Saudi Support for 2002 Plan Shows It Won’t Copy UAE-Israel Pact

Saudi Arabia stood by a 2002 Arab peace initiative, indicating it’s unlikely to follow the United Arab Emirates in establishing formal ties with Israel anytime soon.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said on Wednesday that his country remains committed to the older plan, which called for normalized relations only after Israel withdraws from territories occupied in the 1967 war and claimed by the Palestinians for a state.

“That said, any efforts that promote peace in the region, that result in holding back the threat of annexation, could be viewed as positive,” he said, speaking during a news conference in Berlin alongside German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas.

His remarks broke a near-weeklong official silence by the kingdom over the agreement between the UAE and Israel. As Egypt, Oman and Bahrain welcomed the deal, observers had awaited a reaction from Saudi Arabia -- the biggest Arab economy and a symbolic leader of the global Muslim community. There was even speculation that the kingdom could follow the UAE, including from Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and a senior adviser, who has led the administration’s attempts to broker a peace deal for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Third Country

Yet “the likelihood of an imminent Saudi-Israeli normalization is very slim,” said Abdulaziz Alghashian, a researcher of Saudi foreign policy toward Israel. “Saudi identifying itself as a leading Muslim and Arab country is the chief constraint.”

The UAE’s decision last week made it the third Arab country to normalize relations with Israel, joining Egypt and Jordan. The announcement sent shock-waves through a region where the Palestinian cause has been a cultural and political touchstone for decades, with Israel viewed as a public enemy for occupying Palestinian land. But it had been expected after years of clandestine ties as Gulf Arab countries and Israel drew closer to confront a common foe in Iran.

Saudi Arabia’s silence before Wednesday’s remarks likely reflected the complexity of weighing public opinion -- and the government’s long-time support for the Palestinians -- against changing security realities.

The kingdom “uses silence to circumnavigate diplomatically sensitive issues,” Alghashian said. “It also buys Saudi time to see how things will pan out.”

Saudi Arabia’s government-sanctioned media did praise the UAE’s decision, though, potentially highlighting a shift in views among decision-makers and the close ties between the countries.

Okaz newspaper columnist Mohammed Al-Saaed enthusiastically compared the agreement to the “fall of the Berlin wall,” while Abdulrahman Al-Rashed, a Saudi opinion writer for the pan-Arab Asharq Al-Awsat who’s close to the government portrayed the UAE’s decision as a natural and pragmatic step.

“The reality is that Arabs have passed the stage of dealing with Israel,” he said. “It isn’t considered a shock, but an old and boring story.”

The columns underline how the issue of dealing with Israel is no longer completely taboo. Many Saudis closer in age to 34-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has encouraged nationalist sentiment at a time of profound change in the kingdom, now argue that it’s time to focus on their own country, not pan-Arab dilemmas that absorbed years of attention with little result.

But others in Saudi Arabia and the wider region see the UAE deal as a betrayal. On Monday, a group of activists and intellectuals called the “The Gulf Coalition Against Normalization” held an unusually frank online event to speak out against the deal, with participants from every country in the Gulf Cooperation Council. The speakers urged viewers to exert pressure on their governments, using social media to resist calls for normalization.

Many Saudis expressed relief after the foreign minister’s statements on Wednesday reassured that the kingdom’s official view wasn’t changing yet.

The minister’s comments reconfirmed ٍSaudi Arabia’s “honorable and historic position” on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Prince Khalid bin Abdullah Al Saud wrote on Twitter.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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