Leading Saudi columnist says it’s ‘highly likely’ peace with Israel is possible

Another prominent commentator comments wryly that ‘Israel is now part of the Middle East, thanks to its extremists and distorted democracy’

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

In this photo provided by Saudi Press Agency, SPA, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman chairs the Arab summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Friday, May 19, 2023. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)
In this photo provided by Saudi Press Agency, SPA, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman chairs the Arab summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Friday, May 19, 2023. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)

Several prominent commentators in the Saudi press have reacted broadly positively in recent days to speculation about a possible peace deal with Israel, and to reports on Saturday that the United States may broker such a deal in return for “significant concessions” from Israel, including the dissolution of the current hardline coalition by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Virtually all Saudi media operates under direct control of the state, and it is likely that all opinion pieces have been pre-approved and are closely aligned with the views of the regime.

On Saturday, Faisal J. Abbas, lead editor of the English-language daily Arab News, wrote in a rare editorial on the subject that following the latest visit by US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan to Jeddah last week, “it is highly likely that a peace deal might be possible.”

The main argument made by the editor focused on the relationship between the kingdom and the US. Abbas said the two countries are facing common enemies, and if Saudi Arabia has nothing to fear from Israel, a staunch US ally, then the US should have nothing to fear in acquiescing to the demands the Saudis have put forward in return for a peace deal.

These are reported to include the signing of a NATO-style mutual defense agreement with America, the provision of advanced defense technology, and the development of a Saudi nuclear program, allegedly for civilian purposes.

Abbas anticipated that the main criticism the kingdom would face in the Arab and Muslim world in the event of normalization with Israel would be that it threw the Palestinians under a bus. He did not refute the accusation, but only justified the secrecy of the ongoing talks, pointing to the fact that the Palestinians themselves in the 1990s kept the Oslo talks secret until an agreement was reached.

Abbas praised what he said was Saudi Arabia’s pragmatic and consistent approach in dealing with Israel.

(L) Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, May 19, 2023. (Saudi Press Agency via AP); (C) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool/Flash90); (L) US President Joe Biden on November 2, 2022 in Washington, DC (Michael A. McCoy / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

Saudi Arabia put forward the Arab peace initiative in 2002, aiming to secure “Palestinian rights first while at the same time offering Israel the recognition and guarantees it needs,” Abbas recalled. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, along the same lines, declared last year to the Saudi Press Agency that the kingdom views Israel as a potential ally, the editor added.

“Israel has never been a security threat to Saudi Arabia,” Abbas continued. “A peace treaty with Israel would mean that the only real threat to the kingdom would be from Iran and the [Iran-backed] Houthis [in Yemen].”

Unlike Iran, Saudi Arabia has had “deeply rooted” relations with the US for 80 years, Abbas pointed out.

Saudi Arabia restored diplomatic relations with Tehran in March after years of tension, in a deal brokered by China.

Abbas did not mention in his column the American concern that Beijing will attempt to expand its diplomatic influence in the Middle East if the US cannot score concrete results, though other Saudi commentators have.

More pragmatically, Abbas encouraged America to accept the Saudi request for military cooperation in order to safeguard the oil wells in the kingdom and avoid supply shortages and price shocks.

Lastly, the editorialist emphasized that the prospect of a peace deal with the kingdom may be a tool in the hands of Joe Biden to lure Netanyahu away from his coalition of “far-right lunatics” and persuade him to form a more moderate government that may be willing to support the creation of a Palestinian state — which has traditionally been the Saudi precondition for any peace deal with Israel.

Highlighting that “none of this is official,” Abbas concluded that a peace agreement would constitute “a huge step forward for Palestinians, Israelis, and indeed for Saudi Arabia, which […] aspires to be a force for good across the region and the world.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) meets with Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on June 7, 2023. (Ahmed Yosri/Pool/AFP)

‘Israel now a full-fledged Middle East country’

Another prominent Saudi journalist, Tarik al-Homayed, wrote another editorial in the Saudi-owned London-based daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat on Wednesday, arguing that Israel has by now become part of the landscape of the Middle East, on account of its “distorted democracy” and corruption.

Israel has always been considered “the only democracy in the Middle East,” al-Homayed says, but the Jewish state has by now adopted the “rules of the game” and morphed into a “Middle Eastern country par excellence,” where a third of the electorate votes for religious parties “steeped in superstition.”

Several rounds of voting have given Israel only a fragile governing coalition, the journalist added, and Netanyahu had to resort to centralizing power in his hands in order to govern, and open the way to corruption through legal means.

Israel is today trying to ensure its own stability and prosperity under the pressure of competing “extremist” forces, al-Homayed said, whether religious, nationalist or “pro- democracy,” similar to what has happened in  Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states since the 1970s.

A protester stands in front of a police water cannon being used to disperse demonstrators blocking the Begin highway in Jerusalem during a protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul, on July 24, 2023, as the Knesset passed the “reasonableness” law. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The West praises Israel for its democracy despite the fact that Netanyahu is trying to restrict the judiciary in the absence of a written constitution, and despite “all that Israel does in the occupied territories,” he said. In light of all this, Washington has “no right to lecture the rest of the Middle East about the necessity of an independent judiciary.” It has become obvious that Israel, faced with its own internal extremists, has had to adjust its response in line with the rest of the region, al-Homayed argued.

Al-Homayed’s words were echoed by another editorial in the Saudi daily al-Watan, penned by Abdul-Wahab Badrakhan on Sunday. The commentator wrote that what really “bothered” Washington after the Israelii government’s repeal of the “reasonableness” clause, the first step in the judicial overhaul, was realizing that the narrative it had told itself and the Arab world for decades — that democracy was the cornerstone of Israeli success and superiority — had turned out to be a lie.

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