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Are the Saudis Trading ‘Palestine’ for Israel?

March 15, 2018

by: Joshua Spurlock, The Mideast Update

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Photo by EBPhoto/shutterstock.com

The State of Palestine without Jerusalem. It was bold. It was shocking. And it reportedly was suggested by the Saudis. The Kingdom that is home to the two holiest sites in Islam and even calls its king the “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” was apparently willing to drop the demand that the Dome of the Rock be part of Palestine, according to a report by The New York Times last December. Jerusalem is not mentioned in the Quran, and the Saudis were willing for it to be virtually left out of a State of Palestine as well. Technically the Saudis allegedly suggested Abu Dis, a Jerusalem suburb, as the Palestinian capital—but that’s not the Old City.

Of course supporters of Israel have long struggled with the thought of biblical Jerusalem being taken from the Jews and given to the Arabs, but why would the Saudis have taken such a position? In short, it has to do with an “I”: Iran, and one very important “T”: Trump.

 Not Needing Palestine

At one time, the Saudis and other regional dictators needed the Palestinians. Analysts would point to their ability to use the Palestinian cause as a distraction from their own troubles. In essence, the message from these Arab leaders to their people was, “Don’t pay attention to how your kings and presidents are abusing power; get mad at Israel because the Palestinians don’t have a state!” Conveniently left out is the fact that multiple Arab nations kept the Palestinians in paltry refugee camps rather than let them integrate into society—a status that is worse than the situation for the Palestinians in Israel.

But for the Saudis, things have changed: interior threats of revolution are nowhere near as dangerous as the external threats from Iran. The New York Times article that broke the news about the Saudis’ supposed suggestion for a reduced Palestinian state also noted the Saudis are having lots of regional troubles. This makes them needier of friends than at any time in recent memory. They are battling rebels in Yemen—and having rockets launched at their territory in response. Who is supporting those rebels and arming them with weapons, including a missile that was aimed at the international airport in Saudi’s capital of Riyadh? Iran. If that wasn’t bad enough, they haven’t been able to win that war in Yemen.

Furthermore, the Saudis are trying to wield power in the region against Qatar and in Lebanon against Hezbollah—both moves trying to counter Iranian influence—and they’re failing. So with their efforts to be a power-player in the Middle East faltering, they need a friend. Even if that friend is an old enemy and the new relationship comes at the expense of a supposed friend in the Palestinians.

 Needing Israel

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (Photo credit: Mazan AIDarrab/wikimedia.org)

The Jerusalem “step back” by the Saudis may have stunned some, but one regional veteran doesn’t think it stops there. Yaacov Nagal, former national security advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told The Telegraph last November that the Saudis actually don’t care at all about the details of a Palestinian–Israeli peace plan as long as a deal can be achieved. Why? To get closer to Israel as they jointly battle the Islamic Republic of Iran. The New York Times article also cited officials and analysts who believe that the Saudis primarily want to solidify their friendship with Israel in order to fight against Iran.

For years, the Saudis and Israelis have had a secret relationship of cooperation, but that apparently isn’t enough anymore. In order to get closer, the thinking in places such as The Telegraph article is that the Saudis need at least a technical Israeli–Palestinian accord as cover against Arab criticism. But the Israelis can sense the desire to grow closer, even if it’s quiet. Netanyahu has repeatedly been saying that unnamed Arab nations see Israel as an ally against the real enemies.

In a December visit to France, Netanyahu’s office released his statement that “Many of the Arab countries now recognize that Israel is not their enemy but their indispensable ally in fighting the twin sources of militant Islam and its terror: the Sunnis led by Daesh [ISIS], and militant Shiites led by Iran.” And Israel isn’t the only ally Saudi Arabia needs.


Needing Trump

United States President Donald Trump wants to broker a historic Israeli–Palestinian peace deal and during a visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel last year discussed generically his desire for broad cooperation against terrorism. That has raised questions about whether the Saudis may need to work in line with Trump’s goals to stay in his good graces. One Lebanese official hinted that appeasement of Trump might be part of the Saudis’ Palestinian approach in that New York Times article, and others cited by the article were wondering if it was a favor to Trump.

Of course, the Americans denied the report that the Trump peace plan is a much-reduced Palestine and the issue is obviously sensitive. The Mideast Update contacted the White House press office to ask about the importance of the Saudis in the Israeli–Palestinian peace process and the counterterrorism benefits of Israel–Saudi peace. However, the White House did not respond.

Trump is very loyal to his friends and is willing to take major risks on their behalf, as seen by his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. But his political life has also indicated that he is quick to go from friend to enemy when he feels betrayed. The Saudis—who rely on America for militaristic and diplomatic support—can’t afford to upset Trump now.

What they apparently can afford is to shock the Palestinians. Netanyahu believes that Iran’s aggression is changing the region. A day when the Saudis trade “Palestine” for help from Israel and America is change—welcome change—indeed.

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