WASHINGTON - Veteran journalist Bob Woodward’s new book on the Trump presidency claims Jared Kushner has been working to encourage an alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia, sometimes against the advice of other senior officials in the White House.
According to Woodward’s account in the just-published “Fear,” Kushner’s efforts began during the first months of the Trump administration in early 2017. Woodward says it was the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser who first proposed that the president’s first official foreign trip should include two stops: Saudi Arabia and Israel. The idea was to send a message about the U.S.’ commitment to forging closer relations between the two countries, who are both regional enemies of Iran.
Woodward writes that Kushner discussed the issue with Derek Harvey, a retired military colonel who was in charge of Middle East policy at the National Security Council during Trump’s first year as president. Harvey told Kushner that choosing Riyadh as the first foreign capital to be visited by President Donald Trump would “fit perfectly with what we’re trying to do, reaffirm our support for the Saudis, our strategic objectives in the region.”
Woodward adds that the thinking was that “making Saudi Arabia the first presidential trip could go a long way to signaling that the Trump administration had new priorities. A summit in Saudi Arabia would also benefit Israel. The Saudis and Israelis, both longtime foes of Iran, had both open and important back-channel relations.”
After writing that Kushner had strong ties to the most senior levels of the Israeli government, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Woodward then describes a disagreement between Kushner and other senior U.S. officials over who was the most important figure to work with in Saudi Arabia.
Woodward claims that while senior U.S. intelligence officials believed that the most influential Saudi was the then-crown prince, former intelligence chief Mohammed bin Nayef, Kushner had a different reading of the situation.
“Kushner told Harvey he had important and reliable intelligence that the key to Saudi Arabia was the deputy crown prince, the charismatic 31-year-old Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS,” writes Woodward. Some intelligence chiefs in D.C. disagreed.
“The message from them was that Kushner better be careful,” Woodward wrote. “The real solid guy was the current crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, 57, who was known as MBN. He was the king’s nephew credited with dismantling Al-Qaida in the Kingdom as head of the Interior Ministry. Showing favoritism to the younger MBS would cause friction in the royal family,” he added.
Woodward doesn’t specify which intelligence sources Kushner relied on for his assessment that Salman was more prominent than the actual crown prince, Nayef. He does state, however, that, based on his own contacts in the Middle East, including Israelis, Harvey “believed that Kushner was right – MBS was the future.”
Kushner and Harvey allegedly pushed for a major summit to be held in Saudi Arabia during Trump’s visit, as a way of bringing the American-Saudi relationship back to the center of U.S. foreign policy, and that MBS became their main point of contact for organizing the president’s arrival.
Woodward writes that Defense Secretary James Mattis was skeptical about Kushner’s suggestions, as were two other top administration officials: Then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and then-National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster (who was officially Harvey’s direct boss), both of whom, like Mattis, had extensive experience working in the Middle East.
Tillerson, who had worked with the Saudi leadership during his years as CEO of ExxonMobil, cautioned against Kushner’s wish of negotiating a number of large deals with MBS. Woodward writes that Tillerson also believed “engagement with MBS should be taken with a grain of salt. The U.S. could work hard on a summit, and in the end have nothing.”
Woodward adds that “no one supported the idea of a summit” in the spring of 2017, as Kushner was offering. Yet Kushner eventually got his way. With the president’s support, and despite the other senior officials’ objections, Kushner pushed for a visit to Saudi Arabia. “When it looked like they were close, Kushner invited MBS to the United States and brought him to the White House,” Woodward writes. The visit took place in March 2017, two months before Trump’s trip to the Middle East.
Woodward notes that MBS had lunch with Trump in the White House’s State Dining Room, which is usually reserved for meetings between the president and other foreign leaders. “This violated protocol, unsettling officials at the State Department and the CIA,” writes Woodward. “Lunch at the White House with the president for a middle-rank deputy crown prince was just not supposed to be done.”
Two months later, Trump arrived to Riyadh and continued from there to Jerusalem – making Saudi Arabia and Israel the first two stops on his inaugural foreign trip as president. According to Woodward’s version of events, things played out exactly as Kushner had planned them.
Woodward concludes the chapter on the subject by noting that “the next month, Saudi King Salman at age 81 appointed MBS, age 31, the new crown prince and next in line to lead the Kingdom.”
The effort to bring Israel closer to Saudi Arabia remains a major objective of the Trump “peace team” led by Kushner, though Saudi officials have recently expressed skepticism about the administration’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.
Saudi officials have indicated to the U.S. peace team that Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel last December has made it more difficult for the Kingdom to pressure the Palestinians into accepting the administration’s plan.