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Saudi prince Turki al-Faisal: reaching a peaceful solution in Gaza is easy

Photo by Kamran Jebreili/AP via Alamy

It is Ramadan in Riyadh. This year the holy month — a remembrance of those with too little food — coincides with a growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza, where many children have already died of hunger after five months of war. On 13 March, the third day of the holiday, I met with Prince Turki Al-Faisal in his office in downtown Riyadh. As we spoke, his strong emotions about Palestine — a lifelong concern of his — were more often expressed in his sombre facial expressions rather than words. When asked a question, he spoke deliberately — careful and cerebral, he was intensely controlled, never repeating a thought or elaborating more than strictly necessary. 

Now 79, Prince Turki is the youngest son of King Faisal and the grandson of Ibn Saud, first king and founder of Saudi Arabia. From 1977 to 2001 he was Director of the General Intelligence Directorate, Saudi Arabia’s foreign intelligence agency. He is credited with building the agency into a modern and professional organisation. When he took the post, Turki already had considerable experience in intelligence, having started his career at the Office of Foreign Liaison at the age of 23. His main concern at the Directorate was Afghanistan, where Saudi Arabia was central in organising the successful Mujahideen resistance to the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. Later, after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, when the West seemed to lose interest in Afghanistan, Prince Turki busied himself trying to arbitrate the growing conflict between the Mujahideen factions. By the end of his term, Osama bin Laden had become the main threat. It’s an extraordinary story that Turki tells in his 2021 book – a cross between a memoir and an essay – with the title of a spy novel, The Afghanistan File

As I sat across a crowded but orderly desk, a framed typewritten note from Jimmy Carter caught my attention. Prince Turki was Saudi’s ambassador to the United States in 2005 and 2006, a period that coincided with yet another Gaza war. When I asked him to evaluate American policy on Israel and Palestine during his lifetime, he described Saudi Arabia as a critical force in moderating American favouritism towards Israel. He told me how the late King Abdullah, his uncle, had to fight the White House staff and vice president Dick Cheney to get George W. Bush — “Bush Junior” — to watch a video of the injustices suffered by Palestinians.  

Today, Turki believes that Saudi Arabia has the same role to play, especially since American policy has lost what equipoise it still preserved in the past. It seems that the necessary balance between opposite interests is now easier to find in Riyadh than Washington. The stakes are also higher now for Saudi Arabia. With the possibility of the Gaza war sparking a wider war, there is a new need for regional peace and stability, without which the Saudi plans for fast technological, industrial and social development – the Saudi Vision 2030 – may remain a mirage.

As Turki sees it, a ceasefire should be the result of a United Nations resolution, put forward by Arab countries, and culminate in a prolonged truce of at least five years. At the end of this truce, a Palestinian state would be created and recognised by the international community — including Israel. Only then would negotiations start between Israel and Palestine, as two sovereign states, for the resolution of the conflict between them. This inverts the sequence from the Oslo accords, where recognition was made dependent on a successful conclusion to negotiations, which never happened. 

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Turki told me that he would expect a peace deal to include Israeli reparations for all the destruction in both Gaza and the West Bank over the past few months. When I asked him if Israel should bear the costs of reconstruction, he suggested they could be equally divided between three parties: Israel, the permanent members of the Security Council and the rest of the world. For a ceasefire to happen, he said, Hamas must join the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), accepting the PLO’s leadership position and embracing its charter, including on the recognition of Israel as part of a two-state framework. He saw signs of acceptance of PLO leadership was possible in recent statements by Hamas in Moscow, where all Palestinian factions met — though not yet on a two-state solution.  

When I asked Turki if Hamas could join a future Palestinian government, he opted for prudence: “Whether Hamas joins the government is a Palestinian decision, not mine.” He thinks the current leaders of Hamas must be replaced, but he extends that requirement to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and to Israel. In his view, Israel must withdraw from the entire Gaza Strip. 

During our discussion, I asked him about the historical significance of the present moment and the way Saudi Arabia thinks about normalising relations with Israel, something sought by both the Trump and Biden administrations. Saudi Arabia did not join the Abraham Accords promoted by Donald Trump in 2020, but prior to the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October, Joe Biden seemed intent on bringing about a normalisation of ties between the two countries. Some progress had reportedly been made. 

Bruno Maçães: This seems to be a decisive moment for the future of Palestine. Some fear an end to the dream of a Palestinian state. Others speak of a new beginning. What do you think? 

