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Saudi Acquiescence to Israeli Overflights Surprises Few
The El Al 737 that made the historic flight from Tel Aviv is guided to its gate at Abu Dhabi’s international airport on August 31. (Karim Sahib/AFP via Getty Images)

Saudi Acquiescence to Israeli Overflights Surprises Few

Move seen as additional sign of changing perceptions on everything from Palestinians to Iran, analysists say

Saudi Arabia agreed on Wednesday to allow flights from “all countries” heading to the UAE and departing from it to use the kingdom’s airspace. Riyadh’s aviation authority said the move came at the request of Abu Dhabi.

The news – which angered Palestinians, who feel that Arab support for their cause is fading – came after Saudi Arabia on Monday granted an El Al passenger plane permission to fly the route to Abu Dhabi and then back to Tel Aviv the following day.

Monday’s history-making flight carried an Israeli delegation, as well as US presidential adviser Jared Kushner and National Security Council head Robert O’Brien, to Abu Dhabi for normalization talks. It was the first direct passenger flight for the route. The Israeli officials headed home on the next day’s return flight.

Almost at the same time that state media in Saudi Arabia announced the change, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced that Israeli planes could now fly directly to the United Arab Emirates.

“Israeli planes and those from all countries will be able to fly directly from Israel to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and back,” Netanyahu said, without giving a timeline. The change will cut three to four hours off flights from Israel to eastern destinations.

Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud said in a tweet that the kingdom’s support for a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital had not changed, yet Abdul Majeed Swailem, a professor of regional studies at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, believes the new policy reflects a new reality.

“The general path now is the path of accepting normalization with Israel before Israel’s withdrawal from the Palestinian and Arab territories occupied since 1967, as required under the Arab [Peace] Initiative,” Swailem told The Media Line.

The general path now is the path of accepting normalization with Israel before Israel’s withdrawal from the Palestinian and Arab territories occupied since 1967, as required under the Arab [Peace] Initiative

In 2002, Saudi Arabia sponsored the initiative, which continues to call for Israel’s complete withdrawal from the Palestinian territories it seized in the Six Day War and a “just solution” for Palestinian refugees in exchange for peace and full normalization.

Ronni Shaked, coordinator of the Middle East and Islam Research Unit at the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has made the Saudi initiative a pillar of his policy, although support for that stance appears to be on the wane both regionally and around the world.

“The Palestinians took a double whammy − one from the Arabs, and the other from the international community,” Shaked told The Media Line.

The Palestinians took a double whammy − one from the Arabs, and the other from the international community

“The Israeli plane flew over Saudi airspace. This is a painful blow to the Palestinians,” he said.

The announcement that Israel and the UAE are pursuing normalization, made at the White House on August 13, is proof of declining support for the Palestinians overall, he adds.

“Arab nationalism has greatly weakened, and its weakness has weakened the Palestinian cause among the Arabs,” Shaked said.

Swailem says the Saudi decision to allow Israeli aircraft overflight rights shows that the UAE would not have made such a move without first getting a green light from Riyadh.

“I believe that the step taken by the UAE is not completely isolated from the Arab context and the Saudi regime…” he stated. “What the Arabs are asking for is what [US President Donald] Trump proposed in his plan, the so-called deal of the century.”

Saudi Arabia, however, has repeatedly said it will not establish diplomatic ties with Israel until the latter signs an internationally recognized peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Swailem adds that the PA is under tremendous pressure to accept Trump’s peace plan.

“The Palestinian Authority is under external pressure. This is certain. We are anticipating a strict siege against the Palestinian people and its leadership,” he said.

Shaked believes the shift in Arab support is partly the fault of the Palestinians.

“The problem is not only Arab, European or American pressure. The Palestinian internal situation is very difficult. They are now facing a very big dilemma due to the division,” he explained, referring to the longtime schism between the PA and Hamas, the ruler of the Gaza Strip.

Shaked likens the current state of the Palestinians to the “Nakba” or “catastrophe” of 1948.

“I am talking about a political, social and psychological catastrophe, the catastrophe of the internal Palestinian situation between the [various] movements and factions, and the lack of communication with Israel. Everything is bad now for the Palestinians,” he said.

I am talking about a political, social and psychological catastrophe, the catastrophe of the internal Palestinian situation between the [various] movements and factions, and the lack of communication with Israel. Everything is bad now for the Palestinians

Swailem adds that he was not surprised by the Saudi decision, arguing that the de facto leader of the desert kingdom, the young and powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has been flirting with the idea of establishing relations with Israel for years.

“Allowing Monday’s flight to pass through its airspace is proof that cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia in fact exists,” Swailem said.

Allowing Monday’s flight to pass through its airspace is proof that cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia in fact exists

When Abbas assumed power in January 2005, he changed the policy of his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, declaring that working for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be the basis of his administration’s strategy. He moved swiftly to end the Second Intifada and internationalize the Palestinian cause, placing responsibility for achieving peace in the region on the Arab states and the international community.

“This policy changed the thinking of the Palestinians, especially in the West Bank, about the bloody attacks against Israel,” Shaked said. “Abu Mazen [Abbas] encouraged peaceful resistance and made it a pillar of his policy toward Israel.”

Yet times have changed. The Arab Spring and the resulting domestic troubles in many Arab countries have had negative consequences for the Palestinian issue, shifting attention away from their cause, he notes.

“Mahmoud Abbas did not fail, but circumstances contributed to the failure of his policy,” Shaked said.

“What could he have done? Do you want him to be a Likud member, for him to say, ‘I am a Zionist’? No, this is not possible,” he stated.

“Abu Mazen did not bring Trump to the White House. Netanyahu and the politics of the extreme Right [in Israel] are not in the hands of Abu Mazen. He did not think that the Arab countries would change their stance toward the [Saudi peace] initiative and the Palestinians,” Shaked noted. “In the end, the Palestinians are paying the price.”

He feels that “the biggest blow to the Palestinians” has been the deep political division between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

“This division [has proved] a fatal blow to the Palestinians and led to the weakening of the Palestinian Authority and diminishing of the legitimacy of Abbas,” he said.

To Swailem, though, it is the perceived threat from Iran and its growing influence in the region that has motivated some Gulf states to move closer to Israel.

“Exaggerating the Iranian hostility toward the Arabs is an American-Israeli plot, and the Arabs should not join it in this humiliating way,” he said.

Exaggerating the Iranian hostility toward the Arabs is an American-Israeli plot, and the Arabs should not join it in this humiliating way

Shaked believes that Abbas’s greatest mistake lies in having weakened the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and his own Fatah movement.

“Abu Mazen relied on the bureaucracy, and not on his [Fatah] party,” he said. “That was a huge miscalculation on his part.”

In an effort to appease the Palestinian street and stop other Arab governments from following in Abu Dhabi’s footsteps, the PA is holding an emergency meeting of all Palestinian factions in Beirut on Thursday.

Swailem does not expect much.

“No important decisions will come out of the meeting,” he said. “I can’t count on [those at the meeting]. Other than slogans and speeches nothing will happen.”

Other than slogans and speeches nothing will happen

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