Historically, Saudi leaders have been critical of Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians.
But are they now finally moving closer to normalizing relations with the country often called “the Zionist entity” by the Arab media?
A series of critical interviews given to the Al-Arabiya TV channel by Prince Bandar Bin Sultan al Saud, a former Saudi intelligence chief and longtime ambassador to Washington sparked a wave of speculation on social media.
In these he beat up Palestinian leaders for criticizing recent peace movements with Israel from the Arab Gulf states.
“It is low level of speech is not what we expect of officials seeking global support for their cause, “the prince said in the interview.
“His transgression [de los líderes palestinos] against the leadership of the Gulf states with this reprehensible speech is completely unacceptable, “he said.
Palestinian leaders initially described the normalization of the UAE and Bahrain’s relations with Israel as a “treason” and “a stab in the back.”
Prince Bandar, who spent 22 years as Saudi ambassador to Washington and was so close to former US President George W. Bush that he was often nicknamed Bandar Bin Bush, spoke of “the historic failures” of the Palestinian leadership.
This leadership has taken Saudi support for granted, he told his audience.
However, he emphasized calling the Palestinian cause “just” and blamed Israel and the Palestinian leadership alike for failing to reach a peace agreement after so many years.
Referring to the division between the Palestinian Authority, which rules in the West Bank, and the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, which has power in Gaza, he wondered how the Palestinians could reach a fair agreement when their leaders cannot even agree with each other. .
Those words, said a Saudi official close to the ruling family, would not have been broadcast on Saudi-owned television. without prior approval from King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
According to the official, the choice of Prince Bandar, a veteran diplomat and longtime pillar of the Saudi royal establishment, to issue those words, is the clearest signal so far that the Saudi leadership could be preparing its population for an eventual deal with Israel.
It appears that both with Prince Bandar’s words and the silent endorsement of the UAE and Bahrain’s recent normalizations with Israel, the Saudi leadership is moving much faster toward rapprochement with Israel than much of its own population.
For many years, especially in the more rural and isolated corners of the kingdom, the Saudis have become used to seeing as the enemy not only to Israel but also to the entire Jewish people.
I remember that in a mountain village in the province of Asir a Saudi told me in all seriousness that “one day of the year Jews drink baby blood.”
Thanks to the internet and satellite television, such conspiracy theories are now rarer in the kingdom.
Saudis spend a great deal of time online and are often better informed about world affairs than people in the West.
However, given the xenophobia and historical suspicion of foreigners that exist in certain parts of the Saudi population, it will take time to change those positions.
It is for that reason that Saudi Arabia has not been quick to follow its Gulf neighbors to forge a historic agreement.
The history of relations between Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states with the Palestinians is one of ups and downs.
Gulf governments have nominally supported the Palestinian cause, both politically and financially, for decades.
But when Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat sided with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein when it invaded and occupied Kuwait in 1990, they felt betrayed.
After the US-led Operation Desert Storm and the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, that country expelled the entire expatriate community of Palestinians, replacing them with thousands of Egyptians.
When I visited the traumatized city of Kuwait that year, I noticed some Arabic graffiti scrawled on an abandoned pizzeria.
“Al-Quds da’iman lil’Sihyouneen, Kuwaiti w’ana,” it read. “Jerusalem is the eternal home of the Jews, and I am a Kuwaiti [que escribe esto]”.
The oldest rulers of the region took a long time in overcoming Arafat’s “betrayal”.
Perhaps it is ironic that the one who did more than most to heal the divisions in the Arab world was the Emir of Kuwait himself, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, who died last month at the age of 91.
Saudi peace plan
Saudi Arabia has a history when it comes to offering an olive branch to Israel.
In March 2002 when I was at the Arab Summit in Beirut, there was a thin, courteous, bald man with perfect English trying to explain something called Crown Prince Abdullah’s Peace Plan.
The man was Adel Jubair, then a foreign affairs adviser to the crown prince and who is now the Saudi foreign minister.
The peace plan dominated the summit that year and it was unanimously endorsed by the Arab League.
Basically, it offered Israel the total normalization of relations with the entire Arab world in exchange for a withdrawal from all occupied territories, including the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and Lebanon.
It also gave the Palestinians East Jerusalem as their capital and outlined “a just solution” for the Palestinian refugees who in the 1948-49 Arab-Israeli war had been driven from their homes in what later became Israel.
The plan received international support and briefly put Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in an awkward position.
There at last seemed to be a chance to end once and for all the historic Arab-Israeli conflict.
But just before the plan was published, Hamas bombed an Israeli hotel in Netanya, killing 30 people and wounding more than 100.
All talk about peace was out of the question.
18 years later, the Middle East has advanced in many ways, although the Palestinians have yet to achieve independent statehood and Israeli settlements, considered illegal under international law, continue to encroach on Palestinian land in the West Bank.
The UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, and Egypt have made peace with Israel and maintain full diplomatic relations.
In fact, unlike the tense “cold peace” With Jordan and Egypt with Israel, the two Gulf states are strengthening ties with Israel.
A few days after Bahrain signed the Abraham Accord at the White House, Israel’s spy chiefs visited Manama and began to discuss intelligence cooperation on their mutual adversary, Iran.
Testing the water
But how do Israeli officials feel about a possible normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia?
You’ve certainly seen Prince Bandar’s interview with interestbut so far they have declined to comment directly.
Instead, a spokesman for the Israeli embassy in London said: “We hope that even more countries will recognize the new reality in the Middle East and join us on the road to reconciliation.”
Saudi Arabia has traditionally been very slow and cautious when it comes to policy changes, testing every move before committing.
But the arrival on the scene of the rebellious Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has changed everything.
Women can now drive, there is public entertainment, and the country is slowly opening up to tourism.
Therefore, a peace agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel, although not necessarily imminent, is now a real possibility.
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