The gulf in the Persian Gulf

Israel, understandably, is fixated on what most of its leaders consider an existential threat: Iran’s attempt to acquire a nuclear bomb.

Saudi Arabia, too, is concerned about Iran’s growing influence in the Arab Middle East and the possibility that it will soon have nuclear weapons.

But the two nations are talking past each other yet again.

For the Saudis, concern about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which Riyadh sees as a longer-term threat, has taken a back seat to its concern about the lack of perceived progress in solving the Israel-Palestinian struggle.

Riyadh’s growing unease about the effect of this protracted conflict on the kingdom and on Iran’s hegemonic ambitions was conveyed to Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in meetings in the region last month with senior Saudi and other Arab officials, according to a senior U.S. military official.

Initially, the kingdom’s concern about the plight of the Palestinians was mostly lip service. While Saudi Arabia and other Arab oil states bankrolled the Palestine Liberation Organization and rhetorically endorsed the Palestinians’ right to a state of their own and a theoretical return to the lands of Palestine, Jerusalem in particular, the lack of a settlement and the perpetuation of the status quo following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war jeopardized neither vital Saudi nor Arab interests.


Today, however, concern about the rise of militant Palestinian Hamas, Palestinian political disarray and the growing political despair of Palestinians under Israeli occupation -- if not those in the refugee camps of Jordan, Syria and Lebanon -- seems widespread within the kingdom, for practical, self-serving reasons. The Saudi government has come to see the festering wound of Palestine as a primary source of the radicalization of its own population and, hence, of the extremism that threatens the kingdom’s stability and plays directly into Iranian hands.

Because Saudi Arabia is overwhelmingly young -- more than 75% of Saudis are under 30 -- most of the country’s citizens have no memory of a time when an Arab-Israeli peace seemed not only possible but likely. The 1991 Madrid peace conference, the 1993 Oslo accords, the Arab-Israeli handshakes on the White House lawn -- all are now ancient history. Instead, Saudis, and young Saudis in particular, see Israelis not as potential partners in peace but as brutal occupiers.

The Arab media and the exponential growth of the Internet have reinforced among Saudis a sense of humiliation, injustice and outrage over Israel’s incursions into Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. Al Jazeera and the thousands of websites that Saudis avidly monitor have brought the once-distant suffering of Palestinians directly into their living rooms, giving their plight an immediacy and resonance it once lacked.

Everyone I talked to on a recent trip to Riyadh -- from princes to merchants to bloggers -- mentioned the Palestinian cause, rather than Iran, as their top foreign policy concern (an impression supported by recent opinion polls). Saudi royals and government officials know well that Al Qaeda and other “jihadi” groups exploited the Palestinian cause not only to help recruit the Saudi “muscle” for the 9/11 attacks -- 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis -- but also for subsequent attacks on the kingdom itself.

Between 2003 and 2006, this most rigid, fundamentalist of Muslim regimes was forced to battle its own homegrown Islamic extremists -- confrontations that profoundly shook the kingdom. Last year, a homegrown extremist nearly killed Prince Mohammed bin Nayif, the deputy interior minister, in a suicide-bomb attack.

Brig. Gen. Mansour Turki, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, which runs a well-regarded de-radicalization program, called the “humiliation” of Palestinians under Israeli occupation a “major factor” in the radicalization of Saudis and asserted that Israel’s war in Gaza helped prompt some of the former Saudi detainees held at Guantanamo Bay who had graduated from the kingdom’s de-radicalization program to return to Al Qaeda- related activities.

Sensing danger to their own legitimacy, Saudi rulers have launched a campaign that goes well beyond the de-radicalization program. Over the last few years, the government has moved to sever funds to some of the militant clerics it once supported, to replace more than 1,000 extremist preachers in mosques and universities, and to block many militant websites. It now insists that zakat, the charity required of all observant Muslims, be channeled through government-vetted groups.

Nevertheless, King Abdullah, a pragmatist who is enormously popular at home, senses that absent progress on the Palestinian front, or at the very least the appearance of it, the appeal of the most radical Islamists -- Yemeni separatist groups with which it recently battled, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Hamas and Hezbollah, and radical Saudi Shiite groups, all of whom Riyadh claims Iran supports to enhance its influence and project power in the Persian Gulf -- is likely to grow.

This partly explains why the Obama administration’s stress on stopping Iran from getting a nuclear bomb by strengthening sanctions seems to have aroused little overt enthusiasm in Riyadh. Yes, Saudi defense officials want the missile technology and other defensive assistance that the Pentagon has been dangling. Yes, they will try to line up support for such sanctions. But many Saudis, unlike their rulers, say they do not feel particularly threatened by the prospect of an Iranian bomb. Israel, they told me -- ignoring the obvious differences between the two states -- has an arsenal of them.

So while Israelis want President Obama, whom they increasingly mistrust, to galvanize Saudi support for smart sanctions against Tehran and to secure Saudi neutrality, if not quiet assistance, for military action if all else fails to stop Iran’s nuclear bomb program, the Saudis want Washington to challenge Iran by denying the Persians, the Arabs’ historic rival, the recruiting tool of Palestine.

None of the players seems to be paying sufficient attention to the other’s priorities and concerns. For this and other reasons, progress on the many diplomatic fronts at play in the region seems likely to remain elusive.

Judith Miller is a contributing editor of City Journal, an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a Fox News contributor.