Saudi Arabia has been a crucial ally to the Palestinian struggle for statehood, supporting with diplomacy and finance essentially since the cause commenced in the early twentieth century. It comes as some surprise then that it might weaken its commitment with such a long standing cause for justice.
Saudi Arabia has yet to enter “normalization” agreements with Israel by establishing diplomatic ties. But recent warming by other Gulf states to the State of Israel must take into account significant influence Saudi Arabia has in the region. This would likely have prevented the Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and possibly Morocco as well – nations with which former President Trump’s facilitation have normalized in 2020 – from establishing relations with Israel, at least without implicit permission.
What support for Israel has grown and what support has changed for the Palestinian cause? Using reference to diplomatic events by Saudi and Palestinian officials, this article examines the distinction made between forms of advocacy by Palestinian and Israeli leaders. A significant reliance on the statements of state officials and actors reflects as evidence; so this position will attempt to connect regional policies and assess trends of foreign political advocacy.
Shift in power, shift in patience
Saudi diplomats have advocated the declaration of an independent Arab state in the United Nations since before British mandate of Palestine. Expectedly, the administration did not hesitate to stand behind Palestinian leaders who rejected a converse two-state solution in 1947 of separate Jewish and Arab states. The State of Israel proceeded to establish its sovereignty. Palestinians now advocate for the borders established in the UN Resolution, but the nations that have observed a tendency towards promises and agreements unkept are unsure whether attempts to return to those agreements would be successful now.
We also see monetary support from Saudi Arabia dating up to today, with over $6 billion granted to the Palestinian Authority in just the last 20 years; the Saudi’s fall only behind the United States as the biggest financiers of the Palestinians. In turn, Palestinian leaders have used the support to fund their various methods of advocacy, some of which their foreign supporters do not condone or do not see as beneficial to the cause.
Though Saudi support does not weaken quickly, acceptance of Israel has crept into policy. Instead of blanket directive towards Palestinian sovereignty, there is vocal support for bringing both sides of the Palestine-Israel conflict to a negotiating table instead of denying Israel sovereign rights. Rumors of covert contact between Saudi Arabia and Israelis in recent decades has been sustained by Israeli acknowledgement of such, though the Saudis have denied this is the case.
In 2018, a published interview of Prince Mohammed bin Salman marked the first time a Saudi royal publicly expressed acceptance of Israel’s right to exist – a pan-Arab agreement around the turn of the century committed states to denying Israel’s statehood and divesting from any interaction until a Palestinian state is established. But Saudi and Israeli interests have begun to overlap with joint concern for Iran’s increasing presence supporting extremism throughout the Middle East.
The common threat of Iran would not be enough to thaw relations completely nor to reverse the Saudi stance. As a backbone of the Muslim world, it will not give in to Israeli sovereignty of Islamic heritage sites. The Saudi king expressed dissent through state-run media in the wake of President Trump’s embassy move to Jerusalem, calling it a “a dangerous step that provokes the feelings of Muslims around the world.”
Many worldwide opposed Trump’s embassy move, claiming it broke long-standing US policy to withhold the event as incentive for Israel to work with Palestine; others commended Trump for acting on a promise made by generations of US Presidents. Indeed Trump’s policy towards Israel and Palestine has visibly favored Israel; normalization agreements are being pushed forward with various Arab nations, sometimes at the cost of relinquishing stance on other political conflicts. Sudan was coerced into normalization with Israel by promise of being removed from the US State sponsors of Terrorism list; more difficult to justify, Morocco has agreed to formal normalization in exchange for recognition of their sovereignty over Western Sahara, a conflict which the UN and much of the world would not reverse stance on. Saudi Arabia is rumored to have again played a role in negotiations, though publicly this joins the list of normalization agreements the leadership will not support until a two-state solution is reached.
Palestine has not been forgotten, and US aid continues to be offered, often with requests for continuing negotiations. The most recent US aid at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic was rejected by the PLO; a move regretted after the severe consequences were realized and civilians continue to starve. There is still strong Saudi support for Palestinians to reclaim status over the region and its holy sites, but the country and more of the Arab world seem ready for new approaches to resolving the conflict which account for people rather than spite.
A just cause versus its advocates
The shift of sentiment manifested in a call to Palestinian advocates, to change their choice of activism. This past October, Saudi state-run media hosted a three-part series on national television broadcasting Prince Bandar bin Sultan’s message to Palestine: that the cause has been “robbed, I mean, by both Israel and Palestinian leaders equally.” Instead of an expected report on Israeli policies preventing Palestinian statehood, he attributes the failure of Palestinian independence to Palestinian leaders.
Bandar references consistent support by Palestinian leaders for the “losing side,” support for Hitler and the Nazis in World War II; support for Saddam Hussein up to and during the occupation of Kuwait; increasing ties to Iran in the last decade, which has alienated Palestine from historically influential actors for the region. Israel’s unwavering relationship to the United States and European nations has allowed it to succeed in maintaining and developing its state.
