analysisMiddle East

Potential Saudi normalization raises questions about the PA

The P.A., which risks being further sidelined in the event of such an agreement, is hoping Jerusalem will reject Saudi Arabia's terms, expert says.

Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas heads for a meeting of the P.A. leadership in Ramallah. May 7, 2020. Photo by Flash90.
Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas heads for a meeting of the P.A. leadership in Ramallah. May 7, 2020. Photo by Flash90.
Yaakov Lappin
Yaakov Lappin
Yaakov Lappin is an Israel-based military affairs correspondent and analyst. He is the in-house analyst at the Miryam Institute; a research associate at the Alma Research and Education Center; and a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. He is a frequent guest commentator on international television news networks, including Sky News and i24 News. Lappin is the author of Virtual Caliphate: Exposing the Islamist State on the Internet. Follow him at: www.patreon.com/yaakovlappin.

Progress towards a potential normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia is raising the question of how the Palestinian Authority would fit into such a significant regional maneuver.

According to professor Eyal Zisser, vice rector of Tel Aviv University and chair in Contemporary History of the Middle East, a normalization agreement is unlikely to significantly change relations between the P.A. and the Saudis.

“The P.A. does not really interest the Saudis, and this is not the arena they are active in—Jordan is active in Jerusalem and the Temple Mount [in line with the agreement with Israel], Qatar funds Hamas, and the P.A. is in any case not very important,” Zisser told JNS.

The 2020 Abraham Accords did see an improvement in ties between the United Arab Emirates and the P.A., which went from diplomatically confrontational to being more cooperative. The UAE pledged $15 million last month to help rebuild the damage in Jenin following the major Israeli security operation there, which was launched in response to a series of terror attacks.

However, according to Zisser, despite this “there is no true love lost between Ramallah and the UAE. There are ties based on interests.” He added that political interests and little else compel Gulf Arab states to raise the Palestinian issue.

According to professor Benny Miller, an expert on international relations from the School of Political Sciences at the University of Haifa, the future of Saudi-P.A. ties “would depend on the concessions the Saudis [and the United States] are able to extract from Israel in the framework of the normalization,” he said.

On the whole, he added, “it seems that the Abraham Accords supposedly demonstrate [Israeli] Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s thesis about the marginal role the Palestinians play in Arab-Israeli politics. To the extent that major Israeli concessions on the Palestinian issue materialize, it would show that the Palestinian issue is still a legitimacy provider to major Arab states.”

With regard to the P.A. itself, according to Zisser its options in terms of responding to a normalization agreement are limited.

“The P.A. threatens Israel while at the same time cooperating with it and receiving funds from it. It is weak and is being weakened—what can it do? It depends on the good will of others—Israel, the West, the Americans.” He added that issuing protests “is the last card that the Palestinians have left—it’s no wonder that they are making use of it.”

When it comes to financial assistance to Ramallah, Saudi Arabia  has made several cuts over the years. In 2020, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, the kingdom decreased its financial support to the P.A. by almost 80%, according to the P.A. Finance Ministry.

In 2015, the Saudi monthly cash assistance to the P.A. of $20 million dried up suddenly, though limited assistance was later resumed, to the tune of $7.7 million a month, with reported ad hoc cash injections, such as a $40 million transfer made in 2019.

Asked if the Saudis could seize on normalization with Israel to significantly boost funding to the P.A., thereby counteracting Iranian financial support to Hamas and other terror factions in Judea and Samaria, Miller stated that this was a possible scenario and even likely to some extent, though it would depend on “the overall development of Saudi-Iranian relations and competition for hegemony in the Muslim world.”

Zisser assessed that the Saudis would not provide large cash injections to the P.A., adding that limited aid was more likely. A large financial package spread out over five to 10 years was possible, said Zisser, adding that “this is always the Saudi way—they are depicted as givers, but they spread it out and don’t give much in the end.”

Riyadh’s motivation for financially supporting “a corrupt and partially disintegrated P.A., and to invest in something that might not give results,” is low, he said.

Currently, the P.A. is locked in an internal struggle over its domestic legitimacy and stability, which are being severely challenged by Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Iran. It is trying to reinstate its rule over Jenin after completely losing control over the city, prompting Israel to launch its major counter-terror operation there last month.

According to Yoni Ben-Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs commentator and a senior Middle East analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, “The P.A. hopes that the right-wing government in Israel will reject Saudi Arabia’s terms for normalization,” fearing that such an agreement will further sideline it in the Arab world.

“If [P.A. chairman] Mahmoud Abbas senses that the agreement is likely to be realized, he will break his silence and vehemently oppose it,” wrote Ben-Menachem recently. He added that the P.A. views Israeli-Saudi normalization “as detrimental to their cause and [to] seeking to ensure the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.”

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