Prince Turki: I don’t think I am of the view that the Palestinian cause will eventually disappear. There is an Arabic saying that goes something like this: “no cause will be lost if there are people seeking it”. The Palestinian people have shown over the years that they will continue to strive to be like the rest of us, to have a home they can call their own. And the Palestinian issue has had many turning points over the years. The possibilities of going one way or the other were always part of those turning points. Whether we will see a Palestinian state in my lifetime, that I still don’t know. It is something we have to live through. 

BM: How do we get from here to a Palestinian state? What changes will take us there? 

PT: I have always said, reaching a peaceful solution is easy if people would only make the decision to do it. It’s not a difficult mathematical equation or puzzle that people have to spend time figuring out what the solution is. Basically, it’s a transfer of territory and people. Previous history in other cases has shown that can be done. But there is no political will to accept the consequences of putting that in place. 

BM: Has the United States changed on the Palestinian question in your lifetime? 

PT: Today, Israel is always the one that needs protection, security. But America was not always in that mode. It was Eisenhower that forced Israel, Britain and France to withdraw from their military attack on Egypt. Kennedy had issues with Israel and was flirting with Nasser in Egypt, if I may use that word. Lyndon Johnson, I think, began the process through which Israel acquired all its exemptions from American pressure. 

There was a lot of pressure from Saudi Arabia on Reagan during the Lebanon War in 1982 you mentioned [before the interview I had mentioned a famous phone call where Ronald Reagan asked Prime Minister Begin to end the war, a phone call which indeed happened immediately after another call with Saudi King Fahd]. George H.W. Bush was more in the mode of Eisenhower. Clinton was of two minds. Again, Saudi Arabia placed some pressure on Bush Junior, but September 11 intervened.  Obama made his first phone call as president to Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas], but then I think he came under pressure in America [to back away from the Palestinian cause]. Netanyahu took advantage of that. 

And now Biden comes along. Of all the American presidents he is the most committed to Israel. Where does that leave us? It leaves us in a situation where we have to place pressure on Biden. The new development in all this is the public support for Palestine. I was in America in November and saw that. Literally hundreds of thousands marching in Washington with Palestinian flags. And that has not stopped.

BM: There is also some impact in the Democratic primaries… 

PT: Indeed! The Democratic Party now has among its makeup a pro-Palestinian group, not just the ladies from the Squad [ie, the Democratic US representatives known for their progressive politics, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib], which should have an influence on Biden. Things are still in flux. 

BM: As you said, in the past Saudi Arabia had an active role because of its close relations with the US. Normalisation between Saudi Arabia and Israel is in the background to the events of today. Biden thinks 7 October was a response to the possibility of normalisation between the two countries and then of course after 7 October normalisation seems to depend on an end to the war. 

PT: Prince Faisal, our foreign minister, when asked about normalisation answered very precisely about the need to establish a Palestinian state, with its capital in East Jerusalem, a solution to the refugee problem, [and adopt other] elements of the Arab Peace Initiative. And that [aligns] also [with] the statements I have seen from the Crown Prince [Mohammed bin Salman] and of course the King in his weekly cabinet meetings. That is where the official position is. I don’t think that October 7 took place because of any developments on normalisation. It takes a long time to prepare something like October 7 — a long time. In our region or anywhere else. Nonetheless it had an effect on the normalisation talks. The way the government here proceeded with normalisation talks is that when we arrived at the question of Palestine, and we affirmed the need for a clear path to statehood, what happened was that the Kingdom invited a delegation of Palestinians to come here and meet directly with the Americans. We would never pretend to speak for the Palestinians.

BM: You read in some newspapers and you hear from some people that maybe Saudi Arabia approves of the war because it would like to see the destruction of Hamas… 

PT: Of course we never had good relations with Hamas, particularly after some positions they took when we tried to mediate between them and the Palestinian Authority back in 2006. Hamas broke the agreement. From that date our relations with Hamas soured decisively. Of course that does not mean they would not come to the Kingdom for pilgrimage and some talks took place but not to the extent of the kind of relationship Egypt or Qatar have with Hamas. I would say we are not friends with Hamas. But that does not mean that we want to see the destruction of the Palestinians in Gaza in order to destroy Hamas, as some are trying to indicate or to claim. All our statements emphasise the need to end the war, create a clear path to a Palestinian state and reconstruction. This is where I see our position. But that doesn’t mean we will stop talks with America after that on what we want from America in return for what America wants from us. 

BM: And what is that? 

PT: It is public [knowledge]. We want a more sustainable and secure agreement with America that would give us assurances that America will be there for us when we need her. And second an agreement with America on development of nuclear knowhow to develop our natural resources and nuclear sources of energy. We have lots of uranium in the Kingdom that the Kingdom wants to use.

[See also: War and the West Bank] 

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