I am a member of the Arab generation that lived through the Nakba, the Naksa (or 1967 defeat), and other manifestations of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It therefore strikes me that Saudi Arabia has become a central focus in this conflict, which is still ongoing despite various forms of peace treaties and normalisation initiatives. Since I follow this “eternal” conflict due to my profession, I know that not a day goes by without an important article or study regarding the Saudi factor.
Saudi-Israeli normalisation is of pivotal importance to forthcoming developments because it is central, firstly, to Washington’s determination to achieve progress in the Middle East and, secondly, to the Israeli desire to politically exonerate its government. The “Saudi moment,” with its dual aspects of domestic reforms and pursuit of regional stability, make it a moral imperative for Riyadh to take this conflict by the horns.
The Palestinian/Arab-Israeli conflict has lasted from the colonial era past the era of Third World liberation and national independence movements, through the Cold War and post-Cold War eras, and the age of globalisation to the post-globalisation era and the war in Ukraine. For more than a century, the conflict has defied solution as though it were divinely fated to last forever. The Arab-Israeli dichotomy seemed to have its own self-fuelling energy that has kept it burning since the end of the 19th century, through the 20th century and beyond.
Like a chameleon, the conflict has mutated and changed colours to match the shifting global and regional political environment of the 21st century and the post-11 September era, with its succession of uprisings, resistance struggles, intifadas, Lebanese wars, and Gaza wars. When the clash of civilisations was added to the mix, the conflict embraced other volatile dynamics such as religious strife, whose flames had never been remote to begin with and only needed a provocation for another combustion to flare.
This conflict is also multi-tiered, unfolding at international, regional, and local levels that intertwine in such intricate ways as to completely baffle historians and political scientists. The material, psychological and even moral costs have been enormous. Nor should we overlook the opportunity cost. Despite the magnitude of loss, the conflict has never given rise to a state of fatigue that might lend momentum to efforts to promote a settlement.
There is not one scenario for where this question could head, but many. The first is predicated on accepting the status quo on the grounds that it is a “done deal” and no amount of international or regional efforts to kickstart negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis will yield positive results. Firstly, the ongoing Palestinian rift between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza is ideal from the perspective of the Israeli government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which refuses to offer any major concessions to the Palestinians.
Ostensibly this is because they would lead nowhere because of the rift, but it is also because offering concessions would cause his extreme right government to collapse. Secondly, according to this argument, it is next to impossible for Hamas and Fatah to mend fences because of their different political outlooks and programmes and because various regional powers with conflicting interests are trying to manipulate this dispute in ways that serve their own agendas.
The second scenario envisions two states living side-by-side in peace. Its proponents hold that, despite all the obstacles, it is still possible to revive a negotiation process that would bring violence and settlement construction to a halt, after which the two sides would return to the “roadmap” under the supervision of the International Quartet (the US, Russia, the UN, and the EU). This was the dream of the first decade of this century. Unfortunately, the necessary international consensus has grown out of reach at this time while preparations are being made for World War III.
The third scenario is to bring Israelis and Palestinians together in a single secular state governed by a democratic constitution and the rule of law. Its proponents argue that not only is this the best solution for the longest conflict in history but also that a single state will happen sooner or later because, firstly, there are no signs of possible movement in the stalled Palestinian-Israeli negotiations and, secondly, the sprawl of Israeli settlements in the West Bank has rendered the notion of establishing a Palestinian state illogical.
This argument runs up against several difficulties, foremost among which is the determination of extremist currents in Israel to ethnically cleanse that state of non-Jews and their opposition to secular democracy because of the demographic factor they fear could lead to Arab control over the government and the state. The scenario poses another major problem in that it transforms the Palestinian cause from a national liberation struggle to a fight against racism. Israel will oppose this framing which would render it vulnerable to accusations of apartheid and consequently increased tension between it and the international community.
The fourth option involves responding to the basic demands of both sides: the Israeli demand for a state in which the Jews are assured a permanent majority and in which the Palestinians will have independent rule. This scenario calls for a confederated entity with its capital in Jerusalem and each part of which would be home to people on both sides. Citizenship in this binational entity would be defined in terms of membership in the confederation and in terms of Israeli or Palestinian nationality, depending on place of residence.
The fifth scenario is consistent with our current era, and it brings to bear approaches that have not yet been pursued. We will discuss it soon.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 21 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly