Saudis make clear they’re ignoring Palestinian demands

What this means for the chance of Palestinian statehood.

By Hugh Fitzgerald, Front Page Magazine

In the three-way negotiations between the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, it has become ever clearer that while the Saudis continue to publicly declare their support for the Palestinians, they are in fact prepared to normalize ties with Israel without obtaining — or perhaps without even asking — for major Israeli concessions to the Palestinians.

More on the latest sign that the Saudis are looking out only for themselves, and are no longer insisting that more be done to further Palestinian statehood, can be found here: “US-Saudi Defense Pact Tied to Israel Deal, Palestinian Demands Put Aside,” Algemeiner, September 29, 2023:

Saudi Arabia is determined to secure a military pact requiring the United States to defend the kingdom in return for opening ties with Israel and will not hold up a deal even if Israel does not offer major concessions to the Palestinians in their bid for statehood, three regional sources familiar with the talks said.

In the past, Saudi officials have referred to the Arab Peace Initiative (AOI) of 2002, according to which the entire Arab world would make peace with Israel, but only after a Palestinian state has been created.

Even a few months ago, Saudi spokesmen were speaking about the need for a Palestinian state as a condition precedent to any normalization of ties with Israel.

But now the story is quite different. The Saudis are so intent on their three demands to Washington that the Palestinians have been pushed to one side.

These demands are: first, a security pact that would require Washington to come to the Kingdom’s aid in case of attack; second, Saudi access to advanced American weaponry; third, American help in establishing a civilian nuclear program in Saudi Arabia.

Of these three demands, the security pact is the most important.

Despite the China-brokered rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Saudis know that Iran remains a dangerous and aggressive rival, and it continues to fund and arm the Houthi rebels in Yemen, who in the past have attacked Saudi oil installations with drones.

Riyadh knows that Tehran has been trying to create a “Shi’a crescent” that would include the Houthis in Yemen, the Kataib Hezbollah in Iraq, the Alawite-led army in Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The Saudis are as alarmed about a nuclear-armed Iran as the Israelis, and they want to be assured that America will come to their aid in case of Iranian aggression, whether through the use of conventional or of nuclear armaments.

A pact might fall short of the cast-iron, NATO-style defense guarantees the kingdom initially sought when the issue was first discussed between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) and Joe Biden during the US president’s visit to Saudi Arabia in July 2022.

Instead, a US source said it could look like treaties Washington has with Asian states or, if that would not win US Congress approval, it could be similar to a US agreement with Bahrain, where the US Navy Fifth Fleet is based. Such an agreement would not need congressional backing.

The Bidenites know that Congress, still appalled at the murder of Khashoggi, and at the Saudi bombing of civilians in Yemen, will not accept a NATO-level defense pact with the Kingdom.

But there exist American treaties, as those with Japan and South Korea, that offer a slightly less “ironclad” protection against all threats than NATO members enjoy.

Washington could also sweeten any deal by designating Saudi Arabia a Major Non-NATO Ally, a status already given to Israel, the US source said.

But all the sources said Saudi Arabia would not settle for less than binding assurances of US protection if it faced attack, such as the Sept. 14, 2019 missile strikes on its oil sites that rattled world markets. Riyadh and Washington blamed Iran, the kingdom’s regional rival, although Tehran denied having a role.

The Kingdom will need to have “binding assurances” from Washington guaranteeing its protection against, or retaliation against, aggression, from drone attacks on oil sites to a massive rocket barrage, or even an invasion, of Saudi Arabia by Iran.

Agreements giving the world’s biggest oil exporter US protection in return for normalization with Israel would reshape the Middle East by bringing together two longtime foes and binding Riyadh to Washington after China’s inroads in the region. For Biden, it would be a diplomatic victory to vaunt before the 2024 US election.

The Palestinians could get some Israeli restrictions eased but such moves would fall short of their aspirations for a state. As with other Arab-Israeli deals forged over the decades, the Palestinian core demand for statehood would take a back seat, the three regional sources familiar with the talks said.

The Saudis, it is now clear, have jettisoned any pretense of maintaining their former demand for Palestinian statehood. They would like, instead, an improvement in the lives of ordinary Palestinians.

What might that mean? In Gaza, Judea and Samaria, it should mean even more Israeli work permits for Palestinians. Currently there are 19,000 permits for Gazans and 120,000 permits for Palestinians in Judea and Samaria to work in the Jewish state.

Israel could increase those numbers by another 30,000-40,000. The Palestinians working in Israel earn between four and ten times what they can earn at home. These earnings help keep the Palestinian economy afloat.

Another possibility is for Israel to supply more electricity to Gaza, where an electricity crisis has been in effect since 2017, with payment for that increase in electricity presumably coming from Saudi Arabia, which has mentioned the likelihood of a “massive aid package” for the Palestinians.

That Saudi aid will also serve as “hush money,” so that the Palestinians don’t complain about the failure of Riyadh to push for steps toward their statehood.

If the security situation warrants it, it may even be possible for the IDF to remove some especially burdensome traffic-halting checkpoints that Palestinian drivers complain about.

