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Does the Saudi Crown Prince’s Rosy Rhetoric Indicate Real Change?

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By Zvi  Bar’el

In the interview that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman granted to The Atlantic, there were many questions that were not asked

The great excitement over the remarks of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is understandable. Finally, after more than a century since the Balfour Declaration, a leading member of the Saudi royal family has framed the rights of the Jews to a state in almost the same words as the British foreign minister’s statement of 1917. In a lengthy interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, which was published on Monday, Prince Mohammed said that both “the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land.”

But it should be noted that the English version still doesn’t include recognition of a state that has existed for 70 years, but rather of the right of the Israelis to have a land, as it is the right of the Palestinians to have one. In other words, in all of the prince’s remarks, he does not use the world “state” but rather “land” and “people.” Those who are amazed that the Saudi heir apparent is the first Arab leader to recognize Israel should look at the Saudi initiative, which became the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002. That initiative states, among other things, that in exchange for a general withdrawal from all the territories (including the Golan Heights), the Arab countries commit to sign a peace agreement with Israel and normalize relations with it. Peace agreements are forged with countries that are recognized; that is, the Arab countries recognized Israel’s existence back then, not only Israel’s right to exist. Making peace and recognizing a country are not identical concepts. Israel recognizes the existence of many countries, but does not have peace agreements with all of them.

At the same time, Prince Mohammed was not asked, and therefore did not share his thoughts, about what is usually referred to as the “deal of the century” that the Trump administration is cooking up. (Or is it already ready in President Donald Trump’s kitchen?) Does the Saudi crown prince still insist on Israel’s full withdrawal from all the territories, as the Arab Initiative demanded? Would Saudi Arabia permit changes to the agreement? Would the prince be willing to recognize West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital? Does he have an opinion about the 1967 borders?

These questions might not have come up in the interview because it was agreed ahead of time not to bring them up. On the other hand, reports of security cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel have gone completely public and senior Israeli officials have met and are meeting with Saudi representatives. In light of this and, as the crown prince himself concedes, when the two countries have shared interests, it would not be superfluous to also examine the nature of the cooperation between the two countries in terms of the hostility they share toward Iran. It appears that Saudi Arabia has no problem cooperating with Israel even without signing a peace treaty with it.

In the interview in The Atlantic, the crown prince said: “I believe the Iranian supreme leader makes Hitler look good. Hitler didn’t do what the supreme leader is trying to do. Hitler tried to conquer Europe. The supreme leader is trying to conquer the world.”