Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud says Israelis “have the right to have their own land,” and although there’s no immediate change in official Saudi policy, a former Clinton administration official says that position could lead to a seismic shift in the region and the quest for Middle East peace.
The Atlantic reporter Jeffrey Goldberg asked the crown prince, who is effectively running Saudi Arabia, whether he believes the “Jewish people have a right to a nation-state in at least part of their ancestral homeland.”
“I believe that each people, anywhere, has a right to live in their peaceful nation. I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land. But we have to have a peace agreement to assure the stability for everyone and to have normal relations,” said bin Salman.
When pressed about whether he has any religious objection to the existence of a Jewish state, the prince gave a more detailed answer.
“We have religious concerns about the fate of the holy mosque in Jerusalem and about the rights of the Palestinian people. This is what we have. We don’t have any objection against any other people,” said bin Salman.
Bin Salman also made it clear that the threat posed by a nuclear Iran is a critical factor in warmer relations with Israel, stating that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini “makes Hitler look good.”
The crown prince also gave some reasons for cooling the optimism. In the same interview, bin Salman also said there is not an anti-Semitism problem in Saudi Arabia and that “there is no Wahhabism. We don’t believe we have Wahhabism.” He also does not recognize Israeli territory gained since 1967.
Nonetheless, American Foreign Policy Council Senior Fellow Lawrence J. Haas says the prince’s comments on Israel could be earthshaking.
“This statement is, potentially, monumentally important. It is, in essence, a recognition of the right of the Israeli state to exist,” said Haas, who served as communications director for Vice President Al Gore in the Clinton administration and staunchly opposed the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration.
After 70 years of Arab refusal to recognize the modern state of Israel, Haas said this kind of gesture by bin Salman provides at least a flicker of hope for that hostility to change.
“If this leads to a more formal recognition and peace deal between those two countries, this could really have tremendous effects that stretch across the entire region,” Haas explained. “So I think it’s terribly important.”
Bin Salman has been cracking down on corruption, relaxing restrictions on women in Saudi society, and he permitted an Israeli flight to use Saudi airspace. Haas said the slow thaw has been happening for a while.
“This is part of a gradual warming of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia that has really taken place over the course of the last five to 10 years,” he said. “Lots of back channel communications, appearances by Saudi officials and Israeli officials at the same events. I believe there was even a handshake at one point.”
While bin Salman is working to modernize Saudi Arabia, Haas said the obvious point of agreement between the two nations is the need to confront a massive, mutual threat from Iran.
“There’s no question that that’s the overwhelming driver for Saudi Arabia,” Haas said. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and Israel and Saudi Arabia probably have the most to lose when it comes to the rise of Iran.”
Iran has repeatedly threatened to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. While Saudi Arabia is the leading Sunni Muslim power, Iran is the clear leader among Shiite Muslims.
According to Haas, teaming up against Iran gives Israel and Saudi Arabia the opportunity to coordinate strategies, share intelligence and rally more of the region to their side.
Haas believes Saudi Arabia warming toward Israel could have a major impact on other nations in the Middle East.
“It would be a pretty important signal to other countries that don’t have relations with Israel that at the end of the day, this is a long-running dispute we’ve had with Israel,” he said. “Israel isn’t going anywhere. We’ve got bigger problems, and maybe the rest of you need to get on board.”
There is a major concern for Haas and others who hope there can be meaningful progress toward stability in the region. They fear bin Salman may not live to achieve his goals.
“Any time you’re in a conversation about what the crown prince is doing in Saudi Arabia and how significant it may or may not be, you don’t have to be speaking very long before someone says, ‘If he survives,'” Haas said. “The threat being that he will suffer the same fate perhaps as (former Egyptian President) Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated by radical forces within his own country after making peace with Israel.
“He’s moving pretty aggressively, and you do have to wonder how successful he will continue to be as he pushes the envelope more and more,” he said. “We’ll have to see but people do worry about his fate.”