Normalization: Indicators that the Saudis are close to signing a historic...

  • Frank Gardner
  • BBC Security Correspondent

10 minutes ago

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The Palestinians are protesting the growing ties between Israel and the Gulf states

Will they do it or not? A question on the minds of many people in the Middle East these days?

Is the Saudi rulers, who were historically critical of Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians, are finally on the brink of normalizing relations with the countries that the Arab press used to refer to, often and dismissively, under the name of “the Zionist entity”?

And there was feverish speculation on social media, following the broadcast of episodes of an interview on Al Arabiya TV with the former Saudi intelligence chief and long-time Saudi ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan Al Saud, in which he lashed out at Palestinian leaders for criticizing the recent Gulf states’ peace moves with Israel.

“This lower level of rhetoric is not what we expect from officials seeking international support for their cause,” Prince Bandar said in the interview, which was broadcast in three parts.

“It is totally unacceptable that they (Palestinian leaders) bypass the leaders of the Gulf states with a condemned speech,” he added.

The Palestinian leaders initially described the normalization of relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain as a “betrayal” and a “stab in the back.”

Prince Bandar (who spent a noteworthy 22 years as Saudi ambassador to Washington and was close to US President George W. Bush, even being called Bandar bin Bush), spoke of the “historical failure” of the Palestinian leadership that he described to his viewers. It took Saudi support for granted.

Prince Bandar bin Sultan said that the Palestinians failed because of their leadership

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Prince Bandar bin Sultan said that the Palestinians failed because of their leadership

Although he described the Palestinian issue as a “just” one, he blamed both Israel and the Palestinians equally for failing to reach a peace agreement after many years (of negotiations).

Referring to the division between the Palestinian Authority, which runs the West Bank, and the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), which controls power in Gaza, Prince Bandar asked: How can the Palestinians reach a just peace agreement when their leaders themselves cannot agree with each other?

A Saudi official close to the ruling family said that such words would not have been broadcast on a Saudi-owned TV channel without the prior approval of both King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Saudi Arabia has undergone radical transformations in recent years

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Saudi Arabia is undergoing radical transformations in recent years

The official added that by choosing Prince Bandar, a veteran diplomat and a long-time pillar of the royal establishment, to say these words, it is the clearest indication yet that the Saudi leadership may be preparing its citizens for a final agreement with Israel.

Historical doubts

Indeed, through both the words of Prince Bandar and the quiet support for the recent normalization of the UAE and Bahrain with Israel, it appears that the Saudi leadership is moving towards rapprochement and establishing relations with Israel more quickly than its people.

For many years, Saudis, especially in the rural areas and remote isolated corners of the kingdom, have been accustomed to viewing Israel not only as the enemy, but as the entire Jewish people as well.

I remember that a Saudi I met in a mountain village in the Asir region told me in all seriousness: “One day of the year, the Jews drink the blood of children.”

Thanks to the Internet and satellite channels, such kind of conspiracy theories are rare in the Kingdom now. Saudis spend a long time on the Internet, and they are often better informed about global affairs than people in the West.

However, this xenophobia and the historical suspicion of strangers among certain segments of the Saudi people represent a moral obstacle blocking the course of the road and need time to circumvent and cross it, and this is the reason why Saudi Arabia is not pushing behind its neighbors in the Gulf to achieve a historic agreement.

Saddam’s disaster

Relations between Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states with the Palestinians remained volatile. Gulf governments have nominally supported the Palestinian cause, both politically and financially, for decades.

The Palestinians were deported from Kuwait, after Arafat supported Saddam Hussein

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The Palestinians were deported from Kuwait, after Arafat supported Saddam Hussein

But when the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat stood by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein when he invaded and occupied Kuwait in 1990, they had a great feeling that they had been betrayed.

After the US-led Operation Desert Storm and the liberation of Kuwait in 1991, Kuwait deported all the Palestinians who lived in it, replacing them with thousands of Egyptians.

When I visited the grieving Kuwait City that year, I noticed a writing in Arabic hurriedly streaked on the side wall of an abandoned pizzeria: “Jerusalem is always to the Zionists, and I am Kuwaiti.”

The region’s long-lived leaders took a long time to overcome Arafat’s “betrayal”. Perhaps the irony here is that who made more efforts than most others to heal the rift within the Arab world, was the former Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, who died last month at the age of 91.

Saudi peace plan

Saudi Arabia has an actual history of trying to reach peace. Where I carried an olive branch and waved it to Israel.

In March 2002, I was at the Arab Summit in Beirut, where a thin, bald, polite man spoke fluent English, making the rounds of what he called Crown Prince Abdullah’s peace plan.

This man was Abdullah al-Jubeir, who would later become the foreign affairs advisor to the crown prince, and the current minister of state for foreign affairs.

There is speculation that a Saudi-Israeli peace deal may follow the UAE and Bahrain signing a peace agreement with Israel

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There is speculation that a Saudi-Israeli peace deal may follow the UAE and Bahrain signing a peace agreement with Israel

The peace plan dominated the summit this year, and the Arab League approved it unanimously.

Basically, the plan gives Israel full normalization with the entire Arab world in exchange for its withdrawal from the occupied territories, including the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights and Lebanon. It also gives the Palestinians East Jerusalem as their capital, and reaches a “just solution” to the issue of Palestinian refugees who were expelled or deported in the war. Arab Israeli 1948-1949 from their homes in what became the State of Israel.

The plan won international support and put pressure on the Israeli Prime Minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, for a short period. Here, at last, is what appears to be an opportunity to end the historic conflict between the Arabs and Israel once and for all.

But before the plan was published, Hamas blew up an Israeli hotel in Netanya, killing 30 people and wounding more than 100. All peace talks on the table were suspended.

After 18 years, the Middle East proceeded in multiple ways, despite the fact that the Palestinians had not yet achieved their independent state, and that Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law, continued to encroach on Palestinian lands in the West Bank.

Today, the UAE, Jordan, Bahrain and Egypt have peace agreements concluded with Israel and full diplomatic relations with it.

In fact, the two Gulf states are rapidly building their ties with Israel, in contrast to Jordan and Egypt’s staggering “cold peace” with Israel.

Saudi Arabia has the highest rate of social media usage in the region

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Saudi Arabia has the highest rate of social media usage in the region

Within days of the signing of the “Abraham Agreement” at the White House, the head of Israeli intelligence was visiting Manama in talks about joint intelligence cooperation between the two countries in the face of their common opponent, Iran.

Exam And conventional caution

So, how do Israeli officials feel about a possible future normalization with Saudi Arabia?

They certainly watched with interest the Prince Bandar interview, but have so far refused to comment on it directly.

Instead, a spokesperson for the Israeli embassy in London said, “We hope that more countries will recognize the new reality in the Middle East by joining us on the settlement track.”

Saudi Arabia has traditionally been moving very slowly and carefully when it comes to changing its policy, testing every step before committing itself to anything, but the arrival of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with his independent personality, on the scene has changed all that.

Women can now drive cars, there are public entertainment venues, and the country is opening up, slowly opening its doors to tourism.

Therefore, a Saudi-Israeli peace agreement, although not necessarily imminent, has now become a realistic possibility.

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