Saudi diplomat: Palestinians must shed image of victim

Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman Photo: Reuters

A Saudi diplomat tells "Globes" that the "Deal of the Century" could lead to a full Palestinian state.

The interview with the Saudi Arabian diplomat, which was arranged by a mutual acquaintance, was postponed quite a few times, so I was convinced that following the UN report recommending that Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman be investigated for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, it would be postponed again. I was wrong.

The diplomat phoned at the prearranged time, and was completely relaxed. As far as I could tell, the answers he gave to all of the questions I prepared were candid. He also asked to make further remarks after I finished asking the questions that I prepared. We spoke about the upcoming economic conference in Bahrain, and about relations between his country and the Arab world, and Israel. He made it clear that he was speaking for himself, but his words and views were identical to the mood prevailing in government corridors in the Saudi capital Riyadh.

The Khashoggi affair was the first topic brought up. The US investigator's report published last week found evidence that the Saudi Arabian crown prince and other leading Saudi Arabian officials were responsible for Khashoggi's murder last October in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, where Khashoggi went in order to collect documents about his marriage to his fiancé. The exiled Saudi Arabian journalist criticized the Saudi Arabian royal house in his column in "The Washington Post." According to the report, he fell victim to a "deliberate, premeditated execution."

The Saudi Arabian diplomat remained unfazed. "There is an orchestrated campaign against Saudi Arabia, especially against the crown prince. Those behind it are parties hostile to Saudi Arabia, headed by Iran and its allies. They have utilized the Khashoggi affair, and are exaggerating it beyond all proportions in order to condemn the crown prince and thwart the policy he is leading."

"Globes": They say that the Saudi Arabian security forces used Israeli information and spyware in this incident and in other cases.

Saudi Arabian diplomat: "Israeli technology is advanced, and the Arab world, even those that hate you, admire Israel for its success and strive to imitate it. The Saudi Arabian security services use the best tools available. For us, too, national security is the most important thing."

When will the connection with Israel be publicly acknowledged? When will an Israeli representative visit Saudi Arabia, as happened with the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain, and others?

"It's just a matter of the right timing. You must understand that Saudi Arabia is deeply committed to the Palestinians, and has a responsibility to them, as shown by the king's promise to Palestinian Authority chairperson Mahmoud Abbas in their recent meeting that he would not allow diplomatic initiatives that would harm the Palestinian leadership. At the same time, both the king and the crown prince are trying to persuade the Palestinians to seriously consider political and economic developments."

Meaning the deal of the century?

"Yes, but not only that. The deal of the century has one major advantage: it has an economic framework for development of the entire region, and especially for the Palestinians. We and other countries are willing to make enormous investments in this - amounts that the Palestinians never dreamed of getting. If this framework gets going, they will get real independence, good education, employment, a healthy economy, and won't be dependent on charity." The diplomat stops, hesitates, and says, "It may be hard for them to relinquish the image of the eternal victim. Maybe they don't believe that they'll be able to get along without it."

The Saudi Arabian diplomatic has a surprise concerning the political issue. According to reports, Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, President Donald Trump's senior advisors, are talking about a country with reduced authority, but the diplomat says that the plan will mean a real country for the Palestinians.

"As far as we know, the plan sets a clear path leading to full Palestinian independence at the end of the process. We also have objections to the US proposals in several areas, especially on Jerusalem and Haram esh-Sharif (the Temple Mount), but we believe that even on the most difficult questions, solutions can be found when people have full bellies and life is tranquil, meaning that the economic situation improves, there is no violence, and there is a real horizon. The Palestinians still don't accept this."

We reported in "Globes" in October that they were offered billions in order to begin negotiations on the basis of the full plan.

"Yes, the report reached us mainly after the US State Department tried to deny it, and then the Palestinians themselves admitted that it was correct. The plan has been through multiple versions. While the initial proposed investment in Palestinian territories was $10 billion, today it's six times as much or more, and includes more countries, headed by Jordan and Egypt. Failure to consider this is irresponsible leadership."

