US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had a suggestion for advancing President Joe Biden’s awkward three-way deal between the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. “Significant concessions,” he said, from Israel to Palestinian Authority (PA) strongman Mahmoud Abbas. Blinken, according to news source Axios, said Saudi Arabia would need to show the Arab/Muslim world that it got “significant deliverables from Israel for the Palestinians in return for a normalization agreement.”
The Biden administration insists on movement toward Palestinian statehood before “rewarding” Israel and Saudi Arabia with US support. But American insistence on adding extraneous Palestinian demands is more likely to delay progress on a deal than advance it.
The genius of the Abraham Accords is that it allows countries of the region to engage on the basis of their national interests, not beholden to the recalcitrant and terror-sponsoring PA. Palestinians were offered a seat at the table, which the PA declined to take, so the Trump administration and its regional allies simply moved forward. The Biden administration, however, returned the Palestinian statehood issue to center stage and is now “deputizing” Saudi Arabia to bring Israeli concessions to Abbas.
That is unlikely to happen.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) is not a cheerleader for Palestinian statehood. The Wall Street Journal notes, “Saudi officials have dwindling patience for uncompromising and divided Palestinian leaders with limited popular support.” By the time the Abraham Accords were signed in 2020, Arab funds for the PA decreased by 81.6%. Saudi support declined by 77.2% according to the PA Ministry of Finance.
Furthermore, the Saudis had previously made their “deliverables” clear: a strong defense pact with the US and a civilian nuclear program. And the Kingdom has been in various forms of private and profitable communication and cooperation with Israel for some time. Affinity Partners, backed by $2 billion from the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, is investing $150 million to acquire a stake in the automotive and credit operations of an Israeli company.
MbS has flipped the script. He does appear to be working the Palestinian issue, but from the other end and in pursuit of Saudi interests.
Far from presenting Israel with demands, according to Palestinian sources, when Abbas visited Saudi Arabia, MbS told him that the Kingdom was willing to extend “considerable support,” as long as the PA maintains effective security throughout its territories.
That is a problem. Abbas is not just waging war against Israel, he is deep in the throes of a Palestinian civil war in which his Western-and-sometimes-Sunni-
In 2007, Hamas threw the PA out of Gaza and the Palestinian liberation movement was geographically split. In 2012, Israel found the first Iranian Fajr-5 rockets in Gaza. Hamas was operating in Jerusalem before 2020 and well before the Hamas rocket war of 2021. Now, owing in part to PA corruption and brutality toward its own people, Hamas and PIJ have worked their way into West Bank cities. Weapons have also been smuggled into the West Bank through Jordan – an increasingly shaky Western ally under pressure from Iran. Iran’s proxy Hezbollah has also been smuggling arms from Lebanon to Israeli Arab gangs.
Abbas has no answers. He is 88 years old, ill, and has lost control. He can only hope that Israel will protect his rule on the principle that the PA is better than Iran – Scylla over Charybdis. Israel agrees. The Israeli incursions in the West Bank, including in Jenin and the IDF destruction of the Lion’s Den militia in Nablus were fought for the security of the Israeli people, and that includes not allowing Iran a foothold in Judea and Samaria.
This is what has the attention of MbS.
Israel is not the enemy of Saudi Arabia; the mullah regime in Tehran threatens the Kingdom as it hopes to a) destroy Sunni governments in the region and b) end up in possession of the holy places in Mecca and Medina – now under Saudi control and protection – and, eventually, Jerusalem.
The demand that Abbas control security in the West Bank is a demand that he oust Iran. This accounts as well for the suggestion that MbS has designs on a formal role in the Jerusalem Waqf that controls the Muslim holy sites under Israel’s security control.
Is there a workable deal here? If it relies on Abbas to regain security control of the West Bank territories, probably not. But if it is an opening for Israel and Saudi Arabia to combine political and economic forces (military forces would be a step way too far) in preventing an Iranian takeover of the territories and Jordan – well … leaving the US aside, which would be a good idea, there could be something to talk about.