“The Palestinian question” is not commonly used outside international conferences. In the Arab region, the most commonly used term is “the Palestinian cause.” A term never used at all is “the Israeli question.” Historically, in 19th- and 20th-century Europe, the “Jewish question” was used, but that has faded from international political discourse since the establishment of the state of Israel. Israel and Jews in general tend to focus mainly on problems related to antisemitism, using the term as though there was a Jewish monopoly on Semitic origins, withholding that identity from others who believe they too are descendants of Sam, the son of Noah.
Quite recently, the term “the Palestinian-Israeli question” has gained traction in global political discourse. We find it in statements by various leaders, studies from research centres and think tanks, and newspaper commentaries, most frequently in the context of propositions that the solution to the Palestinian/Arab-Israeli problem resides in the “normalisation” of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. The argument for this is based on a give-and-take in Saudi-US relations involving Saudi national security considerations combined with a set of satisfactory Israeli concessions that are, at the very least, enough to see the ball rolling in terms of negotiations and the peace process.
All this intersects with the “Saudi moment.” As I have discussed previously in this space, the moment in question does not just involve initiatives emanating from Riyadh, but also the responsibility it is willing to undertake with regard to one of the most complicated international issues, and one of the most intractable. It is a conflict that has lasted more than 120 years, 70 of which brought some form of violent confrontation using armed force.
The fact is that the world has changed so much. Cloning old formulas for a solution, whether military or peaceful, will not work. It will not bring peace and stability to the Middle East, which every country in the region needs. This applies in particular to the Arab nations that have embarked on processes of radical reform aiming to lead their societies into the 21st century and beyond.
Another important facet of the question is that the Arab/Palestinian conflict with Israel has long focused on geography rather than demography, on the region rather than the people who are living in it. Simply put, some 12 million people are living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean, and half of them are Arabs and the other half are Jews. The former do not have a state, firstly because they are under occupation and, secondly, because they have a bifurcated government with one part in Gaza and the other in the West Bank. Each of these, moreover, has its own set of foreign relations, including with Israel. As for the Jews, they achieved something of a miracle in gathering a large number of Jews from all over the world into a single nation they believed to be theirs 2000 years ago. They also share a collective memory of persecution in the diaspora, the last main manifestation of which was the Holocaust.
Both Palestinian and Israeli societies are currently undergoing a major sifting process, separating secularist reformists from followers of rigid religious ideologies that hark back to the past. Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and other such Islamist factions that mix religion with politics and practise various shades of extremist Salafism are not so different from the Israeli Mifdal and Shas in the past and Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power and Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism today. Both these Palestinian and Israeli camps reject the Oslo Accords and the two-state solution, and both advocate a single monist state exclusive to their particular ethnic or religious identity.
Neither camp is interested in a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli question. In fact, they are prepared to undermine any solution that stands a chance of reaching an agreement or consensus, let alone implementation. Their only solution is violence, settlement expansion, and denial of the other’s existence. Progress made over the past three decades has begun to crumble due to the acceleration in the Israeli settlement construction in Jerusalem and Area C in the West Bank and the ceaseless persecution of Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel itself under various forms of apartheid. At the same time, the five “Gaza wars” that took place during the past two decades always generated huge political support for the most hardline factions on both sides, enabling them to dominate political discourse, win elections and flex their muscles.
What the foregoing means is that Saudi Arabia requires large reserves of patience as it engages with this problem. But Riyadh is not in a hurry, although it has already sent some powerful signals to the Palestinian and Israeli peoples that it wants peace. Its decision to post an ambassador to the Palestinian Authority and announcement that it would resume aid to the PA sends the message that it wants to re-energise the universally agreed-on principle that the PLO is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and that the PA has the authority to carry out this principle in practice. The provision of some services to facilitate pilgrimage and air travel and other such gestures that express customary Saudi generosity made a good impression on secularist currents in Israel while it had the opposite effect among the religious groups in power there. By continuing in this manner, Riyadh will be instrumental to generating a political environment that strengthens the prospects of the anti-violence and pro-peace voices and leaders in electoral contests. In the preparatory phase of diplomatic dialogue, strengthening the PA will also lead to the release of Palestinian detainees, foremost among them the Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti. Notwithstanding countless details, it should also help boost Israeli political forces that support the two-state solution and efforts to promote stability in the region.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly