Palestine's Convoluted Role in the Middle East
The conflict between Israel and Palestine has been going on since 1948, and is, along with the Korean peninsula, arguably the hardest problem in modern geopolitics. Not only does the problem stretch back 60 years, but it is also ripe with divisions on the Palestinian side. The Israel-Palestine conflict, for much of its past, had post-revolutionary Iran and the gulf Arab states as allies, although this appears to be quietly changing. Meanwhile, Palestine itself is split between the moderate, Fatah faction, and the radical, Sunni terrorist group, Hamas.
The history of the Israel-Palestine conflict is far too long to be summarized in a single post (this is why I didn’t include it in my History of the Middle East series). Instead, Vox has a very good general overview of the conflict. Instead, this article will largely focus on the geopolitical ramifications of the conflict, and the interests of the various actors.
The most interesting aspect of the Israel-Palestine conflict is the role of the divide between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Before 1979, Saudi Arabia was an ardent supporter of Palestine. In 1973, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, along with the rest of OPEC, cut off oil exports to countries that supported Israel in the Yom Kippur war, resulting in an oil crisis that lasted roughly a year until it was resolved in 1974. In previous years, there were multiple wars fought between Arab states and Israel, not just over Palestine, but over the very existence of Israel.
Nonetheless, just as it did in the rest of the Middle East, the Iranian revolution of 1979 marked a massive turning point in relations between Israel, Palestine, Arab States, and Iran. Previously a strong US ally and a bulwark against communism in the Middle East, Iran’s monarchy was replaced with a theocracy, hell bent on spreading Islamism throughout the Middle East. To Iran, the very existence of Israel symbolized a heavy counter to that goal. According to Iran, Israel was a Jewish state that existed in Muslim land, and the fact that Israel was heavily backed by the United States did not bolster Iranian opinions of Israel. However, Iran didn’t have a high opinion of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies either. Iran viewed these states as western puppets who represented a perverted view of Islam, and were overall run by infidels.
Thus, the phrase “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” started to become true, with regards to the gulf monarchies and Israel. In 1993, King Fahd spoke in favor of peace with Israel, and as Iran became more belligerent, Saudi Arabia decreased its support for Palestine. In particular, as Iranian-backed Hamas consolidated more power within Palestine, Saudi Arabia withdrew more and more from the Israel-Palestine conflict in general. This is perfectly in line with realpolitik.
The reality is that Palestine has nothing important to offer Saudi Arabia and the gulf states. Palestine is a poor, backward, war torn state that is festering with terrorists and has no industry or actual benefit to keep around. Meanwhile, Israel is a modern, powerful, industrial state that is very stable and a strong ally of the United States. Additionally, Israel is an enemy of Iran.
Shared interests between nations inevitably lead to cooperation and alliance. No matter the ideological and religious rhetoric surrounding Israel and Palestine, national interests will prevail over all other factors. This is why Israel and Saudi Arabia are now in a state of “covert alliance”. United by a common fear of Iran, which Saudi Arabia acknowledges as a far greater concern than Palestine not existing, Israel and Saudi Arabia now engage in intelligence sharing and are rumored to be discussing arms deals.
Bottom line? In the scope of Middle Eastern geopolitics, Palestine is almost irrelevant. If Israel really wanted to, they could easily crush Palestine without a second thought, but as Palestine is essentially worthless, they don’t bother doing it. Additionally, despite the conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine, Saudi Arabia and Israel are still working together to combat Iran. Palestine is just a sidestory in the greater conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran.