Hussain Abdul-Hussain

Can Saudi normalization with Israel hurt Palestinians?

Riyadh has rightly stopped handing out free money to Palestinians unwilling to help themselves
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman chairs the Arab summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, May 19, 2023. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman chairs the Arab summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, May 19, 2023. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)

Saudi Arabia has come to recognize a basic truth about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: The Arab world can do little to help Palestinians unless they are willing to help themselves. Palestinian salvation starts from within and requires a clear vision of peace with Israel that Palestinian leaders have thus far spurned. That is why the possibility of bilateral Saudi peace with Israel is not tantamount to Riyadh “throwing Palestinians Riyadhunder the bus.” By toeing a “Saudi first” policy, the Saudis are simply pursuing their own national interests.

Arab countries, Turkey, and Iran are divided into two camps. The Gulf states and Turkey put national interests ahead of national pride, while Iran and its satellite Arab capitals in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq prioritize populist slogans over good governance and growing economies. Until recently, Saudi Arabia could afford to do both. Riyadh had enough oil revenue to ensure prosperity while also endorsing populist policies promising the liberation of Palestine.

But since 2015, realizing that oil revenue alone cannot sustain a growing population, Saudi policies have changed. Riyadh now understands that it must capture a share of the global economy. Doing so requires nurturing Saudi human resources that can compete with other economic actors. Economic growth also requires minimizing enemies and maximizing trade partners.

As Saudi economics changed, it was only natural for foreign policy to follow suit. Starting in 2015, Saudi Arabia abandoned its checkbook diplomacy and replaced it with aid packages in the form of investments. Instead of donating to Arabs in need – such as Egyptians and Jordanians – Riyadh now offers low-interest loans for these countries to generate revenue on their own. Lebanese and Palestinians, too, saw free Saudi money dry up. Riyadh has tied its assistance to both populations to institutional reform and an end to endemic corruption.

The only Saudi foreign policy relic left from days past is the Arab Peace Initiative (API) that the Arab League endorsed by consensus, in Beirut, in 2002.

The API was born riddled with problems. In addition to not recognizing the Jewishness of Israel, API relies on competent Palestinian leadership, which has been infested with violent divisions and endemic corruption, making peace with Israel impossible.

Hamas refuses the API and the two-state solution. Under pressure from its Qatari sponsors, Hamas amended its charter to accept a Palestinian state on 1967 territories, but only in return for a truce with Israel. Hamas refused to recognize Israel, and therefore never accepted the two-state plan or the API. Hamas won the 2006 parliamentary election, ejected Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (PA) from the Gaza Strip in 2007, and still commands the support of one-third of Palestinians today.

Last week, Palestinian factions held a conference in Egypt. In their final statement, the factions said that the Palestine Liberation Organization was the sole representative of all Palestinians and that its vision for a two-state solution was their only plan. Such a position guarantees that Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and many other armed factions will remain at odds with the PA. Palestinians still have no credible or representative interlocutor that can negotiate peace with Israel, let alone uphold any agreements with the Jewish state.

With all tools of confrontation against Israel exhausted, and with Palestinians’ inability to speak with one voice and agree on one vision, Arab countries are left with two choices: Either continue boycotting Israel, at a considerable economic cost and without a clear objective or outcome, or normalize with the Jewish state, even while maintaining support for the API and the Palestinians.

Neither an Arab boycott nor Arab peace with Israel will affect Palestinians. The Arabs have tried boycott and war for 75 years and have achieved little. Perhaps signing peace and reasoning with Israel over the best way to mitigate Palestinian misery can help. But even then, all the help in the world can change little for Palestinians unless Palestinians change themselves. As Quran 13:11 teaches, “God never changes a people’s state until they change within themselves.”

About the Author
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), a non-partisan organization focused on national security and foreign policy.
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