Saudi Arabia took Israel by surprise during a vote over a draft resolution condemning Hamas aggression against Israel at the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday.
For decades, speeches delivered by Saudi Arabia’s permanent representatives to the world body have included an attack on Israel. In one such speech in the 1970s, the Saudi envoy to the United Nations claimed that there was no such thing as the Jewish people and repeated the myth that Ashkenazi Jews were in fact descended from the Khazars, a multi-ethnic and semi-nomadic Turkic people.
Current Saudi Ambassador to the United Nations Abdallah Yahya Al-Mouallimi began his address to the General Assembly last week by blasting Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians (according to Saudi tradition) and reiterated his country’s historical support for a two-state solution, with eastern Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state. But woven into his remarks was a significant and innovative sentence: “Saudi Arabia condemns the firing of missiles from the Gaza Strip on civilian Israeli targets.” Al-Mouallimi even called for urgent steps to be taken to ensure an immediate ceasefire.
What we have then is open Saudi criticism of Hamas attacks on Israel in an international arena that did not include any corresponding condemnation of the Israeli Air Force’s strikes on Gaza. This is a Saudi Arabia we have yet to encounter—one that dares to openly express a position that differs from that of the general Arab position, and one that is music to Israeli ears. These things could not have been said in such a central global forum as the United Nations without having first been approved by the kingdom in Riyadh. As such, the ambassador’s remarks reflect official Saudi policy, given the changes underway in the Middle East and the escalation of the Sunni-Shi’ite conflict in the region.
Back in 1977, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat came down hard on Israel in a speech to the country’s parliament ahead of his historic trip that year to Israel. But in his remarks, he also made sure to include one key transformative sentence: “I am willing to go to the end of the world, to the Knesset, to talk to the Israelis.”
Is Saudi Arabia preparing the ground to follow in Sadat’s footsteps?
There have been increasing reports in recent days that Jerusalem is interested in formalizing ties with Riyadh. While we cannot be certain this will happen in the near future, the ambassador’s remarks are a sign that attitudes are changing in Riyadh.
Hamas and its cronies did not criticize the Saudi ambassador’s remarks, as one might have expected. By voting against the U.S.-sponsored resolution condemning Hamas, Saudi Arabia sent the Palestinians the message that they would continue to support them, the two-state solution and the Arab peace initiative. Riyadh also needs to find a way to avoid the ongoing dispute between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.
In contrast, the ambassador’s remarks condemning Hamas fire on Israel were meant for Israeli ears, and it may be that the message they are sending is that Saudi Arabia’s policies in the region will change according to the kingdom’s needs and as situations develop. While completely new, these extraordinary changes have gone under the radar in the media. Nevertheless, Israel can draw inspiration from these changes and expect that there will be more to come in the future.
Itzhak Levanon is the former Israeli ambassador to Egypt.