Saudi Arabia and the Israel-Palestine conflict: between a rock and a hard place

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks during a meeting with the Russian president at the Kremlin in Moscow on June 14, 2018. Yuri Kadobnov/AFP

In an interview to The Atlantic magazine in April 2018, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed Ben Salman (MBS) declared that Israel has the “right” to its own land alongside the Palestinians and that “there are a lot of interests we share with Israel and if there is peace, there would be a lot of interest between Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries”. This declaration has been considered as a major shift in Saudi Arabia’s diplomacy and the evidence of an assumed rapprochement with Israel.

However, at the same time, the King pledged $200 000 000 aid to the Palestinians and the supervisor general of the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center stated that the Kingdom has provided the Palestinians with aid worth $6 billion since 2000.

Under fire for its military operations in Yemen and its lack of support to the Palestinian cause, Saudi Arabia has tried to portray itself as one of the world’s leading supporters of global humanitarian aid and development, especially to the Palestinians. But despite this generous assistance, the Saudi leadership is conducting an ambivalent strategy towards the Israel-Palestine conflict, reflecting the dichotomy at the head of the Saudi State. While the King is seeking to preserve the traditional pro-Palestinian stance of the Kingdom, the Crown Prince is promoting a more pragmatic and reformist vision. Between the legitimist stance of the father and the hazardous ambitions of the son, Saudi Arabia is playing a risky and ambiguous game with the Palestinians.

MBS’s signs of entente with Israel in the face of a mutual enemy

Unlike Abu Dhabi and Dubai, which host Israeli entrepreneurs, and Manama, which has relations with Tel Aviv through its Jewish community and its associations promoting interreligious dialogue, Saudi Arabia has for a long time remained reluctant to show any sign of detente with Israel. It seems that the situation is gradually changing under the impetus of MBS, who wishes to project the image of economic, political and cultural openness of his country and consolidate his relationship with Washington.

Since his elevation to the position of Crown Prince in June 2017 MBS has cultivated a reformist image, including in its foreign policy by accepting the mediatization of a strategic entente between Tel Aviv, Riyadh and Washington against Tehran. Tel Aviv and Riyadh regard Tehran as a direct threat, given its nuclear program, its ballistic capabilities, and its regional policy of supporting Hezbollah, the Assad regime, Shiite militias in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen. This fear of Iranian regional hegemony was reinforced in 2013 with the provisional agreement of Geneva, then in 2015 with the agreement of Vienna on the Iranian nuclear program. They were fully satisfied on May 8 when US President Donald Trump officially announced the withdrawal of his country from the JCPOA and the vote of new sanctions against Iran.

A pro-Palestine rally organised by the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) takes place outside the embassy of Saudi Arabia in central London on June 10, 2018. Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP

Israel-Saudi Arabia convergence of interests has been staged during public conferences organized by American think tanks with former Israeli and Saudi officials. In June 2015, for instance, at a conference organized by the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, Dore Gold (former director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry) and Anwar Eshki (former Saudi general, director of the Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies in Jeddah) have publicly acknowledged that they have been engaged in dialogue for over a year.

The following year, Anwar Eshki went to Israel and met, under the eyes of the cameras, Dore Gold in her offices in Jerusalem. More recently, at the end of October 2017, at the invitation of Israel’s Jewish Policy Forum, Turki ben Faysal (former director of Saudi intelligence services and former Ambassador to the United States) and Efraim Halevy (former director of Mossad) discussed Iran nuclear deal. These public meetings confirm, on the one hand, the banalization of meetings between former Israeli and Saudi leaders and, on the other hand, the willingness of both parties to bring their views to the heart of the parallel diplomacy channels in Washington.

Furthermore, between ISIS and Iran, Saudi Arabia seeks to be respectable and to attract new investors by breaking with its reputation of obscurantist state funding international terrorism. This rebranding strategy, conducted by MBS, involves signs of moderation, including towards Israel. In April 2018, Riyadh authorized for the first time a foreign airline, Air India, to fly over its territory to make a journey to Israel.

It is no coincidence that this new orientation also includes an ideological reframing, like signs of religious openness, particularly to Judaism. Indeed, the Secretary-General of the World Islamic League was received at the Victory Synagogue in Paris in November 2017. This diplomacy of openness seems to work well with the US and Israeli partners. For Benyamin Netanyahu, the continuum of “moderate Arab States” would go from Cairo to Riyadh via Amman and Abu Dhabi. A club that includes the only two Arab states to have signed a peace treaty with Israel, and the only two Arab states with which Israel today wishes to normalize its relations.

The official stance on the Palestinian issue has not changed since 2002

Few days after his son recognized the right of Israel to a homeland, King Salman called Donald Trump to reaffirm his “positions on the Palestinian cause and the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people to establish their independent state with Jerusalem (Al-Quds) as its capital”. He hosted and named the 29th session of the Arab League meeting the “Summit of Al Quds” and announced a donation of $200 000 000 to the Palestinians. $50 million of this amount will be dedicated to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which has severely suffered from the US freeze of its funding, and $150 million to support the Palestinian Islamic Waqf Program in Jerusalem.

