Mohammed bin Salman Is Wrong on Palestine
Imad K. Harb
Critics allege that impetuousness and impatience are driving Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s actions and statements. What could also be driving him to do and say the unacceptable regarding a number of issues is lack of experience with basic political maneuvering and diplomacy. Looking at the uncertainty caused by MbS to Saudi Arabia’s central position in the Arab and Islamic worlds, it is legitimate to ask whether the young crown prince speaks for the kingdom in his many public policy decisions, especially regarding the question of Palestine.
In a meeting with American Jewish leaders during his recent visit to the United States, bin Salman told his interlocutors that the Palestinian leadership should stop rejecting peace proposals or simply “shut up.” People in the meeting were surprised by his strident criticism of Palestinians. He also is reported to have said that the Palestine question is no longer a priority for Saudi Arabia, which is busier now with Iran—a “more urgent and more important” issue.
What may be irking the crown prince is that the Palestinians do not appear to be jumping at the prospect of an American peace plan that codifies Israel’s colonial control over their lives. President Donald Trump and his emissaries for the peace process, his son-in-law Jared Kushner and advisor Jason Greenblatt, have not even tried to hide their bias against the Palestinians’ right to an independent state and their support for Israel’s settlement activities on Palestinian land. Indeed, given the situation, Palestinian leaders have rejected signing away their rights to self-determination and decision-making about their future—just to appear moderate and accommodating to Israeli and American decision-makers.
Accusing Palestinian leaders of affirming the refrain of Israel’s late Foreign Minister Abba Eban’s that “Arabs miss no opportunity to miss an opportunity,” bin Salman may have totally ignored important instances of Middle East peace endeavors that were rejected by Israel. Certain initiatives were proposed at different times by Saudi Arabia itself, but they were dispatched or made to fail by Israeli leaders. One was the 1981 Fahd Plan, which was the basis for the Reagan Administration’s approach to peace and the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference under the George H.W. Bush Administration. Another was the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, proposed by the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, which is still the Arab world’s roadmap for peace. This initiative has not even received any attention from successive Israeli governments despite its ambitious quest to normalize relations between the Arab world and Israel.
Mohammed bin Salman’s chastising of Palestinian leaders was followed in early April by his declaration to the world that Israel has a right to the land in historic Palestine, a statement anathema to longstanding Saudi—and overall Arab—policy and practice. His statement and the uproar that followed prompted King Salman to issue a clarifying statement in the name of the kingdom that reiterated support for an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. Clearly, Saudi Arabia’s institutions were rightly apprehensive about the negative repercussions from the crown prince’s declaration. Indeed, everyone, including MbS’s supporters inside and outside the kingdom, quickly became worried about upholding Saudi Arabia’s reputation as a defender of Palestinian national rights.
No one doubts that the crown prince is in a hurry to implement domestic reform initiatives, defeat Iran and its proxies everywhere in the Middle East, succeed in the war in Yemen, and force Qatar to its knees in the current GCC crisis. But he cannot assume that the Palestinians should simply give up on their rights and accept whatever peace plan comes their way from the United States, or one that is approved by Israel. In fact, it behooves him to remember that Israel currently occupies what is left of the Palestinian historic homeland and changes its demographic makeup, colonizes it, and exercises brutal force against unarmed Palestinian protesters. He also would do well to realize that additional concessions to Israel will only rob Palestinians of the last shreds of national and human dignity, without bringing any peace to them or to the Arab world.