How Israel Is Triggering a Royal Civil War in Saudi Arabia

Prof. Elie Podeh December 2020

Two weeks after Netanyahu’s surprising meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, Turki al-Faisal, a prominent Saudi prince close to the ruling royals, lambasted Israel as a “Western colonizing” power, accusing it of incarcerating Palestinians “in concentration camps under the flimsiest of security accusations” and “assassinat[ing] whomever they want.”

Turki’s declarations, made at the Manama Security Dialogue in Bahrain, came as a blow to Israeli foreign minister Gabi Ashkenazi, who spoke immediately afterwards, and tried to sweep away the discomfort by expressing “regret” that Turki had expressed sentiments out of sync with “the spirit and the changes taking place in the Middle East.”

His comments stand in sharp contrast to recent statements made by another former high-ranking Saudi official, Bandar bin Sultan, who vehemently attacked the Palestinian leadership for their “reprehensible” opposition to Israel Gulf normalization.

Turki belongs to the school of King Salman, adhering to the traditional Saudi view, as expressed in the Arab Peace Initiative which Riyadh initiated, that normalization with Israel must be part of a reciprocal process. In this view, Saudi recognition of Israel rests on the establishment of a Palestinian state within 1967 borders, East Jerusalem as its capital, and an agreed upon solution of the Palestinian refugee problem.

As the custodian of Islam’s holy sites, Mecca and Medina, that in non-COVID years draw some two million Muslim pilgrims annually, King Salman has no interest in a diplomatic move that could weaken Saudi Arabia’s preeminent leadership status by alienating substantial numbers of Muslims worldwide – and would also result in dramatic economic repercussions.

In contrast, his son, Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman is willing to move more quickly on the normalization issue, and seems far less tied to the Arab Peace Initiative criteria. It is still unclear what price he is demanding for recognition, though he certainly wants to wipe away the stain of the assassination of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi and to be offered a substantial U.S. arms deal, eclipsing the F-35s and drones deal that the UAE clinched.

The internal Saudi conflict on the Palestinian issue should not obscure the fact that Saudi Arabia’s rapprochement with Israel is a consummation of a long process, and it was not solely triggered by the emergence of Iran as a hegemonic power in the Gulf.

In fact, the Saudi shift on Israel began right after the 1967 war, when it tacitly recognized Israel within the 1967 borders. In the 1970s, Crown Prince (and later King) Fahd tried at least twice to reach out to Israel, but his envoys were rebuffed, and for inadequate reasons. The Saudis wanted to buy advanced weapons from the U.S., like F-16 fighter planes, and the goal of their outreach was to assure Israel that their military technology would not constitute a threat to the Jewish state.

In 1981, Fahd became the first Arab leader to propose a peace
initiative for the resolution of the Israeli-Arab conflict. Saudi-Western contacts indicated privately that despite the vague language of the initiative, it did indeed actually constitute a groundbreaking Saudi recognition of Israel. Israel rejected the initiative outright.

Some 20 years on, in February 2002, at the height of the Palestinian intifada, Crown Prince (and later King) Abdullah issued a second peace initiative, which became known as the API. Regrettably, Israel has never officially responded to the initiative; some politicians (Ehud Olmert, Shimon Peres and others) responded favorably in private, but those murmurs could not cover up one of the greatest failures of Israeli statesmanship.

Iran’s emergence as a military and nuclear threat in the Gulf catalyzed yet another attempt by the kingdom to seek inroads to Israel. However, it took the Second Lebanon War (2006) to accelerate the behind-the-scenes cooperation.

s leader of the Muslim-Sunni world, Saudi Arabia looked on with concern as Iran’s Shiite leaders sought regional hegemony using various proxies, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the newly-established Shiite regime in Iraq, following the 2003 U.S. invasion.

Then-Israeli Prime Minister Olmert, accompanied by Mossad Chief Meir Dagan, met Bandar bin Sultan in 2006, who served as head of the National Security Council. Bandar has had a long history of meetings with Israelis and This marked the start of clandestine Israeli- Saudi cooperation, which even spawned a secret 2010 visit by Dagan to Saudi Arabia for a meeting with his counterparts.

The Saudis did not, though, forge their ties with Israel at the expense of the relations with the Palestinians. In fact, the Saudis had been mediating between the PLO and the U.S. since the 1970s, in an unsuccessful bid to draw the Palestinians into the diplomatic process. Their two peace initiatives were designed to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and thereby achieve stability in the Middle East.

The Saudis also donated large sums of money to the coffers of Fatah, the leading faction within the PLO. Saudi journalist Wafa al-Rashed claims the Saudis donated $800 million to the Palestinians between 1994 and 2008; the royal advisor and head of the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief  Center, Abdullah Al-Rabeeah, claims Saudi Arabia gave $6 billion in aid to the Palestinians since 2000.

One can therefore understand the Saudi disappointment with its inability to leverage this financial boon for tangible diplomatic achievements.

The conflict within the royal house regarding the Palestinian issue means that Israel’s normalization train will not stop at Riyadh, at least not for now. The Saudis want to wait and see the position of the Biden administration with regard to the Iranian nuclear deal before moving ahead. This means that Israeli-Saudi contacts will still be mostly held behind closed doors; even the Netanyahu-MBS meeting was supposed to be kept secret, but Israel leaked it.

However, normalization can’t be put back in the bottle. When the timing and circumstances are right, the normalization train will stop at Riyadh too. But Israel will have to pay a price, and in Palestinian currency.

After his intemperate analogies, Prince Turki alFaisal circled back to the Arab Peace Initiative: “You cannot treat an open wound with palliatives and painkillers; the Abraham Accords can only succeed if the Arab Peace Initiative is revived.”

But despite Turki’s protestations, the Arab Peace Initiative – nearly two decades after it was launched, and ten years since the Arab Spring – is overly vague and no longer t for purpose.

For Saudi Arabia and Israel to finally consummate their courtship, ensuring the buy-in both of all the Saudi royal factions and of the bulk of the Muslim world, there needs to be a joint Gulf-Israel-America peace initiative, which would serve as a stepping stone for a diplomatic breakthrough between Israel and the Palestinians, and consequently between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The only question is whether the parties are ready for such a venture.

**The article was publish on Haaretz, 7 December 2020

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