Analysis

Israel's Iron Dome Defense of Saudi Arabia Aims to Avert Collapse of Trump and Netanyahu's Entire Middle East Strategy

But Democrats view it as yet another expression of the prime minister’s overzealous backing for a despised U.S. president

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks via video teleconference with troops from Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., November 22, 2018.
\ ERIC THAYER/ REUTERS

The Mossad’s Kidon unit, which foreign media describe as Israel’s official assassination squad, must be worried sick over the fallout from the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Alongside its many successful hits, some of which are surely still unknown, Kidon’s men (and presumably women) have also known notorious failures, including the mistaken 1970 killing of Moroccan waiter Ahmed Bouchiki in Lillehammer, Norway, the failed 1997 assassination of Hamas leader Khaled Mashal in Jordan and the successful, albeit meticulously filmed 2010 hit on Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai. 

Israel paid a price for these and other operational flops, but it never came close to undermining its international standing or threatening the careers of its leaders.

>> Analysis: Khashoggi scandal completes Trump-Netanyahu symbiosis

From a professional point of view, Khashoggi’s murder was exceptionally brutal, but also spectacularly stupid. It was carried out inside a diplomatic installation, the likes of which are routinely under surveillance by host countries, a factor that undermined Riyadh’s ability to plausibly deny responsibility. But rather than stay silent, the Saudi PR geniuses added insult to injury with a series of rebuttals so ridiculous they were seen as admissions of guilt. 

The ensuing rage and outcry against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, aka MBS, especially in the U.S., set a new standard for reactions to botched assassinations, which could come to haunt Israel as well. Unlike most Israeli operations, the Saudi hit was singularly brainless, flouted diplomatic protocol and, on top of that, its target was a Saudi citizen – not a foreign enemy. Nevertheless, the next time Israel is implicated in a failed or even successful assassination on foreign soil, its critics will cite the Saudi precedent in order to press for a forceful international response.

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House, Washington, March 20, 2018.
Evan Vucci / AP

Benjamin Netanyahu is experienced in such matters. The Mashal affair, which took place during his first term in office, compelled the prime minister to release the late Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin; the Mabhouh caper, which unfolded during Netanyahu’s second coming, reportedly and allegedly exposed Kidon’s modus operandi for all the world to see. Netanyahu knows that Saudi Arabia will have to pay a price, but the demand for the crown prince's removal seems way too steep. So that even if the sword hanging over Mohammed bin Salman's head did not endanger the entire Middle East strategy he encouraged Trump to adopt, Netanyahu would still have a personal, professional and national interest in minimizing the prince's punishment.

But it is a strategic threat with possible domestic political repercussions that has moved the prime minister to openly take one for the Trump-Netanyahu team. Netanyahu and his aides, led by U.S. Ambassador to Israel Ron Dermer, have been working around the clock to protect Trump and to prevent his administration from “throwing out the prince with the bathwater,” as Dermer put it. Netanyahu has volunteered to serve as Trump’s human shield to protect him from widespread demands by both Democrats and Republicans to punish the crown prince and his kingdom for the Khashoggi assassination.

Netanyahu and Trump hope that the extraordinarily frank but characteristically childish statement issued by the White House this week, in which Trump vowed to stick with Crown Prince Mohammed through thick and thin, will seal the lid on the Khashoggi affair. Saudi Arabia is too crucial an ally for the United States to dump: If George W. Bush successfully maintained ties with Riyadh despite the heavy involvement of Saudi citizens in the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, Trump can certainly afford to more or less ignore the assassination of a journalist who the Saudis describe “as an ‘enemy of the state’ and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but my decision is in no way based on that,” as Trump wrote in a “doth protest too much” part of his statement.

Even if Trump no longer has the personal economic interests in Saudi Arabia of which he boasted in the past, his improved ties with the kingdom – especially the half-a-trillion-dollar arms deal signed during his visit to Riyadh last year – is a rare feather in his otherwise barren diplomatic hat.

“The world is a very dangerous place!” Trump explained in his statement, in case anyone thought otherwise. And even though the evidence clearly points to the crown prince's complicity – a conclusion supported by a leaked CIA report – Trump is yet to be convinced: “Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t,” he asserted. “America First!” Trump explained, reverting to the slogan of the pre-World War II and at least partially anti-Semitic movement that encapsulates much of the apprehension of American Jews about the his presidency.   

Trump had no hesitation about deploying whatever remains of Israel’s good name as a political Iron Dome. On Thursday night he asserted, “Israel would be in a lot of trouble without Saudi Arabia.” In his written statement, Trump mentioned Israel twice: First to underline Saudi Arabia’s importance in warding off the big Satan Iran and then to justify Washington’s intention of standing by Riyadh in order to “ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region.” 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement in Tel Aviv, Israel, November 18, 2018.
Ariel Schalit,AP

Israel, Trump assumes, is the magic word that will ensure the support of Evangelicals, who will in turn mitigate the harsh positions taken by some Republican Senators, especially Lindsey Graham, against the Saudi crown prince.

