Just how groundbreaking was the Saudi crown prince’s comment on Israel?
Analysis'A new wind is blowing from Riyadh ... toward Jerusalem'

Just how groundbreaking was the Saudi crown prince’s comment on Israel?

While some fete MBS’s affirmation of Israelis’ ‘right to have their own land’ as unprecedented, experts note that normalization is still far off

Raphael Ahren

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Washington, March 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Washington, March 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s surprising recent statement that ostensibly affirmed the Jewish people’s right to a state was an international sensation, making headlines around the globe and prompting veteran Middle East experts to celebrate a “historic” breakthrough.

“Arab leaders never admit Israel has rights,” tweeted David Makovsky, who heads the Washington Institute of Near East Policy’s program on the peace process. If the young royal’s comment “stands without qualification, it will mark one of the most important statements made by a Mideast leader on the Arab-Israeli conflict since Sadat,” he opined.

But several experts on the Gulf monarchy said Tuesday that the enthusiastic response to the interview MBS — as the crown prince is colloquially known — gave to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg was somewhat overrated.

While few dispute the significance of the crown prince declaring that “the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land,” and that Saudi Arabia “doesn’t have a problem with Jews,” many analysts felt that these statements are part of a slow, gradual process — mainly due to the two countries’ converging strategic interests in countering Iran — and are not indicative that full normalization with Israel is just around the corner.

“It’s not as big a deal as people make of it,” said Yoel Guzansky, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies.

The crown prince’s key statement — “I believe that each people, anywhere, has a right to live in their peaceful nation. I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land” — was certainly important in that everything the future custodian of Islam’s Two Holy Mosques says has a lot of weight in the Sunni Arab world.

“We Israelis should not overlook that there is a new wind blowing from Riyadh, and it’s blowing toward Jerusalem,” Guzansky said. “But acknowledging this, we mustn’t forget that he’s talking to American ears.”

MBS’s interview to a Jewish journalist at an American magazine took place in the framework of his current visit to the US. Refraining from criticism of Israel and saying nice things about Jews is the crown prince’s way to present his kingdom in a new light, Guzansky posited.

“He wants to present a new, vibrant Saudi Arabia. One of the ways to do that pragmatically is showing a different attitude toward Jews and Israel.”

When the crown prince mentions the “interests we share with Israel,” he’s actually talking less to Israelis than to US President Donald Trump, Guzansky said. “Though it’s very pleasant for Israelis to hear, MBS is merely trying to sell a new image of a country that many Americans rightly view as very conservative. Whether this new image is true — time will tell.”

MBS’s statement about Israel’s rights is part of a “gradual, linear policy that is progressing toward something. I don’t know what it is,” he said. “There’s no love behind the Saudis’ different approach; we have shared interests. And they think with Israel, and through Israel, they can better promote their interests in the US. He’s really looking toward Washington.”

Veteran US peace negotiator Aaron David Miller acknowledged that the crown prince’s acknowledgment of Israelis’ right to their own land was “new,” but also warned against heightened expectations for an entirely new Saudi policy vis-a-vis the Jewish state. “This is smart transaction; not transformation,” tweeted Miller, who today directs the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Director Middle East Program.

Joshua Teitelbaum, an expert on Saudi Arabia at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, likewise argued that MBS’s interview was merely part of his current “charm offensive” in the US, which also included meetings with avowedly Zionist groups such as the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee.

But saying that Israelis have a right to their own state “is not some money quote,” Teitelbaum said, pointing out that the crown prince quickly added: “But we have to have a peace agreement to assure the stability for everyone and to have normal relations.”

The future king does not have a problem with the principle of Jews having a state, “but it’s all conditional on a peace treaty,” he noted.

It’s a progression, but it’s a question of how thin you can slice the salami. You keep on slicing it but you never get there

While Goldberg asked about the Jewish people’s “right to a nation-state in at least part of their ancestral homeland,” MBS merely affirmed that Israelis have the right to a state. Hence he accepted Israel’s right to exist, but did not necessarily endorse its Jewish character, Teitelbaum argued.

“He is not accepting the premise of Zionism,” he said. Recognizing Israelis’ right to a state sounds great, “but he did not express the Jewish people’s unconditional right to sovereignty. It’s very close, but he’s not quite there yet.”

In fact, MBS did not go much further than previous Saudi leaders, Teitelbaum said, citing Fahd’s so-called Eight Point Peace Plan of 1981 and Abdullah’s 2002 Saudi Peace Initiative. Both proposals — incidentally made by then-crown princes — promised to recognize Israel after a peace deal with the Palestinians.

“This interview is part of a long process in Saudi history, going all the way back to the Fahd plan,” Teitelbaum said. “It’s a progression, but it’s a question of how thin you can slice the salami. You keep on slicing it but you never get there.”

The crown prince is “clearly willing to take on taboos regarding Israel that his predecessors would not,” said former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, recalling that Riyadh recently for the first time allowed a civil aircraft to cross over Saudi airspace en route to Tel Aviv.

His remarks to The Atlantic however, are a far cry from formal recognition of Israel, Shapiro stressed, citing the fact that Saudi officials still refuse to meet Israelis in public.

Another reminder of the fact that ties between the House of Saud and the Jewish state still have a long way to go was King Salman’s statement Tuesday reaffirming Riyadh’s support for the Palestinian cause.

In a phone call with Trump, the monarch “reaffirmed the kingdom’s steadfast position toward the Palestinian issue and the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people to an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital,” according to official Saudi Press Agency.

File: In this April 5, 2017 photo, released by the Saudi Press Agency, SPA, Saudi King Salman, right, and then-defense minister and deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman wave as they leave the hall after talks with the British prime minister, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)

Joseph Mann, an expert on Saudi Arabia at Bar-Ilan University, said the most surprising thing about the crown prince’s interview was the forthcomingness with which he rejected anti-Semitism.

“Our country doesn’t have a problem with Jews. Our Prophet Muhammad married a Jewish woman,” MBS told Goldberg. “Our prophet, his neighbors were Jewish. You will find a lot of Jews in Saudi Arabia coming from America, coming from Europe. There are no problems between Christian and Muslims and Jews.”

It was “refreshing” to see how MBS dismissed the Jew hatred that has dominated Saudi society for ages “with such easiness,” Mann said.

His comments about Israelis having a right to their own state, on the other hand, were really nothing new, he said. “The Saudis always saw the Palestinians as the problematic side.”

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