An op-ed by a Saudi pundit stirred much debate in the region last week when he suggested that Jordan integrate millions of Palestinians into a “modern, reasonably well-functioning state.”

In an article headlined “The Hashemite Kingdom of Palestine” Ali Shihabi – an author and commentator on Middle Eastern politics and economics – argued that “the Palestinian problem can only be solved today if it is redefined.”

“The most logical vehicle for this redefinition and hence for the solution to the Palestine problem is the kingdom of Jordan,” he wrote. 

His controversial solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was published in Al Arabiya, the pro-Saudi TV channel and website. The article drew much outrage on social media and news sites in Jordan, according to Jewish Press. Former Jordanian Information Minister Muhammad al-Momani responded in his own article headlined, “The Hashemite Kingdom of Palestine – unrealistic, illogical, and not patriotic.” 

Yisrael Hayom quoted a Jordanian newspaper claiming that Shahibi was promoting an Israeli right-wing agenda and was part of a Saudi-Israeli plot designed to “bring the Palestinian issue to an end.”

Critics also stressed that Shihabi belongs to the Saudi elite and is considered to be a close confidant of the Saudi leadership. He is the founder of the Arabia Foundation, a Washington D.C.-based Saudi advocacy nonprofit, and a member of the advisory board of the futuristic city Neom, a project being pushed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). 

In his op-ed, published earlier this month, Shihabi wrote that the Palestinians must eventually accept Israel’s right to exist as a country, noting that, “Israel is a reality firmly implanted on the ground that has to be accepted, however grudgingly, by the region around it.” 

In the last two years, shifting alliances have developed across the Middle East. The Abraham Accords – which normalized relations between Israel and four Muslim nations – has changed the geopolitical map. While Saudi Arabia has not officially joined the accords, relations between the kingdom and the Jewish state have warmed considerably and many wonder if Saudi is next in line to join the peace process.

“Palestinians must reconcile themselves to this painful reality and move forward with their lives without being held back by false hopes and illusions,” he added.

One of the obstacles standing in the way of Palestinian prosperity, Shihabi stressed, is the preferential treatment that they have received over the years by the international community and institutions – the likes of which no other refugee community has received.

“This is so difficult for Palestinians because they have received probably more emotional and political support from others than any refugee community in modern times. While such support has often involved considerable financial help, it has also generally been more loud political noise than anything substantive that could conceivably help return the Palestinian people to their homes. Yet this still has deluded them and kept them from facing the painful reality that most of their land and homes in historic Palestine have been permanently lost to Jewish settler colonialism,” Shihabi wrote. 

“In comparison, other refugee populations who were not fed any such illusions of return were forced to accept the stark reality of their permanent displacement. They were also ultimately able to move forward with their lives because they were granted citizenship in their adopted countries and hence built new lives for themselves and their descendants.” 

The Saudi pundit argued that those benefiting from these circumstances were Arab states.

“This illusion of ‘return’ has served some Arab regimes’ interests by giving them a powerful excuse to avoid integrating Palestinian refugees as citizens, particularly in Lebanon and even Jordan, both of which have millions of disenfranchised Palestinians in their camps,” he said.

Similar sentiments often resonate in Israel, as reflected in the bestseller book: “The War of Return: How Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream Has Obstructed the Path to Peace” written by two Israeli authors, Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf. It explains how the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) – the very agency charged with finding a solution for the refugees – gave in to Palestinian, Arab and international political pressure to create a permanent “refugee” problem.

Under Shihabi’s proposed Palestinian-Jordanian kingdom, Palestinians in Arab countries like Lebanon can get full residency rights, all while becoming citizens of the enlarged territory, which would include present-day Jordan, Gaza and the West Bank. His suggestion is “equivalent to what an EU citizen has in the European Union outside his or her home country,” he said. 

Shihabi believes that by physically connecting populated Palestinian areas to Jordan, the Israeli argument of essential control over the Jordan Valley for security purposes will “become moot.” 

“The convenient argument that Israel has no ‘peace partner’ will now also be eliminated,” he added. 

A Palestinian-Jordanian country would have a population of 15 to 20 million, according to Shihabi. He envisions a large domestic market that has open borders with Jordan’s neighbors, including Israel. 

“All of which can give this new entity a serious chance at becoming economically viable, instead of being the economic basket case that Jordan is now,” he wrote. 

To implement his plan, however, two very challenging conditions should be met: The relinquishment of any Palestinian claims to Jerusalem and a withdrawal of recognition of the Palestinian Authority.

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