Bandar bin Sultan Interview (10/2020)
Bandar bin Sultan with George W Bush, 2002 (White House photo)
A recent media interview by Prince Bandar bin Sultan has attracted considerable media attention and commentary, not the least from analysts seeking to read the tea leaves about when, exactly, Saudi Arabia might normalize relations with Israel.
Bandar appeared on Al-Arabiya, a station run by the MBC Group, which is in turn now controlled by the Saudi government more directly than ever before. This is not the first time Bandar has touched on this subject – in a previous interview with the Independent Arabia, he spent a considerable part of the (lengthy) interview complaining about Yasser Arafat’s (lack of) leadership during the 2000 Camp David Summit. However, this interview is noteworthy for focusing almost exclusively on Saudi Arabia’s policies and diplomacy toward Palestinians.
Bandar frames the interview as being motivated by “shocking statements quoted from the Palestinian leadership” in relation to the US-UAE-Israeli accord signed last month.
A few key quotes from Part 1:
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. That sums up the events of the last 70 or 75 years. There is also something that successive Palestinian leaderships historically share in common; they always bet on the losing side, and that comes at a price.
King Abdullah, may he rest in peace, while Prince Sultan was Crown Prince, brought Abu Mazen and his followers, and Khaled Mashal and his Hamas followers, to Mecca in order to reconcile them and form a unified Palestinian leadership to achieve positive results… Only a few days after they left Saudi Arabia, we received news they had already gone back on their word and started conspiring and plotting against each other once again.
Who are the allies of the Palestinians now? Is it Iran, which is using the Palestinian cause as a pretext at the expense of the Palestinian people?… Or is it Turkey, which Hamas leaders have thanked for its stance in support of Hamas and the Palestinian cause?
After the Oslo Accord, I asked Abu Ammar, God rest his soul – and as they say remember the virtues of your dead – what he thought of the autonomy provisions in the Camp David Treaty. He said, “Bandar, Camp David’s autonomy provisions were ten times better than the Oslo Accord.” I said, “Well, Mr. President, why did you not agree to it?” He said, “I wanted to, but Hafez al-Assad threatened to kill me and to drive a wedge among the Palestinians, turning them against me.” I thought to myself, so he could have been one martyr and given his life to save millions of Palestinians, but it was as God willed it.
Bandar also discusses at length Saudi participation in Arab conflicts with Israel in the past, but notes that “the situation has changed completely from what it used to be.”
Part 2 is mostly taken up with an extensive recounting of Saudi diplomacy in behalf of Palestine during the Reagan Presidency (in the early years of Bandar’s time in Washington, D.C.).
Part 3 discusses the lead-up to the Oslo Accords and the 2000 Camp David Summit (Bandar’s main point being that Yasser Arafat threw away a real chance at peace).
I wanted to cry, my heart was burning at how the opportunity was lost again and perhaps for the last time, as if I was seeing a movie playing in front of my eyes. An opportunity comes, and it is lost.
In my personal opinion, with all the events that have taken place around the world, we are at a stage in which rather than being concerned with how to face the Israeli challenges in order to serve the Palestinian cause, we have to pay attention to our national security and interests. New players came into the picture, claiming that they are serving the Palestinian cause and that the Palestinian cause is their priority, and that Jerusalem is their first goal. These are countries such as Iran and Turkey, and the Palestinian leaders have come to regard Tehran and Ankara higher than they regard Riyadh, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Manama, Oman [they mean Amman], Muscat, and Cairo.
Bandar’s interview has sparked an outpouring of commentary, most of which has distilled the interview into five main takeaways:
The Kingdom has always stood by the Palestinian people, albeit often in behind-the-scenes ways – most criticism of the Kingdom’s support is slander and propaganda
The Kingdom is still committed to a “permanent and just solution” to the Palestinian issue
The Palestinian leadership has made grave mistakes that have jeopardized the Palestinian cause, and have blamed the Kingdom for their own failures
The Saudi public is justified in feeling anger towards the Palestinian leadership
Foreign policy is a sovereign right, and the Palestinian leadership cannot expect other countries (namely the UAE and Bahrain) to subvert their national interest to the Palestinian cause
[As a reminder that this blog can only cover but so much, this commentary is competing with complaints about the shortcomings of distance learning in the Kingdom.]
Khalid al-Suleiman previewed these takeaways by focusing on Bandar’s criticism of three main trends – Qatari’s foreign policy, the failure of Palestinian leaders, and the hypocrisy of Turkey’s leaders on Israel and Palestine (Okaz, 10.7.2020).
