Adi Schwartz

First, Saudi Arabia – then the Palestinians

The less support Palestinians get for refusing to acknowledge Israel's right to exist, the more flexible they may become
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Saudi King Salman in Riyadh on February 12, 2019. (Credit: Wafa)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Saudi King Salman in Riyadh on February 12, 2019. (Credit: Wafa)

The emerging normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia has evoked criticism in certain circles for its apparent lack of sufficient Israeli concessions to the Palestinians. Some argue that such an agreement would do little for the Palestinians and may even deepen their sense of despair. 

However, the reality is exactly the opposite. The most promising path to peace with the Palestinians lies in improving relations with the Arab world, particularly with Saudi Arabia.

The absence of a comprehensive peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians does not stem from Israeli reluctance to make concessions. Over the past quarter-century, two Israeli prime ministers, Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, presented detailed peace proposals that included the establishment of a Palestinian state, the dismantling of settlements, the creation of a Palestinian capital in eastern Jerusalem, and even Arab sovereignty over the Temple Mount. These offers seemed to meet all the demands the Palestinians had made. However, none of the Israeli proposals elicited a positive response from Palestinian leaders Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas.

The fundamental reason behind the enduring conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is the Palestinians’ continued refusal to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist as the nation-state of the Jewish People. Their primary objective is not to establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel but to replace it. This is why no amount of Israeli concessions has proven sufficient, short of dismantling the Jewish state. 

Had Israel only been contending with the Palestinians, the conflict might have concluded long ago. In a mere four weeks in April 1948, the Jewish Yishuv triumphed over the Arab residents of the British Mandate (later referred to as Palestinians) and secured victory in the War of Independence. The ongoing 75-year conflict since then is primarily due to the unwavering support of the Arab world (approximately 300 million people today) and the Muslim world (approximately 1.5 billion people today) for the Palestinians, offering political, economic, and diplomatic backing. Absent this support, the conflict might have ended long ago.

Israel cannot directly alter the Palestinian mindset that denies Israel’s existence, or change the core ideology within Palestinian society that views the state’s establishment as a catastrophe (“Nakba”), and which still seeks to “correct” this perceived injustice through a massive return of refugees (in practice, descendants of refugees) to Israeli territory (referred to as the “right of return”).

However, nations, like individuals, respond to incentives. What has sustained the Palestinian militant and uncompromising approach for 75 years has been the full support of the Arab and Muslim world. As long as the Arab world wholeheartedly supported Palestinian demands, there was no motivation for Palestinians to reconsider their position or accept Israel’s permanence. This explains Palestinian resistance to the Abraham Accords. Palestinians sense that the status quo is changing, that the unequivocal Arab support they have enjoyed for many decades is waning.

Hence, achieving normalization with Saudi Arabia is not just a significant achievement in itself with considerable potential for all parties involved, but also a path toward peace with the Palestinians. Only when the Palestinians find themselves increasingly isolated and realize that their extreme demands lack support in the Arab world will they begin to rethink their stance out of sheer necessity. 

In their economic and diplomatic isolation, Palestinians will be compelled to adopt a more flexible approach and seek practical, pragmatic solutions to their disputes with Israel. When Palestinians subsequently demonstrate a willingness to reach an agreement with Israel and coexist peacefully, technical solutions to achieve that goal surely will emerge.

In this context, Saudi Arabia is not just another Arab state. It is the leading Arab country in the Middle East – especially when one takes into account the challenges and weaknesses of Egypt, Iraq, and Syria. Riyadh possesses substantial economic clout. Additionally, as the guardian of the two holiest sites of Islam, Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia wields religious and ideological influence across the entire Muslim world. Therefore, Saudi Arabia’s commitment to a peace accord with Israel and positive relations with it likely will have profound positive repercussions in the Arab and Muslim world. The Palestinians cannot remain indifferent to this.

Therefore, anyone genuinely committed to achieving peace with the Palestinians, rather than merely appearing to seek it, must strongly advocate for normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

About the Author
Dr. Adi Schwartz is a fellow at the Jerusalem-based Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy, and the author (with Dr. Einat Wilf) of 'The War of Return: How Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream Has Obstructed the Path to Peace' (St. Martin’s Press, 2020).