As the dust settles on US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, which has caused massive uproar in the Muslim and Arab world while also being universally condemned, reports have emerged revealing Saudi Arabia has been for weeks urging the Palestinians to accept Abu Dis, a suburban village outside East Jerusalem, as the future capital of Palestine as Riyadh secretly pushes a nascent US-sponsored peace plan.
Palestinian officials have claimed, on condition of anonymity, that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman made the proposal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas when the latter visited Riyadh last month as they discussed a grand peace deal that is purportedly being drafted by Trump's son-in-law and presidential adviser Jared Kushner and US Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt.
A general view shows the Dome of the Rock and Jerusalem's Old City on December 4, 2017.
Officially, though, Riyadh has slammed Trump's decision as an “unjustified and irresponsible step” and said it represents “a bias against rights of Palestinian people." The Saudi Royal Court has warned of “dangerous consequences of moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem," urging Washington to reverse its decision and adhere to international will.
Kushner’s role in the peace plan, expected to be unveiled by Trump next year, is also under scanner amid reports that he failed to report to US authorities that he was co-director of a foundation that raised money for Israeli settlements, considered illegal under international law. Kushner is also believed to have developed a close relation with the powerful Saudi Crown Prince.
Saudi ultimatum to Abbas
Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (right) with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a reception ceremony in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on November 7, 2017. /Reuters Photo
In October, Kushner made a secret four-day visit to Saudi Arabia before traveling to Israel to discuss the Middle East peace process, Arabic news website Al-Araby Al-Jadeed reported, quoting an unnamed source from the White House.
Last month, President Abbas made a previously unannounced visit to the Saudi capital and held parleys with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Israeli and Arabic media reported that Prince Mohammed sternly demanded Abbas to either accept an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal being put together by the Trump administration, or resign. The reports said Prince Mohammed gave Abbas two months to respond to the offer.
“According to the proposal, the Palestinians will get a non-contiguous state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip over which they will have only partial sovereignty while the majority of Israeli settlements in the West Bank will remain. The proposal does not grant Palestinian refugees and their descendants living in other countries the right of return to Israel,” London-based Middle East Monitor reported.
The Saudi Crown Prince insisted Abbas accept Abu Dis, instead of East Jerusalem, as the new capital of a future Palestinian state, according to reports. The town in the outskirts of Jerusalem is classified, as per the Oslo Accords, in Area B, which is administered by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
A Palestinian protester tries to hammer a hole through the Israeli barrier that separates the West Bank town of Abu Dis from Jerusalem, during clashes with Israeli troops, on October 28, 2015. /Reuters Photo
Palestinian officials told Reuters on condition of anonymity they were concerned that the proposal that Prince Mohammed communicated to Abbas, which purportedly came from Kushner, presented a scenario that was tilted toward the Israeli position and therefore completely unacceptable to the Palestinians
“This [proposal] was rejected by Palestinians. Abu Mazen (Abbas) explained the position and its danger to the Palestinian cause and Saudi Arabia understood that,” a Palestinian official said.
The White House, meanwhile, denied that Prince Mohammed’s reported offer to the Palestinians had anything to do with his meeting with Kushner. “It does not accurately reflect any part of the conversation,” it said in a statement.
Trump, in an attempt to cool off Palestinian tempers following his Jerusalem announcement, called Abbas on Tuesday. He asserted that the Palestinians stood to gain from the peace plan being drafted by Kushner and US Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt.
“President Trump in a phone call told Abu Mazen: ‘I will have some proposals for you that you would like.’ When Abu Mazen pressed him on details, Trump didn’t give any,” Reuters quoted another Palestinian official as saying.
Fear of Iran brings US, Saudi, Israel closer
US President Donald Trump (center), flanked by White House senior adviser Jared Kushner (second from right) and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. /Reuters Photo
Trump’s election as the US President appears to have played the role of a catalyst in bringing Saudi Arabia and Israel closer, drawn by their common fear over Iran expanding its influence in the region.
Saudi Arabia, like most Arab countries, does not formally recognize Israel. However, there were reports that suggested the Saudi Crown Prince might have visited Israel discreetly this September in an effort to coordinate their action against Iran.
Trump’s Jerusalem announcement “comes at an important and peculiar time, when Arab regimes – particularly Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt – find themselves more aligned than ever with Israel on regional priorities. They all share, along with the Trump administration, a near obsession with Iran as the source of the region’s evils,” Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, wrote in an article for The Atlantic.
Hamid felt that if “Saudi officials, including the crown prince himself, were particularly concerned with Jerusalem’s status, they would presumably have used their privileged status as a top Trump ally and lobbied the administration to hold off on such a needlessly toxic move.”
“This is a gratuitous announcement, if there ever was one, and it’s unlikely Trump would have followed through if the Saudis had drawn something resembling a red line, so to speak,” he added.
Kushner wreaking havoc in Middle East
US President Donald Trump passes his adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner during a Hanukkah Reception at the White House in Washington, US, on December 7, 2017. /Reuters Photo
The Saudi-backed US push for a new Middle East peace process comes even as questions have been raised over Kushner’s deep business and personal ties to Israel.
Kushner’s family real estate company has longstanding and ongoing deals with major Israeli financial institutions. Trump's son-in-law is also believed to have a personal friendship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Kushner kept his role as a co-director of the Charles and Seryl Kushner Foundation from 2006 to 2015, a time when the group funded an Israeli settlement considered to be illegal under international law, hidden from financial records he filed with the Office of Government Ethics earlier this year.
He also attempted to sway a UN Security Council vote against an anti-settlement resolution passed just before Donald Trump took charge at the White House. Kushner’s pro-Israeli position has prompted doubts over his ability to serve as an honest broker in the Middle East peace process.
Lately, his growing rapport with the Saudi Crown Prince has been a matter of speculation in international media. “In his role as the president’s special adviser, Kushner seems to have decided he can remake the entire Middle East, and he is wreaking his havoc with his new best friend, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman…,” The Guardian said in a report.
Stressing that the Kushner-Mohammed alliance is moving far beyond Riyadh, the report said: “The Saudis and Americans are now privately pushing a new ‘peace’ deal to various Palestinian and Arab leaders that is more lop-sided toward Israel than ever before.”