Governments take positions that are compatible with their interests, and the Saudi official position is very clear about the Kingdom’s keenness to reach a permanent and just solution to the Palestinian issue to bring peace… Bandar bin Sultan did not get angry alone, as much as he was a raised voice expressing Saudi popular anger. Salman al-Dosary, Aawsat, 10.9.2020
Countries can forgive, but they do not forget, because everything is recorded and every position is proven, and whoever is old on the denial of favor, blackmail and cheapness cannot serve his cause and people. How much better [Mahmoud Abbas] would be for his people if he retired and handed over the leadership to young, educated and intelligent Palestinian generations, who would be able to propose solutions, end crises, and build the future…. There is no doubt that the just Palestinian cause was and will remain central to the politics of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, but it is no longer the only issue. Rather, it has to contend with other national causes and new enemies and occupiers in the region, such as Iran and Turkey. The old occupier who signed peace treaties with many Arab countries, including the Palestinian Authority, is not the same as the new occupier who is motivated and ready to attack the Gulf states, and specifically targets Saudi Arabia for its value, its position and its leadership in the region and the world. Abdullah al-Otaibi, Aawsat, 10.11.2020
Away from the contexts of the frenzied media attack supported by the east and west on the circumstances contained in the television documentary, the views of the former dean of the diplomatic corps in Washington carried two main axes that should not be overlooked: The first is that his speech was directed primarily at domestic public opinion, to develop his awareness towards the efforts of his leadership It is within the circle of the Saudi political conscience, and it does not allow “a solution of dissolution to the Palestinian issue,” which is a clear indication that its policy towards it has not changed… The second axis in the Al-Arabiya documentary is the dismantling of the black propaganda led by some regional and international parties towards “demonizing Saudi Arabia”, and its desperate attempts to stabilize this by waging fierce “media and political wars”, which is what the experienced diplomat succeeded in dismantling with proven historical facts for everyone, especially as he was very close to most of those events, and within the executive circle. What gives the documentary important dimensions on the part of the “international political media” is that Bandar bin Sultan’s speech came with personal conviction, and from outside the “government corridors”, but at the same time it expresses the Saudi presence in the unchanging Palestinian scene, and one of the most important priorities of its foreign policy It is based on true belief and conviction, that Palestine is “the first cause of Arabs and Muslims,” and will continue to support it until the full restoration of uncompromised rights. Khalid al-Matrafi, Al-Riyadh, 10.12.2020
The veteran diplomat and expert on the scenes of the region and international politics revealed the entirety of the bizarre positions of the Palestinian leaders that inflicted severe damage on their cause, and transformed it from a rightful issue, and a historical grievance, into a commodity that the people of the cause and others trade in. In his meeting with Al Arabiya Channel, Prince Bandar told the story of how the Palestinian compass went awry, from Jordan to Lebanon to Kuwait, to other sites. This misdirection dispersed liberation efforts, dispelled the dream of a Palestinian state, and placed the issue in mazes and paths that served no one but the Israeli occupation, which invested artfully in the contradictions and mistakes of the Palestinian side. Editorial, Al-Riyadh, 10.7.2020
Elements of this narrative have been circulating for a while now, including in an op-ed last month from Abdelrahman al-Rashed (see here for his evolving discussion of the subject).
The dam collapsed with the Emirates and Bahrain, and before them Jordan and Egypt. Sudan is partly, Oman welcomes, and the Saudi airspace is open – it will not be long until the rest joins. The series of [new] Arab relations with Israel will not stop in Manama. In return, the Palestinian Authority’s inability to deal with unexpected developments was clearly evident. It failed and did not even get a single Arab vote at the Arab League meeting last week, when it tried to extract a stance against the UAE’s relations with Israel. This is the first time in the history of the Palestinian Authority that it faces unanimous Arab rejection. They told her that every country has the right to decide for itself, just as the Palestinian Authority has the same right. It seems that the Palestinian leadership is far from reality, and does not care to understand the conditions of the Arab countries that have spent half a century supporting them without hesitation… The relationship with Israel is not public relations but complete diplomatic and economic relations, and it was not taken for the sake of Trump’s success or satisfaction, as critics have said. The relationship with Israel is a strategic act that expresses the supreme interests of these countries. As for the US elections, media propaganda steps were sufficient, such as receiving an Israeli official, or organizing a joint conference or a tennis match. Abdelrahman al-Rashed, Aawsat, 9.15.2020
Writers in Okaz emphasized a bit more the sense that the Kingdom should continue to “set the record straight” on any number of issues – re-educating Saudi readers/viewers who might be under the mistaken impression that the Kingdom had not backed the Palestinian cause to the hilt.
