Saudi King Salman reaffirmed his nation’s support for the Palestinians in a conversation with US President Donald Trump, state media said Tuesday, after his son and heir apparent said Israel has a “right” to a homeland.
The king “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,” the official Saudi Press Agency said.
The king also emphasized the need to advance the Middle East peace process in his phone call with Trump, which came after recent clashes between the Israeli military and Gazan protesters at the border fence in which 16 Palestinians were reported killed and over 1,000 were injured, according to the Hamas-run Palestinian health ministry.
Saudi Arabia and Israel have no formal diplomatic relations, but behind the scenes their ties appear to have improved in recent years in the face of what they see as a common Iranian threat.
Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians has long proved an obstacle to a full rapprochement, however, as Riyadh still supports the Palestinian claim to sovereignty.
But Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman seemed to indicate a notable shift in the kingdom’s official position in an interview published Monday with US news magazine The Atlantic.
The prince was asked by the magazine whether the “Jewish people have a right to a nation-state in at least part of their ancestral homeland?”
“I believe that each people, anywhere, has a right to live in their peaceful nation,” said the prince, who is on a three-week US tour.
“I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land,” he added.
In keeping with the terms of his kingdom’s regional peace proposal, the Saudi crown prince added that an agreement with the Palestinians was a prerequisite to formal relations. “But we have to have a peace agreement to assure the stability for everyone and to have normal relations,” he said.
Since 2002, Saudi Arabia has been the main sponsor of the Arab Peace Initiative, which sees a peace treaty between Israelis and Palestinians as a condition for normalization with the entire Arab and Muslim world.
Israel and Saudi Arabia have no official relations and the kingdom does not recognize the Jewish state. Israel has hinted at clandestine ties with Saudi Arabia in recent years, stressing the two countries share an interest in countering Iran. The rumors of covert relations have been denied by Saudi officials. Still, a Saudi general visited Jerusalem in 2016 and met with Israeli lawmakers, and Saudi officials have met with Israeli officials on several occasions in public; Saudi Arabia also last month allowed Air India to fly to and from Tel Aviv via its airspace.
Discussing whether a shared concern over Iran was bringing Israel and Saudi Arabia together, he said: “Israel is a big economy compared to their size and it’s a growing economy, and of course there are a lot of interests we share with Israel and if there is peace, there would be a lot of interest between Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and countries like Egypt and Jordan.”
Salman also discussed the threat to the Middle East he said was posed by Iran, even saying that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic, “makes Hitler look good.”
“Hitler didn’t do what the supreme leader is trying to do. Hitler tried to conquer Europe. This is bad,” he explained. “But the supreme leader is trying to conquer the world. He believes he owns the world. They are both evil guys. He is the Hitler of the Middle East. In the 1920s and 1930s, no one saw Hitler as a danger. Only a few people. Until it happened. We don’t want to see what happened in Europe happen in the Middle East. We want to stop this through political moves, economic moves, intelligence moves. We want to avoid war.”
In a major Saudi shakeup last year, Prince Mohammed pushed aside his older and more experienced cousin to become first in line to his father’s throne, setting himself up to control Saudi policy for decades to come.
The Saudis are working aggressively to change perceptions. They’ve cast themselves as essential partners against Islamist extremist groups and, especially since Trump’s maiden overseas voyage last year, touted their lavish purchases of high-tech goods from job-creating American companies. In Yemen, the kingdom says it is improving military targeting, opening up ports and pledging $1.5 billion in new aid.