The split between the Palestinians and Arab states

Oct 22, 2020 | AIJAC staff

Former Saudi Ambassador to the US and intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan
Former Saudi Ambassador to the US and intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan

Update from AIJAC


10/20 #03

This Update deals with the apparent disenchantment with the Palestinians and their cause in large parts of the Arab world, and the Palestinian turn to non-Arab states for patronage, especially Turkey and its allies, and to a lesser extent Iran. Much analysis of this apparent split has been written in the wake of a very frank interview on October 6 by Prince Bandar bin Sultan – Saudi Arabia’s former ambassador to the US and director-general of the Saudi Intelligence Agency – who was very critical of the Palestinian leadership, past and present.

We lead with veteran American Middle East mediator Dennis Ross, who draws on his long history of dealing with both Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and Arab state leaders to analyse the current split. He explains that Bandar and other Arab leaders privately expressed dismay at Palestinian rejectionism, such as after the 2000 negotiations, but would not speak out publicly. Ross argues that this reticence actually did the Palestinians no favours, preventing their leadership from learning from their mistakes. He also suggests Arab states, if they adopt the new approach represented by the UAE and Bahrain peace deals, and comments like Bandar’s, can use normalisation with Israel to create concrete achievements for the Palestinians. For all the insights of a very experienced Middle East diplomat and peacemaker, CLICK HERE.

Next up, veteran Arab affairs journalist Khaled Abu Toameh documents how Bandar’s comments unleashed an explosion of expressions of similar sentiments about the Palestinians in both Saudi media and that of other Gulf states. He cites numerous columnists and analysts calling for  new Palestinian leadership and complaining about Palestinian ingratitude for past support and misuse of financial aid. Abu Toameh suggests that all of this is evidence that the Palestinians are “on very thin ice”, not only with the Saudis, but across the Arab world. For all the details,  CLICK HERE.

Finally, we offer some views about the Palestinian Authority’s efforts to seek reconciliation with Hamas via mediation by Turkey and its ally, Qatar, from Palestinian scholar Gaith al-Omari. Al-Omari. who served as an advisor to Palestinian negotiating teams in the past, argues this a risky move, and that Turkey and Qatar cannot offer the same financial and political support the Palestinians have traditionally received from their Arab allies. He says the current course could not only increase the Palestinians’ international isolation, but strengthen Hamas at the expense of the PA, and he suggests key Arab states need to strongly warn Ramallah about the costs of what they are currently doing. For al-Omari’s complete argument,  CLICK HERE.

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Bandar speaks out: the changing landscape in the Mideast


The Hill, 10/19/20

Shortly before we presented the Clinton parameters on peace to the Israelis and Palestinians in December 2000, I briefed Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to America. Once presented, I wanted Saudi Arabia to urge then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to accept our bridging proposal to end the conflict. Bandar’s response is etched in my memory: “If Arafat rejects this, it won’t be a mistake, it will be a crime.”

Bandar said this privately to me.

After Arafat rejected the Clinton parameters, other Arab officials echoed similar, if less dramatic, views to me. But none were prepared to say anything publicly. None were prepared openly to criticize the Arafat decision or counter the Palestinian story misrepresenting what had been offered.

That was then — when the Palestinians could portray the diplomacy one way, and leading Arab figures would not challenge their story, even when they knew it was wrong.

But this is now, and the Middle Eastern landscape is changing when it comes to the Palestinian cause.

What was unthinkable before is no longer; the fear that Palestinians could arouse opposition to Arab leaders by claiming they were betraying Palestinian national aspirations is gone.

Last week Bandar bin Sultan — in a three-part interview on al Arabiya network, speaking to a Saudi and regional audience — engaged in truth-telling about the historic failures of the Palestinian leadership. From declaring that Palestinian leaders “always pick the wrong side” to bemoaning that “there were always opportunities, but they were always lost,” he debunked the Palestinian narrative. He spoke of the constant divisions among Palestinians and how the Saudi kingdom “had justified to the whole world the actions of Palestinians” even when “we knew, indeed, [they] were not justified.”

But Saudi Arabia did so because, in Bandar’s words, they did not “wish to stand with anyone against them, nor did we wish to see the consequences of their actions reflected on the Palestinian peoples.” In other words, Saudi Arabia stood by Palestinian leaders even when they were wrong, producing in Bandar’s words, Palestinian “indifference” and a belief that “there is no price to pay for any mistakes they commit.”

