The Don's Consiglieri |

Khashoggi Scandal Completes Trump-Netanyahu Symbiosis

Trump's donning of an Israeli flak jacket to deflect international criticism and coming to the defense of a key client of the American arms industry completes the definition of Israel’s role

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Trump and Netanyahu meeting in New York.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting in New York in September 2018 on the sidelines of a UN General Assembly session.Credit: Carlos Barria/Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Tuesday that American relations with Saudi Arabia will not be harmed by the murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. That, he said, was “to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region.” The statement, under other circumstances, would have to have embarrassed the Israeli government. But Israel itself invited the comments after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself didn't deny urging Trump to look after the stability of the Saudi kingdom, despite the horrifying slaying at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

The symbiosis between Netanyahu and Trump doesn’t require proof. When it comes to the Middle East, particularly with respect to Iran and the Palestinian issue, Trump's and Netanyahu's positions have become indistinguishable. These twin towers are singing from the same song sheet. And when it comes to moral positions, of course, there is nothing to talk about.

Journalists get murdered in a lot of countries that maintain excellent relations with the United States, and some of them do with Israel too. Nobody is insisting that Washington condemn Saudi Arabia for the large number of executions it carries out every year, rivalling its Iranian neighbor in numbers. No country, even in Europe, where they are standard-bearers of morality and human rights, has announced that it was severing relations with Riyadh or even imposing sanctions on the killers who participated in the orgy of slaughter in Istanbul.

The relations between Netanyahu and Trump are like those between two horse thieves. Sometimes Netanyahu uses Trump to prop up his policies and sometimes Trump uses Netanyahu to justify his own positions. This time around it was Israel’s turn to provide sanctuary for Washington from the dilemma involved in clashing with the Saudi kingdom.

Pictures of Jamal Khashoggi and memorial candles outside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.Credit: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

The revelation that the Central Intelligence Agency has concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman not only knew about the murder but commissioned it was like a massive bomb placed at Trump’s doorstep. Accepting the CIA’s conclusion could have dented the $110 billion Saudi Arabia military procurement deal with the United States and done harm to the sanctions against Iran. If Saudi Arabia decides in response not to fill the void in oil production likely to ensue as a result of the sanctions, that would lead to unrestrained oil price increases.

In Trump’s view, that would be too high a price to pay over the murder of a journalist. Trump jumped the gun and imposed sanctions on 17 Saudis who are suspected of having been involved in the killing, but he chose them carefully. For instance, the list includes Saud al-Qahtani, but not Ahmed al-Assiri, the deputy chief of Saudi intelligence. Al-Qahtani, according to the reports, took the incriminating phone call from Maher al-Mutreb, the leader of the hit team, and was asked to “tell the boss that the job has been done.” The boss is Mohammed bin Salman.

Ahmed al-Assiri had been the spokesman of the Saudi forces operating in Yemen and had been promoted by the crown prince to deputy chief of intelligence. Like Al-Qahtani, he was recently fired by Saudi King Salman.

Saudi Arabia, for its part, has arrested 21 suspects and has charged 17. The prosecution is demanding the death penalty for five of them, without naming which ones. This move, carried out before the CIA’s revelations, was designed to cushion and mitigate the international reaction, especially from the United States. But then came more revelations and tapes from Turkey, which didn’t actually reveal much but did add a dramatic dimension to the act of murder. Trump had to respond, and quickly.

As is his wont, he invented a narrative of his own. First of all, that the CIA has "nothing definitive” linking bin Salman to the murder. Secondly America’s relations are with Saudi Arabia, meaning that a distinction should be made between the murder, which was perpetrated by individuals and about which bin Salman may have known, and the Saudi state. Third, Saudi Arabia is an ally in the war on terrorism and against Iran. Fourth, the interests of “Israel and all other partners in the region” need to be protected. Not a single one of these arguments has legs to stand on.

The Saudi kingdom cannot be distinguished from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Saudi Arabia is the crown prince. When Trump admits that “it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!” and adds that the CIA has no categorical information, he is casting doubt on his own espionage organization in favor of the people who arranged the murder.

And what if it turns out that Crown Prince Mohammed did order Khashoggi killed? Will Trump still stick to his stance that the perpetrator should be punished irrespective of status or function, or will he find some new wrinkle?

Saudi Arabia is not an ally in the war on terrorism. It did not actually participate in the war on ISIS. It collaborates with Taliban factions in Afghanistan and is responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent Yemenites. Saudi Arabia is a partner in the political struggle against Iran and operates in Yemen against the Houthis, who Iran supports. It undertook to step up oil production to prevent shortages following the sanctions. But it failed to weaken Hezbollah’s power in Lebanon when Crown Prince Mohammed ordered Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to quit, and then relented. Saudi Arabia also hasn't managed to become part of the campaign in Syria or to influence the future of Syrian leader Bashar Assad, and it has steered clear of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Saudi Arabia did help orchestrate Netanyahu’s visit to Oman. The Saudis also forced the hand of Bahrain, which it had rescued from collapse in the riots of the Arab Spring, sending in troops to suppress the rebels. And it paved the way, according to foreign reports, for visits by the head of Israel's National Security Council and the economy minister.

Saudi Arabia is in possession of the holy grail that Netanyahu hopes to acquire — diplomatic relations with another leading Arab nation, making good on the prime minister statements about a turning point taking place in attitudes towards Israel in the Middle East. It hasn’t happened yet, and just this week, Saudi King Salman said the Palestinian problem was at the top of the kingdom’s agenda.

Trump's donning of an Israeli flak jacket to deflect international criticism and coming to the defense of a key client of the American arms industry completes the definition of Israel’s role as the don’s consiglieri. Trump’s exit from the nuclear agreement, which rocked the world, was based on “the Israeli interest.” Recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the U.S. Embassy there were also were based on the Israeli interest. Now the acquittal of the Saudi crown prince is owed to the Israeli interest. As usual, famiglia comes first.

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