in the footsteps of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan, were doused over the weekend, when a senior Saudi prince lit into the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as “the last of the Western colonizing powers in the Middle East.”
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“You cannot treat an open wound with palliatives and painkillers,” he said at a security conference in neighboring Bahrain. He was referring to the condition of Palestinians, who were being “incarcerated in concentration camps under the flimsiest of security accusations — young and old, women and men, who are rotting there without recourse to justice.” Turki accused Israel of “demolishing [Palestinian] homes as they wish and they assassinate whomever they want.”
His language was a blunt contrast with the softer tone that Saudi Arabia has adopted toward Israel in recent months, and it caught off guard the Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, who was participating in the conference via video link.
Ashkenazi expressed “regret” at Turki’s comments.
“I don’t believe that they reflect the spirit and the changes taking place in the Middle East,” he said.
Perhaps. Israelis may take reassurance from Turki’s assertion that he was speaking in his personal capacity, rather than as an official representative of the kingdom. But when the official representative, Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, had his turn to speak, he did not walk back Turki’s argument that the Saudis would only normalize relations with Israel after Palestinian aspirations were met. “We think Israel will take its place in the region,” said Prince Faisal. “But in order for that to happen and for that to be sustainable, we do need the Palestinians to get their state and we do need to settle that situation.”
For those rooting for Saudi-Israeli normalization, the message from the Manama conference was clear enough: Not so fast. Yes, the kingdom’s attitude toward Israel shows signs of change — none more conspicuous than the recent, not-so-secret visit of Netanyahu with Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Yet expectations that the Saudis would rush into a group hug with Israel and the other Arab nations in the normalization process were always hopelessly optimistic. The stakes for the kingdom are much higher than for Bahrain, Sudan and the UAE.
The Saudis take seriously their status as the putative leader of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and it would never do to follow its junior partners — certainly not for something as momentous as recognition of Israel. Having led the Arab consensus in seeking Palestinian statehood, the kingdom would find it harder than, say, the emirates, to make concessions, real or imagined, to Israel. (The royal family’s self-appointed responsibility for the wider world of Islam, as custodians of the faith’s two holiest mosques, is somewhat more fungible: Riyadh has had no qualms about endorsing China’s repression of the Muslim Uyghurs.)
But there’s more to Saudi hesitation than a potential loss of international prestige: Also at play are internal political dynamics. For all the concentration of power in the hands of the young crown prince, he remains respectful, or at least wary, of the worldview of the older generation.
His father, King Salman, remains committed to the Palestinian cause. In his recent speech during the United Nations General Assembly, he pointedly avoided mentioning the peace accords between Israel and other Arab states, and reiterated his support for a Palestinian state. Prince Turki is of that generation, and he would hardly have spoken so sharply in Manama if he wasn’t certain of strong support back home.
Saudi politics is more brittle and complex than many outsiders realize, and it encompasses both a residual hostility toward Israel and a contempt of Palestinian leaders. In October, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, a former ambassador to Washington, lit into the Palestinian leadership, accusing it of failure and of ingratitude toward Saudi Arabia.
Bandar is a powerful voice in Saudi foreign-policy circles; his children hold the ambassadorships in Washington and London. At the time, many in Israel interpreted his pronouncements as a sign the Saudis were easing their commitment to Palestinian statehood, and might be ready to parley. The shared anxiety about the Iranian threat to the region was considered another accelerant toward normalization; concessions such as overflight permission for Israeli aircraft showed that old taboos could be broken. It was even suggested that the crown prince might use diplomacy with Israel to soften the hostility of the incoming new U.S. administration.
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