Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman made history after telling The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg that his country recognized the right of the Jews to “their own land.” Though he added that the Saudis also care about the rights of Palestinians and the fate of “the holy mosque in Jerusalem,” the message he was sending to Muslims and Arabs was loud and clear. As far as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—the state that has styled itself the defender of Islamic holy places, and thus the self-styled moral leader of the Arab and Muslim world—the long war against Zionism is over.
That’s good news for Israel and the United States, which wants friendly relations between two of its most important allies, especially in the context of the threat from Iran. Yet this shouldn’t be treated as a harbinger of a peace agreement that will end the struggle between Israel and the Palestinians. The reason why has little to do with Israel or the Saudis—and everything to do with the Palestinians.
While important, it should also be understood what the statement from the prince—popularly known as “MBS”—doesn’t mean.
His comments shouldn’t be confused with a formal declaration of Saudi recognition of the Jewish state. Nor should we imagine that it means that the Saudis will not continue to be something of a contradiction as they are, at one and the same time, a close ally of the West while also being the primary funder of Wahhabism. It is a particularly militant form of Islam that is closely identified with the Saudi ruling family that has helped inspire violent radicals who have, ironically, become a major thorn in the side of their regime.
Unlike his more traditional father King Salman, MBS, who appears to wield the real power in Riyadh, is something of a reformer. Under his leadership, the kingdom is trying to respond to the challenges of the 21st century by opening its archaic Islamist society up to certain changes, such as allowing women to drive. However, as he made clear to Goldberg, Saudi Arabia will remain an absolute monarchy.
It’s also true that Saudi outreach to Israel is not entirely new.
The Saudis put forth a proposal in 2002 that called for recognition of Israel and ending the conflict. But that so-called Arab peace initiative had its flaws. Initially, it linked peace to the “right of return” for descendants of Palestinian Arab refugees from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Since then, the Saudis have dropped that part and made it more acceptable to Israel, and it remains a talking point for some on the Jewish left who insist that there is an offer on the table that Israel hasn’t embraced.
That isn’t true, as Israel has informally discussed the initiative with the Saudis for years. However, the explanation for the failure of the plan and the motivation for the crown prince’s latest Western charm offensive rests primarily in the failure of the Palestinians to take the hint with respect to Israel.
Since 2002, Israel has made several attempts at peace that have all run aground on Palestinian rejectionism. In 2005, it withdrew from Gaza. In 2008, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas a state in almost all the West Bank, Gaza and a share of Jerusalem. Abbas walked away from that offer and torpedoed subsequent negotiations sponsored by the United States, during which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered another withdrawal from the West Bank.
Since then, Abbas has continued to refuse to negotiate, while the P.A. also continues to incite hate against Israel and Jews with its media and schools on a daily basis, and to subsidize terrorists. The Saudis have become closer to Israel as a result of President Barack Obama’s appeasement of Iran, which scared them even more than it did Israel.
Just as important, the Palestinians have made it clear to the Trump administration that they won’t consider any new peace plan. This is in spite of the fact that, like those plans that have preceded it from previous administrations, this effort to achieve what Trump calls the “ultimate deal” will likely involve more Israeli retreats and a Palestinian state.
The key event preceding the Saudi crown prince’s statement came earlier this year when, in the aftermath of the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Abbas journeyed to Riyadh. The message he reportedly got there was a Saudi demand that Abbas accept what the United States was offering in terms of a two-state solution. They even offered serious financial support for him if he was willing to make peace and become part of an anti-Iran alliance. Abbas’s reply was that no Palestinian leader could accept such a deal. Abbas is more concerned about competing with Hamas, which is why he supported Hamas’s violent riots along the Gaza border also intended to promote the idea “return”—synonymous with Israel’s destruction—as the keynote of Palestinian demands.
So when MBS spoke of a Jewish right to a “land,” he wasn’t so much speaking to Trump or Netanyahu, who realize that the Saudis look to Israel as an ally against an Iranian foe that they, as the prince stated, regard as worse than Hitler. Rather, it was a message to Abbas, Hamas and the Palestinian people emphasizing that if they are determined to persist in their century-old war on Zionism, then they can do it without any help from the Saudis.
As the prince made clear, the Palestinian refusal means Israel-Saudi relations will remain warm, but under the table. That probably suits them just fine since the Saudis are too conscious of their role as guardian of the Muslim holy places and the standing it gives them in the Islamic world to have “normal relations” between their kingdom and the Jewish state.
The Saudi peace initiative is a dead letter not because Israel said no to it, but because the Palestinians still won’t recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state—no matter where its borders are drawn. As long as the Palestinians won’t give up their dreams of “return,” even a royal pronouncement like that of MBS, won’t end the conflict.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — the Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.