How long can Saudi Arabia ignore Gaza protests?

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Article Summary
Saudi king clarifies approach to Jerusalem, but Arab League statement silent on the Gaza Strip; Will Macron and Merkel use North Korea as blueprint for US approach to JCPOA?

Netanyahu’s false promise on Saudi Arabia?

Although King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia clarified the kingdom’s position on Jerusalem at the Arab League Summit in Dhahran last week, the final communique was silent on the Gaza Strip, where Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have killed 32 Palestinians, including a 15-year-old boy, and wounded over 1,600 in protests that have taken place in recent weeks at the border with Israel.

Salman announced $150 million for the Islamic endowment in Jerusalem and $50 million for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, making up for the cut in US funding. He proclaimed the meeting the “Jerusalem” summit. The communique noted the “illegality of the American decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, as we categorically refuse to recognize Jerusalem [Al-Quds] as the capital of Israel, where East Al-Quds will remain the capital of the State of Palestine,” and added a warning “against taking any action that would change the current legal and political status of Al-Quds.”

Bruce Riedel writes that “the stridency of the king’s remarks … reflects growing unease in the royal palace that events in Gaza and Jerusalem are moving toward even more explosive unrest next month when the US Embassy opens in Jerusalem. The Saudis are uncomfortable that they have been widely perceived in the Arab world as colluding with Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, to undermine the Palestinians’ claim to the holy city, a perception that damages the Saudi mantle as the defender of the holy mosques, which is crucial to the royal family’s legitimacy. Pictures on TV of protesting Gazans burning Saudi flags and pictures of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman have been blocked in the kingdom. Iran is actively labeling the Saudis as conspiring with Israel.”

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Daoud Kuttab adds, “It is not clear exactly what made the Saudi monarch decide to raise the profile of Jerusalem. The king’s son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — who is also the kingdom’s defense minister — had just concluded a wide-ranging tour in the United States on March 19-22 that included a visit to the White House. … Throughout his tour, Mohammed made little mention of Jerusalem. In fact, in one interview with The Atlantic, he appeared to be moving closer than ever before to unilaterally recognizing the State of Israel in an exchange that drew a striking headline. The Atlantic’s editor-in-chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, asked, ‘Do you believe the Jewish people have a right to a nation-state in at least part of their ancestral homeland?’ Mohammed answered, ‘I believe that each people, anywhere, have a right to live in their peaceful nation. I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land.’ But The Atlantic’s April 2 version of the interview played up the statement by removing reference to Palestinians, with the subhead, ‘In a wide-ranging conversation, Prince Mohammed bin Salman also recognized the Jewish people’s right to their own land.’”

Akiva Eldar writes that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is deluded by the false promise of a secret deal with Saudi Arabia, and thereby ignoring the potential for direct talks with the Palestinians. “On Israel's 70th Independence Day, the Arab world is once again inviting it to become a full-fledged member of the region and enjoy security, recognition and peace with all Arab states,” Eldar writes. “This historic transformation, however, carries a price tag: the launch of serious peace negotiations for ensuring the establishment of an independent Palestinian state within the June 1967 borders, with its capital in the eastern part of Jerusalem."

Eldar considers Netanyahu’s misguided approach as “a dual and even triple innovation, a real international startup enterprise. It promotes ties with pragmatic Arab states while sending snipers to kill unarmed Gaza Palestinians, deepening the Israeli occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem and touting US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital. … Although the summit met against the backdrop of the global-regional Syrian civil war and the direct conflict between Israel and Iran, the Israeli media largely ignored it. They were busy feeding the Israeli public juicy tales of a steamy love affair between Jerusalem and Riyadh, passionately united against their common enemy in Tehran. The local media quoted extensively from a New York Times report about 'understandings' between the Trump administration and the Saudis on an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan that includes turning the East Jerusalem village of Abu Dis into the capital of a future Palestine.”

The unease of the kingdom and the Arab League with the protests in Gaza is linked to their opposition to Hamas. As we wrote here April 1, “Hamas had planned the Great Return March on March 30 as a show of both force and desperation in the context of a crisis in Palestinian leadership and the alarming economic and humanitarian conditions in the Gaza Strip.”