Democrats, in any case, were apparently less impressed. Widely respected Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl wrote that “a lot of Republicans as well as Democrats will be repelled… by the spectacle of an Israeli leader lobbying to excuse an Arab dictator for murder.” Diehl made a direct connection between Netanyahu’s lobbying on behalf of Crown Prince Mohammed and Israel’s staunch defense of Trump in the wake of last month’s massacre of 11 worshippers in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. Netanyahu’s reasoning may be acceptable for Israelis and their right-wing supporters in the U.S., but his handling of both the Khashoggi murder and the Pittsburgh massacre is widely perceived by American liberals as the latest expressions of his overenthusiastic embrace of a president who is arguably the most reviled in American history.

As it is, Israel was already skating on thin ice in its relations with Democrats, who have now returned to wielding real power after seizing control of the House of Representatives in the midterm elections. As U.S. commentators have pointed out in recent days, the Democratic triumph was far more extensive and sweeping than was thought in the first hours after polls closed. Not only do they now enjoy a commanding 35-member majority in the House, which could grow to 37 after the two last races are called, but their 8 percent or 8.6 million vote advantage is their biggest since the 1974 midterms held just after Richard Nixon’s Watergate-induced resignation. The Democratic surge was especially pronounced among women and, more ominously for Israel, among young voters, who came out in droves to vote against Trump.

Israel can still rely on the Democratic old guard, even though Nancy Pelosi, frontrunner to serve as the new Speaker of the House, hasn’t forgiven Netanyahu for his controversial March 2015 speech to Congress against Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. The Democratic clock, however, is ticking against Israel’s favor: For the party’s new generation, the foundations of traditional support for Israel – the Holocaust, independence and the Six-Day War – are nothing more than historical footnotes. Many of them have grown up with an Israel that is mentioned mainly in connection with its 51-year-old occupation of the Palestinian territories, its steady slide into the ranks of abhorrent anti-democratic, ethnocentric autocracies and its growing estrangement from American Jews, who voted overwhelmingly for Trump’s political opponents. For many Democrats, Jewish or not, Netanyahu’s unequivocal and unseemly backing for Trump is a cardinal and unforgivable sin. 

Netanyahu’s willingness to openly and unabashedly defend Saudi Arabia also strays from Israel’s traditional aversion to public scrutiny of its influence on Washington’s decision-making, especially in volatile international crises that could ultimately lead to U.S. military involvement. Israel and its supporters spent years rebuffing distorted claims that it pushed George W. Bush to go to war with Iraq. If the Saudi situation spins out of control, Netanyahu’s involvement will be undeniable: His name on the Saudi debacle will be etched in stone.

Luckily for him, though, Israeli public opinion seems unperturbed by the fate of relations with Saudi Arabia or, for that matter, by the country’s increasingly precarious standing with Democrats. Netanyahu’s decision to refrain from retaliating forcefully to last week’s brazen rocket attack by Hamas enraged the Israeli public, especially on the right, but it is mostly blind to the disturbing wider picture: Netanyahu’s entire, Trump-centered national security policies may be on the verge of complete and systematic collapse.

The evidence is mounting: The huge propaganda victory scored by Hamas in last week’s outburst has undermined Netanyahu’s image as number one security honcho who makes Israel’s enemies tremble with fear. The September downing of a Russian spy plane over Syria has inhibited the air force’s freedom of action against Iran and Hezbollah and undercut Netanyahu’s swagger about his stellar relationship with Vladimir Putin. And the Saudi embroilment in the Khashoggi affair isn’t over yet: In a worst-case scenario it could sabotage the anti-Iranian front conjured by Trump and Netanyahu and undermine Netanyahu’s claim to improve relations with moderate Arab states despite the total freeze on peace moves with the Palestinians.

Crown Prince Mohammed, after all, was to play a critical role in tempering Palestinian expectations and bringing them “back to reality,” as Dermer often says, in advance of the perennially-imminent publication of Trump’s peace plan. Some commentators predict that the Saudi crown prince is now so indebted to Trump that his support for the plan will be even more emphatic, but it’s more reasonable to assume that his newly-precarious hold on power will dissuade him from expressing emphatic support for a peace plan that is bound to enrage Palestinians as well as the proverbial “Arab street” in Riyadh, Mecca and other Arab cities.

Netanyahu might actually welcome Saudi reticence that could help convince the Trump administration to hold off once again with its plan. The recent coalition crisis made it crystal clear that Netanyahu could be one of the first victims of his Washington BFF’s blueprint. Any peace plan published by the White House, even one viewed by Palestinians and the world as completely one-sided in Israel’s favor, will necessarily include relinquishment of territory, in East Jerusalem as well as the West Bank. It will be uniformly rejected by most of the Israeli right. Netanyahu is certainly loath to reject the fruit of Trump’s pro-Israel peace team’s labor, but anything less than a resounding “no” on his part could persuade even more voters to opt for parties to his right in the upcoming elections.

The bottom line is that even the friendliest U.S. president in human history, as Netanyahu often describes him, is carrying a ticking time bomb that could soon blow up in the prime minister’s face. And as Netanyahu has recently learned from the botched military incursion in Gaza, the downing of the Russian plane and the horrid Khashoggi killing in Istanbul, unexpected developments can shake up the Middle East and demolish his image as its master manipulator. When lady luck thumbs her nose at the start of an election year, even the conventional wisdom about Netanyahu’s inevitable victory could dissipate in an instant, along with his hitherto-lauded grand strategies.