On September 25, 2016, the Saudi English-language daily Saudi Gazette published an unusual editorial, urging the Palestinian Authority (PA) not to dismiss out of hand the invitation extended by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Palestinian President Mahmoud 'Abbas to address the Israeli parliament, and not to treat it as just a "new gimmick." The editorial stated that this invitation was reminiscent of the one extended by Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin to Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to visit Israel. This eventually led to the signing of the Camp David agreement, which "for all its shortcomings... demonstrated that negotiations with Israel were possible." The editorial also mentioned the visit of U.S. president Bill Clinton to the PA in 1998, which led to the amendment of the PLO charter and eventually to the holding of the Camp David summit between Israel and the Palestinians in 2000. These two examples, it said, showed that diplomatic visits on that level could change the course of history.
'Abbas and Netanyahu (Image: Zamnpress.net)
It should be mentioned that, in the last two months, there have been indications of a shift in the Saudi position vis-a-vis Israel and of a Saudi and Arab attempt to prepare public opinion for normalization with it. Among these indications were a July 2016 visit to Israel by a Saudi delegation headed by Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Anwar Eshki, chairman of the Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies in Jeddah, and the publication of photos of the delegation with Israeli politicians. Although the Saudi regime denied any involvement in Eshki's visit, and Eshki himself claimed that he represented only himself and that "official Saudi elements did not know of the meeting in advance, as it was of a personal nature" and was the result of an invitation by the PA, he nevertheless clarified that "the kingdom does not prevent anyone from holding such visits," and did not rule out indirect Israeli-Saudi intelligence cooperation as part of efforts to combat terrorism. A month later Eshki said he would not hesitate to visit Israel again.
Another indication of the shift in the Saudi position towards Israel is a series of highly unusual articles published in the Saudi press this July, which were harshly critical of the antisemitic discourse in Arab and Muslim society, and called to avoid generalizations regarding Jews. On these articles, see MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6574, Articles In Saudi Press: End The Antisemitic Discourse, Learn From The Jews' Success, August 14, 2016.
Additionally, there have recently been reports that Saudi Arabia is acting, along with Egypt, Jordan and the UAE, to promote a process of internal reconciliation within Fatah and between Fatah and Hamas, as part of a broader initiative to launch a comprehensive political process in the region culminating in a political settlement with Israel. On this initiative, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1270, Tension Between Mahmoud 'Abbas, Arab Quartet Over Initiative For Internal Reconciliation In Fatah, September 27, 2016.
The following is the editorial published by Saudi Gazette, in the original English.
"The Palestinians should not be too quick to dismiss the invitation extended by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to address Israel's parliament [and his statement that], in return, [he would] 'gladly come to speak peace with the Palestinian parliament in Ramallah.' Netanyahu's gesture was quickly rejected by the Palestinians as a 'new gimmick' but the invitation is reminiscent of the one issued by former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to visit Israel - and the rest is history. On Nov. 19, 1977, Sadat became the first Arab leader to visit Israel when he met with Begin and spoke before the Knesset in Jerusalem about his views on how to achieve a comprehensive peace to [resolve] the Arab-Israeli conflict which included the full implementation of UN resolutions 242 and 338.
"The visit led to the 1978 Camp David accords, the series of meetings between Egypt and Israel facilitated by then-US President Jimmy Carter, then the signing of a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in the US the following year. For good measure, both Sadat and Begin were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for creating the treaty. For all its shortcomings, Camp David demonstrated that negotiations with Israel were possible and that progress could be made through sustained efforts at communication and cooperation.
"Despite the disappointing conclusion of the 1993 Oslo accords, it was a significant development that had little chance of occurring without the precedent set by Camp David. Another unprecedented invitation involving the Palestinians and Israel needs mentioning, that of Bill Clinton becoming the first US president to visit Palestinian territory, where he addressed the Palestine National Council. On that day in 1998, Palestinian leaders approved a measure affirming the right of Israel to exist. Rising from their seats and voting by raising their hands, the PNC voted nearly unanimously to remove clauses from the Palestine Liberation Organization charter that called for the destruction of Israel. The acceptance by the Palestinians that Israel had the right to live within secure borders led to the 2000 Camp David summit II which, while it ended without an agreement, could not have been held in the first place had it not been for Clinton's visit.
"Despite these two examples of how official visits can [change] the arc of history, the Palestinians automatically rejected Netanyahu's invitation to Abbas, which was designed to mask what they described as Israel's intransigence on moving forward with the Mideast peace process. It is possible that the aim of the invitation was an attempt by Netanyahu to isolate UN attempts to restart and impose a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. In reiterating his persistent call for direct negotiations with the Palestinians, Netanyahu has rejected any possible UN plan to unilaterally impose a solution to the conflict, reiterating Israel's longstanding complaints that the UN is biased against Israel. His biggest concern is that President Obama might allow the UN Security Council to endorse Palestinian statehood at the end of the year without the traditional US veto of such a measure.
"The Palestinians have rebuffed Netanyahu's past offers for such invitations, saying his hard-line position on all core issues made dialogue impossible. Indeed, Netanyahu rejects a settlement freeze, will not uproot settlements, rejects the 1967 borders as the basis for talks and rejects any division of Jerusalem.
"But the Palestinians should note that at the time, Egypt and Israel were mortal enemies, having fought three wars. Camp David called for a five-year transitional period of Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza. The transitional period would include the introduction of Palestinian self-government and an end to Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Much of the Arab world derided it as a weak deal. But in hindsight, if the provisions had been carried out, Israel and the Palestinians might not be in the impasse they are in at present."