It was bound to happen.
For decades, the Arab world maintained a fiery hostility toward Israel, and a widespread belief that “Palestine” must be liberated at all costs. It was easy to do in the pre-Internet era when the people at large, the so-called “Arab street,” could be kept in ignorance regarding the facts of the situation.
Now, as average Arabs become increasingly informed about Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians, sentiments have shifted somewhat, at least among those not driven entirely by the notion of holy war.
“Today, the public is informed. There is a deluge of opinions against the Palestinian cause,” explained Saudi writer Abdulhameed Al-Ghobain in an interview this month with BBC Arabic. As for warming relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, he said that “it is no longer just public support for normalization and building ties with Israel. Our public has turned against the Palestinians in general.”
But how could that happen? The “Palestinian cause” was for so long the centerpiece of regional Arab politics.
The change has a lot to do with the behavior of the Palestinians themselves.
Strategic interests vs. religious convictions
“The Palestinians have not contributed anything. We can say that they are emotional people whose behavior is governed by their feelings,” explained Al-Ghobain.
Indeed, for the entire Muslim world, the “Palestinian cause” has always been based on emotions and religious convictions, despite Western efforts to paint it as a mostly political problem. That the Jews today exercise sovereignty over lands once under the dominion of Islam is seen by pious Muslims as an affront.
But at some point, strategic national interests start to trump religious convictions.
“People say out in the open that they do not care about the Palestinian cause and about the Arabs in general, and that we must steer our relations in keeping with our interests,” continued Al-Ghobain. “It is in our strategic interest, and in keeping with our future economic interests, to maintain real relations with Israel. Israel is an advanced country and we can benefit from it.”
In other words, a Palestinian state offers nothing to the rest of the region, while it has been demonstrated that relations with Israel are beneficial.
Indeed, in some ways Saudi Arabia, like Israel, views an independent Palestinian state under its current leadership as a threat. The Palestinians were among the only Arabs to back Saddam Hussein when he invaded Kuwait in 1990; the Palestinians were among the only Arabs that celebrated Al Qaeda’s 2001 attack on the United States; and the Palestinians are among the only Arabs who support, at least tacitly, Iran’s regional ambitions.
As Israeli Ambassador (ret.) Yoram Ettinger pointed out in a recent email, it’s not that the Saudis have suddenly become Zionists.
“While the House of Saud has come to associate Palestinians with regional threats, it considers Israel’s posture of deterrence as an essential, reliable and effective ally in the face of these threats,” explained Ettinger.
It’s all about Saudi interests, and those are best served by normalization with Israel. More than that, many in the Arab world are coming to realize what many in Israel have been arguing all along, that a Palestinian state, particularly one influenced so heavily by the likes of Hamas, will only serve to further destabilize the region.