Further, Bandar disdains the deep rift among Palestinian leaders themselves, namely the unwilling nature to reconcile Gaza and the West Bank. Leaders of the two locations are unwilling as yet to compromise their own authority or goals for the other’s. Division among the base has strained its relation to Saudi Arabia in Bandar’s mind: Saudi officials have sought to unify the leadership only to have agreements promptly broken. Bureaucracy has seemingly drowned out legitimate attempts to solve the real problems or focus on the Palestinian people.
Bandar’s monologue cannot all be taken for its historical precision as it presents a single actor’s perspective. But the passionate sentiments recognize a contrast between Israeli’s and Palestinian authorities’ methods by which to self-determinate or find recognition by a global community. As Bandar says it, support for the Palestinian struggle is “dealing with a just cause, with bad advocates.”
The cause is undoubtedly just. Palestinians have yet to receive a sovereign nation alongside Israel as agreed upon early in the conflict. Civilians have faced political suppression, have been evicted from homes, had villages razed despite the agreements by Israeli leadership and have too often been inappropriately arrested. Some consider Israel’s form of governance de facto occupation.
The people have also been used, frankly, as political tools by their leadership: their infrastructure has been used to conceal weapons and state-sponsored terrorists, and civilians have been incentivized to terrorism by a “pay to slay” policy of the Palestinian Authority. Since the turn of the century this policy has paid out salaries – approximately 20 percent of their foreign aid – to Palestinians both currently and formerly imprisoned for “participation in the struggle against the occupation” often in an aggressive or violent manner – as well as to the families of “martyrs,” those who have been killed while performing acts of terror such as suicide bombings.
The US has passed legislation to reduce aid by the amount granted to terrorists, a display of challenge to the policy. But not until this year has the PA signaled any wavering of its tactic. Even as rumors of an overhaul on the payment plan surface many do not believe this is a legitimate effort. The proposed change would not end pay-to-slay, but would change the criteria for who is paid what: instead of increased payment for longer durations of imprisonment, which disproportionately benefits those who commit more severe crimes, the payments could be based on economic need. Civilians in both Palestine and Israel are unhappy with the proposal, admittedly for different reasons.
It is not difficult to understand why victims of political oppression would be driven to fight with their lives in the name of revolution. But, from a step back, the political strategy of the Palestinian cause has not been modified, despite its failure to produce political recognition.
And the dedication from Arab supporters is being strained before an ideal solution is in sight. Palestinian leadership increasingly forsakes other nations’ – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the Emirates – longstanding commitments at the slightest divergence or appeal towards Israel. It has has begun to supplement ties with countries that Saudi Arabia holds as adversarial: Iran and Turkey, who have shown commitment less to peace than to power in the region.
The statements of Bandar cannot be taken as a significant jump of Saudi diplomacy, but they nevertheless point to some flutter in diplomatic strategy; “whether we like it or not, this is the reality and the results on the ground.”
While pro-Israel advocates have built steadfast relations with world superpowers – the United States, much of Europe – and even some of their closest and formerly austere neighbors, Jordan and Egyptm Palestine has faced leadership which is slow to acknowledge the results on the ground, leadership which has rejected Israel’s right to exist and Israel’s spot at a negotiation table, leadership which has made unreasonable and uncompromising demands, leadership which has been in Bandar’s word “disillusioned.” Agreements in the past three-quarters century have been rejected for political will then requested perhaps a decade or longer later, after they are no longer on the table.
The source of Bandar’s status is seen largely as his connections to United States officials. During his near-20 years as Saudi ambassador to the US, he forged deep connections with five presidents. Most notably, his connection with both Bush administrations is what has led to rumor he is too close to US political interests. In addition, he was given diplomatic stature to act independently of Saudi policy in the US in his time preceding and succeeding the ambassadorship; so his stances can not be equated to the Saudi administration.
However, his influence is particularly noticeable in Middle East affairs of both the US and Saudi Arabia. In the mentioned interview series with Saudi state-controlled media giant Al Arabiya, Bandar retells countless stories of his insider perspective to moments of tension among the US, Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations in fights against religious fundamentalism or extremism, as well as the constant strife in Israel-Palestine conflict.
The sentiments are that along the process Palestinian leaders often change terms or reject opportune agreements before requesting them returned to the table too late. Bandar’s sagas recount such close moments to peace, at Camp David, in the Oslo Accords, at various points in the White House, in Saudi Arabia, Syria and Lebanon, only to have trivial semantic or bureaucratic disputes reduce the progress to void.
