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Israel ‘at the cusp’ of peace deal with Saudi Arabia, says Netanyahu

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the UN General Assembly an agreement could be reached with the Saudi government.

UN General Assembly

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has told the UN General Assembly that Israel is “at the cusp” of a historic breakthrough leading to a peace agreement with Saudi Arabia.

He struck an optimistic tone throughout his roughly 25-minute address — and once again used a visual aid.

He displayed contrasting maps showing Israel’s isolation at the time of its creation in 1948 and the six countries that have normalised relations with it, including four that did so in 2020 in the so-called Abraham Accords.

“There’s no question the Abraham Accords heralded the dawn of a new age of peace. But I believe that we are at the cusp of an even more dramatic breakthrough, an historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia,” Mr Netanyahu said. “Peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia will truly create a new Middle East.”

UN General Assembly
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu uses a red marker on a map (Richard Drew/AP)

There are several hurdles in the way of such an agreement, including the Saudis’ demand for progress in the creation of a Palestinian state — a hard sell for Mr Netanyahu’s government, the most religious and nationalist in Israel’s history.

The Saudis are also seeking a defence pact with the United States and want help in building their own civilian nuclear programme, which has fuelled fears of an arms race with Iran.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in an interview with Fox News this week that the two sides are getting closer to an agreement, without providing much detail about the US-led negotiations. He declined to specify what exactly the Saudis are seeking for the Palestinians.

Mr Netanyahu said the Palestinians “could greatly benefit from a broader peace”, saying: “They should be part of that process, but they should not have a veto over the process.”

Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians broke down more than a decade ago, and violence has soared over the past year and a half, with Israel carrying out frequent military raids in the occupied West Bank and Palestinians attacking Israelis.

Mr Netanyahu’s government has approved thousands of new settlement homes in the West Bank, which Israel captured in the 1967 war and which the Palestinians want for the main part of their future state.

UN General Assembly
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas addressed the UN earlier this week (Richard Drew/AP)

Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, who addressed the General Assembly on Thursday, made no direct reference to efforts to reach a normalisation agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia but he reiterated the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has only worsened since the Abraham Accords were signed.

“Those who think that peace can prevail in the Middle East without the Palestinian people enjoying their full and legitimate national rights are mistaken,” Mr Abbas said.

Mr Netanyahu has often seemed to revel in using the podium of the General Assembly to lambast Israel’s enemies.

He famously held up a picture of a cartoon bomb in 2012 to illustrate Iran’s advancing uranium enrichment. In 2020, he claimed Hezbollah was stockpiling explosives near Beirut’s airport, prompting the Iran-allied militant group to organise an immediate visit by journalists, who saw heavy machinery but no weapons.

The map he held up this year made no reference to the West Bank, Gaza or east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in 1967 that the Palestinians want for their future state. The map appeared to show Israel encompassing all three.

UN General Assembly
The assembly was largely empty (Mary Altaffer/AP)

The chamber was largely empty during his address, though there was a group of Netanyahu supporters who clapped several times during his speech. Protesters and supporters of Mr Netanyahu demonstrated across the street from the UN headquarters.

Netanyahu referred to the cartoon bomb when he held up the maps, pulling out a red marker and drawing a line showing a planned trade corridor stretching from India through the Middle East to Europe. The ambitious project, unveiled at this month’s Group of 20 summit, would link Saudi Arabia to Israel.

He also reprised his long-standing criticism of Iran, which Israel views as its greatest threat. Mr Netanyahu referred to Iran’s crackdown on protests, its supplying of attack drones to Russia for use in Ukraine, and its military activities across the Middle East.

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