If there were a prize for the Arab country that has done most to promote Arab-Israeli peace recently, I’d seriously consider nominating Saudi Arabia. Admittedly, that’s a counterintuitive choice: Riyadh doesn’t even recognize Israel and shows no signs of doing so anytime soon; moreover, it finances the spread of extremist Islamic ideology. But Saudi-funded papers have been doing something that may be far more important than another handshake on the White House lawn: providing a platform for Arab journalists and public figures to challenge the dominant Middle Eastern narrative of Israel as the root of all evil.
Consider, for instance, a column published last month in Asharq Al-Awsat, a paper owned by a member of the Saudi royal family and known for its support of the Saudi monarchy. Written by the paper’s then-deputy editor-in-chief, Adel Al Toraifi, and titled “Who holds Hamas’ terrorism to account?” the column blamed not Israel, but Hamas, for Palestinian casualties during both the second intifada and the recent fighting in Gaza.
During the intifada, wrote Al Toraifi, “Only a small number of Palestinians died in the first weeks.” But then, “Hamas and other factions decided to militarize the intifada through the use of suicide attacks, costing the Palestinians nearly 2,000 lives in less than two years.”
Similarly, when smaller factions began “sabotaging the truce in Gaza,” Hamas “did not condemn their attacks, rather its leaders talked about the victory that was achieved through the missile fire.” Consequently, “a hundred Palestinians have died and what remains of the dilapidated infrastructure there has been destroyed.”
Now contrast this with the reaction of Israel’s “peace partner,” Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas. In his speech to the UN last month, Abbas accused Israel of committing “barbaric and horrific” crimes in Gaza in retaliation for … his UN bid! The thousands of missiles launched at Israel weren’t even mentioned, much less condemned. And other senior PA officials openly praised the missile fire. Moreover, the two Arab states with which Israel has peace treaties, Egypt and Jordan, similarly accused Israel of unprovoked aggression while refusing to condemn the rocket fire.
In short, all told their people that Israel is simply an evil country that kills innocent Arabs for no good reason. And why would anyone make peace with a country like that?
Al Toraifi, in contrast, told his readers that Israel isn’t inherently evil; it was just responding to being attacked. He also told his readers that Palestinians aren’t wholly innocent; their behavior, too, will have to change for peace to be possible. These are obviously messages far more conducive to peace.
An even more remarkable column appeared in October in another Saudi-funded paper, Arab News. Written by a former commodore in the Saudi navy, it posed a heretical question: “whether Israel is the real enemy of the Arab world and the Arab people.” Abdulateef Al-Mulhim’s answer was unequivocal:
“The Arab world wasted hundreds of billions of dollars and lost tens of thousands of innocent lives fighting Israel,” he wrote. “The Arab world has many enemies and Israel should have been at the bottom of the list. The real enemies of the Arab world are corruption, lack of good education, lack of good health care, lack of freedom, lack of respect for the human lives and finally, the Arab world had many dictators who used the Arab-Israeli conflict to suppress their own people. These dictators’ atrocities against their own people are far worse than all the full-scale Arab-Israeli wars.”
He also noted, correctly, that Arab states created the Palestinian refugee problem by launching wars against Israel in 1948 and 1967, and that even Palestinians “living under Israeli occupation … enjoy more political and social rights” and a “better situation than their Arab brothers who fought to liberate them from the Israelis.”
Again, the message couldn’t be clearer: Israel isn’t evil, nor is it solely responsible for the conflict: Arabs need to change their own attitudes and behavior.
Yet here, too, the contrast with Israel’s “peace partner” is stark. In Abbas’s UN speech, the Arab assault on Israel in 1948 never happened: Israel simply embarked, unprovoked, on “one of the most dreadful campaigns of ethnic cleansing and dispossession in modern history” (a mind-boggling claim in itself, considering the competition). And ever since, Israel has perpetrated a litany of abuses (ethnic cleansing, apartheid, etc.) against innocent Palestinians, whose conduct was always in “harmony and conformity” with “international law” and “moral values.” There was no Palestinian terror, no serial rejection of peace offers. Israel is simply evil incarnate, and Palestinians bear no responsibility whatsoever for their suffering. It is hardly a message conducive to peace.
Granted, Al Toraifi and Al-Mulhim are still outliers. But Riyadh clearly has no problem with their views: Al Toraifi was just promoted to editor-in-chief of his paper; Al-Mulhim remains a regular columnist at his. Considering that in Egypt, Jordan and the PA, journalists unions prohibit and penalize “normalization” with Israel despite the existence of peace treaties, that is certainly nontrivial.
None of this means the Saudis have become Zionists. Rather, it reflects the fact that Riyadh currently views Iran as its greatest enemy. Hence Iranian allies like Hamas are out of favor, while Israel benefits from a form of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Nevertheless, as I’ve explained before, the Arab world’s virulently anti-Israel rhetoric is a major impediment to Israeli-Arab peace – because as long as most Arabs view Israel as an irredeemably evil country that kills and dispossesses innocent Palestinians for no reason, they will understandably view peace with Israel as beyond the pale.
Thus true peace will arise only when ordinary Arabs realize that both halves of this thesis are false: Israel isn’t all black, and the Arabs aren’t all white. That’s precisely why the world ought to care far more than it does that Israel’s “peace partners” are the very ones promoting this canard most energetically: Scarcely a day passes without PA officials and PA media outlets glorifying anti-Israel terrorism, rejecting Israel’s right to exist or denying Jews’ historic connection to the Land of Israel.
But it is also why, by providing a venue for Arabs to finally start telling their countrymen the truth, Saudi papers may well be doing more to advance the cause of peace than all the Israeli-Palestinian talks ever held.
Evelyn Gordon, JINSA Fellow, is a journalist and commentator writing in The Jerusalem Post and Commentary