by Uri Dromi*
I don’t envy President Biden, who, on board of Air Force One heading toward Tel Aviv, probably will have to tell his aides to remind him whom he would meet upon landing at Ben Gurion Airport on July 13: Outgoing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett? Incoming Prime Minister Yair Lapid? Or, perhaps, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is plotting to scuttle this lame-duck government and return to power?
I guess, though, that this would be Biden’s lesser concern, compared to the headache awaiting him in Saudi Arabia, where the name of the acting ruler is known: Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). People all over the Middle East will watch with cynicism the Saudi warm welcome to the leader of the greatest democracy on Earth, who had vowed to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over the assassination in 2018 of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the disastrous war in Yemen — both babies of MBS.
Frankly, nobody here or elsewhere should be surprised: At the end of World War II, eight decades ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt set the foundations of the strong U.S.-Saudi alliance. On his way home from the Yalta Summit, where he, Josef Stalin and Winston Churchill decided the future of postwar Europe, he made a detour and met King Ibn Saud, the maker of modern Saudi Arabia. On board FDR’s ship, the USS Quincy, the two leaders discussed the issue of Palestine, but couldn’t reach agreement, because Ibn Saud had this crazy idea that the Jews, in revenge for the Holocaust, should settle in lands they would expropriate from the Germans. FDR couldn’t obviously subscribe to this idea. He did, however, affirm with a warm handshake the deal that still stands strong today: American access to rich Saudi oil fields in return for an unconditional U.S. backing of Saudi Arabia.
So much has changed since 1945. The United States has emerged as the leader of the free world, upholding human rights and recently — with the notable exception of the Trump administration — vowing to switch to renewable energy. Still, in the world of realpolitik, all these noble ideals are shoved aside when the need for Saudi oil soars.
As an Israeli, I shouldn’t be pontificating to others about morality being superior to interests. Israel collaborated in the past with apartheid South Africa and recently, instead of doing more to support Ukraine, Israel has been walking on eggshells in order not to upset Vladimir Putin. Therefore, I only will touch upon the issue that was marginal in the FDR-Ibn Saud meeting and will probably be marginal in the coming Biden-MBS encounter: the question of Palestine or, in today’s terms, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Unlike his forefather Ibn Saud, MBS knows perfectly well that the Jews would not go anywhere: They are here to stay, in their ancient land. The problem is that, between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, there are as many Palestinians, and they are not going anywhere, either. If this becomes one, bi-national state, there are only two options: Everyone can vote, and then Israel loses its Jewish identity; or the Palestinians are denied that right, and then Israel would not be a democracy anymore.
To solve that problem, the Oslo Accords envisioned a two-state solution, where Israelis and Palestinians would live peacefully next to each other in their respective states. Unfortunately, it didn’t work, and each side has been blaming the other for that failure.
What’s the Saudi angle in this saga? Traditionally, Saudi Arabia has been considered the senior power in the Arab Peninsula, showing the way to the others in the region. And lo and behold, its small neighbors UAE and Bahrain dared sign the Abraham Accords with Israel, thus denying the conventional wisdom — dismissed already by Egypt and Jordan — that Arabs will only make peace with Israel when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved. And surely, UAE and Bahrain got an approving nod, or a wink, from Saudi Arabia, before embarking on this new path.
In accepting Jews in the Arab world, then, MBS has come a long way from Ibn Saud. Can the Saudis do more, perhaps join in the Abraham Accords themselves? Not so fast, it seems. But they certainly can encourage others, such as Oman, to do that. And instead of empty rhetoric, they could have donated some of their oil revenues to alleviate the living conditions of the Palestinians.
In the meantime, Israelis are bracing for another round of elections — the fifth in four years. Hopefully, while going to the ballot box, Israelis this time will remember that the resolution of their conflict with the Palestinians will not be decided in Washington or Riyadh, but between the two parties themselves.
*the spokesman of the Rabin and Peres governments from 1992-1996
**first published in: www.miamiherald.com