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A battle royal over Israel has broken out in public between two former Saudi ambassadors to the United States, both high-ranking princes and one married to the sister of the other.  The spectacle is all the more riveting as it presents a direct challenge to Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, who has ruthlessly suppressed all public debate about any of his decisions or policies.

The issue at stake within the ruling House of Saud is whether Saudi Arabia should normalize relations with Israel at the cost of abandoning the Saudi-led 2002 Arab Peace Initiative linking this step to an Israeli agreement to the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state. Already four other Arab nations—the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and now Morocco—have decided to do so under heavy pressure from President Trump, now in the last weeks of his presidency.

The ultimate prize for Trump and Israel would be a decision by Saudi Arabia to follow suit.

The ultimate prize for Trump and Israel would be a decision by Saudi Arabia to follow suit. But King Salman, the crown prince’s father, has opposed normalization before resolution of the Palestinian issue. He made his commitment to the Palestinian cause clear by calling the 2018 Arab League meeting in Saudi Arabia the “Jerusalem Summit”. He also declared the Palestinian struggle for an independent state “our first issue and will remain so.” He has reaffirmed his commitment repeatedly ever since. The crown prince, on the other hand, has indicated his priority is normalization with Israel to create an Israeli-Arab alliance against Iran, Saudi Arabia’s chief rival for regional primacy.

Not only are the king and crown prince, father and son, on opposite sides of the issue. The rift over Israel runs through the House of Saud as reflected in the open dispute between the two former Saudi ambassadors. On one side of the battle stands Prince Bandar bin Sultan, 71, who served for 23 years in Washington and then became national security adviser to the late King Abdullah. His father, Sultan bin Abdulazuiz, was one of the most powerful figures in the kingdom for half a century, serving as defense minister for 48 years and crown prince for six until his death in 2011. 

On the other side is Prince Turki al-Faisal, 75, head of Saudi intelligence for 22 years and then ambassador first to Britain and then to the United States.  His father, Faisal bin Abdulaziz, was king from 1964 to 1975. The two princes are closely related as Bandar is married to Turki’s sister, Haifa.

Bandar has come out publicly lambasting Palestinian leaders for their record of multiple missed opportunities to achieve a two-state solution

Bandar has come out publicly lambasting Palestinian leaders for their record of multiple missed opportunities to achieve a two-state solution despite decades-long, U.S.-led efforts to reach a two-state solution. His anti-Palestinian tirade delivered in a three-part series published in the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya news channel in early October is widely viewed as preparing the Saudi public for Saudi Arabia’s normalization of ties with Israel and demoting the Palestinian cause.

Bandar summed up his attitude toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in these startlingly frank words: “The Palestinian cause is a just cause but its advocates are failures, and the Israeli cause is unjust but its advocates have proven to be successful. This sums up the events of the last 70 or 75 years.” In his al-Arabiya interview, he provided an exhaustive detailed accounts of multiple missed opportunities by one Palestinian leader in particular, the late Yasser Arafat. Bandar lambasts him as ungrateful to Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries that supported him unquestioning for decades and portrays him as a constant ditherer in negotiations with various Israel prime ministers despite dogged U.S. diplomatic efforts to close a deal.

Turki has not addressed the Palestinian leadership’s record on negotiations but strongly supported the creation of a Palestinian state as a precondition for normalization – as called for in the Arab peace plan. As word of the United Arab Emirates’ decision to normalize relations leaked out in August, Turki wrote in an op-ed piece in Asharq al-Awsat that any Arab state considering such a step must  “demand in return a price, and it should be an expensive price.” He reminded other Saudi royals that Saudi Arabia had already made clear what this meant: “the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital as provided by the initiative of the late King Abdullah” in the Arab peace plan. 

Will Crown Prince Mohammed overrule his father and disregard Turki and other like-minded al-Saud family members? 

Turki’s irritation with Crown Prince Mohammed’s pronounced tilt toward normalization of relations with Israel before it pays such a price surfaced at a security conference in Bahrain in early December. There, he called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “a liar” for leaking news he had recently met secretly with Crown Prince Mohammed in Saudi Arabia and flatly refuted speculation that Saudi Arabia was preparing for normalization. “There is no preparation of such kind.”  King Salman, he noted, had just reaffirmed the kingdom’s “steadfast position” that “the Palestinian cause is the kingdom’s priority” as was its commitment to the Arab peace plan.

Will Crown Prince Mohammed overrule his father and disregard Turki and other like-minded al-Saud family members?  The former would be unprecedented and the latter risky politically. Already there is a smoldering revolt within the House of Saud against the heir apparent because of his ruthless tactics in pursuit of the throne that has seen two other crown princes shoved aside and other rivals jailed or put under house arrest.

The crown prince, a verified risk taker, has already gone ahead to generate expectation among Saudis that normalization is now a matter of when, not if. Will he do it before Trump leaves office on January 20 as a ‘thanks’ for his steadfast support against legions of the crown prince’s bipartisan critics in Congress and from human rights groups? Or will he wait and use normalization with Israel as a card with President-elect Biden who has been highly critical of him?  Either way, MBS seems set on terminating the Palestinian issue as the priority of Saudi kings ever since the creation of Israel in 1948.

The views expressed in these articles are those of the authors and do not reflect an official position of the Wilson Center.

About the Author

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David Ottaway

Middle East Fellow;
Former Washington Post Middle East Correspondent
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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more