If there is a change in several Arab states’ attitudes toward Israel, the fundamental position of the Kingdom and the Arab league on the Palestinian issue has remained firm for the past 16 years. As the Arab League summit does every year, the 29th summit stressed the importance of a comprehensive, sustainable peace in the Middle East as encapsulated in the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative adopted at the Beirut summit in 2002 and which enjoys the support of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. According to the Arab league’s final communique : “We reaffirm that the Palestine Cause is the entire Arab nation’s main priority, stressing the Arab identity of occupied East al-Quds as the capital of the State of Palestine”. The leaders of the 17 Arab states also underscored that the US decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was illegal. They all opposed the American President’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem and called on the international community to take steps against “Israeli violations and the arbitrary measures that affect Al-Aqsa Mosque and its worshipers”.

Even in his bold interview to the Atlantic on 2 April, MBS was cautious to express support for the “two-state solution” still defended by the Arab and international consensus: “I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land. But we have to have a peace agreement to assure the stability for everyone and to have normal relations”. This sentence was very clear, meaning that even if he would like to develop relations with Israel, nothing substantial might happen before a significant progress on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Therefore, Benyamin Netanyahu is deluding himself if he thinks that he can normalize his relations with Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, while refusing to negotiate and enforcing a violent policy against the Palestinians. As the custodian of the two holy mosques and leader of the Sunni world, Saudi leadership cannot take the risk of breaking with its traditional stance on the Palestinian issue, if nothing is given in exchange by Tel Aviv.

If no longer central, Palestine remains a strategic issue in the Middle East

Following the move of the US embassy and the violence in Gaza, none of the Arab leaders have taken concrete actions against Israel and the American administration, for instance by recalling their ambassadors or stating the end of US mediation in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Most of them refrained from criticizing too directly and vehemently Israel and preferred to support collectively the Arab League’s call on the United Nations and the International Criminal Court to launch investigations into Israeli attack on Gaza protestors.

Palestinians prepare to set fire to portraits of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and US president Donald Trump and an Israeli flag during a protest at the border fence with Israel in Gaza, on April 13, 2018. Thomas Coex/AFP

Following the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the death of nearly 100 Palestinian demonstrators in Gaza shocked Arab public opinions and shed light on Arab leaders’ silence. They are all the more silent as Turkey and Iran are vocal in assuming the role of defenders of the Palestinians. Amid the Israeli military response to the “Great March of Return”, Turkey recalled its official envoy in Israel. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan described Israel as a “terror state” and talked of “massacre”, “genocide” before comparing Israel’ actions against Palestinians with “the methods employed by the Nazis in Europe” during the summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

Locked in a Twitter war with Benyamin Netanyahu, the Turkish President eventually declared: “The fact that Turkey is the country targeted most by Israel, I am the leader targeted most, shows how true and effective this stance is”. During the OIC meeting, Iran’s President Hasan Rohani called on Islamic nations to revise their ties with the US and to cut all ties to Israel as defined as a “racist” and “apartheid state”. The OIC meeting was the second time in six months that Erdogan has tried to rally Muslim leaders for the Palestinian cause. Despite any concrete action, it gave at least the opportunity to non-Arab leaders to set the stage and mock their neighbors for their weak reaction.

Pro-Iran or Iran’s state owned media stand unanimously with the Palestinians as they are taking their anti-Israel rhetoric to the extreme. Not only are they circulating Iranian leaders’ denunciations of Israel’s action, like recently in Gaza, but they are also disseminating disputable news and theories about Israel-Saudi Arabia rapprochement, as exemplified by the alleged letter of Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs Adel Jubeir to MBS in favor of a rapprochement with Israel. Amid the increasing tensions on the nuclear issue, this narrative allows Tehran to portray itself as the leader of the “resistance axis”. That encounters a certain success in Arab opposition movements and public opinions who chide their leaders for their authoritarian policies and subordination to the United States. Hezbollah is also trying to capitalize on the Palestinian issue. In December 2017, Hassan Nasrallah called on the Palestinians to announce the emergence of an intifada and to “kick out any delegation that comes with an intention of normalizing relations with Israel”. In the meantime, the Lebanese Shi’a leader has nurtured the idea that Saudi Arabia and Israel have colluded to attack his movement in Lebanon.

The Palestinian issue remains a strategic and unifying theme in the Middle East, including for Islamists, jihadists, opposition movements, or any marginalized community and minority who feel wronged by the western powers and Israel. Though the Israel-Palestine conflict is not the driver of all conflict in the region, its invocation as a continuing grievance might nurture increasing anger with Arab leadership, including with Saudi Arabia, which is tremendously losing its credibility on that issue. From that perspective, the outrageous pro-Israel diplomacy of Washington and the competition for the leadership of the pro-Palestinian cause in the Middle East are likely to constrain Saudi Arabia’s capacity to get closer to Israel.

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