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Is Saudi Arabia Close to Making Peace With Israel?

10-12-2020
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Pilgrims walk around the Kabba at the Grand Mosque, in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Friday, July 31, 2020.  (Saudi Ministry of Media via AP)
Pilgrims walk around the Kabba at the Grand Mosque, in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Friday, July 31, 2020. (Saudi Ministry of Media via AP)

JERUSALEM, Israel – The recent comments by a Saudi official condemning Palestinians for repeatedly missing opportunities to make peace with Israel and end the decades-old conflict has left many in the Middle east wondering if Saudi Arabia will be the next country to openly normalize ties with Israel.

Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia’s Former intel chief and longtime ambassador to the US, said in a bombshell interview with Al-Arabiya TV that Palestinian foreign policy has failed, and the Palestinian leaders’ decision to lambast the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain for signing historic diplomatic deals with Israel is “unacceptable.”

“This low level of discourse is not what we expect from officials who seek to gain global support for their cause. Their transgression against the Gulf States' leadership with this reprehensible discourse is entirely unacceptable,” he said.

Saudi Arabia has not directly commented on the details of the Israel-UAE deal but has long held that it will not officially normalize ties with the Jewish State until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved.

However, analysts say Bin Sultan’s criticism of the Palestinian leadership marks a key shift in how the Saudi Kingdom views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and some suspect the kingdom is inching closer to the Jewish State. 

“The interview with Prince Bandar with Al Arabiya was a breakthrough.  It was a ground-shaking interview.  Because what you have is a former, very senior Saudi official, not current but very well respected and he blasted in no uncertain terms the current leadership of the Palestinian Authority and particularly Mahmoud Abbas," explained Middle East expert Joel Rosenberg. 

Rosenberg has led several delegations of evangelical leaders to the Gulf States and has met with Saudi leaders. He cited a recent poll conducted by James Zogby, founder of Zogby Research Services and president of the Arab-American Institute, revealing that most Arabs in Saudi Arabia are receptive to normalization with Israel. 

The poll found that 79% of Saudis would support peace and full normalization of relations with the Jewish State if Israel accepts the terms of the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative from 2002. 

Author and researcher Dr. Najat Al Saeed told reporters on Monday that unlike the UAE and Bahrain, Saudi Arabia holds a special status in the region, and it has many factors to consider before it can normalize ties with Israel.

Saudi Arabia is responsible not only to its own people, but also the roughly 1.7 billion Muslims who dutifully face its direction every day to pray. Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam and the home to two of the holiest cities in that religion – Mecca, the birthplace of the Prophet Mohammad – and Medina.

“The Saudi Arabian decision is different than any other country. It’s not only a matter of a country and its people like the UAE and Bahrain. It’s more than that because of its weight in the region,” Dr. Saeed explained.

A Saudi decision to normalize ties with Israel must capture the approval of its own people and the Muslim world. To do this they must first overcome years of hostilities the Muslim world has had with the Jewish State – and that cannot happen overnight.

However, Dr. Saeed believes Bin Sultan’s comments signal that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region have lost their patience with Palestinian leaders and they are starting to openly question whether unconditional support for the Palestinian cause does more harm than good to the region.

“There were a lot of frustrations felt by [Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman] and the Saudi government from the lost opportunities by the Palestinian Authority,” Dr. Saeed explained.

She said Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States are more focused on their own interests than championing a Palestinian cause it considers just but woefully defective. The Saudi public, especially the youth who haven’t grown up with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are more concerned with domestic issues like employment and education than the conflict of their grandparents.

Saudi Arabia is also frustrated with the Palestinian leaders’ close relationships with Iran, Turkey, and Qatar – countries the kingdom considers enemies.

“Who are the allies of the Palestinians now? Is it Iran, which is using the Palestinian cause as a bargaining card at the expense of the Palestinian people? Iran and Khomeini, who want to liberate Jerusalem through Yemen, Lebanon, and Syria?” Bin Sultan said during his Al-Arabiya interview.

“Or is it Turkey, which Hamas leaders have thanked for its stance in support of Hamas and the Palestinian cause? That is simply because Erdogan announced that he was withdrawing his ambassador from the UAE in support of the Palestinian cause,” Bin Sultan added.

Saudi Arabia is also concerned about what warm ties with Israel could mean for its own security. Dr. Saeed explained that the kingdom knows a diplomatic agreement will inflame the wrath of its enemies in the region.

Despite the many challenges Saudi Arabia faces, she believes normalization with Israel is possible, but it first starts with changing mindsets about the conflict. It is apparent that this is already happening due to leaders like Bin Sultan who are publicly voicing their anger with the Palestinians.

“I have confidence in the Saudi Arabian diplomacy. I believe if they want something, they can do it,” said Dr. Saeed.

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