Saudi Royal Family Divides Over Potential Embrace of Israel
The king and crown prince have been at odds over whether to ease relations with the Jewish state; deal with U.A.E. stunned the 84-year-old monarch
By WSJ Sept. 18, 2020 12:32 pm ET
An argument is raging behind palace doors in Saudi Arabia: Now that the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have forged ties with Israel, should the kingdom follow suit?
Saudi Arabia’s monarch, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, has been at odds with his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, over embracing the Jewish state. The king is a longtime supporter of the Arab boycott of Israel and the Palestinians’ demand for an independent state. The prince wants to move past what he sees as an intractable conflict to join with Israel in business and align against Iran.
When President Trump announced on Aug. 13 that Israel and the U.A.E. were normalizing diplomatic ties, the deal stunned the 84-year-old king, who had just begun his summer holiday, according to people familiar with the matter, including Saudi advisers. His son wasn’t so surprised.
Prince Mohammed feared his father might block a deal that didn’t do enough to advance the cause of Palestinian statehood, those people said. If the king of Saudi Arabia, the biggest economy in the Middle East and the guardian of Islam’s holiest sites, didn’t support it, the neighboring Emiratis would be hard-pressed to move ahead. Prince Mohammed didn’t tell his father about the planned accord, which didn’t mention Palestinian statehood. Israel agreed only to suspend plans to annex parts of Israeli-occupied territory in the West Bank in return for diplomatic recognition from the U.A.E.
A furious King Salman later ordered his foreign minister to restate the kingdom’s commitment to the establishment of a Palestinian state, without mentioning the normalization deal. A royal family member close to him wrote an op-ed in a Saudi-owned newspaper reiterating that position and implying the Emiratis should have pressed the Israelis for more concessions.
“If any Arab state will follow the United Arab Emirates,” wrote Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former Saudi ambassador to the U.S., “it should demand in return a price, and it should be a high price.” The Saudi media ministry didn’t respond to a request to comment for this article.
Normalizing relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel before any deal for Palestinian statehood would be a seismic shift in the Middle East, upending a decades-old pan-Arab position. Tensions atop the Saudi ruling family suggest the kingdom’s position on the tumultuous region’s central conflict could change sooner than expected, but that such a shift would entail more turbulence.
The Trump administration has pressed to bring together Saudi Arabia and Israel, its top regional allies and Iran’s main rivals. Such an arrangement would allow for greater intelligence sharing and ease Israel’s isolation as Washington reduces its military presence in parts of the Middle East.
Note: Israel has diplomatic relations with more than 160 countries.
Sources: Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, WSJ and news reports
For decades, King Salman has funneled billions of dollars to the Palestinians and developed personal relationships with most of their leaders.
When President Trump was entering office in 2017, King Salman sent him a message saying he believed in Israel’s right to exist but also in the Palestinians’ right to have their own state, said departing U.S. Ambassador Joseph Westphal, who relayed it to the president’s transition team. That May, during President Trump’s first trip abroad, Saudi Arabia allowed him to fly from Riyadh to Tel Aviv, a rare link between the two countries that underlined the aging monarch’s hope that the new U.S. administration would work toward his long-held goal of Palestinian statehood. He was soon disappointed.
When Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, arrived in the region to sell President Trump’s Middle East peace plan to the Saudis, he promoted an early version that denied the Palestinians a capital in urban East Jerusalem and aligned with an Israeli push to grant the Palestinians limited self-government in patches of the West Bank, with no right of return for refugees displaced by earlier wars.
In a phone call with President Trump on Sept. 6, King Salman reiterated his desire for a solution to the Palestinian issue and referenced a 2002 Saudi-backed initiative promising normal relations with Israel only once that happens, according to a summary of the conversation from the Saudi state news agency.
By contrast, since assuming day-to-day responsibility of the Saudi government in 2017, the 35-year-old prince has expressed unusual openness toward Israel and accelerated engagements on security and commerce.
Soon after Prince Mohammed became heir apparent by replacing an older cousin in a late-night palace coup, he was privately pressuring Palestinian leaders to accept an early version of Mr. Trump’s peace plan, Arab officials familiar with the discussions have said. The Palestinians refused, saying it endangered their aspirations for statehood.
“He sees it as what’s practical and needed,” said Mr. Westphal, the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2014 to 2017, of the prince’s outreach to Israel. He said the king, who underwent gallbladder surgery in July and has been ailing for several years, “is not necessarily witting to everything that’s going on and involved to the extent that one would need to be involved to be in control of all these things.”
Prince Mohammed needs to maintain support from the Trump administration. The crown prince has faced international furor over the 2018 killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi operatives. He denies ordering the murder but said he bears ultimate responsibility as the country’s de facto leader. The Saudi crown prince hasn’t visited the U.S. or Europe since Mr. Khashoggi’s murder.