Saudi Arabia is embracing a new Middle East, and leaving the Palestinians behind. EPA/STR
Middle East

A New Middle East is Truly Emerging

And the only losers are a corrupt Palestinian leadership clinging to the failed policies of the past

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Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi Ambassador to the United States, has released a disparaging interview bashing the behavior of the Palestinian leadership. The exclusive interview, broadcasted by the Saudi-owned television news channel Al Arabiya, came in three parts and was addressed directly to the people of Saudi Arabia. Each 30-minute segment of the former ambassador’s interview touched on a different aspect of Saudi relations with the Palestinian leadership and its national cause, from 1939 to the Camp David Accords in 2000.

The first segment opens with a harsh criticism directed at current Palestinian leaders following their own verbal attacks against the Gulf monarchy, which the Palestinians accuse of committing treason against the Arab world in general, and against the Palestinian cause in particular, over Riyadh’s support for recent normalization deals with Israel. Referring to the accusations as a “transgression against the Gulf leadership,” bin Sultan explains that the Saudi people must hear about the decades-long unwavering support Saudi Arabia dedicated to the Palestinian cause. He adds that Saudi citizens must know the truth and not be fooled by the lies of those who have proven throughout history (Palestinian leadership) that they cannot be trusted.

The timing of such a blatant message from the monarchy to its citizens is obviously strategic. Although no doubt offended by the audacious claims of Palestinian leaders that one of the most influential Arab powers has betrayed its people, it’s likely that Saudi leaders are interested in winning the hearts and minds of their public for supporting two things:

  1. The recent normalization agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain.
  2. It’s possible that this is an initial attempt to prepare the groundwork for a potential peace agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel in the future.

It is also important to preserve calm inside the Kingdom. Just because Arab regimes make peace and normalize their relations with Israel doesn’t mean that the public is always with them.

After decades of indoctrination, many Arabs are not ready for normalization with Israel, even if their leaders are.

A legacy of mistakes

In part one of the interview, bin Sultan wisely chooses his words with stark precision. He singles out the Palestinian leadership by blaming them for the self-inflicted pain caused to the Palestinian people due their chronic mistakes. At the same time, he speaks to the Palestinian public with dignity and respect, assuring them that Saudi Arabia has always advocated for their cause even in the most difficult of times.

“The Palestinian cause is a just cause, but its advocates are failures,” said the former Saudi ambassador. Fending off accusations of cozying up to the Jewish state, bin Sultan clarifies his very realist position vis-à-vis Israel, insisting that “the Israeli cause is unjust, but its advocates have proven to be successful.”

He introduces a two-pronged reoccurring theme that he mentions again and again throughout the three-part interview. In each historical case highlighted, he describes a frustrating pattern in which the leaders of the Palestinian national cause have continuously bet on the losing side of history. In addition, there has been a tendency, he says, to reject a deal and accept its very same principles only later, when the deal is no longer on the table.

Bin Sultan mentions two painful examples that have come to haunt the Palestinians. The first is one that many Israel advocates emphasize when discussing the history of the Palestinian national movement during the British Mandate period, when head of the Palestinian movement during the 1930s, Haj Amin al-Husseini, bet on the Nazis and supported them over the Allies during the Second World War.

Palestinian leader Haj Amin al-Husseini meets with Adolf Hitler in Berlin in 1941.

Another example is one that apparently has left a scar on Saudi collective memory. In 1990, long time chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Yasser Arafat supported Saddam Hussein after he belligerently occupied Kuwait, setting himself apart from most of the Arab world at the time. During this conflict, Prince Bandar notes that it was the first time that Saudi Arabia was directly attacked by missiles. He says that he cannot forget the images of young Palestinians in Nablus dancing around in celebration while waving a picture of Saddam Hussein.

The Palestinians upset the rest of the Arab world by openly supporting Saddam Hussein and his invasion of Kuwait.

But much of the prince’s frustration seems to derive from what he describes as the vicious cycle of constantly rejecting offers and then accepting their principles at a later time when the offer is no longer on the table. It was UN Resolution 181 (Partition) that was firmly rejected by the Palestinians, a rejection supported by the Saudis. These principles were later to be accepted in the form of the two-state solution.

At one point, he even appears to compare the Zionist movement at that time to the Palestinians today, saying that the Jews also had two divided camps within their national movement (clearly drawing a parallel to the Palestinian division between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank). One Jewish camp wanted to reject the Partition Plan and continue with violence, and the other wanted to go the pragmatic route and take what they could get, which was a small, but nevertheless independent nation-state recognized the UN. Unlike with the Palestinians, among the Jews, the pragmatists won out.

While no fan of the Zionist movement, the Saudi prince respects the pragmatism of early Zionist leaders.

No Zionist

We must not jump to conclusions and see the former Saudi ambassador as the newest recruit for future Hasbara (Israel advocacy) campaigns. He did not refrain from expressing both his country’s ideological views towards Zionism and the history of Israel. As noted earlier, he clearly states that in his view the Zionist cause is unjust, while the Palestinian one is just. In addition, he refers to the pre-1948 Zionist paramilitary groups as terrorists, while the Palestinian armed groups are labeled freedom fighters. He proudly speaks of his nation’s history of military support for the Palestinians, and recalls that Saudi Arabia participated in every war that was fought for Palestine.

At the same time, bin Sultan expresses Saudi Arabia’s very realist geopolitical worldview. He praises Israel, saying that while the Arabs were bickering amongst themselves—in his words, sowing division often led by the Palestinians—Israel focused on itself, strengthening its nation and its military. “This is the reality,” he says.

Benjamin Netanyahu has long insisted that making Israel strong was the key to peace with the Arab world.

Palestinian failures come back to bite them

This is an unprecedented interview given by a senior Saudi official. It is a rare sight to see so senior an official from a major Arab power publicly calling Palestinian leaders “liars” and “deceivers.” He even jabbed at them with satirical disdain, saying, “The grey hair that I have is because of them and their lost opportunities.”

This is yet another unfortunate turn of events for the Palestinians. We have come to the climax of the shift in Arab policy setting the Palestinian national cause on the back burner. The Saudis appear to be fed up with what they see as a corrupt, ungrateful Palestinian leadership. Quoting the Koran, bin Sultan says, “Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.”

It appears that until there is new Palestinian leadership in place, the rest of the Arab world is moving on and focusing on their primary national interests. In the interview, bin Sultan notes that the Palestinians have joined themselves to new allies—Iran, Turkey and Hezbollah. He laments that they are all using the Palestinians as a pawn to further their own interests.

A new era has dawned in the Middle East. Irked by Palestinian intransigence and wary of an increasingly encroaching Iran, relations between the Arab world and Israel will continue to thaw.

Prince Bandar bin Sultan’s full interview can be seen at the following links:

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