Dr. Alon Ben-Meir*
Israel and the Palestinians will not find a solution to their conflict without third-party mediation. Such a party is no longer the traditional arbiter, the US, but Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have created a promising geostrategic environment in the region and have the means and the political clout to succeed where all others have failed
New York (The Hawk): Over the past year Saudi Arabia initiated a major new geostrategic approach to the Middle East to achieve three distinctive objectives: stabilize to the maximum extent the conflict-ridden region, increase its regional and international influence and stature, and ensure steady oil exports. To that end, Riyadh resumed its diplomatic relations with its arch enemy Iran, invited Syria’s President Assad back into the Arab fold, expanded its tacit relations with Israel, hosted talks between the combatant parties in Sudan, and continued to exert efforts to mediate between Ukraine and Russia, all while pursuing an independent but carefully calibrated course in its foreign relations, especially with the big powers, the US, Russia, and China, and consolidating its leadership role in the Arab world. By all accounts, Saudi Arabia has become the most significant rising power in the Middle East that no state in the region can rival.
To be sure, Saudi Arabia has placed itself in a unique position where it can further utilize its influence and its leadership role by mediating a solution to the longest, and perhaps the most complicated conflict between Israel and the Palestinians since World War II. The Saudis understand that as long as this conflict continues to rage, regional stability remains tenuous at best. Furthermore, any large-scale conflagration between Israel and the Palestinians will pose major security implications that will touch every country in the region, including Saudi Arabia. Although a solution to the conflict has eluded other mediators in the past, particularly the US, Saudi Arabia, as a geopolitical power with growing popularity and political influence, is now in a unique position to change the dynamic of the conflict and possibly attain a breakthrough where others have failed.
Some well-versed observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may well dismiss the idea of a new Saudi initiative, citing the decades-old stubborn refusal of Israel and the Palestinians to make necessary concessions to reach a peace agreement. Others insist that it is simply too late to negotiate a two-state solution, as conditions on the ground have drastically shifted and no longer lend themselves to such a solution. And there are those who claim that there is a de facto one state with two legal systems that suits Israel’s needs, and that right-wing Israeli governments will continue to do everything they can to maintain the status quo, if not expand the settlements, annex more Palestinian territory, and prevent the establishment of an independent Palestinian state under any circumstances. Nevertheless, I maintain that notwithstanding the intractability of the conflict and the new reality on the ground, which includes the Israeli settlements, the status of Jerusalem, and the intertwined national security concerns of both peoples, the timing and the circumstances are ripe for such a Saudi initiative. Indeed, regardless of how long it might take, the establishment of a Palestinian state is inevitable as no one has convincingly demonstrated when, how, and under what circumstances the Palestinians will ever give up on their right to establish a state of their own. There are six aspects that strongly support this proposal.
First, any new Saudi initiative would be consistent with the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative (API) that was initially proposed by the Saudis and subsequently adopted by the Arab League. This time, however, the Saudis should publicly declare their readiness to normalize relations with Israel, provided that the Israeli government negotiate in good faith with the Palestinians to reach an agreement based on a two-state solution; the Saudis will act as the mediator, supported by the US. By taking such an initiative, the Saudis will further assert their leadership role now and in any future negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Second, there is nothing that Prime Minister Netanyahu or any of his successors wants more than the normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia, which is also the key to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. This gives the Saudis huge leverage which they can fully utilize to persuade the Israeli government to make the necessary concessions to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. For Netanyahu, normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia at the present time in particular would be the crown jewel of his long political career.
Moreover, given the Netanyahu government’s diminishing popularity, he can ill-afford to ignore a Saudi initiative. The left and left-of-center political parties will demand that Israel take any Saudi initiative very seriously, which could otherwise unravel Netanyahu’s government. A new election will likely give the left and center political parties a new mandate to form a coalition government that will be far more in tune to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians as several opposition leaders have said, including Lapid, the leader of the second largest party, Yesh Atid.
Third, as the emerging leader of the Arab states, the Saudis know that they cannot afford to normalize relations with Israel and abandon the Palestinian cause before exhausting any and all options to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinians in the West Bank will certainly welcome a new Saudi initiative, knowing full well that Saudi Arabia remains a central player in any peace negotiations.
The Saudis’ political support and financial aid to the Palestinians are central, which give the Saudis tremendous leverage over the Palestinians now and in the future to make the required concessions, fearing that otherwise the Saudis will be free to normalize relations with Israel and leave the Palestinians to their own devices.
Fourth, the Saudis can certainly count on US support, especially because the Biden administration is not inclined to initiate at this juncture new Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and is paying little more than lip service to the prospect of a two-state solution. Moreover, in addition to US support, the EU will also strongly support the Saudi initiative as the EU has been consistent with its efforts to facilitate a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Fifth, given that the conflict between Israel and Iran is a source of considerable regional instability, normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel and the resumed Saudi-Iranian diplomatic relations will certainly have a calming regional effect, which Riyadh seeks. This will not alleviate Israel’s concerns over Tehran’s nuclear program nor completely mitigate Tehran’s adversarial attitude toward Israel, but it will soften Iranian proxy Hezbollah’s position toward Israel and reduce the chances of a future conflagration between Hezbollah and Israel.
Sixth, an Israeli peace under the current Palestinian Authority (PA) leadership or a future moderate one in the West Bank will inescapably force Palestinian extremists Hamas and Islamic Jihad to reevaluate their position toward Israel. They will have to either join the PA and form a unity government (provided they first recognize Israel’s right to exist) or refuse to be a part of the peace process and continue to suffer under the blockade. Hamas realized long ago that Israel’s reality is irrevocable and once a Saudi initiative is produced it may well find a way to join the peace process, especially now that Gaza is increasingly dependent on Israel on many fronts, in particular job opportunities for tens of thousands of Gazans.
To be sure, the Saudis have a golden opportunity to dramatically change the dynamic of the conflict by renewing their own 2002 peace initiative. That said, it will be naïve to assume that the Saudis can simply convene the two parties and hammer out a solution. The decades-long deep animosity, hatred, and distrust between Israel and the Palestinians must first be largely mitigated through a process of reconciliation—people-to-people and government-to-government. Such a process should be monitored by the Saudis and the US and extend over a number of years provided that both sides agree in advance on the establishment of a Palestinian state as being the ultimate outcome of the negotiations.
Under the worst possible scenario, if Israel and the Palestinians refuse to consider any Saudi initiative, that should not deter Saudi Arabia from trying. As the emerging and undisputed leader in the Middle East which seeks prosperity, security, and stability, Riyadh simply cannot afford to ignore the simmering Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Both Israel and the Palestinians need Saudi Arabia. It is now up to Riyadh to seize the opportunity and assert its position as a regional leader and take up the mantle of peace maker.
*Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a retired professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He taught courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies for over 20 years.