Bandar’s support for Palestine has not wavered, and he aligns with the Saudi backing of each Palestinian political decision in history. Though he suggests the support is not without remorse, presenting a tie to the Palestinian cause while acknowledging the historically detrimental consequences of the leadership’s choices. His passion leads to blunt statements towards political events, similar to the (sometimes considered autocratic) base of Saudi Arabia’s foreign and domestic policy.
But his softening eye towards Israel could be a catalyst in the administration, perhaps one of the larger influences in the royal family accepting Israel’s de facto status in the region. A Wikileaks report from Riyadh to the Central Intelligence Agency depicts intra-family dispute over Israeli policy: as of 2007, Bandar urged stronger relations with the Jewish state, citing Iran’s threat as a growing priority over Israel.
The Saudi Leadership
Informal contact between nations has progressed slowly, but Bandar’s statements have only increased in fervor. The televised monologue is assuredly approved by the Saudi government, which implies Bandar is not far off from the will of the state.
Further, Saudi prestige throughout the Gulf ought to be accounted for in the recent normalization of Israel by The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan. Saudi leadership must have been consulted to some capacity before the three nations, well associated with Saudi interests, could publicize such a radical shift from the pan-Arab boycotts of Israel, a stance promised not to be broken until an established Palestinian state.
To believe Bandar is to suggest the Saudi policy is gaining impatience for a developing Palestinian state. The leaders have embroiled in bureaucratic dispute and used unsubstantiated tactics, in effect boycotting the peace process itself. Saudi Arabia’s shifting foreign interests no longer rely on fundamentalist ideas.
Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has led progressive movements in Saudi Arabia since rising to his position, increasing women’s rights and restricting authority of the religious police in the country. Looking towards the Israel-Palestine region, his remarks have shown a trend towards welcoming bilateral negotiation.
The Saudi King restated his commitment to a Palestinian state in the wake of recent formal recognitions of Israel and used media influence to suggest more should have been requested of the Israeli’s on the status of Palestinians before ties were made. Indeed, omitted in Bandar’s televised statement, the Israelis are too responsible for not upholding provisions for the Palestinian people, not supporting them at times and in other points disregarding stipulations of treaties, leaving them open to reasonable criticism.
Yet the Crown Prince is rumored to have used Saudi media to laud the Arab nations’ moves in support of relations. He also has privately pressured Palestinians to appeal to President Trump’s Peace to Prosperity plan of 2019 and may be using influence in North Africa to pressure additional normalization agreements.
Regarding the diplomatic rifts Bandar suggests of Palestinian leaders, his own government is not immune. There are generational and religious disputes among the royal family, but should the Crown Prince ascend to the throne soon, there may be cause for anticipation of serious shifts in Arab relations to Israel. These are responses to the situation on the ground, not backstabbings as some are worried for.
Look Ahead, look on the ground
Palestinian response to UAE and Bahraini normalizations has been outrage. Chairman of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Mahmoud Abbas has accused nations of turning their backs on the cause despite continuous loyalty from Saudi, the Emirates, Bahrain and the majority of the Arab world. Bandar’s interview was a response to such statements. He is ostensibly tired of what he calls a one-way street of relations with the Palestinian struggle.
The PLO’s secretary general Saeb Erekat has promised a fact-check of Bandar’s series on Twitter, though it has yet to be seen. The discourse certainly should not be rejected. It is legitimate reflections of someone long-engaged in the affairs of the conflict.
Bandar spoke to his audience – Saudis, Palestinians and Palestinian supporters – to encourage a proven strategy of advocacy versus the evidential lack of success stemming from violent tactics or turning backs on allies. These strategies disseminate into the larger advocacy movement for Palestinian self-determination, prompting student led “anti-normalization” policies on American campuses and preventing effective discourse.
Since President Joe Biden’s victory in US elections, the PA began to signal an attempt to rejuvenate cooperation for a solution to conflicts. It has laid groundwork to return emissaries to Bahrain and the Emirates, removed promptly after their respective normalization announcements. Mentioned earlier, the pay-to-slay policy is potentially being revisited to show terrorism may no longer be a supported strategy. Security cooperation with Israel and acceptance of tax transfers taken by Israel on Palestine’s behalf is set to resume as well.
This is not to say they must compromise their cause, but some compromise is necessary by both sides in such a conflict; better to bring pens to the table than wait for something to topple while an opposition continues to build upon it. The administration transition in the US has come as some form of signal, return to legitimate peace building for Palestine. Despite ongoing annexation potential, Israel too has seemingly begun to put its disregard for respect to the Palestinian territory and sovereignty on hold and expressed revitalized interest in pursuing a peaceful negotiation. It is left to Palestine – leaders and allies alike – to express convincing will for peace, such that all parties involved will readily look eye to eye and resume resolving the decades of mistrust, mismanagement, malfeasance. Bandar quotes the Quran when he says “Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.”
Featured image source: Al Arabiya