MbS Also Gets Nothing for Normalizing with Israel

Once again, Arab solidarity with the Palestinian cause suffered a setback. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) reportedly met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as steps toward normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel pick up speed. The meeting took place barely a few hours after the kingdom hosted, virtually, the much-vaunted meeting of the G20 club of nations, as if Saudi-Israeli normalization were a planned outcome of the international gathering. That this latest Arab concession to Israel appears to come without a discernible return regarding Palestinian rights is not surprising; it dovetails with the nonexistent rewards of recent normalization with Israel by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Sudan.

Several issues can be gleaned from the announcement of the meeting. First, it is obvious that President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wanted to present Netanyahu with a parting gift––although the president has rejected the result of the US presidential election––in addition to many other benefits over the last four years. Evidently, the Saudi leadership could not withstand the pressure of a US administration that easily and without consequence is able to destroy the proverbial temple on all who pray within it. It is not hard to imagine how a Trump or a Pompeo could threaten MbS by leaking information on his involvement in the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi or on the kingdom’s controversial conduct in the war in Yemen. Exposing MbS’s personal culpability in either of these affairs could easily erode whatever legitimacy the aspirant to the Saudi throne craves domestically and internationally.

Second, it appears that King Salman bin Abdulaziz has finally lost control of the ship of state to his son. While the kingdom was cautious in commenting on (though not criticizing) the UAE’s announcement of normalization with Israel, in the end it declared that it was against the move until a just and equitable solution to the Palestinian question is found—a position the king has vehemently defended. Today, as King Salman grows older and less attentive, Crown Prince Mohammed may have seen that the door is slowly opening for a radical change in policy. To be sure, the writing has been on the wall for a long time and the attack that Prince Bandar bin Sultan––Riyadh’s former long-serving ambassador in Washington––levied against the Palestinian leadership in October was a clear indication of where MbS was going. In other words, the Saudi-Israeli meeting may very well be followed quickly by other public ones that may culminate in a White House signing ceremony before January 20th.

Third, a scary and dangerous possibility for the meeting now––as Trump and Pompeo lose more leverage on their way out––is a plan for a military strike on Iran, to which MbS is perhaps being asked to contribute. The United States has recently deployed B-52 bombers to the region, supposedly to “deter aggression and reassure US partners and allies.” Rash and headlong as he is, the crown prince might be convinced by arguments of American and Israeli protection against retaliation. This could be aided by a similar conviction on the part of the Emiratis and Bahrainis, who view their ties with Israel as an insurance policy. If this indeed comes to pass and the Trump Administration decides to attack Iran, MbS and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed will have no one else to blame for the coming calamity but themselves.

Fourth, there are serious developments in Israel that do not augur well for Prime Minister Netanyahu. His partner in government, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, has launched an investigation into possible corruption in the $2 billion purchase of submarines from Germany, in which confidants of the prime minister were involved. Aside from worsening relations between Netanyahu and Gantz, this investigation can cost the sitting premier untold political headaches that could lead to his resignation. A deal with Saudi Arabia on normalization could help him with the Israeli public.

Fifth, it is not difficult to expect a new campaign of repression in Saudi Arabia against members of the Saudi royal family and the wider society in order to silence any opposition to the decision to change long-standing Saudi policy on Israel and Palestine. In this regard, it is noteworthy to consider a recent public opinion survey conducted by the Doha, Qatar-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, which showed that 89 percent of Saudis consider the Palestinian cause as one that concerns all Arabs and not just the Palestinians themselves, and that 65 percent of them oppose normalization with Israel. A full 29 percent of Saudi survey respondents refused to answer the normalization question, pointing to apprehension about freely expressing their opinion on the subject. In an absolute monarchy, this level of opposition on such an important question will surely result in unmitigated repression.

Finally, whatever the result of the MbS-Netanyahu meeting, it is well known that the Arab status quo states––primarily Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE––have already decided to abandon support for the Palestinians’ fight against Israeli occupation. It has become abundantly clear that the Palestinians have no Arab state that will take up their cause. And once again, Palestinians are reminded that they alone are fully responsible for working toward assuring their human rights as a people and realizing their national right to an independent state.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here