Wednesday, 21 Oct 2020

Saudi prince accuses Palestinian leaders of failing Palestinians

JERUSALEM (NYTIMES) – In a surprising televised monologue, a senior member of the Saudi royal family and former ambassador to Washington accused Palestinian leaders of betraying their people, signalling an erosion of Saudi support for an issue long considered sacrosanct.

“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,” the royal, Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz, said in the first episode of a three-part programme, which aired on Monday (Oct 5) on the Saudi-controlled Al-Arabiya satellite channel.

“That sums up the events of the last 70 or 75 years,” the prince said.

Prince Bandar’s 40-minute programme appeared to be a way for the kingdom to shift its narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without having to put it in the mouths of any current officials.

Prince Bandar, 71, holds no current government position, but he served as the Saudi ambassador to Washington from 1983 to 2005, when he grew so close to the Bush family that he was jokingly called “Bandar Bush”.

He later headed the Saudi intelligence agency, and a person familiar with the relationship said that he had overseen Saudi Arabia’s clandestine relationship with Israel.

Two of his children are now Saudi ambassadors, Princess Reema bint Bandar in Washington and Prince Khalid bin Bandar in London.

Experts said that Prince Bandar would not have received so much airtime on Al-Arabiya, which is based in Dubai, had his message not jibed with the wishes of Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Prince Bandar said his remarks were a response to the Palestinian leadership’s condemnation of the recent American-brokered agreements to normalise relations between Israel and two close Saudi allies, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

The agreements, signed at a ceremony on the White House lawn last month, laid the groundwork for the two Persian Gulf countries to establish open diplomatic and economic ties with Israel after years of under-the-table contacts.

The accords did not address the future of the Palestinians, whose demand for statehood had long been considered a prerequisite for further Israeli acceptance by the Arab world.

Prince Bandar’s extraordinary indictment came amid a broader shift in Israel’s relationship with Arab states, some of which now see the Israelis less as usurpers of Arab lands than as valuable partners in trade and in the rivalry with Iran.

Saudi Arabia has no diplomatic relations with Israel, and Saudi, Israeli and American officials have said that they do not expect the kingdom to normalise ties soon.

But Saudi Arabia, long seen as an unwavering supporter of the Palestinians, has softened its stance toward Israel in recent years, which many in the Middle East expect could pave the way for eventual normalisation.

Driving the shift is Crown Prince Salman, who has said that both Israelis and Palestinians have the right to their own land and that Israel’s security and economic interests overlap with those of Arab states.

The kingdom greenlighted the Emirati and Bahraini moves, and the state-controlled Saudi news media praised the accords.

Saudi media have also produced content recently about Israel and Jewish history in the Middle East, topics formerly considered taboo.

Palestinian officials denounced the agreements as a betrayal, and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority accused Persian Gulf leaders of turning their backs on the Palestinians.

On the television programme, Prince Bandar dismissed the Palestinian response as a “lowly level of discourse”, adding that it was not surprising since that was how rival Palestinian factions dealt with each other.

He emphasised the decades of Saudi support for the Palestinians, which he characterised as a one-way street.

“I believe that we in Saudi Arabia, acting on our good will, have always been there for them,” he said.

“Whenever they asked for advice and help, we would provide them with both without expecting anything in return, but they would take the help and ignore the advice.”

He added, “I think it is only fair to the Palestinian people to know some truths that have not been discussed or have been kept hidden.”

The initial Palestinian response to the prince’s statements was muted.

Mr Saeb Erekat, a senior official in the Palestine Liberation Organisation and its veteran chief negotiator, shared the Bandar programme on Twitter, saying it was everyone’s right to watch and that the Palestinian response would come after the third episode.

That response, Mr Erekat said, would be factual and “scientific” and would not demonise anybody.

Prince Bandar offered a rambling and selective history of the Palestinian struggle, saying that the Palestinians “always bet on the losing side”.

His survey, interspersed with archival images and footage, cited the contacts between Haj Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem and an early Palestinian nationalist leader, and the Nazis in the 1930s, adding, “We all know what happened to Hitler and Germany.”

The prince also blasted Mr Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian leader, for embracing the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, despite Kuwait’s record of welcoming the Palestinians.

And he accused Mr Arafat’s PLO of working harder to take over Jordan and Lebanon than to liberate Palestine.

While there is broad agreement that Al-Husseini collaborated with the Nazis against Zionism, historians differ on the significance of his relationship with Nazi leaders.

Prince Bandar also appeared to criticise Palestinians who fled or were forced to leave during the war surrounding Israel’s establishment in 1948, saying that Saudi Arabia had urged them to stay and offered them money and weapons.

A Palestinian official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivities involved, criticised what he called the prince’s distorted history.

The official said the Palestinian refugees had run for their lives, as in any war.

Mr Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel who was responsible for Middle East policy during the Clinton administration and who worked closely with Prince Bandar when he was ambassador to Washington, said the prince had never forgiven the Palestinians for siding with Saddam after he invaded Kuwait.

“For Prince Bandar, that was the original betrayal,” Mr Indyk said. “He clearly could not stand by when they accused the UAE of betrayal.”

Mr Indyk said he doubted the programme foreshadowed an imminent Saudi move to normalise relations with Israel.

“But Bandar is an important representative of the old guard in the Saudi royal family,” he said.

“So it’s an indication that there will be a supportive environment for such a move,” whenever the Saudi leadership decides to make it.

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