The Saudis and others did the Palestinians no favors. If Palestinian leaders never had to acknowledge their mistakes or account for why they missed opportunities, they were never going to learn lessons and adjust their behavior. But their negotiators knew. This past year, one former Palestinian negotiator, despairing about the current reality, wistfully said to me, “Can you imagine where we would be if we had accepted the Clinton parameters?”

Yasser Arafat and Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd in 2000. According to Bandar, the Saudis knew Palestinian actions were not justified, but until recently, supported them anyway.

Bandar’s message was clear: We won’t cover for you any longer, and we have our own needs. As he put it: “In my personal opinion, with all the events that have taken place around the world, we are at a stage in which rather than being concerned with how to face Israeli challenges in order to serve the Palestinian cause, we have to pay attention to our national security and interests.”

The same logic motivated the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to formalize peace with Israel now. No longer would the Emirates allow the Palestinians to deny them what they saw as being in their interests — and, given the health and economic challenges of COVID-19, drought conditions that threaten water and food security needs, and security threats from Iran, its Shia militia proxies and radical Sunni Islamists, other Arab states will follow the Emirates’ example.

Regrettably, the Palestinian reaction to the Emirates was to fall back on old tropes — they betrayed us, it was a stab in the back. Palestinians resent Israel getting what it wants while they remain under occupation, but they are ignoring that the Emirates created linkage: Normalization was conditioned on Israel not annexing the territories allotted to it in the Trump plan. True, Emirate linkage was designed to prevent a negative Israeli action, but other Arab states can press for positive Israeli moves toward the Palestinians in return for their taking normalizing steps.

Depending on the scope of normalization, these steps can range from the practical and the tangible (like approving water and waste water treatment projects) to more political and symbolic ones (like expanding the area of the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority’s control, or stopping Israeli settlement construction to the east of the security barrier, meaning in 92 percent of the territory).

While the Bandar revelations appear to be setting the stage for Saudi moves toward Israel, the Saudi kingdom is unlikely to make one big leap. The Emirates didn’t; they built their relations with Israel over the last decade, starting quietly and beginning more public outreach in 2015 with the opening of an Israeli diplomatic presence in the International Renewable Energy Agency’s office in Abu Dhabi.

In all likelihood, the bigger Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Morocco will move in stages, and the Palestinians can gain from that. But they have to play. They cannot repeat their historical pattern of always rejecting the openings of others (such as Egypt and the UAE) and aligning with those who reject them — Saddam Hussein in response to Sadat’s peace, Turkey and Iran in response to the UAE today.

If the Palestinians choose wrong again, they will be left behind.

Their loss won’t be a win for Israel because the Palestinians are not going anywhere; Israel will still have a Palestinian problem.

A smart U.S. policy would be to broker Arab outreach to Israel, Israeli steps to Palestinians in response, and use that to restore a sense of possibility. In the end, Bandar will have done Palestinians a favor if he forces them to look in the mirror and realize it is time to choose correctly.

Dennis Ross is counselor and the William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He served as special assistant to President Obama, as Special Middle East Coordinator under President Clinton, and as director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff in the first Bush administration. He is the author, with David Makovsky, of Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny. Follow him on Twitter @AmbDennisRoss.

Saudi Arabia: We, Too, Are Fed Up with the Palestinians

  • Many Saudis and other Gulf citizens expressed support for Prince Bandar bin Abdulaziz’s criticism of the Palestinians, with some saying the time has come for a new Palestinian leadership that prioritizes its people’s interests and does not pocket the financial aid sent to them by the Arab countries and the West.
  • “Palestinian leaders stole the aid sent to the Palestinian people and built mansions in Washington, Paris and London, while ignoring the suffering of their people.” — Saudi political analyst Abdel Rahman Al-Mulhem, Al-Yaum, October 9, 2020
  • According to Fahd Al-Shoqiran, a Saudi researcher and columnist, Palestinians “must be reminded that the hundreds of billions of money their leaders received to support their cause from Saudi Arabia throughout its history were capable of building the Palestinians huge cities.” Instead, Al-Shoqiran said, Palestinian leaders used the money to buy private planes and luxurious buildings in Europe and the US… “The prince’s speech was clear, direct, accurate and frank. The speech is a wake-up call. Things have changed….
  • What is evident, meanwhile, is that, where Saudi Arabia is concerned, the Palestinians are on very thin ice. In fact, they may wake up to discover that the ice is melting all over the Arab world.


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