The extraordinary term of office of Donald Trump as president of the United States opened with the declaration of a gigantic deal to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, only a small part of which was ultimately fulfilled. Its final stretch, against the background of the president’s late semi-admission this week of having lost the election, is being accompanied by an attempt to cobble together another major deal.
That’s apparently one of the reasons for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to the desert kingdom at the beginning of the week. During the visit, it turned out afterward, he and his hosts were joined for a few hours by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who met with the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
The concern in the Kirya, defense establishment headquarters in Tel Aviv, is that the outgoing administration in Washington will seek to prepare the ground, in the weeks ahead, for the sale of advanced weaponry to the Saudis. Despite the warming in relations between Jerusalem and Riyadh, this looms as a disturbing security development, far more so than Trump’s decision to sell F-35 warplanes and a host of other state-of-the-art munitions to the United Arab Emirates.
That deal derived from the normalization agreements between the UAE and Israel (and, some would argue, was their underlying cause). Netanyahu revoked Israel’s traditional opposition to the sale of arms to the Emirates, which for years left the Americans at an impasse because of their commitment to preserve the Israel Defense Forces’ qualitative edge. The contacts with the UAE, and afterwards also the specific matter of the arms sale, were kept secret from the Israeli public, but also from Kahol Lavan, Netanyahu’s coalition partner in the government.
That story was reprised this week, in the form of Netanyahu’s participation in the meeting, held in the Saudi city of Neom. Defense Minister Benny Gantz (Kahol Lavan) and Chief of Staff Avi Kochavi found out that Netanyahu had made the visit only after his return.
But they still don’t know what was talked about and agreed on there, because the prime minister is not briefing them about the results of the meeting. It looks as though the transaction with the Emirates has also whetted Crown Prince Mohammed’s appetite for large-scale deals and for obtaining the F-35 in particular. The problem is, from the Israeli point of view, that Saudi Arabia is not the UAE. Its western border is far closer to Israel, and in the long term there’s no knowing how stable the rule of the royal house is, not least because of the extensive activity of extreme Sunni Islam organizations in the country.
Trump, his son-in-law Jared Kushner and Pompeo felt at home in Riyadh and were quick to forgive their pal the crown prince for dispatching the assassins who two years ago murdered the dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and dismembered his body. The crown prince’s relations with the American president-elect, Joe Biden, will be less cordial. Pompeo’s intended successor in the State Department, Tony Blinken, stated in an interview to the Times of Israel website on the eve of the presidential election that “the Obama-Biden administration made those planes available to Israel and only Israel in the region,” and that the new administration would have to examine in depth the deal with the Emirates.
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Other issues were also apparently on the agenda in the Neom meeting. The Palestinian Authority and Jordan are apprehensive that the Trump administration will pressure Israel to agree to grant the Saudis a special status on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount (known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif), an achievement they have long been hankering for and a possible development which the other contenders for wielding influence at the site find very disturbing.
And, of course, a trilateral meeting of this kind – and its being leaked by Israel – sends a clear message to Iran: Saudi Arabia and Israel are coordinated, intend to continue to bring pressure to bear in Tehran to disrupt progress in its nuclear project, and will not beat a retreat from the arena, tails between their legs, only because Trump has to leave the White House.
Still, it would be difficult to say that the “maximum pressure” campaign that Trump led against the Iranians, with the active encouragement of Netanyahu and the Saudi crown prince, is ending as a resounding success. The latest report of the International Atomic Energy Agency, published at the beginning of the month, states that Iran now possesses at least ten times the amount of enriched uranium that it committed to in the 2015 nuclear agreement (though the level of enrichment is low).
Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement, at Netanyahu’s behest, two and a half years ago, did indeed generate broad sanctions against Iran and heightened military friction between Washington and Tehran; but it did not make the Iranians back down and return to negotiations on an agreement that would demand more serious concessions from them. The nuclear negotiations will likely be renewed in the period between Biden’s entry into the White House next January 20 and the presidential election in Iran next June (that would have happened even if Trump had been reelected).
The exceptional publicity given the – less exceptional – meeting in Saudi Arabia is fascinating in itself, but in the meantime there are no signs that it’s the harbinger of a sharp turn in one direction or another. As far as is known, Saudi Arabia has not yet announced its readiness to sign a peace agreement with Israel. That’s also not likely to happen in the waning days of the Trump administration.
As for the possibility that the president will set in motion an American military attack against Iran, it still exists, as was reported here at the beginning of the month. However, the likelihood now seems less, with Trump signaling his readiness to accept, under duress, the results of the election. Lower profile American actions against Iran, such as sabotage or more assassinations, are still possible.
At the end of January, under Biden, a proficient, judicious and highly experienced team will be managing policy in Washington. Many of the senior figures in the new administration, who served in the Obama administration, appear to share two basic positions: commitment to Israel and a dislike of Netanyahu – which the prime minister earned honestly in the period of his squabbling with President Barack Obama. Interesting times lie ahead.