When Israel and the UAE announced they were to establish formal relations – the so-called Abraham Accord – reactions in the Middle East ranged from supportive to condemning. While Bahrain and Oman praised the accord, the Palestinian Authority condemned the announcement and called it a betrayal. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, initially stayed quiet.
It wasn’t until nearly a week later that Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan gave a kind of official statement on the topic. During a visit to Berlin, bin Farhan said that no normalization with Israel would take place before an Israeli-Palestinian peace-agreement. He stated: “Peace must be achieved with the Palestinians on the basis of international agreements as a pre-condition for any normalization of relations.”
Here’s why history and political developments require a different policy approach, and why Saudi Arabia, as the biggest player in the GCC, can step up and play a leading role on the issue.
In 1967, after the six-day war in June of that year, at the Arab League Summit in Khartoum on August 29, a resolution was passed that contained three Nos: No to recognition, no to peace and no to negotiations with Israel. The resolution also underscored Palestinians’ right to the whole of Palestine, i.e. the destruction of Israel.
However, only a little more than a decade later, in 1979, Egypt, the most important Arab country at the time, closed a peace-agreement with Israel, and in the process, regained the whole of Sinai. And in 1994, Jordan became the second Arab country to sign a peace-agreement with Israel, ushering in an end to the wars between the countries.
Neither Egypt nor Jordan walked away from solidarity with the Palestinians. On the contrary, both countries proposed several ideas for an Israeli-Palestinian peace, and with the Oslo Accords, that seemed like a real opportunity.
Meanwhile, in the years since and up to the US peace plan proposed in January, the Palestinian leadership never once proposed a counter peace plan.
This includes the Saudi-proposed Arab Peace Initiative, adopted by the Arab League in 2003. The underlying idea was that peace between Israel and any Arab state should – at best – be seen as a kind of consolation prize in return for Israel meeting all Palestinian demands. This was to be achieved by pressuring and boycotting Israel.
However, this idea belongs to the past, and it has become obvious today that Palestinians remain the biggest losers. Despite all the talk of solidarity with the Palestinians, in the real world, relations of all sorts have developed between Israel and Arab states over the years.
The UAE-Israel brought into the open what has been known by everyone – including the Palestinian leadership – for years. Ties between the nations on scientific, cultural and sports matters have been slowly building for a long time.
With the Abraham Accord, the taboo is broken and hopefully, this will lead to new and peaceful developments in a region woefully in need of such deeds. What the deal also showed, as the peace-agreements between Israel and Egypt and Jordan before also did, was that the best way to reach a mutually beneficial deal with Israel, is to talk directly, honestly and without any demonization. The quiet talks and behind-the-scenes work leading up to the UAE-Israeli deal was a solid testament to the efficiency of that approach.
And it’s here that Saudi Arabia can step up to the table and show that the most important country in the GCC can also lead in a way that is commensurate with its role in the region. Instead of letting a particular Palestinian narrative that hasn’t changed since the 1970s decide Arab politics, the UAE – and Egypt and Jordan before it – has shown that there is much more is to gain by direct and open negotiations.
This can – and will – be positive for the Palestinians as well, if only the leadership would let it. Saudi Arabia can, as probably no one else, open up that closed door and help the Palestinians to help themselves.
Saudi Arabia, as one of the regional leaders, could have a direct and active channel of communication with Israel, making it far easier to influence and nudge the country to take necessary steps to accommodate a peace-deal with the Palestinians. Further, the general Arab, and particular Saudi solidarity with the Palestinians wouldn’t change. On the contrary, through a deal, Saudia Arabia would be able to more forcefully push for ideas and initiatives needed to break the deadlock. The deals between Egypt, Jordan the UAE and Israel laid down a marker acknowledging the changing times in the Middle East. A Saudi Arabian forward-looking step at this time would demonstrate how much more is to be gained by direct negotiations.
It’s high time to leave old, self-destructive ways behind and jump into the driver’s seat instead of sitting in the back.
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