March 17, 2023 | The Jerusalem Post

Could the Saudi-Iranian deal lead to peace with Israel?

Saudi Arabia’s appointment of a new information (media) minister hinted that the kingdom was getting closer to bilateral peace with Israel.
March 17, 2023 | The Jerusalem Post

Could the Saudi-Iranian deal lead to peace with Israel?

Saudi Arabia’s appointment of a new information (media) minister hinted that the kingdom was getting closer to bilateral peace with Israel.

A joint trilateral Saudi-Iranian-Chinese statement surprised the world and prompted speculation that Riyadh might be switching sides, abandoning America and joining the anti-Western axis. Dragging its feet in welcoming Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen to a United Nations conference further substantiated such a hypothesis.

But exchanging pledges of mutual non-intervention with Iran can also suggest that Saudi Arabia is still preparing for possible normalization with Israel. Many Saudis are already moving in this direction. After all, if the Saudis sue for peace with Israel, the last thing they want is to have an antagonistic Iran instigating against them.

Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia’s appointment of a new information (media) minister hinted that the kingdom was getting closer to bilateral peace with Israel. Salman Aldosary is known for his support of the Abraham Accords for peace between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, accords that the Biden administration has promised to expand but has yet to invest enough time and political capital to make peace happen.

Aldosary is a columnist and an influential voice on social media. His support of a Saudi First policy, including bilateral Saudi peace with Israel, has won him enemies from the anti-peace camp. Aldosary, however, has not been a lone voice. Last year, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, known by his acronym MBS, said he did not believe Israel was Riyadh’s enemy but a potential ally.

Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian cause

Saudi Arabia has been the biggest supporter of Palestinians since before the establishment of Israel in 1948. When the kingdom’s founder Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saudi met with US president Franklin D. Roosevelt, aboard USS Quincy in the Red Sea in 1945, the Saudi king demanded that Jews in Palestine be settled elsewhere.

Since 1948, Riyadh has contributed billions of dollars to Palestinian refugees, military organizations and starting in 1993, the Palestinian Authority (PA). Between 2000 and 2020, Saudi Arabia spent $6.5 billion (NIS 23.7 b.) on Palestinians.

But Saudi unlimited support has only bought Palestinian ungratefulness and at times, downright hate. After the Abraham Accords were announced in August 2020, Palestinians in Gaza and Ramallah burned pictures, not only of the leaders of the UAE and Bahrain but also of Saudi King Salman and MBS.

Since then, many Palestinian pundits and activists have been accusing Saudi Arabia of betraying the cause, even though the Saudis have said repeatedly and as late as January that their peace with Israel is incumbent on the establishment of a Palestinian state. Last month, the Palestinian delegation at the Asian Football Confederation abstained from voting in favor of Saudi Arabia’s hosting Asia Cup 2027, sparking an angry Saudi Arabian reaction against the Palestinian cause.

While the Saudi Arabian government has practiced self-restraint by not reciprocating Palestinian hate, Saudi Arabian columnists, cartoonists and social media activists have been punching back. After the burning of the pictures of Saudi Arabian leaders, Aldosary wrote that with their aggression against Saudi Arabia, the Palestinians “have liberated the kingdom from any ethical or political commitment to these parties in the future.”

ALDOSARY ADDED that Saudi Arabian policies were not “based on what the audience expects,” taking a jab at the populism of Qatar and its firebrand satellite channel Al Jazeera. Saudi Arabia, according to Aldosary, “makes its decisions based on its national interests and those of its people, first, second and 10th.”

After the Abraham Accords, representatives from all Palestinian factions held a meeting in Beirut in which they denounced the Gulf, prompting the Gulf Countries Council (GCC) to demand a Palestinian apology. In another one of his editorials, Aldosary wrote that Gulf countries should not be blamed for giving up on “a cause abandoned by its own people,” arguing that “a Palestinian apology cannot fix relations… that have been broken for good.”

Aldosary also said that he agreed with PA Chairman Mahmud Abbas that even though they signed peace with Israel, neither the UAE nor Bahrain spoke on behalf of Palestinians. “By the same token,” according to Aldosary, Palestinian leaders did not have any right to speak on behalf of the Emiratis or the Bahrainis or decide which policies served the interests of the two Gulf nations.

For his call to put national Gulf interests ahead of Palestinian ones, Aldosary’s appointment as minister angered advocates of perpetual conflict with Israel. “Asharq Alawsat [daily paper] was at the peak of its Zionism when Salman Aldosary was its editor-in-chief,” Tweeted a Saudi opposition account with 1.1 million followers.

But Aldosary was not alone in fighting back. Saudi cartoonist Fahd Aljubairi posted a drawing that depicted six characters sobbing as they watched the news about the appointment of Aldosary. The shirt of one of them, a goat, had on it a picture of Jerusalem with the hashtag “Normalization is betrayal,” a slogan used by anti-peace activists who call for boycotting Israel.

While Riyadh still conditions its peace with Israel on Palestinian statehood, the general Saudi Arabian mood – from MBS to Aldosary and Aljubairi – seems to be shifting. Under MBS, Saudi Arabia has abandoned its dogmatic policies and replaced them with more realistic ones, prioritizing Saudi interests over anything else, including the Palestinian cause.

Saudi First has been Riyadh’s policy in Lebanon, an Iranian satellite state ungrateful for Saudi Arabia’s enormous support over the past decades. After investing tens of billions of dollars to prevent the collapse of the Lebanese economy and state, Saudi Arabia reasoned that Lebanon is a lost cause. In 2018, MBS cut Saudi Arabian losses and folded.

In its relations with Palestinians, too, Saudi Arabia has nothing to show for its huge investment in money and diplomacy. Why Riyadh has not yet cut the Palestinians loose – like it did the Lebanese – is anybody’s guess. When Saudi abandons its outdated policy on the Palestinians, peace with Israel will logically be the next step.

The writer is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. Follow Hussain on Twitter @hahussain.


Arab Politics Gulf States Iran Iran Global Threat Network Israel Lebanon Palestinian Politics