The newly appointed Saudi ambassador to the Palestinians, Nayef al-Sudairi, has postponed a planned visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, following criticism from some Palestinians who view the visit as a sign of normalization with Israel. The diplomat will visit Islam’s third-holiest site on one of his future trips, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
Sudairi arrived in the West Bank on Tuesday, marking the first time that Saudi Arabia has sent a diplomatic delegation to the Palestinian Authority (PA) since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. He presented his credentials as non-resident ambassador to the PA and consul general to East Jerusalem. He also met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki and top PLO official Hussein Al-Sheikh.
According to Palestinian reports cited by Haaretz, Sudairi was expected to visit the Al-Aqsa Mosque on Wednesday, on the occasion of the Mawlid, the celebration of the birthday of Prophet Muhammad. However, the reports were neither confirmed nor denied by official Palestinian or Saudi sources.
The visit would have been the first by an official Saudi delegation since Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War. The reports noted that the Saudis were aiming to keep it low-profile to prevent Israeli interference and to avoid Palestinian protests.
However, the reports of the planned visit sparked negative reactions by Palestinians on social media, with some considering it a validation of the Israeli occupation and calling to disrupt it. According to Palestinian sources quoted by Haaretz, the Saudi delegation understood the sensitivity of the issue for the Palestinians, and decided to postpone it.
The ambassador’s visit comes as Israel and Saudi Arabia inch closer to signing a normalization deal, following similar agreements between Israel and four Arab states last year. The Saudis have demanded a number of concessions to the Palestinians, while giving up on their earlier demands spelled out in their 2002 Arab Peace Initiative for the creation of a Palestinian state.
Deals to establish formal ties between Arab states and Israel are unpopular among Palestinians and supporters of the Palestinian cause. They are viewed as rewarding Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians, which UN experts and rights groups say amounts to apartheid.
Sudairi’s entry to the West Bank and the now-canceled visit to Al-Aqsa Mosque would not be possible without the consent of Israeli authorities. Getting such approvals is seen by many Palestinians as a tacit acceptance of Israeli control over the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which are both under illegal Israeli occupation.
In his meetings with Palestinian officials, Sudairi reiterated Saudi Arabia’s support for their cause and their right to self-determination. He said that any normalization deal with Israel would be based on achieving a just and comprehensive solution to the conflict, leading to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
He also said that Saudi Arabia planned to open a consulate for the Palestinians in East Jerusalem — something that Israel has warned in the past it would not allow, since it opposes diplomatic missions serving non-Israelis in what it considers its undivided capital.
Sudairi’s visit was seen as an attempt by Saudi Arabia to balance its interests with Israel and its commitment to the Palestinians. The kingdom has been under pressure from Washington to join other Arab countries in normalizing ties with Israel as part of a regional alliance against Iran.
However, Saudi Arabia faces domestic and regional challenges in pursuing such a move. It risks losing its status as a leader of the Muslim world and a defender of Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem. It also faces opposition from some of its allies, such as Qatar and Turkey, who have strong ties with Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza and rejects any recognition of Israel.
The Saudi envoy’s postponement of his Al-Aqsa visit may indicate that Riyadh is not ready yet to take such a controversial step. It may also reflect its respect for Palestinian sentiments and its desire to avoid further alienating them. However, it remains unclear whether this gesture will be enough to appease them or whether they will continue to oppose any Saudi-Israeli rapprochement.