Saudi Arabia is sending an important signal on Arab-Israeli peace

There seems to be a growing frustration over the Palestinian leadership's unwillingness to find a lasting solution

FILE PHOTO: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends a virtual meeting with Palestinian factions over Israel and the United Arab Emirates' deal to normalise ties, in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank September 3, 2020. Alaa Badarneh/Pool/File Photo via REUTERS
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The revealing comments made by Saudi Arabia’s Prince Bandar Bin Sultan Al Saud about the “historic failures” of the Palestinian leadership in recent decades provide a fascinating insight to the challenge of finding a solution to the long-running Arab-Israeli dispute.

In a series of interviews with the Arab-language television channel Al Arabiya this month, Prince Bandar, 71, who is regarded as one of the most distinguished members Saudi foreign policy decision-makers, made a number of telling comments on the performance of Palestinian leaders during decades of peace negotiations.

From the outset, the prince made it clear that Saudi Arabia remains totally committed to helping the Palestinian people to achieve their dream of establishing their own homeland. At the same time, he aired in public for the first time his deep frustration with the approach that successive Palestinian politicians, from former Palestinian Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat to current leader Mahmoud Abbas, have adopted in peace negotiations with Israel.

Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan has been critical of the Palestinian leadership.
Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan has been critical of the Palestinian leadership.

“The Palestinian cause is a just cause, but its advocates are failures, and the Israeli cause is unjust but its advocates have proven to be successful,” the prince said in the first episode of a three-part series of interviews. “That sums up the events of the last 70 or 75 years.”

Prince Bandar was also dismissive of recent criticisms made by Palestinian leaders about the Abraham Accord with Israel, of which the UAE and Bahrain have become the first signatories.

"This low level of discourse is not what we expect from officials who seek to gain global support for their cause," he commented. "Their [Palestinian leaders'] transgression against the Gulf states' leadership with this reprehensible discourse is entirely unacceptable."

The public criticism of the Palestinian leadership by so senior a member of the Saudi royal family has inevitably prompted speculation that Saudi Arabia might be shifting its own official position on the Palestinian issue.

Apart from serving as the Saudi Arabian ambassador to Washington for an unprecedented 22 years, during which time he enjoyed a close personal relationship with successive American presidents from Ronald Reagan to George W Bush, Prince Bandar also served as his country’s intelligence chief. During his tenure in the latter post, he was personally involved with the peace process. And while Prince Bandar currently holds no government position, he is unlikely to have made such controversial comments about the failings of the Palestinian leadership without the backing of both King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Crown Prince Mohammed has said that both Israelis and Palestinians have the right to their own land, and has highlighted the fact that Israel’s security and economic interests overlap with those of Arab states, especially on the Iran issue.

While reiterating his country’s support for the Palestinian people, Prince Bandar was less impressed by the response of the Palestinian leadership. “I believe that we in Saudi Arabia, acting on our good will, have always been there for them,” he said. “Whenever they asked for advice and help, we would provide them with both without expecting anything in return, but they would take the help and ignore the advice.”

He added: “I think it is only fair to the Palestinian people to know some truths that have not been discussed or have been kept hidden.”

Commenting on Prince Bandar's critique of the Palestinian leadership, Martin S Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel, who was responsible for Middle East policy during the administration of former president Bill Clinton, and who worked closely with Prince Bandar when he was ambassador to Washington, told The New York Times that the origins of Prince Bandar's unhappiness with the Palestinian leadership stemmed from Yasser Arafat's decision to side with Saddam Hussein following the 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

“For Prince Bandar, that was the original betrayal,” Mr Indyk said. “He clearly could not stand by when they [the Palestinian leadership] accused the UAE of betrayal.”

ALGIERS, ALGERIA - NOVEMBER 20: Saudi Prince Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, Governor of Riyadh Province, with PLO leader Yasser Arafat on November 20, 1988 in Algiers, Algeria. (Photo by Mohamed LOUNES/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Then Prince Salman of Saudi Arabia, right, with the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat in Algiers in 1988. Getty Images

The failures of the current Palestinian leadership can certainly be seen in their response to the recent signing of the Abraham Accord by the UAE and Bahrain. Rather than seeking to engage with the new political dynamic that the Accord has generated in the region, Mr Abbas appears, instead, to be determined to align himself with rejectionist states such as Turkey, Iran and Qatar. Having condemned the Accord, Mr Abbas is now seeking to deepen ties with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is also opposed to the American-led initiative. Mr Erdogan is a staunch supporter of the Islamist Palestinian militant group Hamas, and has offered to use his influence to resolve the rift between the Hamas leadership, which controls Gaza, and Mr Abbas' Fatah movement, which administers the West Bank.

Mr Abbas has sent a senior delegation of his ruling Fatah faction to Istanbul for discussions with Hamas on holding long-overdue elections in the Palestinian territories. There have also been reports in the Palestinian media that, while in Istanbul, the Palestinian delegation, led by Jibril Rajoub, met with officials from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The meeting allegedly also was attended by Turkish and Qatari intelligence officials.

Turkish President and leader of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses his party's group meeting of AK Party at the Turkish Grand National Assembly in Ankara, Turkey on October 14, 2020.  / AFP / Adem ALTAN
Recep Tayyip Erdogan during an address at the Turkish Grand National Assembly in Ankara this week. AFP

The deep divisions between Fatah and Hamas in recent years were highlighted by Prince Bandar in his television interview as being one of the key factors responsible for the Palestinians’ failure to make progress in the peace process. And it remains to be seen whether Mr Erdogan’s attempts to heal the rift between the two opposing camps will ultimately benefit the broader goal of achieving peace in this part of the Middle East. For, as Prince Bandar asked rhetorically in his Al Arabiya interview: “Who are the allies of the Palestinians now? Is it Iran, which is using the Palestinian cause as a pretext at the expense of the Palestinian people?… Or is it Turkey, which Hamas leaders have thanked for its stance in support of Hamas and their cause?”

Con Coughlin is a defence and foreign affairs columnist for The National