It is great to see President Biden visiting the Middle East. America has long played a vital role in advancing the peace process there. But as someone who has followed this region for decades, I can tell you that I’m seeing something new, something that is as ironic as it is surprising: Only Saudi Arabia and the Israeli Arabs can save Israel as a Jewish democracy today — not America.
That’s because, for different reasons, Israeli Arab voters and Saudi Arabia have more power than ever before to force Israelis to choose: They can have a democratic state in Israel and the West Bank, but over time, with high Arab birthrates, it may not be Jewish. They can have a state that is Jewish in Israel and the West Bank, but it won’t be democratic. Or they can have a state that is Jewish and democratic, but it cannot permanently occupy the West Bank.
Those existential choices have been with Israel since 1967, when it captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem in war. But Israel has increasingly refused to choose, so much so that in Israel’s recent four elections in two years, its political parties — from both the right and the left — largely ignored the whole “Palestinian question.” That was alarming.
That doesn’t have to be true when Israel goes to the polls for the fifth time in less than four years, on Nov. 1. While America has grown weary of the rancorous, frustrating process of cajoling Israelis and Palestinians into a two-state solution, Saudi Arabia and Israeli Arabs can now spearhead that role — and I hope they will. Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state may depend on it.
What’s the logic? Start with the most obvious fact. Israel will not be a viable democracy if it indefinitely maintains its occupation of some 2.7 million Palestinians in the West Bank. That occupation involves extending Israeli law to Jews living in the West Bank while governing Palestinians under a separate military code, with far diminished rights and opportunities to own land, build homes and businesses, communicate, travel and organize politically.
This occupation may not be the same as South African apartheid, but it is an ugly cousin and morally corrosive to Israel as a Jewish democracy. It is becoming so alienating to Israel’s liberal friends, including the younger generations of American Jews, that, if it continues, Joe Biden may be the last pro-Israel Democratic president.
To be sure, Israel alone is not responsible for this stalemate, and the progressives and Palestinian propagandists who peddle that notion on college campuses are being dishonest. The second Palestinian uprising, in 2000, went a long way toward destroying the credibility of the Israeli peace camp. That uprising unleashed a wave of suicide bombings against Israeli Jews, right after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Bill Clinton had made peace overtures to Yasir Arafat to establish a demilitarized Palestinian state in most of the West Bank and East Jerusalem — which Arafat rejected. Repeated Hamas rocket attacks from Gaza only compounded Israeli insecurity.
But too many of Israel’s supporters in America sat mute through the 12 years of Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu did everything he could to discredit the Palestinian Authority as a peace partner — by never giving it credit for its vital efforts to curb Palestinian violence toward Israelis and by working to make a two-state reality impossible by installing Jewish settlers deep in the West Bank, beyond the Israeli barrier wall, in areas needed for any future Palestinian state.
The Palestinians, on their part, shot themselves in the foot by splitting into two groups — the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Islamic fundamentalist Hamas in Gaza — and by purging the most effective, honest and credible Palestinian Authority prime minister ever, Salam Fayyad, who served from 2007 to 2013.
Add it all up and you can see why the four most recent Israeli elections ignored the existential threat posed to the Jewish state by its continued West Bank occupation. For most it was: out of sight, out of mind. And no wonder the U.S. withdrew from active involvement in the area — until President Donald Trump gave his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a free hand to push his own plan.
It’s a long story, but the short version is that both Netanyahu and the Palestinians rejected Kushner’s proposal for a two-state solution. Yet rather than allow the whole thing to collapse, the leader of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, inspired by his ambassador to the U.S., Yousef al-Otaiba, proposed full peace, trade and tourism with Israel if Israel agreed not to unilaterally annex territory in the West Bank allotted to Israel in the Trump plan. And thus was born the 2020 Abraham Accords, in which the U.A.E., Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan opened diplomatic relations with Israel.
The U.A.E. did something hugely important catalyzing this deal. The more the Middle East resembles the European Union, and the less it resembles the Syrian civil war, is a very good thing.
