Driven by succession plans and a strategy to confront Iran’s influence in the Arab region, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) has engaged in several taboo-breaking steps. These include the arrest of dozens of princes and ministers and a process of normalising relations, at least partially, with Israel.
But taking concrete measures to end the Arab boycott of Israel, without reaching a just solution to the Palestinian issue first, will be detrimental to both Palestine and Saudi Arabia.
On Thursday, the Israeli army’s chief-of-staff, Gadi Eizenkot, gave the first-ever interview to a Saudi news outlet, saying that Israel is ready to share intelligence with Saudi Arabia on Iran. Also for the first time, Israel co-sponsored with Saudi Arabia a resolution against Syria in the UN Human Rights Council last week. Furthermore, Israeli Communications Minister Ayoub Kara extended a warm invitation to Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti, Abdul Aziz Al Sheikh, to visit Israel for what he said were his friendly comments about the country.
To “legitimise” steps taken to normalise relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia summoned Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to Riyadh last week, to convince him to accept a peace plan put forward by US President Donald Trump’s special adviser, Jared Kushner. Saudi-Israeli collaboration is an integral part of that plan. According to the New York Times, the proposal could include, among other normalisation measures, “overflights by Israeli passenger planes, visas for business people, and telecommunication links” with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the UAE.
If MBS proceeds with the plan, he risks Saudi Arabia’s leading position in the Islamic world being delegitimised.
Abbas’ cooperation is essential for Saudi-Israeli normalisation to proceed; without it, the Saudi move would be seen as a betrayal to the Arab and Muslim position on Palestine. Although not much has been revealed about what really happened during Abbas’ visit to Riyadh, some reports talk about the Saudi leadership pressuring Abbas to accept whatever plan Kushner puts forward, or to resign.
Abbas is in an unenviable position, as pressure on him is likely to increase when Kushner’s plan is released in the not-so-distant future. He needs Saudi and US financial support for the Palestinian Authority (PA) to continue to function.
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However, the Kushner deal will not do even minimum justice to the Palestinian national project. While the deal offers strategic gains to Israel, such as ending a Saudi Arab boycott, it offers only tactical gains for the Palestinians, such as financial assistance, prisoners’ release, and a silent, partial freeze of settlement activities outside the large settlement blocs.
The Kushner deal will practically fragment the Saudi-sponsored 2002 Arab Peace Plan that offered Israel full normalisation in return for full withdrawal from Arab lands occupied in 1967. By pressuring Abbas to accept the deal, the Saudi leadership is undermining its own initiative, accepting to partially normalise relations with Israel in exchange for an alliance against Iran.
Moreover, the Saudi normalisation plan is likely to further complicate internal Palestinian reconciliation. Aiming to end Iranian influence in Gaza, Saudi Arabia’s close ally, Egypt, brokered – or as some view it, dictated – Palestinian reconciliation that resulted in Hamas surrendering power to the Palestinian Authority.
To pressure Abbas further, Saudi Arabia reportedly summoned his bitter enemy, Mohammed Dahlan, to Riyadh at the same time he was there. The purpose of the move was supposedly to have the two discuss Fatah’s internal “reconciliation”. In other words, Saudi Arabia brought Dahlan into the scene in case the PA president rejects the Kushner deal. In what could be interpreted as a sign of resistance to the Saudi pressure, some commentators in the West Bank and Gaza observed that upon his return to Ramallah, Abbas started cracking down on Dahlan’s supporters.
Just a few days later, another blow was dealt to the PA. On Sunday, the US administration announced that the license of the PLO office in Washington will not be renewed – this could not be a mere coincidence. In fact, it might be another strong sign that Abbas continues to resist Saudi-US pressure. In line with this argument, Mohammad Shtayyeh, Fatah Central Committee member and one of the candidates to succeed Abbas, told me, “Reconciliation will not be a railway for a regional political project at the expense of the Palestinian cause.”
Saudi’s demands have put the Palestinian president is a very difficult position, as his people would overwhelmingly reject the stipulations of the Kushner deal. This situation is reminiscent of his predecessor, Yasser Arafat’s, dilemma at Camp David in 2000, when he faced US pressure to accept Ehud Barak’s plan offering partial Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza. Immediately after the Camp David Accords, Arafat was sidelined and, two years later, died mysteriously. To what extent Abbas will be able to resist US-Saudi pressure and hang on to his presidency is yet to be seen.
What is clear, however, is that Saudi Arabia will proceed with its normalisation efforts with Israel, with or without Abbas. The way MBS is managing succession at home and escalation with Iran abroad suggests that he is up for making radical decisions.
But his move on Israel might not work as well as some of his other bold policies have. In fact, he might end up shooting himself in the foot. Pushing through with the Kushner deal would mean acting against the consensus of Arab and Muslim countries, which reject normalisation with Israel without a fair and just solution to the Palestinian cause.
Saudi Arabia might receive support from countries like the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and Jordan, but not from the rest of the 57 Muslim-majority member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Kuwait, for example, is already holding anti-normalisation activities at home.
If MBS proceeds with the plan, he risks Saudi Arabia’s leading position in the Islamic world being delegitimised. His father, King Salman, the Custodian of the two Holy Mosques, will appear to be conceding on the third holiest site for Muslims – al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. If he normalises relations with Israel, MBS will be giving Tehran the strongest hand to play against Riyadh, in Iran’s efforts to delegitimise Saudi Arabia in the Muslim world.