Is a Middle East peace agreement now possible? | WORLD
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Is a Middle East peace agreement now possible?

A Jewish trip to a sacred Muslim city gives reason for hope

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Associated Press/Photo by Lewis Joly

Is a Middle East peace agreement now possible?
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One of President Donald J. Trump’s most remarkable foreign policy achievements was the initiation and success of the Abraham Accords in August 2020. This was a joint agreement of normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates under the patronage of the United States. In the following month, Bahrain—another Arab Muslim nation—joined the agreement, and soon after, Morocco followed course.

This extraordinary accomplishment signaled the first public normalization of relations between Arab countries and Israel since Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. While the consecutive agreements between Arab nations and Israel did not seem to receive much attention in U.S. media outlets, the Abraham Accords were a great sign that a peace deal in the Middle East is now possible—or at least imaginable.

But all these agreements could have never occurred without the blessing of Saudi Arabia, granting the green light for the Arab nations to proceed. And, now more than ever before, an observer of Middle East affairs can hope for a normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

In a recent article in Times of Israel, Jewish entrepreneur Avi Jorisch reports a visit he organized to Saudi Arabia. He brought a delegation of 50 Israelis—all prominent business leaders—to Medina, the second most important city in Islam, only after Mecca. In fact, “Medina” actually means “the City of Muhammad.” The trip was planned, organized, and encouraged by the Saudis. “This was done very intentionally and very mindfully,” Jorisch observed. “We felt like we were ambassadors for the Jewish people and the State of Israel, and we came to play a role in engineering history.”

This presence of a large number of Jews in a holy Muslim city on an official visitation leaves no question about the unmatched importance of the visit. Just consider that non-Muslims are not allowed to enter Mecca as the most important and sacred Islamic city. Visiting Medina is the second best option—no question about that. As a result of this visit, Jorisch is convinced that Israeli-Saudi normalization is “a question of when, not if.”

Jorisch’s assessment appears accurate, but with one caveat. This successful Jewish trip to the holy Muslim city is another sign of the Kingdom’s openness to normalization of relations with Israel, especially considering Saudi’s unquestionable role behind the scenes in the Abraham Accords. However, this success and any possible Israeli-Saudi agreement must consider the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed ibn Salman (MBS), and his declared agenda.

He is arguably the most influential person in any possible peace deal. If the peace agreement and normalization of the relationship with Israel were to happen in our day, Saudi Arabia would employ its media machine and its stature among Arab nations to ensure that MBS is credited with its initiation and success.

But there is also a theological problem.

Islam’s sacred texts explicitly identify the Jews as the everlasting enemies of Muslims. In the Quran, the Jews are cursed. They are expressly identified as “the most intense of the people in animosity.” Muhammad reportedly prophesied that the Last Day would not come until the Muslims “fight with the Jews, and the stone behind which a Jew will be hiding will say. ‘O Muslim! There is a Jew hiding behind me, so kill him.’” According to Islam’s history, Muhammad successfully eliminated the presence of all Jews in his city within a 5-year period.

These religious texts—among many others—have, in part, fueled enmity between Muslims and Jews for centuries. Literally understood, they can hardly be avoided by religious enthusiasts. If a peace agreement were to happen, what would Saudi Arabia do about these theological texts?

The Kingdom will have to tweak its interpretations by propagating the Saudi-Israeli normalization as a social reconciliation that seeks to demonstrate to the world the openness and the peaceful values of Islam.

While MBS never calls his agenda progressive, his critics do, as they depict him as deviating from the solid theological foundations of Islam. In a sense, he seems to like being portrayed as an essentially modern leader who seeks to revive Islam by disassociating it from radicalism.

We should hope for a peace deal at some point soon. But when may we expect it?

Based on the results (or lack thereof) of President Biden’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia, I am doubtful that any Israeli-Saudi agreement would occur under his administration. MBS seems stubbornly unwilling to grant Biden an accomplishment of that magnitude—unless the agreement proceeds clearly without U.S. patronage.

We all have to wait in hope. So much is at stake.

A.S. Ibrahim

A.S. Ibrahim, born and raised in Egypt, holds two PhDs with an emphasis on Islam and its history. He is a professor of Islamic studies and director of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has taught at several schools in the United States and the Middle East, and authored A Concise Guide to the Life of Muhammad (Baker Academic, 2022), Conversion to Islam (Oxford University Press, 2021), Basics of Arabic (Zondervan 2021), A Concise Guide to the Quran (Baker Academic, 2020), and The Stated Motivations for the Early Islamic Expansion (Peter Lang, 2018), among others.

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