Palestine Pulse

Why can't Palestinian Authority criticize Riyadh?

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Article Summary
The Palestinian Authority is confident that Riyadh is committed to the Palestinian cause and a two-state solution, and is reluctant to voice any stance that would cause Ramallah to lose Riyadh’s political and financial support.

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The United States and Israel have both praised the Arab participation in the Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia, represented by Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir. This participation at the conference, held Feb. 13-14 in Warsaw, was perceived to be a significant Arab-Israeli convergence against Iran. Although the Warsaw conference was centered on the need to confront Iran, the Arab-Israeli convergence has ignited questions on the Palestinian Authority's (PA) standing, particularly since The Wall Street Journal reported Feb. 14 that Riyadh applauded the US Middle East peace plan, also known as "the deal of the century."

There are multiple reasons behind the PA refraining from voicing any stance on this convergence. Most notably among these reasons is that although the media depicts Riyadh as opting for a political stance close to Israel and the United States and favoring the deal of the century, the PA believes that there is political commitment to the Palestinian cause from Riyadh’s part. It also believes that Saudi Arabia is committed to financially support the Palestinian Treasury, with Riyadh transferring Feb. 13 $60 million, as part of its monthly contribution for November-December 2018 and January 2019. 

Riyadh contributes with a monthly sum of $20 million to the PA budget and provides intermittent support to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). On the sidelines of the Arab Summit in April 2018, Saudi Arabia announced a $150 million grant to the Islamic endowments in Jerusalem and a sum of $50 million to UNRWA.

In May 2018, Saudi Arabia announced that its humanitarian development and social aid to the Palestinians amounted to $6 billion between 2000 and 2018.

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Mahmoud al-Habbash, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ religious affairs adviser, told Al-Monitor, “We cannot make any comment since Palestine was not present at the Warsaw conference. We have never had and at no time in the future we will doubt the Saudi stance toward the Palestinian cause.”

He said, “The things that the president heard from King Salman at their latest meeting in Riyadh affirm the Saudi support to the Palestinians, opposition to the deal of the century and commitment to the Arab peace initiative."

Habbash noted, “Riyadh never delayed its financial support to the PA. Saudi Arabia and Algeria are the only countries to always pay their share in support of the Palestinian Treasury.”

On Feb. 12, Abbas had met with Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh. Abbas and Mohammed conversed about the latest developments relating to the Palestinian cause.

The PA and Fatah stance toward Saudi Arabia has become more conspicuous after Israel’s i24NEWS reported Feb. 8, quoting Israel’s Channel 10, that a classified document of the Israeli Foreign Ministry had been leaked. The document points to Saudi Arabia’s unwillingness to normalize ties with Israel or approve the deal of the century in the absence of Israeli concessions to the Palestinians.

Speaking to Saudi Arabia’s Al-Arabiya channel, a number of Fatah leaders commented on the document. Hussein al-Sheikh, the PA minister of civil affairs and a member of Fatah Central Committee, said Feb. 10, “The Palestinian leadership is fully reassured to the Saudi stance and commitment to a unanimous Arab position opposing the deal of the century. [It is also reassured] to its commitment to the Arab initiative and decisions made at the Arab summit in Dhahran.”

He added, “Speaking openly and behind closed doors, Saudi Arabia voiced its opposition to the deal of the century and refusal to give up Jerusalem.” 

Jibril Rajoub, secretary of Fatah's Central Committee, told Al-Arabiya Feb. 10 that the PA has full confidence in the Saudi and pivotal Arab countries’ positions (Jordan and Egypt), despite the attempts to question their stance on the deal of the century and on the normalization of ties with Israel.

The PA has been siding with Saudi Arabia against Iran. It has always accused Tehran of supporting Hamas and deepening the Palestinian internal divide, and this is another reason for not criticizing Riyadh. Speaking to Al-Monitor, Mohammed Hourani, a member of the Fatah Revolutionary Council, said, “The Palestinians are well aware of the unchanged Saudi position on Palestine. Saudi Arabia is a sovereign state and is bedeviled by some regional dossiers, including the Iranian policy. Based on that, Riyadh has the right to pursue policies so as to serve its interests.”

Commenting on whether or not the Iranian dossier would justify normalization with Israel, Hourani said, "There are two enemies of the Arab world: the Israeli occupation and Iranian interference.”

He explained, “A normalization of ties with Israel can never be to the advantage of the Arabs, because a clear Arab policy is required. They do not need to choose a foe over another.”

The PA has been subjected to a political and financial embargo from the part of the United States and Israel, which has undermined its ability to decry any Arab position currently.

Fatah leader Nabil Amr told Al-Monitor, “PA ties with Arab countries are not supposed to be strained, because the PA situation cannot stand such a crisis. The thing that is happening between some Arab states and Israel consists of a gradual rapprochement. This, however, is not a normalization.”

Omar al-Ghoul, a political analyst who also served as adviser to former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, told Al-Monitor that the Warsaw conference mainly aimed to normalize Arab-Israeli ties and to distract attention from the Arab-Israeli conflict. “The PA is already going through a very complicated and confusing political phase, and this is why it does not need to have additional rivals. Rather it seeks to rally support to its advantage. That's why the Palestinian leadership is being somehow overly wise as it works to overcome the confusion in the Arab stances,” he said.

He added, “Although the PA stressed its commitment to the Arab peace initiative — which Riyadh suggested and which provides for the normalization of Arab-Israeli ties only when a Palestinian state is established on the borders of June 4, 1967 — it is working on avoiding any clash with any Arab party. It is keen to take it too easy when dealing with the Arab states. At the same time, the PA opposes any normalization without the establishment of a Palestinian state in return, and is committed to the Arab peace initiative, the resolutions of the international legitimacy and the two-state solution."

The growing Israeli and US political and financial embargo is a reason behind the PA keenness to safeguard ties with the Arab states, particularly with Saudi Arabia. Perhaps, it is a reason behind the PA refraining from making any comment on the rapprochement with Israel. This is true particularly since Saudi Arabia channels $240 million a year for salaries, which the PA cannot dispense with under the prevailing conditions.

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Ahmad Melhem is a Palestinian journalist and photographer based in Ramallah for Al-Watan News. He writes for a number of Arabic outlets.

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