On December 20 2017, Saudi King Salman recieved Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for the second time in less than two months. However, unlike the first meeting in November where Saudi Prince Mohammad bin Salman may have coerced Abbas to accept U.S. President Donald Trump’s upcoming peace plan, the Saudis stood in solidarity with their Palestinian counterparts in light of Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and stated that they would not abandon the Palestinian cause of an independent state.
This may have come as a surprise to some with tensions rising between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Since Saad Hariri’s sudden resignation as prime minister of Lebanon and the Iranian backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have begun to launch their rockets into Saudi territory, one may have hypothetically believed that the Arab Sunni states are now willing to sign a peace accord with Israel without the precondition of a Palestinian state. However, if one were to take into consideration the Arab Sunni states’ domestic constraints, one would see that it is precisely because they are in a regional conflict with Iran that they cannot commit to full normalization with Israel without first reaching a final status solution with the Palestinians.
Though the Arab Sunni governments have been confrontational towards Iran and its nuclear ambitions, their Arab Sunni populations have not always shared the same level of hostility. In a survey conducted in 2010 by Shibley Telhami across six different Arab countries (Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE), when Arab citizens were asked to name two countries they felt posed the biggest threat to them, 88 percent said Israel, 77 percent said the United States, and only 10 percent said Iran. In addition, 77 percent said that Iran has the right to its nuclear program, while only 20 percent said the international community should pressure Iran to stop its nuclear program. The results may be explained by historic anti-Semitic trends in the Arab and Islamic world, as well as the Arab publics’ resentment towards Israeli and American actions in the Palestinian Territories, Lebanon, and Iraq and Iran’s complimentary position as the locus of “resistance” in all of those places. This may have changed somewhat due to Iran’s intervention on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, but the point remains that most Arab people in the Middle East are not inherently hostile towards Iran. Therefore, if the Arab Sunni states were to commit to full normalization with Israel without first reaching a two-state solution with the Palestinians, the Arab Sunni states would risk political suicide with their citizen population beginning to see Iran even more favorably and further support its nuclear program.
This may be especially the case in Saudi Arabia with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent actions. The past few months he has taken several controversial initiatives, such as allowing women to drive, condemning religious extremism, and arresting Saudi figures for alleged corruption who may have been popular to many Saudi citizens. That being said, the crown prince and the Saudi royal family cannot afford to make another move that will make their regional rival Iran look favorable in the eyes of their citizens.
Nevertheless, this is not to suggest that the current events that have brought Israel and the Saudis closer are insignificant. Beforehand, when offering the Arab Peace Initiative, the Arab states had only come in with an all or nothing approach, meaning, they would not have any level of diplomatic relations with Israel until it committed to a sovereign Palestine along the 1967 borders. However, the Saudis and the Arab states may have changed their strategy from an all or nothing approach to concurrence. In other words, the Arab states now seem willing to gradually strengthen their diplomatic ties with Israel in return for gradual gestures towards the Palestinians in the peace process. This was first displayed in May 2017 when the Gulf states offered to strengthen their communication ties with Israel in return for a settlement freeze.
Indeed, a settlement freeze may be a pragmatic first step for Israel to strengthen ties with the Arab states. In fact, Israel may not even need to cease settlement activity in the blocs, such as Gush Etzion and Ma’ale Adumin, as they are widely considered to be part of Israel in any future agreement. For example, during the Annapolis negotiations in 2009, the Palestinian negotiating team agreed that Gush Etzion and Ma’ale Adumin may be part of Israel in return for land swaps. Additionally, in 2013, the Arab League endorsed the idea of land swaps over borders between Israel and Palestine, so they may be willing to accept a settlement freeze outside of the blocs as an acceptable first step in negotiations.
Moreover, a settlement freeze may also carry the added bonus of mitigating Palestinian support for violence as it will increase hope for peace. According to the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research Director Khalil Shikaki’s December 7-10 poll, over 43 percent of Palestinians said they believe armed resistance is the most effective way to establish a Palestinian state. Shikaki has suggested that violence is popular among the Palestinian public when there is little hope for a peace agreement, but support recedes when there is. By committing to a settlement freeze, Israel will not only be able to strengthen its diplomatic ties with the Arab states, but may also reduce Palestinian support for violence with a stronger sense of hope for a two-state solution.
Ongoing regional developments have created a paradigm shift among the Arab states’ approach toward Israel, but not such a drastic or fundamental change as abandoning the Palestinian cause. It is important for Israeli leaders to recognize this and take advantage of the array of incremental benefits Saudi Arabia and its allies can yield rather than deluding themselves into thinking that normalization with the Arab states is coming before a final status accord with the Palestinians.