How a Saudi-Israeli Alliance Could Benefit the Palestinians
The flirtation between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which has been gaining momentum both publicly and privately in recent years, seems to be picking up even more steam now, especially on the Israeli side. Israel’s Military Chief of Staff General Gadi Eizenkot gave a wide-ranging interview to a major Saudi website offering greater intelligence cooperation, among other overtures. Israel is co-sponsoring a draft Saudi UN resolution on Syria. And Israel’s communications minister praised comments by the Saudi Grand Mufti that were highly critical of Hamas, and invited him to visit Israel. Reciprocal Saudi moves have been more subtle and often unofficial, yet signs of an increasing recognition of the potential value of working more closely with Israel to counter Iran are readily discernible in Gulf Arab discourse.
Most attention on this issue has focused on Iran, because countering Tehran’s growing regional power—particularly as the war in Syria winds down, and with Iran and its allies gaining control of key strategic areas along the Syrian-Iraqi border—is uppermost in the minds of Saudis and Israelis alike. Both also feel keenly menaced by Iran’s most effective Arab proxy, Hezbollah, which has emerged from the Syrian war much more powerful than before, and has engaged in conflicts around the region. But, especially if something more significant develops from these overtures, what might all this mean for the Palestinians?
A new opening between Saudi Arabia and Israel wouldn’t deprive Palestinians of anything they currently possess that has either real or potential value. It certainly wouldn’t make the occupation worse or do anything that’s likely to prolong it. To the contrary, given the political constraints the Gulf Arab countries face domestically and regionally—as well as their genuinely held (if sometimes, though unfairly, doubted by both Palestinians and Westerners) sympathy with the Palestinian cause—there are major limitations to how far Saudi Arabia and others could or would publicly go in developing closer ties to Israel.
Now the Trump team says that, after studying the issue for 10 months, it is on the brink of coming up with its new plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace, which seems to be some version of the traditional two-state solution but almost certainly involves the “outside-in” approach of seeking momentum between the two parties by introducing a new Saudi and Gulf Arab role in outreach to Israel. Almost lost in the swirl of drama surrounding the mass arrest of prominent citizens in Saudi Arabia, the Houthi missile fired at Riyadh International Airport from Yemen, and the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, was the telling fact that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was summoned to Riyadh for a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the midst of all that chaos. The meeting may have focused on the next steps in squeezing Hamas to give up more of its control over Gaza. But there was also speculation, particularly in the Israeli media, that the Palestinian leader was being told to prepare to cooperate with a forthcoming American peace effort if he values Saudi friendship.
No doubt this all feels somewhat coercive to Palestinians, who, like the Lebanese, are often at the mercy of more powerful players. However, there isn’t any other obvious path forward for Palestinians. Though they may have to adjust their expectations, they definitely stand to be net beneficiaries of a greater openness between Israel and Arab countries that, politically, would have to insist on movement on Palestinian issues in order to develop a new strategic relationship with the Jewish state. At least to some extent and at times, others might be negotiating on Palestinians’ behalf, which is plainly sub-optimal. But there doesn’t seem to be any other way of generating momentum on Palestinian concerns, and without this component, it’s likely that the Trump administration will, like its immediate predecessor, quickly become fed up and walk away, leaving Israel relatively secure and prosperous and the Palestinians in a profoundly unenviable position.
ab countries that are now largely driving the broader Arab agenda, especially when they collaborate with Egypt and Jordan, is currently the only viable path toward the resurrection of a process that can bring about, eventually, an end to the occupation and the realization of Palestinian independence. In the meanwhile, if it flourishes, such a new regional reality is bound to involve some benefits to Palestinians, and to keep their cause central to the strategic thinking of Washington and its key Middle Eastern allies. Therefore, it would be wise for Palestinians to look for ways of maximizing how this dynamic can work for them rather than indulging in knee-jerk denunciations and recriminations that will gain them nothing.