Opinion |

Saudi Arabia's Jew-friendly Face Is Just a Mirage

After all the talk of a geopolitical love affair, when Riyadh bans the entry of Israeli chess players, it's time to sober up: the Saudis aren't the saviors of Mideast peace - and they'll never normalize relations with the Jewish state

Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin
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The image of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are projected on the Kingdom Tower during National Day ceremonies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Sept. 24, 2017
The image of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are projected on the Kingdom Tower during National Day ceremonies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Sept. 24, 2017Credit: Untitled/AP
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin

It’s a depressingly familiar story for Israelis. Saudi Arabia is hosting the international speed chess championships for the first time this week. But, as the World Chess Federation has now confirmed, Israeli players have been denied visas to enter the country to play.

In spite of this outrage, which ought to invalidate the competition, the tournament will nonetheless be held as scheduled. As usual with such slights, outraged statements from Israel will follow, the world will shrug its shoulders and life will go on.

But what makes this latest insult significant is that it comes from a nation on which both the Jewish right and the Jewish left have placed considerable hopes in recent years.

Chess grandmaster Alik Gershon breaks the world record for the highest number of chess games played simultaneously. Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, 21 October 2010.Credit: Yuval Tebol

That’s why the lesson here is not just the usual one in which supporters of Israel lament the prejudice of the Islamic world, and the infuriating indifference of the international community. Rather it is the way the unrealistic expectations of Israelis about what the Saudis can or will do for them inevitably run aground on the political and religious culture of the desert kingdom.

The Saudis have been looking for an exit ramp from the struggle against Israel since their 2002 peace initiative. That effort accelerated under President Barack Obama, as the Saudis saw his attempt to create a rapprochement with Iran as a threat to their security. The nuclear deal pushed the Saudis into the arms of the Israelis and led them to see them as a tacit ally against their main rivals.

In 2017, Saudi Arabia became the linchpin of the Trump administration’s "outside in" strategy in which moderate Arab states would use their influence to pressure the Palestinians to make peace with Israel.

The Saudis have shown they have little interest in backing the Palestinians, especially with respect to their outrage over President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Their opposition to Trump’s statement was pro forma, and by all accounts the Saudis made it clear to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that they had no interest in supporting a massive response from the Arab and Muslim world.

In this photo released by Al-Ekhbariya, Saudi King Salman, right, receives Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after he arrives in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017Credit: Al-Ekhbariya via AP

Even more telling are the reports that spoke of Abbas being summoned to Riyadh, where he was told to accept a Trump peace plan that would call for a non-contiguous Palestinian state with Abu Dis, rather than part of Jerusalem, as its capital.

But the distance between the Saudis’ increasingly close under-the-table relationship with Israel and one that would be out in the open and with full, formal recognition, is still considerable.

Yet the Saudis are nowhere close to being willing to openly embrace the nation they look upon as the bulwark of regional defense against both Iran and its allies and as well as other Islamist terror groups.

The reason for this is obvious.

The source of the Saudi regime’s legitimacy isn’t their oil wealth or their relationship with the United States. It’s their guardianship of the Muslim holy places in Mecca and Medina and their self-image as the arbiters of normative Sunni beliefs. The anti-Semitic attitudes that go along with that package can be put aside in private business or security dealings, but not in public.

That means that although they can do business with the West, and even rely upon it and even the Israelis for their national defense, they are loath to do anything that compromises their brand as the standard bearers of Islam.

Palestinians burn a photo of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during a protest against U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital, in Gaza City, Saturday, Credit: AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra

Recognizing, let alone embracing, Israel in the way Trump and Netanyahu want, is always going to be a bridge too far for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is busy solidifying his control of the regime and seeking to modernize the Saudi state.

Normal relations that would allow things like Israelis playing there in a chess tournament under their own flag aren’t compatible with the prince’s domestic political needs. The Saudi regime will do nothing to ratchet up the conflict with Israel but ultimately, they are never going to go as far as both Washington and Jerusalem want.

That ought to sober up both Trump and Netanyahu about their hopes for the Saudis. But they aren’t the only ones who are banking too heavily on Saudi goodwill.

Ever since 2002, many on the Jewish left have pointed to the Saudi peace initiative as proof that peace is possible both with the Palestinians and the wider Arab world. But as Abbas’s recent interview in Riyadh showed, what the Saudis want is no trouble from the Palestinians, not peace. By embracing Trump’s Abu Dis proposal - something no Palestinian leader will ever accept - the Saudis are signaling they have no interest in a Palestinian state.

The notion that more Israeli concessions or an acceptance of something closer to a full retreat to the 1967 lines would not only bring around Abbas, but tempt the Saudis to fully embrace Israel, is just as unrealistic as Trump’s idea that Riyadh can muscle the Palestinians into saying yes to an offer from the Israelis.

The Saudi role in Mideast peace: Real or mirage? The King Abdullah financial district seen through the window of a skyscraper under construction in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Jan. 10, 2016.Credit: Bloomberg

What both the left and the right need to understand is that the Saudis are as uninterested in full peace as they are in a return to their old hostility to Israel.

They like the status quo - in which they can count on the Israelis as a counterweight to Iran, and even do business with them out of the media spotlight, but in which they can continue to cling to their pretense as the shield of militant Islam - just fine. They will do their best, as they have recently demonstrated, to keep the Palestinians from blowing up a tacit Sunni-Israel strategic alliance.

But expectations of full relations with Israel after a theoretical two-state deal are pure science fiction. The Saudis will continue to serve their own interests, not fulfill the hopes of left or right-wing Jews.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.org and a contributing writer for National Review. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin

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