What does Riyadh think about the Israeli leadership - about Netanyahu?

"It seems to me that even your prime minister's biggest rivals are aware of his great international capabilities, and we recognize his excellent connection with Trump, and also with Russian President Vladimir Putin. It's clear to us, however, that in the Israeli political structure, it will be hard for him to push through a diplomatic plan with the Palestinians, and that's one of the reasons that the Palestinians are being stubborn. They say, 'We'll sit and wait for something that's better for us.' We believe that when a decision has to be made, any Israeli leader, and Netanyahu, too, will choose the way of peace, because that's what most of your people want."

How does your side regard the partnership with Israel against Iran?

"Israel is the one that showed the world the Iranian danger, that its regime is distorting Islam and using terrorism against the countries in the region. What they don't understand in Europe is that every commercial contract with Tehran gives money for terrorism, which will eventually also reach their people."

Will Saudi Arabia go further and cooperate with Israel in a military operation against Iran?

"Recent events in the Persian Gulf showed that the US, in contrast to the Europeans, understands Tehran's objective well. We and the US have clear proof that the Revolutionary Guards are behind the terrorist attacks against the tankers. The determination that Washington is showing indicates that there is no need for Israeli intervention, and that's a good thing. I think that we won't escalate into a real military event, because Iran has too much to lose from it."

At the end of the conversation, the diplomat asked to send a message to Israelis: "This blood conflict has lasted too long. It's clear to us - the Saudi Arabians, all of the Persian Gulf countries, Egypt, and Jordan - that the era of warfare with Israel has ended, and that the advantages of normal relations are very great. The entire Arab world can profit from it, not just the Palestinians, and you also, of course. History and Allah have brought a real opportunity to realize this, and I hope that you'll take advantage of it."

Will the economic workshop in Bahrain generate momentum for the deal of the century?

The deal of the century - a regional peace plan for the Middle East focusing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - originated in the White House. Trump, more businessperson than politician, decided to change the direction of US policy towards the conflict. His main effort was to show a different initiative outside the familiar moldy diplomatic box, which has brought no succor to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Trump gave the job of devising the plan to Jared Kushnir, his son-in-law, and Jason Greenblatt, his lawyer and representative for Israeli affairs, who studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion. The Palestinians were suspicious of both of them from the beginning, and gradually cut ties with them. After the announcement that the US embassy would be moved to Jerusalem, they severed the connection completely.

When details of the plan began to leak, the Palestinians used them to attack the plan. When "Globes" reported the enormous funds that the US was offering for the Palestinian economy, the Palestinian Authority's spokespeople took pride in refusing a multibillion dollar "bribe," while Hamas settled for $15 million from Qatar. The reports that the plan does not mention an independent Palestinian state were also obviously unhelpful.

The two rounds of elections in Israel postponed the publication of the plan, and the US decided to create a little initial momentum with the economic conference in Bahrain, which will take place next Monday. The Palestinians embarked on a large-scale campaign against it, which achieved only partial success. Most of the Arab countries invited, including Jordan, will participate in the conference, but it has been downgraded to an "economic workshop." Some people are saying, probably with good reason, that several Arab countries demanded that Israel not have ministerial or official representation there. According to Arab reports, even though Abbas is boycotting the event, he demanded that Israel not take part in it, so there will be no representative of the Israeli government at the workshop next week.

Who is going? Israeli businesspeople, including former Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Yoav Mordechai. Mordechai is a familiar figure in Arab countries, due to his frequent appearances in fluent Arabic in leading Arab media, as well as his clandestine contacts on government missions with Arab representatives. Today, Mordechai is a businessperson promoting commercial ties with Arab countries.

Mordechai, however, is also a quasi-liaison for the Israeli government, who in practice functions as the political and economic representative of Jerusalem in Manama, the capital of Bahrain. A total of 10 Israeli businesspeople will travel to Bahrain, most of them with some connection to the Israel Ministry of Defense or government agencies in Jerusalem.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on June 23, 2019

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2019

Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman Photo: Reuters
Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman Photo: Reuters
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