1st Saudi envoy to the Palestinians in West Bank, Israeli minister in Riyadh amid normalization push

RAMALLAH, West Bank - Saudi Arabia's newly appointed envoy to the Palestinian Authority presented his credentials to President Mahmoud Abbas during his first visit to the Israeli-occupied West Bank on Tuesday, a move linked to recent American efforts to normalize ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The trip by nonresident Saudi ambassador Nayef al-Sudairi - marking the first time that the Saudi delegation has visited the West Bank since 1967 - came as Israel's tourism minister became the first senior Israeli official to make a public visit to Saudi Arabia.

In a clear sign that a landmark diplomatic deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia has gained momentum, Israel's Tourism Minister Haim Katz on Tuesday led an Israeli delegation to Riyadh to take part in a conference hosted by the United Nations World Tourism Organization. Katz's office described his visit as unprecedented for an Israeli minister and said he would hold discussions with officials from across the Middle East.

Meanwhile the visit by al-Sudairi to Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority, is widely seen as an attempt by the kingdom to address the key sticking point in the Saudi-Israeli normalization deal: Saudi Arabia's stance toward the Palestinians. The Saudi government has said it will only normalize ties with Israel if there is major progress toward the creation of a Palestinian state.

To kick off his two-day trip, al-Sudairi, who also serves as the Saudi ambassador to Jordan, met with Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority that exercises limited autonomy in parts of the West Bank, and other senior officials. Before presenting his credentials, he sought to assure the Palestinians that Saudi Arabia was "working to establish a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital," without elaborating.

"God willing, next time this meeting will take place in Jerusalem," al-Sudairi told journalists after the meeting.

Nearly two decades ago, Saudi Arabia and other Arab leaders endorsed the Arab Peace Initiative, pledging that there would be no diplomatic recognition of Israel without a just settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Even as Palestinians still live under an open-ended Israeli military occupation in the West Bank, now in its 57th year, and under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade in Gaza, efforts by the United States to establish formal relations for the first time between Israel and Saudi Arabia have escalated. Last week, Netanyahu and President Biden discussed the prospect of an agreement during the Israeli leader's first visit to the U.S. since returning to power last year.

But obstacles to the deal remain. The Saudis are seeking a defense pact with the United States and want help in building their own civilian nuclear program, which has fueled fears of an arms race with Iran.

Saudi Arabia also wants Israel to grant at least some kind of concession to the Palestinians in the West Bank, which Israel captured along with east Jerusalem and Gaza in the 1967 Mideast war.

From Ramallah on Tuesday, al-Sudairi reiterated the kingdom's position in support of the Palestinians, describing the Arab Peace Initiative as a "fundamental pillar of any agreement."

Yet any effort to grant the Palestinians greater autonomy would be met with strong opposition by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's far-right, ultranationalist government. Powerful Cabinet ministers have imposed sanctions on the Palestinian Authority and called openly for the annexation of parts of the West Bank.

Officials Tuesday were tight-lipped about the kinds of concessions under discussion, instead praising bilateral ties. Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki hailed the visit as a "historic milestone."

"He is here to begin work developing relations between our countries," al-Maliki said of the ambassador. "It is a major responsibility, to preserve the Palestinian cause."

The Palestinian Authority also has not specified what it is willing to accept from the Israeli government. President Abbas said at the United Nations General Assembly in New York last week that there can be no Mideast peace without his people enjoying their "full and legitimate national rights."

Netanyahu, meanwhile, has staked his legacy on Israel's normalization of ties with Arab states as an alternative to negotiating with the Palestinians. In 2020, Israel forged relations with three Arab countries, including the Gulf Arab states of United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Those deals have helped end years of Israel's isolation in the region and raised hopes that Saudi Arabia - the Sunni powerhouse home to Islam's most important religious sites - and other Arab states that have long refused to recognize Israel would make similar moves.

The visit by Tourism Minister Katz to Riyadh appeared to further accelerate the countries' push for normalization. Before taking off for Saudi Arabia, Katz described tourism as a "bridge between nations."

"Partnership in tourism issues has the potential to bring hearts together and economic prosperity," he said.

When asked about Katz's visit, Ahmad Deek, the director-general of the Palestinian Foreign Ministry, said that the Palestinian Authority "is in continuous dialogue" about the developments with Saudi officials and "trusts in their support for the rights of our people."

DeBre reported from Jerusalem.

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