Shlomi Eldar explains, “Hamas would like to turn the mass border protests into a weekly routine, beyond May 15. But the IDF plans to stop the protests by changing its tactics on the ground and target Hamas in particular. From the start, Israel has categorized the border protests as acts of terror, and it claims that Hamas is not only involved in the protests but also engages in terrorist activities such as planting explosive devices along the border fence and attempting to break through it. Israel's conclusion is that it must respond militarily to what it perceives as Hamas' armed confrontation along the border. Two days after the April 14 protests, the IDF announced it had recently uncovered another Hamas tunnel in northern Gaza. According to Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, this is the longest, deepest and most impressive tunnel to be uncovered so far. An IDF spokesperson said on condition of anonymity that the tunnel was situated in the Jabaliya area, close to where the protests are taking place. Thus, the IDF prepared for the possibility that Hamas might use the tunnel to carry out terror acts under the cover of the demonstrations. … The timing of the announcement and the connection made between the uncovered tunnel and the protests were designed to send a clear message to Hamas: Be careful or you will pay a price for the continued protests. The longer the demonstrations continue, the more Hamas invests efforts in them and in the violence against IDF forces, which in turn will result in Israel ratcheting up its military responses to include Hamas targets in Gaza.”

Eldar’s reporting foreshadowed the latest escalation, on April 20, including the IDF killing of a teenager, which Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman blamed on Hamas. “The only culprits in the death of the 15-year-old boy in Gaza are Hamas leaders," Liberman tweeted. “Those cowardly leaders hide behind women and children and send them forward as human shields so that they can continue to dig tunnels and carry out acts of terrorism against the State of Israel. I repeat to the residents of Gaza: To prolong your life, do not go near the fence.”

Riedel suggests that the kingdom’s shifting stance on the Palestinian issue is also related to a readjustment in Riyadh’s expectations about the Trump administration. The Saudis have “not been reassured by [Trump’s] remarks since about the reasoning behind the airstrikes [on Syria] in which he has promised not to try to fix the ‘troubled’ region’s problems,” Riedel writes. To the Saudis, Trump increasingly sounds like Barack Obama in advocating a strategy that leaves the Arabs to take care of themselves. Riyadh was mystified when Trump claimed Salman was ready to pay for America to stay in Syria. In fact, the Saudis long ago gave up on trying to topple Bashar al-Assad. They want Washington to do the heavy lifting. They aren’t going to pay for it. … The Saudis also are frustrated that Trump talks tough on Iran but has avoided confrontation with Tehran in Syria and elsewhere. …

“The Saudis are not giving up on Trump,” Riedel concludes. “They have put their prestige behind the Trump administration by hosting him in Riyadh a year ago and with the crown prince’s extensive visit to the United States. They are encouraged by the dismissal of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the promotion of Iran hawk John Bolton as national security adviser. But their expectations about the administration have been downsized. The adjustment is tactical and careful, led by Salman’s Jerusalem summit.”

Zarif: US-Iran meeting requires "respect"

As details emerge of the preliminary discussions in advance of a likely summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, European leaders may have a blueprint for making the case for the Trump administration to keep the US commitment to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed in 2015.

The stakes are high for both French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel when they meet with Trump in the coming week. While both countries have been discussing possible steps to address US concerns about Iran’s missile programs and human rights violations, they will also appeal for the United States to adhere to the JCPOA, which does not address missiles or human rights.

The European appeal to Trump should be that his laudatory approach to de-escalating the nuclear crisis in Asia is not of a piece with escalating the prospects for proliferation in the Middle East and Europe. The two tracks can and should be part of a broader and consistent appeal to prevent the risk of nuclear proliferation and conflict. 

Iran’s nuclear program is a matter of European, as well as Asian, security. US allies in the Pacific, as well as Russia and China, understand the need for a reasoned approach to North Korea. European leaders, as well as Russia and China, can claim that Iran’s nuclear program offers just as grave a challenge for European security.

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif raised the stakes for the Merkel and Macron visit when he said that “because of what we have been able to do within the JCPOA on research and development, we can resume the nuclear program in a much more advanced way, still for peaceful purposes, but in a much more advanced way. So that's one of the options that is open to Iran and probably the most serious one.”

Macron and Merkel might also suggest that Trump, who has proved willing for high stakes diplomacy with Kim, might consider the same with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. We suggested such an option here last month. Zarif, when asked in his interview with Al-Monitor whether Iran would consider such a Trump-Rouhani meeting, replied, “I think any interaction, certainly with Iran, would require respect, and once President Trump is prepared to exhibit some of that.”

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