Opinion – Thomas L. Friedman: Only Saudi Arabia and Israeli Arabs can save Israel as a Jewish democracy


It’s great to see President Joe Biden visiting the Middle East. The United States has long played a vital role in advancing the peace process in the region. As someone who has followed the Middle East for decades, however, I can say that I am seeing something new, as ironic as it is surprising: only Saudi Arabia and the Israeli Arabs can save Israel as a Jewish democracy today — not the US.

That’s because, for different reasons, Arab-Israeli voters and Saudi Arabia have more power than ever to force Israelis to choose: they can have a democratic state in Israel and the West Bank, but over time, with the high rates of Arab births, perhaps he is not Jewish. They may have a Jewish state in Israel and the West Bank, but it will not be democratic. Or they can have a Jewish and democratic state, but they cannot permanently occupy the West Bank.

These existential options have been with Israel since 1967, when it captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem in war. But Israel has increasingly refused to choose, so much so that in its last four elections in two years political parties — both right and left — have largely ignored the “Palestinian question” altogether. That was alarming.

It doesn’t have to be this way when Israel goes to the polls for the fifth time in less than four years, on November 1st. While the US has grown tired of the spiteful and frustrating process of persuading Israelis and Palestinians to a two-state solution, Saudi Arabia and Israeli Arabs can now fill that role — and I hope they will. Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state may depend on it.

What’s the logic? Starting with the most obvious fact: Israel will not be a viable democracy if it maintains indefinitely the occupation of the West Bank, with some 2.7 million Palestinians. This occupation involves extending Israeli law to Jews living in the West Bank, while ruling Palestinians under a different military code, with greatly reduced rights and opportunities to own land, build homes and businesses, communicate, travel, and organize politically.

This occupation may not equal South African apartheid, but it is an ugly and morally corrosive cousin to Israel as a Jewish democracy. It is becoming so alienating to Israel’s liberal friends, including younger generations of American Jews, that if it continues, Biden could be the last pro-Israel Democratic American president.

Of course, Israel alone is not responsible for this impasse, and the Palestinian progressives and propagandists who sell this idea on college campuses are being dishonest. The second Palestinian uprising in 2000 did much to destroy the credibility of the Israeli peace camp. This uprising set off a wave of suicide bombings against Israeli Jews, shortly after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Bill Clinton made peace proposals to Yasser Arafat to establish a demilitarized Palestinian state in most of the West Bank and East Jerusalem — that Arafat rejected. Repeated Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza have only exacerbated Israeli insecurity.

However, many supporters of Israel in the US remained silent during Binyamin Netanyahu’s 12 years. He did everything he could to discredit the Palestinian Authority as a partner in peace — never giving credit for its vital efforts to stem Palestinian violence against Israelis and working to make a two-state reality impossible by installing Jewish settlers deep in the West Bank, beyond the Israeli retaining wall, in areas necessary for a future Palestinian state.

The Palestinians, for their part, shot themselves in the foot by splitting into two groups — the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas in Gaza — and purging the Palestinian Authority’s most effective, honest and credible prime minister from all-time Salam Fayyad, who acted from 2007 to 2013.

Add it all up and you’ll see why the four most recent Israeli elections ignored the existential threat posed to the Jewish state by its continued occupation of the West Bank. For most people it was: out of sight, out of mind. And no wonder the U.S. backed away from active involvement in the area — until President Donald Trump gave his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, carte blanche to present his plan.

It’s a long story, but the bottom line is that both Netanyahu and the Palestinians rejected Kushner’s proposal for a two-state solution. However, instead of allowing it all to fall apart, UAE Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, inspired by his ambassador to the US Yousef al-Otaiba, proposed full peace, trade and tourism with Israel if the Israelis agreed not to annex unilaterally the territory in the West Bank assigned to Israel under the Trump plan. And so the 2020 Abraham Accords were born, in which the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan opened diplomatic relations with Israel.

Which brings me to the Saudis. For Israel, peace with Riyadh is the grand prize. It opens the door to peace with the entire Sunni Muslim world and access to an immense reservoir of investment capital.

But Saudi officials have told me their support will not come cheap. The ailing Saudi monarch, King Salman, has always had a deep emotional connection to the Palestinian cause. And his son and de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (aka MbS), knows that if Saudi Arabia forges a low-cost peace with Israel, arch-enemy Iran will use it to launch a propaganda jihad. against Saudi Arabia across the Muslim world. That would be ugly.

Despite these potential pitfalls, Israel and Saudi Arabia have been secretly discussing terms to normalize relations. I suspect the Saudis will want this game-changing moment to unfold in two stages.

Dennis Ross, a former US envoy to the Middle East, told me that, for starters, the Saudis could offer to open a commercial office in Tel Aviv, which would both serve Saudi economic interests and “would be a big psychological step towards to Israel”.

In return, the Saudis could demand something big: that Israel halt all settlement construction east of the Israeli security barrier in the West Bank and accept that the Arab peace plan for a two-state solution forms the basis of negotiations with the Palestinians.

Such an Israeli commitment would mean that Israelis would no longer build “on 92% of the West Bank, preserving two states as an option,” Ross said, noting that today about 80% of Israeli settlers live west of the barrier.

The second stage would come with an end to the Israeli occupation and a peace deal with the Palestinians: the Saudis could promise to open an embassy for Israel in Tel Aviv and an embassy for Palestinians in Ramallah, in the West Bank — or one for Israel in West Jerusalem. and one for Palestinians in East Jerusalem, Arab. It would be Israel’s choice, but they would have to be embassies for both. Israel would also have to commit to preserving the status quo on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which is sacred to all Muslims.

I would not expect Israel to accept any of these proposals, especially considering its current interim government. But I can 100% guarantee that if the Saudis made them public they would play a central role in Israel’s November 1 election and help spark the kind of debate and creativity needed to preserve Israel as a democratic state.

This is where the Israeli Arabs come in: this Saudi Arabian drive could be reinforced by them in the elections.

Here’s some simple Israeli electoral math: neither the center-left coalition nor the right-wing religious nationalist coalition alone has enough votes to create a stable ruling majority now. That’s why Israel continues to have elections.

As a result, Israeli Arabs, who make up 21% of the population and generally win around 12 Knesset seats, have replaced Israel’s Orthodox Jewish religious parties as the swinging voting bloc. Israel’s last prime minister, Naftali Bennett, was only able to form a close coalition by recruiting the Israeli Arab religious party Raam.

If each Arab-Israeli party declared that it would only enter a Jewish-led government that agreed to negotiate with the Palestinians on the basis of Saudi proposals, then again I guarantee that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank — the biggest existential problem facing Israel — would be at the forefront and at the heart of the upcoming elections.

And that’s why I argue that only Saudi Arabia and Israeli Arabs can save Israel as a Jewish democracy.

You May Also Like

Recommended for you

Immediate Peak