood plan as war rages between Israel and Hamas

Connie Queline

Saudi-led alliance pushes Palestinian statehood plan as war rages between Israel and Hamas

A Saudi-led group of Arab states is urging the US and allies to persuade Israel to consider a renewed plan for Palestinian statehood that they say will de-escalate tensions in the Middle East, according to several Arab officials involved in drafting the proposal.

While there are myriad obstacles to overcome — not least the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas — the alliance that includes Egypt, Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates sees a potential cease-fire in the conflict becoming permanent and paving the way for fresh talks, said the people, who asked not to be identified discussing sensitive matters.

Many European states have embraced the unified Arab blueprint, though Washington is further apart, said two of the officials. The US has previously seen any deal for the Palestinians mainly in the context of its goal to forge diplomatic ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, while easing the Jewish state’s economic and security integration into the Middle East, they said.

The Arab proposal is being tabled as negotiators from the US, Egypt and Qatar try to secure at least a temporary pause in fighting between Israel and Hamas and a return of hostages held by the Iran-backed militant group. That initiative may have been complicated by the scores of Palestinians killed or injured during an outbreak of violence around a convoy of food trucks on Thursday, US President Joe Biden told reporters at the White House.

Israel will also seek help from Middle East neighbors to rebuild Gaza when the conflict finally ends, Economy and Industry Minister Nir Barkat said in an interview earlier this week.

The plan, which builds on the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, is expected to outline the creation of a Palestinian state along the lines of borders that existed prior to the 1967 Six-Day War. It would include measures such as rolling back Israeli settlements in the Palestinian Authority-controlled West Bank — one of two main Palestinian territories alongside Gaza — and mechanisms to implement a two-state solution, said the two senior Arab officials.

Arab states will not get involved in the reconstruction of Gaza unless there is a commitment by Israel to take steps toward establishing Palestinian statehood, the officials said.

The Saudi-led group sees acceptance of its Palestine proposal as the ultimate goal but potentially unbridgeable challenges remain. For one, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted any halt in Israel’s campaign to destroy Hamas in response to the group’s Oct. 7 atrocities will be temporary, as “total victory” is the only goal. Hamas is considered a terrorist organization by the US and European Union.

Israel will resist having Palestinian statehood “shoved down our throats,” Netanyahu told CBS News on Sunday.

Realistic Plan

Meanwhile, Washington and Riyadh are working on what they see as a more realistic version of the plan. That prospect seeks to use the prospect of Saudi Arabia recognizing Israel to extract concessions from the Jewish state on Palestinian statehood, according to a person familiar with US thinking. The full-blown Arab version doesn’t reflect the reality of what’s happening in Israel, the person said.

Saudi Arabia sees the two tracks — the Arab plan and the talks with Washington — as complementary, said a person close to the kingdom’s leadership. The Arab plan may be announced publicly in the coming weeks and will serve as leverage to obtain maximum gains for Palestinians, he added.

An official with the Saudi Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told his Saudi and UAE counterparts on Tuesday that Washington wants a “sustained peace through the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with security guarantees for Israel.”

“A whole generation” of Arabs “now does not believe in the viability of peace with Israel,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said in an interview at the Munich Security Conference earlier this month.

“To navigate through the amount of anger and outrage that has been created by this war would take something transformative,” he said. There must be “a time-lined plan that starts with an end game to realize a Palestinian state.”

During a panel discussion at the same conference, both the foreign ministers of Egypt and Saudi Arabia warned that the Israel-Hamas war, which has so far killed almost 30,000 people in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run health authorities, is fueling extremism in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Hamas militants killed about 1,200 people on Oct. 7.

The war is providing a “huge amount of oxygen” to those who don’t believe in Arab-Jewish coexistence and those who want to recruit young people into “extremist ideologies and acts of terror,” said Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal Bin Farhan. The continuation of the war is “a national security issue for us in the region and beyond.”

Brussels Conference

Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib said “more and more” countries within the European Union were embracing the Saudi-led two-state plan and Brussels would most likely host a conference to unveil it.

“We need actions now,” she said.

Saudi Arabia believes Palestinian statehood is a “reasonable” price for Israel to pay in exchange for diplomatic relations with Riyadh and it’s up to the US to convince the Jewish state, Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute think tank, said last week following a trip to the region.

The problem is that most Arab states do not seem to appreciate how much Oct. 7 changed Israel, with the population caught up in a wave of wartime patriotism and still traumatized by Hamas’ incursion, he added.

“For the vast majority of Israelis, even talking about the two-state solution is viewed as bizarre, even perverse,” said Satloff.

— With assistance from Peter Martin, Ethan Bronner, and Tom Hall

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