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Israeli FM responds to Saudi critique with renewed calls for dialogue with Palestinians

Ahead of President-elect Joe Biden assuming office, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi multiplies his calls upon the Palestinian leadership to return to the negotiating table.

On Nov. 18, when Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani arrived in Israel on a visit, he invited his counterpart, Gabi Ashkenazi, to participate in the Manama Dialogue regional security conference. Ashkenazi was supposed to be the highest official Israeli to visit the kingdom.

But Bahraini protocol was later changed, and the Israelis were told that the first official to visit the country should be the head of state. As such, Ashkenazi's visit was postponed, and he could not participate in the Manama Dialogue in person.

Still, the Bahrainis maintained the invitation virtually. Ashkenazi participated at the Dec. 6 conference online. While he was not sitting physically in the conference room in Manama, it was clear that Ashkenazi highly valued the invitation and the rare occasion to engage in dialogue with other Arab leaders.

The first to speak in the concluding conference session was Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud. Ashkenazi spoke right after him. The prince delivered a harsh speech, probably not the kind the organizers of the conference anticipated. Voicing strong support for the Palestinian cause, the former Saudi intelligence chief accused Israel of falsely depicting itself as a country constantly under existential threat and as a beacon of democracy in the Middle East. “You cannot treat an open wound with palliatives and painkillers. The Abraham Accords are not divine writ,” stated the prince, clarifying that no normalization with Riyadh would take place until the Palestinian issue is resolved.

Like the organizers, Ashkenazi had expected a different kind of message from the Saudi prince, especially after the Nov. 22 meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the futuristic city of Neom. Reportedly, the Saudis refused normalization then and there, but rapprochement was certainly on the table.

Clearly, the Saudis are now having second thoughts, preferring to play it safe. With the Trump administration on its last moments of governing, the Saudis would rather wait for Joe Biden's team to take its mark and signal the course of policy it intends to embrace.

Taken aback by the Saudi change of tune, Ashkenazi responded with caution, noting simply that he "regretted" the words of the prince. He then focused on a double message of his own, calling on other Arab states to join the Emirates and Bahrain in normalizing ties with Israel on the one hand, while addressing the Palestinians and calling on them to return to the negotiating table unconditionally on the other.

 "The Abraham Accords are not, and should not, be a closed club, but rather a constantly expanding circle of cooperating members. The Middle East today is divided into two clear camps: those who have chosen peace, a better future for their children, economic prosperity and regional stability — and on the other side, those, led by Iran and its proxies, who have chosen the path of war, violence extremism, and terrorism,’’ noted Ashkenazi.

Addressing the Saudi accusations, Ashkenazi then argued that "the Abraham Accords do not come at the expense of the Palestinians. Quite the opposite, they are an opportunity that should not be missed. I call on the Palestinians to change their minds and enter direct negotiation with us without preconditions. This is the only way to solve this conflict. We believe as Israel moves from annexation to normalization, there is a window to solve this conflict."

Ever since the unity government was established last May, the Blue and White party has called for resuming talks with the Palestinians. But what used to be timid voices is now growing into a stronger message. On Nov. 10, while addressing the Knesset plenum, Defense Minister and head of Blue and White Benny Gantz called on the Palestinian leadership to return to the negotiating table. "The Abraham Accords can expand to additional countries in the region, but it is just as important that they trickle to our close neighbors — the Palestinians. Unfortunately, the Palestinian leadership has not understood that it is time to put away the excuses, return to the negotiating table and work together to find a solution. I call on [Palestinian President] Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian leadership — if not for yourselves, do it for your children. They, the future generation, deserve a future of peace and well-being."

On Dec. 4, Gantz repeated his call with a more conciliatory tone, posting a message on the Arabic-language site of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories: "The Middle East is changing. It is in your interest to come back to negotiations. We will help you with vaccination [against the coronavirus]; we will increase control over Israelis trying to enter West Bank areas A and B, in coordination with the Palestinian Authority, and we will start [coronavirus] testing in crossing points."

Like the Saudis, Gantz and Ashkenazi are preparing themselves for the power shift in Washington. Jerusalem is persuaded that the Palestinians have established a communication channel with at least some of the future Biden administration. Already during the election campaign, then vice-president-candidate Kamala Harris said that if Biden is elected president, he will restore economic assistance to the Palestinians and reopen the PLO office in Washington.

According to a diplomatic source in Jerusalem, Netanyahu had played to the full his card of normalization. The prime minister has shown that some Gulf countries are willing to advance rapprochement without the Palestinian issued resolved, but this will probably change now. That does not mean that other Arab countries won’t establish ties with Israel, but it does mean that the Palestinian issue is back on the international agenda.

This realization explains the careful choice of words by Ashkenazi in Manama over moving from annexation to normalization. By tying both issues together, Ashkenazi anticipates the change of policy in Washington and in the Arab world, signaling that Israel is ready and willing and that Netanyahu’s annexation plans are a thing of the past.

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