The American historian spoke to Neokohn about whether Saudi Arabia has really changed and how he thinks the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be resolved. Interview by Tímea Hajdú.
Is normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia close?
Normalization will happen, but its timing depends largely on how long King Salman rules. As long as he is in charge, the peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia will not be official. If he no longer rules due to resignation or death, then peace will probably become official. This process is good for both countries. Resistance to it within Saudi Arabia is limited. If peace is concluded, I expect it to resemble the Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
In recent years, Saudi Arabia has tried to build a new image, showing a more modern, friendlier face. What has really changed?
The changes are paradoxical. Profound transformations have taken place in the areas of culture, the position of women, and religion, and this process is ongoing. On the other hand, one person increasingly controls the country. So, modernization and growing autocracy are taking place simultaneously. Although a seeming contradiction, this is not so unusual; similar developments occurred in Turkey 100 years ago and in Japan 150 years ago. In all three cases, modernizers are also autocrats.
Note what happened when Mohammad bin Salman decided to allow women to drive cars. A woman immediately jumped into a car and drove, only to be arrested and thrown in jail. She may not decide when the driving begins; only MbS decides that.
Recently, the Saudis unofficially dropped a plan of their own to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Ali Shihabi, a confidant of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, published a Saudi proposal on June 8.) It proposes to merge Jordan and the Palestinian territories and form the Hashemite Palestinian Kingdom. It got almost no response. What do you think about this?
That plan would effectively return to the pre-1967 situation of Jordan controlling the West Bank. I like the plan. Unfortunately, I don't think the Jordanians like it. I visited Jordan a few years ago and talked to a lot of people. Almost without exception, they said that the West Bank was now Israel's problem and added how glad they were that it was not theirs any longer.
Joe Biden recently visited Israel, during which he expressed his support for a "two-state solution," adding that now is not the time to resume negotiations. What do you think about of this statement?
It seems that the Biden administration has learned from the mistakes of the past and is not making Israeli-Palestinian negotiations a priority. I consider that a smart decision, as the negotiations would certainly not succeed. We have no reason to think that Mahmoud Abbas wants to come to terms with Israel.
What do you think could end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
My approach has a name, Israel Victory. As a historian, I note that wars usually end when one side gives up and conflicts continue so long as both sides think they can win. That makes intuitive sense. The Germans gave up at the end of World War II but North Korea, for example, has not given up. The American South gave up in 1865, as the Soviet Union did.
So, ending a conflict requires one side to say, "Okay, I understand that I can't achieve my goals, so I give up." I see this as a realistic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a conflict in which the Palestinians have lost at every level. They lack both military and economic power; time has come for them to give up.
I want Israel to pursue a policy that encourages the Palestinians to accept reality and give up. Once they do that, they can begin to build their own polity, economy, society and culture. About 20 percent of Palestinians already accept Israel; the Israel Victory goal is to increase this number to 40 and 60 percent.
But this is not the policy Israelis pursue, as it is easier to keep things quiet. Achieving Israel Victory is not quiet; short term, it causes disputes and problems. Institutions generally avoid steps that create short-term problems.
But complicating matters is that the pro-Palestinian movement has become an important part of the global social justice movement.
Correct, the Palestinians have a huge support network around the world, especially on the Left. No other nationalist cause enjoys comparable support. This is one main reason why Palestinians have not given up; others include aspects of the Muslim religion and of Israeli politics.
Note the West Bank and Gaza Palestinians are at the heart of hostility towards Israel. It is not, for example, about Iran-Israel tensions or the Arabs living in Israel.
Your July article in the American Spectator magazine argues that the warm reception offered to Ukrainian refugees could have major unintended consequences as activists present this as the new norm and argue that Westerners must welcome all non-Westerners as they did the Ukrainians. Do you see this impact taking place?
Yes, since I wrote that article, statements and events show that this campaign has begun. This argument will have real power, as those skeptical of non-Western immigration become defensive and know not what to say. The impact will be more non-Western migration to the West. As someone who does not want an increase non-Western migration, I see a serious danger in this.
I have promoted the idea of migrants staying within their own cultural zones. Not everyone must come to the West. Ukrainians should go to Europe, Latin Americans to Latin America, Africans to Africa, and so on. Look at Africa and the rate at which its population is growing; it already has twice the population of Europe and that population is expected further to triple in the next 80 years. Europe simply cannot accommodate so many Africans.
Migration was a very hot topic a few years ago but no longer. Will it return?
Yes, it will, especially with the new template, noted above, that Somali and Kurdish illegal migrants should be welcomed in Europe and North America as are Ukrainian refugees. This will be the new weapon of activists promoting multiculturalism and pro-immigration policies.
Is the situation similar with political Islam, another topic that got sidetracked?
Right, that was a dominant theme for 15 or so years after 9/11, then it nearly disappeared. Partly, people became bored of it, partly because new topics arose: China, Covid-19, Russia, Ukraine. The problem persists, however, and sooner or later another crisis will burst out due to jihadi violence or an Islamist politician. Violently or nonviolently, the problem will return.