RAMALLAH, WEST BANK - Saudi Arabia's newly appointed envoy to the Palestinian Authority presented his credentials to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during his first visit to the Israeli-occupied West Bank on Tuesday, a trip linked to American efforts to normalize ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The visit by nonresident ambassador Nayef al-Sudairi, who also serves as the Saudi ambassador to Jordan, is widely seen as an attempt by the kingdom to address the key sticking point in the Saudi-Israeli normalization deal - Saudi Arabia's long-standing support for 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, the Saudi diplomat met with Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority that exercises limited autonomy in parts of the West Bank, and other senior Palestinian officials.
'God willing, this visit will be just the beginning of things to come, with the coordination of senior Palestinian officials who are architects of our relations,' al-Sudairi told journalists after meeting with Abbas.
Some 16 years ago, Arab leaders convened in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to reaffirm the Arab Peace Initiative, pledging no diplomatic recognition of Israel without a just settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although Palestinians still live under an open-ended Israeli military occupation in the West Bank and under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade in Gaza, a landmark diplomatic deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia has in recent weeks appeared to gain momentum.
But several obstacles to such an agreement 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.
On Tuesday in Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority, al-Sudairi reiterated the kingdom's position in support of the creation of an independent Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital.
But 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 the West Bank.
Officials on Tuesday were tight-lipped about the kinds of concessions under discussion, instead praising ties between the two governments. Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki hailed the meeting as a 'historical 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, said his focus was on normalizing relations between Israel and other Arab states before seeking a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Israel opened diplomatic relations in 2020 with three Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Those deals have helped end years of isolation 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.