Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman embarked this week on a victory tour of defiance in the Arab world. Although posters in Tunisia reminded the guest of his involvement in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudis' Istanbul consulate, in Egypt – whose economy depends on Saudi generosity – Mohammed enjoyed a royal reception. The pyramids were even illuminated in green in his honor.
The excuses and evasions by senior U.S. officials are making it clear that for Washington the affair is already over. President Donald Trump, who isn’t known for his affection for the media, including The Washington Post that employed Khashoggi, now has other things on his mind.
The president, in a series of statements whose high point was a letter that sounded like a middle-schooler's work, explained his considerations. Saudi Arabia is important because of its huge deals with U.S. defense contractors, it’s crucial for continuing the battle against Iran, and it’s a positive factor because it “helps Israel.”
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These arguments were worded with greater fluency by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Speaking with Israeli journalists at a summit in Bulgaria in early November, Netanyahu said that “what happened in the Istanbul consulate was horrendous and it should be duly dealt with. Yet ... it is very important for the stability of the world, for the region and for the world that Saudi Arabia remain stable.”
As Netanyahu put it, “I think that a way must be found to achieve both goals. Because the larger problem is Iran, and we have to make sure that Iran does not continue the malign activities that it has been doing over the last few weeks in Europe.”
Not that Trump needed any arm-twisting, but we can cautiously assume that Netanyahu tried to ensure that Washington wouldn’t abandon Riyadh in its time of trouble. The timing of the visit to the Saudi royal family by a delegation of evangelical Christians, which was actually organized by an Israeli citizen in early November, doesn’t seem entirely coincidental.
Not for the first time – and not unrelated to the injustices Israel is responsible for in the West Bank – Israel is willing to ignore many injustices by its new friends in the Middle East. The extent of the Saudi regime’s horrifying behavior was clarified this week in a piece by veteran Washington Post foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius. He wrote that the regime is undergoing a brutal period of paranoia, persecuting real and imaginary rivals to the point of eliminating them.
Over a year ago a special team operating for the crown prince kidnapped and tortured opponents of the regime and others suspected of corruption. For example, it misled the Chinese government into believing that a Saudi businessman was a wanted terrorist on his way to carrying out an attack at the G-20 summit.
Ignatius portrays the crown prince’s associates as a gang of moronic thugs, while Prince Mohammed is described as a hotheaded reformer leading his country close to the abyss. Ignatius calls on the Trump administration to force the kingdom to halt the bloody quarrels among the various princes before even more damage is done to Saudi Arabia and the world.
But such intervention apparently won’t take place. Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, said this week he sees no point in listening to the Turks’ recording of Khashoggi’s murder because he doesn’t understand Arabic. (The way Turkey, which imprisons and abuses journalists and opponents of the regime, manages to present itself as the epitome of righteousness is an achievement in itself.)
Trump is apparently invested personally in relations with Saudi Arabia. In the past he boasted that he sold buildings to the Saudis for tens of millions of dollars. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is friendly with the crown prince and met with him last year a week before the wave of arrests began in the kingdom. The bottom line is that Prince Mohammed will probably retain his position despite the shocking affair.
That’s the impression one gets in Jerusalem and Washington, and according to Ignatius, among the Saudis he has spoken to. The only countermove, which was initiated by the U.S. Senate this week, is a condemnation of Saudi Arabia for its role in Yemen’s appalling civil war. The condemnation is embarrassing to Riyadh but won’t keep the crown prince off the throne.
Netanyahu’s regional perspective is still focused mainly on Iran. In conversations with his counterparts from abroad, the prime minister continues to warn about Iran and its frozen nuclear program. On occasions like the conference in Bulgaria, Netanyahu often mentions Iranian conspiracies that have been prevented with the help of Israeli intelligence, including attempts to assassinate regime opponents who found refuge in Denmark and France. (Saudi Arabia didn’t invent anything.)
For Netanyahu, the Saudis are providing an important anchor to implement U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s 12-point plan to isolate the regime in Tehran in the hope of toppling it. The prime minister also needs the Saudis if he wants to keep improving relations with Gulf countries. The visit to Oman was the first stop, which he hopes to continue with contacts with Bahrain as well.
And Israel, like the Americans, also fears that an attempt to remove the crown prince could topple his government. The collapse of the Gadhafi regime in 2011 flooded the Middle East with weapons looted from the Libyan dictator’s arsenals. If Libya was a boutique, Saudi Arabia is a huge supermarket of advanced weapons systems – which in the wrong hands are also a major threat to Israel.
The complementary aspect of Netanyahu’s steps is closely related to the tightening relationship with Africa. Chad’s president visited Israel at the beginning of the week, and now there are hopes of upgrading relations with Sudan. Israel wants to sell the Africans weapons and technology, and perhaps to shorten the air route to Brazil (and reduce ticket prices) by flying over Chad and Sudan.
In the background is North African countries’ fear of the spread of the jihadi terror group Boko Haram, which was inspired by the Islamic State to be extremely belligerent. It’s not only a problem for Nigeria and Niger, but for Chad and to a slight extent even for Egypt. That’s why the Africans are very interested in whatever Israel can teach them about fighting terror – and Egyptian President Abdel-Fatah al-Sissi will probably also approve of closer ties between Israel and his neighbors.
Meanwhile, Trump is repeating the argument that his efforts in the region stem from his desire to benefit Israel. Within a week he made the claim twice – to justify his forgiving attitude toward Saudi Arabia and the doubling of the number of U.S. troops in Syria to 4,000.
This line of thinking may convince good Jews (at the moment there are fewer and fewer) to vote for the Republicans in 2020. But it’s also a very damaging statement for Israel because it confirms the anti-Semitic fantasies about Jewish control of U.S. foreign policy. Such declarations will eventually boomerang on Israel.