Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman came to Washington to meet President Donald Trump last week, and was lauded for many of the reforms he is undertaking in Saudi Arabia. Many of these, such as improving the rights of women, are commendable, but the country still has a long way to go in the area of human rights.
One decision that would win MBS, as he is called, significant goodwill in the West and improve conditions for peacemaking is to normalize relations with Israel. He has taken some encouraging incremental positive steps, but he needs to make the final, courageous leap.
Press reports have indicated the Saudis and Israelis have been quietly working together to confront the threat posed by Iran. For the Saudis, Iran truly poses an existential threat even if it does not possess nuclear weapons. Iran is actively trying to undermine Saudi stability by provoking Shiites in the kingdom to oppose the government, by arming and funding rebels in Yemen who have directly attacked Saudi Arabia and its allies in that country, and by trying to create a Shiite crescent across the Middle East to challenge Sunni-led countries such as Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis have also been the most outspoken advocates of taking tougher measures to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. While antisemites and other detractors of Israel continue to claim falsely that Israel is trying to provoke the United States to go to war with Iran, the only country that called for military action to stop Iran’s genocidal intentions was Saudi Arabia.
While MBS was in the United States, he said that if Iran does get the bomb, it will develop its own nuclear weapons. It was a reminder of what many critics of Obama’s disastrous nuclear agreement said from the beginning: namely, that allowing Iran to continue its nuclear ambitions would encourage nuclear proliferation in the region.
Like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, MBS believes the nuclear deal is fatally flawed and requires major changes. With the excellent John Bolton now joining the Administration as National Security Advisor, we can expect to see greater pressure to finally repudiate the catastrophic Iran nuclear deal and stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power.
The Saudis and Israelis also share an interest in reforming the Palestinian Authority away from terrorism and incitement. Many surmise that the Saudis have never cared much for the Palestinians and have mostly paid lip service to their cause. In the past, the Saudis feared improving ties with Israel before an agreement was reached with the Palestinians because of the fear of upheaval in the kingdom and suffering the fate of Anwar Sadat, who was assassinated after making peace with Israel. The Saudi public, however, has become more inward focused, and is looking to improve its own welfare. The lack of reaction to the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, ignoring Palestinian calls for protests, was one indication of the change in perception of the centrality of the Palestinian issue.
In the past, the Saudis harmed the peace process by funding Hamas and the Palestine Liberation Organization, and encouraging their violence against Israel. But they have further undermined peace and stability in the region by their refusal to normalize ties with Israel. Yet recent events – from Saudi Arabia allowing an Air India flight to Israel to fly in its airspace, to MBS publicly comparing Iranian leader Khameini to Hitler, to the constant media buzz of military cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel – would indicate that MBS might want to take the country in a new direction. The specter of a Saudi ruler publicly labeling the man calling for the annihilation of Israel Hitler was simply astonishing.
A major reason the Palestinians believe they do not have to recognize the permanence of Israel as a Jewish State is that they think that an international boycott will force Israel to capitulate to their demands and will eventually disappear. The Arab League boycott, which predated the establishment of Israel, and was led for years by the Saudis, failed to destroy Israel. The Palestinian-inspired “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions” (BDS) movement is proving equally futile.
The Palestinians have effectively held other Arab states hostage to their demands. If the Saudis recognize Israel — and, ideally, other states follow suit — it will force the Palestinians to come to terms with Israel as a permanent and powerful presence which they must cease to demonize.
Just as the U.S. announcement regarding Jerusalem was a recognition of reality, so too would Saudi recognition of Israel. If it wasn’t so diplomatically serious, it would be comical that the kingdom pretends the Jewish State does not exist after 70 years of Israeli independence. The Saudi boycott of Israel has never seriously harmed Israel, but the Saudis have missed out on the opportunity to learn from Israeli innovations and share their technological advancements in areas such as electronics, desalination, and medicine. And now that MBS is making efforts to bring global investment into Saudi Arabia, acceptance of Israel would establish him as a global statesman with bold and courageous vision.
It was an important gesture to let Air India fly above Saudi Arabia en route to Tel Aviv. But the Saudis deny El Al the same opportunity, and thus make flights to India on Israel’s national airline more than two hours longer. MBS should immediately rectify this inequity.
Saudi recognition of Israel, even if it were to begin in a limited but public manner, would put the appropriate pressure on the Palestinians to finally move away from the incitement and sponsorship of terror. The Palestinians, of course, are headed in the opposite direction. Last week alone they took the unbelievable and disgusting step of trying to have the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, labeled a terrorist after Mahmoud Abbas himself called the Ambassador a “son of a dog.” Such revolting displays of antisemitism should be condemned by every Arab leader, especially those that enjoy a close relationship with the U.S. as major allies. The abominable attacks against an American ambassador – and one who enjoys a close relationship with the President of the United States – are an attack on America itself. And it’s the Arab leadership that must deliver that message to Abbas.
Publicly, it appears the Palestinians have not received the message. They say they will have nothing to do with the Trump administration’s peace initiative, Abbas has refused to engage in negotiations for nearly a decade, and he continues to hope the international community will coerce Israel to satisfy his unreasonable demands.
The Palestinians need to be shocked out of their fantasies. MBS can do it by recognizing Israel and, in the process, help his kingdom by working with Israelis to neutralize the Iranian threat and take advantage of the technical expertise that Israel has to offer his people.
I am not naïve. I recognize that a Saudi leader recognizing Israel would be, in diplomatic terms, nearly as big a step as that taken by Neil Armstrong on the moon. But is this not precisely the kind of bold and aggressive leadership that MBS is trying to project to the world? That he is a leader of a new generation of Muslims who wish to restore a humanitarian face to one of the world’s great religions — a leader who has publicly proclaimed that women are the equal of men? And a leader who claims that he wishes to uproot corruption and religious extremism from his borders?
Saudi recognition of, and normalization with, Israel would achieve all these things in one swoop, and would confirm to the world that MBS is not just posturing, but is prepared to take daring risks to stabilize the Middle East and push back against his country’s real enemies, which are not the Jews but the Khameini regime in Tehran.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” whom the Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America” is the international best-selling author of 31 books including his most recent, The Israel Warrior. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.