…Prince Bandar began his speech, which millions had been waiting for, with a historical account of the paths of the Palestinian cause and the political support the Kingdom had provided to it from its inception to this time, supported by documents proving that the Kingdom had gone almost too far in supporting it, to the point of risking its relations with major countries at times. The Kingdom created opportunities that are hard to recreate that were wasted by the leaders of the cause with extreme negligence and irresponsibility. The prince also stressed that his speech is directed mainly to the Saudi people, and this is a very smart gesture, as the new generation of Saudis has become confused by some of the fallacies that some Palestinian officials are now pushing, supported by cheap media, to question the Saudi historical support for the Palestinian cause against the background of the current political changes in the region. Hamood Abu Taleb, Okaz, 10.12.2020
Likewise from Tariq al-Hamid:
What Prince Bandar put forward about the Saudi position on the Palestinian issue is a reminder that we cannot rely on the idea that history is “known”, and the saying that “you can’t block the sun with a sieve.” [Even the sun] can be concealed misleading and false information, with no fairness in the rules of the game in the first place. Okaz, 10.11.2020
Also in Al-Riyadh:
The Saudi person’s knowledge of such facts is an enhancement to his individual memory, and this historical national memory will be an impregnable barrier against any attempts to undermine the Kingdom’s positions. Fahad al-Otaibi, Al-Riyadh, 10.12.2020
Of course, for some of the most strident op-ed voices in the Saudi commentariat the distinction between Palestinian and leadership all but vanishes.
The Palestinians have practiced systematic terror against most Arab countries, directing their guns and bombs against the Arab peoples, leaving alone who they allege is their main enemy. Not only that, but also terrorism of another kind – demanding that others obey their method of managing the conflict while providing money and massive aid, or else they count you as an enemy and an army against you and against Arab sentiments. Muhammad Sa‘id, Okaz, 10.8.2020
Compare with Al-Yamamah, a more niche weekly publication with far lower circulation and hence much lower visibility, which placed much more emphasis (with far fewer caveats) on the Kingdom’s historic support for the Palestinian cause in a Saudi National Day Op-ed (2nd paragraph):
As for the issue of Palestine, which is the main issue of the Arabs, [King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz] took honorable stances immortalized by history. He did not tie his position to the changing state of politics and its temptations, but remained steadfast with courage. As for the great powers that tried to market their divisive plans for the region, his honorable positions remained guiding lights for his children afterwards, and embraced Palestine – both its cause and its people. This brings us to the wise and courageous stances of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman, may God preserve him, in refusing to compromise or waive the inalienable right of Arabs and Muslims to the path of the Prophet and the Third of the Two Holy Places, which embodies steadfastness of principle and the eternal pledge. Editorial, Al-Yamamah, 9.24.2020
Bandar’s interview is also a window into potential divisions within the royal family over this issue. While nominally all parties are on the same page – the Kingdom supports the Palestinian people, and has not taken any over steps toward normalization – Bandar’s points of emphasis are weighted much more heavily toward castigating Palestinian’s than, say, Prince Turki Al Faisal’s comments. This would not be the first time that Princes Bandar and Turki had diverging views on the best course of action for Saudi foreign policy.
In other, related commentary, a few writers have pointed to Lebanon’s recent negotiations with Israel over gas rights as further evidence that relations with Israel have been normalized even among its harshest detractors.
Today all the Lebanese leaderships are ready for an understanding with Israel. There is no longer enmity, the occupied land, the Shebaa Farms, or the issue. The size of the cooperative deal will generate more than the commercial and military contracts between the UAE and Bahrain and Israel, which the extremists have denounced, and today are silent about the Israeli-Lebanese oil deal. Abdulrahman al-Rashed, Aawsat, 10.3.2020
Tariq Hamid had much the same take in Okaz (10.8.2020).
The Independent Arabia ran a report that:
A high-ranking Palestinian official, who refused to be named, revealed to “The Independent Arabia”, the existence of official Palestinian contacts with Saudi officials to handle Prince Bandar bin Sultan’s statements quietly, away from the media The official said that the Palestinian leadership “does not want a problem” with Saudi Arabia, and that the Palestinians want to “deal with it away from tension and tension.” An official circular issued by the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs prevented Palestinian ambassadors and diplomatic staff from “dealing in any way, commenting or writing about Prince Bandar bin Sultan’s statements,” or even defending the Palestinian position regarding what the Saudi prince said. Indy Arabia, 10.12.2020