A week ago on these pages I called on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman to electrify the world by recognizing the State of Israel. The column was widely quoted and republished. I do not flatter myself in believing that it had any impact on the prince’s thinking, or that he even read it. Yet six days later MBS did something extraordinary and historic. In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, he all but recognized Israel. Asked by Goldberg whether he accepts that “the Jewish people have a right to a nation-state in at least part of their ancestral homeland,” MBS responded: “I believe that each people, anywhere, has a right to live in their peaceful nation. I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land.”
The words may seem straightforward, but they are historic. Saudi Arabia is the 600-pound gorilla of the Arab world. A Saudi ruler who speaks of Israel’s right to exist is a game-changer.
But MBS continued. Goldberg asked him if there was a “religious-based objection to the existence of Israel?” The crown prince and effective ruler said, “We have religious concerns about the fate of the holy mosque in Jerusalem and about the rights of the Palestinian people.
This is what we have. We don’t have any objection against any other people.”
And in perhaps the most interesting response, when asked about the existence of antisemitism in Saudi Arabia, the prince said: “Our country doesn’t have a problem with Jews. Our Prophet Muhammad married a Jewish woman. Not just a friend – he married her. Our prophet, his neighbors were Jewish. You will find a lot of Jews in Saudi Arabia coming from America, coming from Europe. There are no problems between Christian and Muslims and Jews. We have problems like you would find anywhere in the world, among some people.
But the normal sort of problems.”
I grew up hearing of Saudi Arabia’s racist polices of not allowing Jews into the country and its sworn animosity to Israel’s existence. Now you have a Saudi crown prince speaking openly of Israel’s right to exist, Jews living in Saudi Arabia, and calling Ayatollah Khameini, the spiritual head of Iran, a man who is “worse than Hitler.”
“Hitler didn’t do what the supreme leader is trying to do. Hitler tried to conquer Europe. This is bad. But the supreme leader is trying to conquer the world. He believes he owns the world. They are both evil guys. He is the Hitler of the Middle East. In the 1920s and 1930s, no one saw Hitler as a danger. Only a few people. Until it happened. We don’t want to see what happened in Europe happen in the Middle East. We want to stop this through political moves, economic moves, intelligence moves. We want to avoid war.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has, of course, been preaching the gospel of Khameini as a genocidal Hitler wannabe for years. Few took him seriously and US president Barack Obama especially made it seem like Khameini was a man he could do business with.
But now you have the leader of Saudi Arabia making the case even more strongly against Iran than the Israeli prime minister.
And on Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, which so many of us fought so hard against, MBS made a powerful argument against both it and the huge cash infusion that the deal brought to Iran.
“The economic benefits of the Iran nuclear deal are not going to the people... they took $150 billion after the deal – can you please name one housing project they built with this money? One park? One industrial zone? Can you name for me the highway that they built? I advise them – please show us something that you’re building a highway with $150b.”
Of course, not everything with Saudi Arabia is roses.
There are still serious human rights abuses that must be addressed, and the country still has zero diplomatic ties with Israel. The rights the crown prince wants to accord women, like driving, voting, or running for office would seem basic and obvious to anyone in the West and nothing to applaud. But still, progress should be applauded.
So, is MBS becoming a friend of Israel and the Jewish people? Many would say no, that his decisions are purely transactional, his purpose nothing more than stopping Iran, his outreach to Israel of the “the enemy of my enemy of is my friend” variety.
Perhaps so. Never having met him, I do not know his heart.
But I will say this.
Many years ago, when rabbis like me started reaching out to the Evangelical Christian community because of their public statements in support of Israel, we were vilified.
Yes, our critics admitted, Christian Evangelicals are stalwart supporters of Israel, especially in supporting and electing pro-Israel politicians. But, they said, their motives are suspect. Their support for Israel is all based on an eschatology in which Jesus can’t come back until the Jews are gathered back to the Holy Land.
But once Jesus comes back, the Book of Revelation says the Jews are going to get walloped for having rejected Jesus.
I wrote a lengthy book called Kosher Jesus to respond to these allegations. I summoned a great deal of scholarship to rediscover the Jewish Jesus that lay hidden behind so much Christian gauze. But my main argument was this: Christian support for Israel should not be examined for its motive but its effect. I personally believe that Christian Evangelicals love the Jewish people and Israel because of biblical teachings. But for those who believe that their motives are nefarious and troublesome, Judaism focuses on action, not motive.
“One should always do the right thing even for wrong reason,” the Talmud teaches. We are not a religion that focuses on intent so much as on effect and impact.
So, does MBS hate Iran or love Israel? Only he can answer that question, and there is certainly reason to believe that the former is much more compelling for him than the latter. But in the final analysis, a Saudi future king who is speaking of Israel’s right to exist, who is beginning to allow flights to Israel over his territory, who is condemning the funding of terrorist groups like Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, and who is speaking openly of Jews living in his land, deserves to be taken seriously and deserves to be engaged.
The author, “America’s rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” is founder of The World Values Network and is the international best-selling author of 31 books, including his most recent, The Israel Warrior. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.