But the U.A.E. and its Abraham Accord colleagues have been largely reluctant to involve themselves in Israeli-Palestinian issues. They don’t think highly of the Palestinian leadership, and they don’t want to be embroiled in the whole mess; they want to do trade and investment deals with Israel’s high-tech economy to strengthen themselves. When they got Israel to agree to not annex the West Bank, they thought they had given at the office — done.
Which brings me to the Saudis. For Israel, peace with Saudi Arabia is the big prize. It opens the door to peace with the whole Sunni Muslim world and access to an immense pool of investment capital.
But senior Saudi officials have told me that their support will not come cheap. The ailing Saudi monarch, King Salman, has always had a deep emotional attachment to the Palestinian cause. And his son and the de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (a.k.a. M.B.S.), knows that if Saudi Arabia forges a peace with Israel on the cheap, Saudi Arabia’s archenemy, Iran, will use it to launch a propaganda jihad against Saudi Arabia across the Muslim world. It would be ugly.
Despite these potential pitfalls, Israel and Saudi Arabia have been secretly discussing terms for normalizing relations. I suspect the Saudis will want such a game-changing moment to unfold in two stages.
Dennis Ross, a former U.S. Middle East envoy, told me that, for starters, the Saudis could offer to open a commercial trade office in Tel Aviv, which would both serve Saudi economic interests and “be a big psychological move toward Israel.”
In return, the Saudis could demand something big: Israel halt all settlement-building to the east of the Israeli security barrier in the West Bank and agree that the Saudi-Arab peace plan for a two-state solution be a basis of negotiations with the Palestinians. Such an Israeli settlement commitment would mean Israelis don’t build anymore “on 92 percent of the West Bank, preserving two states as an option,” said Ross, noting that today about 80 percent of Israeli settlers live west of the barrier.
Stage 2 would come with the end to the Israeli occupation and a peace deal with the Palestinians: The Saudis could promise to open an embassy to Israel in Tel Aviv and an embassy to the Palestinians in Ramallah, in the West Bank — or an embassy to Israel in West Jerusalem and an embassy to the Palestinians in Arab East Jerusalem. It would be Israel’s choice, but it would have to be embassies to both. Israel would also have to commit to preserving the status quo on the Jerusalem Temple Mount, which is holy to all Muslims.
(To help President Biden show something for his visit to Saudi Arabia, which starts Friday, and to signal to Israel that the Saudis are serious, Riyadh is expected to announce unfettered privileges for Israeli airlines to fly over Saudi territory and direct charter flights from Israel for Muslims participating in the annual hajj pilgrimage in Mecca. Reuters reported the expected new flight privileges on Thursday.)
I would not expect Israel to jump at any of these proposals, especially its current caretaker government. But I can 100 percent guarantee that if the Saudis made them public, they would play a central role in Israel’s Nov. 1 election and helpspark the kind of debates and creativity needed to preserve Israel as a democratic state.
This is where Israeli Arabs come in: Such a jolt from Saudi Arabia could be reinforced by them in the elections.
Here is some simple Israeli electoral math: Neither the Israeli center-left coalition nor the Israeli right-wing religious nationalist coalition has enough votes alone to create a stable governing majority anymore. That’s why Israel keeps having elections. As a result, Israeli Arabs, who make up 21 percent of Israel’s population and usually win about 12 seats in the Knesset, have replaced Israel’s Orthodox Jewish religious parties as the swing voting bloc. Israel’s last prime minister, Naftali Bennett, was able to put together a narrow coalition only by enlisting the Israeli Arab religious party Raam.
If every Israeli Arab party declared that it would only enter a Jewish-led government that agreed to negotiate with the Palestinians on the basis of the Saudi overtures, I again guarantee you that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank — the biggest existential problem facing Israel — would be front and center in the fall elections.
And that is how, and why, I argue that only Saudi Arabia and the Israeli Arabs can save Israel as a Jewish democracy.
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].
Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.