The Saudis Exit the Conflict With Israel, but the Palestinians Remain
Though he added that the Saudis also care about the rights of Palestinians and the fate of “the holy mosque in Jerusalem,” the message that the prince was sending to Muslims and Arabs was loud and clear: Saudi Arabia, which has styled itself the defender of Islamic holy sites and thus the self-styled moral leader of the Arab and Muslim world, has declared that the long war against Zionism is over.
That’s good news for Israel and for the United States, which wants friendly relations between two of its most important allies, especially in the context of the Iranian threat. This shouldn’t be treated, however, as the harbinger of a peace agreement that will end the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians.
Why? Because the reason for the conflict has little to do with Israel or the Saudis, and everything to do with the Palestinians.
While important, it should also be understood what the statement from the Saudi prince — popularly known as “MbS” — doesn’t mean. His comments shouldn’t be confused with a formal recognition of the Jewish state. Nor should we imagine that the Saudis will not continue to be something of a contradiction. For example, they are at one and the same time a close ally of the West while also being the primary sponsor of Wahhabism: a particularly militant form of Islam that is closely identified with the Saudi ruling family. It has helped inspire violent radicals who have, ironically, become a major thorn in the side of the kingdom.
Unlike his more traditional father King Salman, MbS, who appears to wield the real power in Riyadh, is something of a reformer. Under his leadership, the kingdom is trying to respond to the challenges of the 21st century by opening its archaic Islamist society up to certain changes, such as allowing women to drive. However, as the prince made clear to Goldberg, Saudi Arabia will remain an absolute monarchy.
It’s also true that Saudi outreach to Israel is not entirely new.
The Saudis put forth a proposal in 2002 that called for recognition of Israel and an end to the conflict. But that so-called Arab peace initiative had its flaws. Initially, it linked peace to the “right of return” for descendants of Palestinian Arab refugees from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Since then, the Saudis have dropped that condition, making it more acceptable to Israel. The proposal also remains a talking point for some on the Jewish left who insist that there is a peace offer on the table that Israel hasn’t embraced.
That isn’t true. Israel has informally discussed the initiative with the Saudis for years. However, the explanation for the failure of the plan and the motivation for the crown prince’s latest Western charm offensive rests primarily with the failure of the Palestinians to take the hint with respect to Israel.
Since 2002, Israel has made several attempts at peace and all have run aground against Palestinian rejectionism. In 2005, Israel withdrew from Gaza. In 2008, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas a state in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza, and part of Jerusalem. Abbas walked away from that offer and torpedoed subsequent negotiations sponsored by the United States during which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered another withdrawal from the West Bank.
Since then, Abbas has refused to negotiate. At the same time, the Palestinian Authority incites hatred against Israel and Jews in its media and schools on a daily basis. It also continues to subsidize terrorists.
The Saudis have grown closer to Israel as a result of President Obama’s appeasement of Iran, which frightened them even more than it did Israel. Just as important, the Palestinians have made it clear to the Trump administration that they won’t consider any new peace plan. This is in spite of the fact that, like the plans that have preceded it from previous administrations, the effort to achieve what Trump calls the “ultimate deal” will likely involve more Israeli retreats and a Palestinian state.
The key event preceding the Saudi crown prince’s statement came earlier this year when, in the aftermath of the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Abbas journeyed to Riyadh. He was reportedly met with a Saudi demand that Abbas accept the United States’ offer of a two-state solution. The Saudi’s even offered Abbas major financial support if he were willing to make peace and become part of an anti-Iran alliance.
Abbas’ reply was that no Palestinian leader could accept such a deal. He is more interested in competing with Hamas. That is why he has supported Hamas’ violent riots along the Gaza border, which are intended to promote the idea of the “right of return” — synonymous with Israel’s destruction — as the most important Palestinian demand.
So when MbS spoke of a Jewish right to a “land,” he wasn’t so much speaking to Trump or Netanyahu. Rather, it was a message to Abbas, Hamas, and the Palestinian people. It means that that if the Palestinians are determined to persist in their century-old war on Zionism, they can do it without any help from the Saudis.
As the prince made clear, Palestinian refusal means Israel-Saudi relations will remain warm, but under the table. That probably suits the Saudis just fine. They are too conscious of their role as guardian of the Muslim holy places and the standing it gives them in the Islamic world to have “normal relations” with the Jewish state.
The Saudi peace initiative is a dead letter not because Israel said no to it, but because the Palestinians still won’t recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state within any borders whatsoever. As long as the Palestinians won’t give up their dreams of “return,” even a royal pronouncement, like that of MbS, won’t end the conflict.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — the Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter @jonathans_tobin.