“The normalization will be between Israel and Saudi Arabia. If the Palestinians oppose it the kingdom will [nonetheless]continue in its path,” said one of the regional sources. “Saudi Arabia supports a peace plan for the Palestinians, but this time it wanted something for Saudi Arabia, not just for the Palestinians.”…

It’s a warning to the Palestinians: if you oppose our normalization deal, it won’t have any effect on us (“the kingdom will continue in its path”) except to cause us to further distance ourselves from the Palestinians. We Saudis now have much more important things to consider: what we want from the U.S., not what the Palestinians claim they need from Israel.

As something less than a full treaty, this defense pact would not have to be sent for a vote to the Senate. That’s important because a large number of Senators have not reconciled themselves to the killing of Khashoggi or to the Saudi bombing of civilians in Yemen, and might vote against a US-Saudi defense treaty.

Better to have something less than a full treaty that can be sure of being put into immediate effect, without a Senate vote, rather than a treaty that might be voted down.

With such a pact, military aid would be guaranteed to the Saudis, but there would be no assurance that American troops would also be sent.

Such an agreement might be enough to win over Senators who are uneasy about American commitments to a country with such a poor human rights record: the murder of Khashoggi, the long-term imprisonment of such Saudi political dissidents as Raif Badawi, and the indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Yemen are very much on the minds of some Senators.

Another template, which would not need congressional approval, would be the agreement signed with Bahrain on Sept. 13, in which the US pledged to “deter and confront any external aggression” but also said the two governments would consult to determine what, if any, action would be taken….

The agreement with Bahrain commits the Americans to ” deter and confront” any “external aggression” from, for example, Iran. But it does not say exactly how that will be done.

It may not necessarily mean American troops would be sent. The U.S, and Bahrain would first consult before any action is taken. Now the Saudis have reconciled themselves to something less than a NATO-style defense pact, but want something more than the U.S. pact with Bahrain.

The Crown Prince knows that the current Israeli government has already shown a willingness to “ease the life of the Palestinians” when it increased the number of work permits made available to Palestinians. Meanwhile, it is not just about the Palestinians that Saudi Arabia has modified, or dropped its demands altogether.

Riyadh has now agreed to allow IAEA inspectors to inspect its “civilian nuclear program,” and is willing to agree to American regulations, spelled out in the US Atomic Energy Act, on “peaceful nuclear cooperation,” which it had previously refused to do.

When the negotiations are over, and the final agreement reached, we will see exactly what territorial concessions Israel will have made to the Palestinians.

It might transfer some of the territory now in Area B, where the Palestinians are not responsible for security, to Area A, where the Palestinians have full control.

Or Jerusalem might even transfer a small tranche of Area C, where Israeli now has sole control, to Area B.

Israel might also call a temporary halt — say, a year — to establishing new settlements, though new housing units added to existing settlements would not be affected.

I find it hard to believe that Israel would agree to end settlement building altogether.

It might also agree not to formally annex more of Judea and Samaria, provided that the Palestinians keep the peace and cooperate on security matters with Israel.

Any infraction by the PA of its own commitments under Oslo II could lead Israel both to build new settlements and to annex parts of Judea and Samaria (east Jerusalem, of course, was annexed in 1967).

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has said any bargain must recognize the Palestinian right to a state within the 1967 borders, including east Jerusalem, and must stop Israeli settlement building. However, all the sources said a Saudi-Israeli deal was unlikely to address those flashpoint issues….

Abbas has a rich fantasy life. There is no possibility that Israel will ever agree to be squeezed back within the 1949 armistice lines (what the Arabs slyly describe as the “1967 borders,” though they were never recognized borders), with a nine-mile-wide waist between Qalqilya and the sea — “the lines,” Abba Eban said, “of Auschwitz.”

Israel will never give up the Golan Heights, which it needs to block an invasion from the north, nor will it ever give up east Jerusalem or control of the Jordan Valley.

According to the Mandate for Palestine, let the world be reminded, the Jews of Israel have a perfect right to settle on all the land “from the river to the sea.” That includes state and waste lands, as well as lands abandoned, or sold, by Arabs to Jews.

The Saudis will get most of what they want: a security pact with the U.S. though one not quite as strong as the mutual defense pact that binds members of NATO to each other. The final agreement will commit the Americans to send military aid, but not necessarily troops, to defend the Kingdom.

The Saudis will certainly be given access to advanced American weaponry.

And now that they have agreed to inspections by both American and IAEA inspectors of their future nuclear facilities, they will receive American help in building a civilian nuclear program. Israel will achieve a normalization of ties with the richest and most influential Arab state.

And the Palestinians will get a commitment from the Saudis of a massive infusion of cash, along with Israel’s commitment to ease the lives of Palestinians by increasing the number of work permits, supplying more electricity to Gaza where rolling blackouts currently play havoc, and perhaps even making some territorial adjustments in Judea and Samaria, by transferring some land from Area C, which is completely under Israeli control, to Area B, where Israel maintains control of security, and from Area B to Area A, where the Palestinians have full control.

There may even be an Israeli commitment to temporarily halt new settlement building, and to refrain from annexation of land in Judea and Samaria.

But if the Palestinians don’t like this result, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will tell them they can complain all they want, but the normalization deal is going through because it is in Saudi Arabia’s national interest, and surely Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah wouldn’t want the Saudis to take back the offer of billions in aid, now would he?