Bishara A. Bahbah
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The price of Saudi-Israeli peace includes a Palestinian state

Even the minimal requirements for normalization entail founding an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (left) meets with Saudi King Salman in Riyadh on November 7, 2017. (Thaer Ghanaim/Wafa)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (left) meets with Saudi King Salman in Riyadh on November 7, 2017. (Thaer Ghanaim/Wafa)

Saudi Arabia views the resolution of the Palestine question as central to any normalization agreement with Israel. While it is unclear what an Israel led by its current far-right government, would be willing to concede for a deal with the kingdom, the Saudis and Palestinians have formulated two positions: the “optimum” and the “realistic.”

The most direct public reference to the centrality of the Palestine question in Saudi-Israeli normalization talks came in a statement in June by the spokesman for the Saudi embassy in Washington, Fahad Nazer. Speaking on Saudi television, he said:

“Israel has a lot of potential, normalization can do wonders – trade, cultural exchanges – but for that plan to happen, for the kingdom to take that step, we need that core dispute [with the Palestinians] to be resolved.”

The “optimum” Saudi/Palestinian position would be for Israel to accept the Arab Peace Initiative (API) of 2002. The initiative was proposed by Saudi Arabia and approved by Arab League countries. The API calls for Israel’s withdrawal from all lands Israel occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, in return for Arab countries’ recognition of Israel.

Anyone who believes Israel would accept these optimum terms is delusional.

Israel and the world must create and fully recognize a Palestinian state to achieve peace. This Palestinian state would be established within a strictly defined time period. A group of states including the United States, Europe, Russia, and China must guarantee this agreement.

Many painful lessons have been learned from the failed Oslo and Paris Agreements. Modified and realistic terms of a resolution would allow the Saudis to secure significant, verifiable, implementable results from Israel that would lead to a two-state solution within a strict timeline.

Hypothetically, those realistic terms would include:

  1. Israel’s agreement to initially consolidate Areas A, B, and C of the West Bank and hand them to Palestinian control within a defined timetable not to exceed 3-5 years.
  2. A comprehensive security agreement between Israeli and Palestinian forces with the likely assistance of the United States, the EU, Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.
  3. Israel would be allowed to annex the large Israeli settlements adjacent to the 1967 Green Line in exchange for Israeli lands of equal size and strategic importance to the Palestinians.
  4. The remaining one or two large Israeli settlements inside Palestine would be under Palestinian jurisdiction. Those Israeli settlers would be granted Palestinian residency and unfettered access to Israel.
  5. Palestine would become a neutral and demilitarized state. It would have its internal security forces. A combination of Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, and Egyptian troops would oversee Palestine’s borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt.
  6. International forces would be invited as permanent observers of the security and border agreements.
  7. An overpass highway would be built to connect the West Bank with Gaza.
  8. Palestine would be permitted to use Jerusalem’s airport and would be allowed to rebuild Gaza’s airport, which Israel destroyed.
  9. Freedom of movement for Palestinians and their goods would be guaranteed within and between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Israeli checkpoints would only be permitted on Israel’s borders.
  10. A Gaza port would be built and used to import and export goods for Palestine. The only restriction on the goods imported and exported by Palestine would be military hardware. The Palestinian government would directly collect customs dues.
  11. The existing status quo of the holy places in Jerusalem would be maintained. Jordan will remain the custodian of Jerusalem’s Muslim and Christian religious sites.
  12. East Jerusalem would be declared the capital of Palestine. Palestine would be permitted to have a diplomatic compound on, for example, the existing grounds of the Orient House. A Palestinian flag would be hoisted, and Palestinians would conduct diplomatic business in that facility. Ramallah would remain the base of the Palestinian government.
  13. Palestinian refugees would be given the option of monetary compensation and remain in the host country with the latter’s agreement. Compensated refugees may elect to emigrate to other countries. Those who want to return to the newly created Palestinian state would be subject to an annual quota governed by manifold factors that would prioritize their return.
  14. Palestine’s natural resources would revert to the Palestinian government. This would include existing water resources and potential oil and gas that might be discovered on land or off the shore of Gaza. Palestinians would be given access to the Dead Sea and its rich mineral resources.

Other issues, such as the release of Palestinian prisoners and compensation for Palestinian natural resources used by Israel since 1967, would be discussed and resolved by a committee comprised of Saudi Arabia, the United States, the EU, Jordan, Egypt, the UAE, China, and Russia. Any countries involved need to be acceptable to both parties.

A senior Palestinian official personally privy to the details of the ongoing Saudi-Israeli normalization talks has confided in me that the Saudis view Palestine as “central” to their negotiations with Israel. This senior Palestinian official added, “We completely trust the Saudis. Saudi positions on Palestine are firm, and in the future, Saudi Arabia will play an even more prominent role in resolving issues between Israel and Palestine.”

Saudi Arabia’s appointment of a nonresident ambassador to Palestine and a “consul general” in Jerusalem is a “grand gesture” to underscore that the Saudis will not abandon the Palestinians or Jerusalem in their normalization negotiations with Israel and the United States.

Publicly, the Saudis began their negotiations by putting forth the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 as the solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Behind the scenes, the back-and-forth negotiations over Palestine are intense and complex, particularly with a far-right Israeli coalition that controls Israel’s government.

It takes a calculated leap of faith for Palestinians to believe Saudi diplomacy will bear the fruit needed to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict – the founding of an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. Yet the Saudi plan is currently the most viable opportunity on the table.

About the Author
Dr. Bishara Bahbah is vice president of the US Palestinian Council (USPC), one of the major Palestinian-American advocacy and educational groups in the United States operating out of Washington, DC. Bahbah is former editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem-based Palestinian newspaper, Al-Fajr. He served as the associate director of Harvard University’s Middle East Institute and was a member of the Palestinian delegation on arms control and regional security.
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