For much of the rest of the world, this might be a Grant’s Tomb question. In this part of the world, just the mention of Israel’s actual name is a major signal, rather than “the Zionist entity,” the common euphemism used by some of its annihilationist neighbors. Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman — MBS to the cognescenti — told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg that the Israelis have the right to their land, a rather stunning declaration from the hardline Sunni Arab monarchy, even when paired with the same recognition for Palestinians:
“I believe that each people, anywhere, has a right to live in their peaceful nation,” Prince Mohammed told Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic. “I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land. But we have to have a peace agreement to assure the stability for everyone and to have normal relations.”
The establishment of formal relations, he said, would benefit both nations, and their neighbors.
“Israel is a big economy compared to their size and it’s a growing economy, and of course there are a lot of interests we share with Israel — and if there is peace, there would be a lot of interest between Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and countries like Egypt and Jordan,” he said.
Goldberg pushed MBS a little harder on the point, and the prince replied that he has no religious objections to the state of Israel:
Goldberg: You have no religious-based objection to the existence of Israel?
MbS: We have religious concerns about the fate of the holy mosque in Jerusalem and about the rights of the Palestinian people. This is what we have. We don’t have any objection against any other people.
Goldberg: Saudi Arabia has traditionally been a place that has produced a lot of anti-Semitic propaganda. Do you think you have a problem with anti-Semitism in your country?
MbS: Our country doesn’t have a problem with Jews. Our Prophet Muhammad married a Jewish woman. Not just a friend—he married her. Our prophet, his neighbors were Jewish. You will find a lot of Jews in Saudi Arabia coming from America, coming from Europe. There are no problems between Christian and Muslims and Jews. We have problems like you would find anywhere in the world, among some people. But the normal sort of problems.
Their country doesn’t have a problem with Jews? Ahem. Saudi Arabia has traditionally forbidden Israelis to enter their kingdom, even to transit through to another destination. Aside from Jared Kushner, they haven’t been exactly welcoming to Jews of any nation, either. At times, they have hassled non-Jews with Israeli passport stamps on their entry to Saudi Arabia.
So yes, this is a change, and it’s one for an obvious purpose. Saudi Arabia — or at least Prince Mohammed — doesn’t see Israel as a threat to the royal family’s power and existence. The threat comes from Iran, a threat both nations have in common. Goldberg brings it up, but MBS plays it a little soft, but circles back to the threats facing the Saudis later in the interview:
Goldberg: Do you think Iran is bringing you and Israel together? Without Iran, could you imagine a situation in which you had other interests in common with Israel?
MbS: Israel is a big economy compared to their size and it’s a growing economy, and of course there are a lot of interests we share with Israel and if there is peace, there would be a lot of interest between Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and countries like Egypt and Jordan. …
We are in an area not surrounded by Mexico, Canada, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. We have ISIS, al-Qaeda and Hamas and Hezbollah and the Iranian regime, and even pirates. We have pirates that hijack ships. So anything that touches the national security, we cannot risk in Saudi Arabia.
Both Hamas and Hezbollah have strong links to Iran, and even AQ has had some dealings with Tehran at different times. This is just another way to say “the Iranian regime” multiple times without sounding redundant. The Saudis are feeling the squeeze from Tehran and understand that while Israel might not be their cup of tea in religious or political terms, Israel isn’t trying to seize control of the whole region. It’s taken four decades and a power-play move within the House of Saud to recognize the obvious, but at least that has begun to unfold.
The timing bothers al-Jazeera’s analyst, however:
Commenting on the Saudi crown prince’s latest interview in which he asserts, in the context of the Israel-Palestine conflict, that “each people” have “a right to live in their peaceful nation”, Al Jazeera’s Senior Political Analyst Marwan Bishara says such statements are not new per se.
But according to Bishara, what is more important is the timing of Mohammed bin Salman’s statements.
The interview was published by the US-based Atlantic magazine on Monday, just days after 17 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces during a peaceful march at the Gaza border on Land Day.
“Why now, just when the Israelis are saying we don’t want a two-state solution, just as the Israelis are shooting at Palestinians, expanding and increasing settlements, the illegal settlement-building, when the peace process is not going anywhere, when [US President Donald] Trump has just recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and basically dropping it from negotiations?” Bishara asks.
“This is absolutely the worst time ever to be saying things like that.”
Oh, maybe it’s better than Bishara thinks. Palestinian leadership — in both Fatah and Hamas — have tried to use provocations to put pressure on Israel to offer concessions up front in the peace process. Benjamin Netanyahu has largely refused to play along, even when Barack Obama tried to force Netanyahu into doing so. This appears to be a very strong signal from MBS that not only will Saudi Arabia refuse to respond as it has in the past, but that the links between Iran and the Palestinians might make any kind of partnership with the Saudis difficult to maintain.
Prince Mohammed is plainly saying that peace will have to come at the expense of Palestinian dreams of total control of what is now Israel, and that might make life very difficult for Mahmoud Abbas. Along with Trump’s move of the US embassy to Jerusalem, the window for getting any kind of favorable terms appears to be narrowing, which might prompt more effective negotiations than any we’ve seen since Wye River and Oslo. The Sauds want the Palestinian issue off the table in order to focus on the Iranian threat. How that happens seems to matter less to MBS.