No sooner had he set foot in Buenos Aires on 30 November for the G20 summit than the reigning Saudi Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman (known as MBS) was informed that an Argentinian magistrate, at the demand of the NGO Human Rights Watch, had opened an investigation into his responsibility in the Istanbul murder of opposition journalist Jamal Khashoggi and of other prisoners in Saudi Arabia, as well as for war crimes committed by Saudi forces in Yemen. At that point in time, the complaint was largely symbolic: nobody imagined the investigation could be completed in two days or even that the prince could be summoned for questioning. However the implications of this decision are not insignificant. MBS and his two allies in this matter, Donald Trump and Benyamin Natanyahu, are banking on the probability that as time goes by the Khashoggi affair will cease to be headline news. But they also know that the relations established between them over the past few years can no longer be quite what they were—at least not for a while.
Netanyahu is especially well placed to know that the failure of any covert operation always carries a political cost. When he was already Prime Minister in 1987, he ordered the Mossad to assassinate the head of Hamas, Khaled Mechaal in Jordan without informing the Hashemite authorities (it was understood that Israel could operate in Jordan but only with the consent of the local services), and the operation failed miserably. King Hussein of Jordan demanded and obtained that Israeli medical personnel be sent to save the life of the poisoned Islamist leader as well as the liberation of the jailed spiritual chief of Hamas, SheikhYassine (whom Israel was to murder seven years later). So Netanyahu knows that MBS is going to have to pay the political price of his crime and that this price will affect the alliance he has concluded with the prince.
A Strategic Triangle
From the Israeli point of view, the question is to what extent this episode will endanger the triangular strategy of which Netanyahu has been the most vociferous advocate and which is formed by the USA and its two great regional allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia (in fact a quadrilateral strategy if we include the United Arab Emirates). In Netanyahu’s mind, this Alliance is meant to reformat completely Middle-Eastern geopolitics for the benefit of the four allies and to the detriment of Iran; and, secondarily, of the Palestinians, who have now become marginal players on the regional map.
No sooner had the Khashoggi affair been made public than Netanyahu sought to cushion its impact, making sure his means of action in the US (his Washington embassy and AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby in Congress) went to work for the Saudi Crown Prince. Ron Derner, the Israeli ambassador, made every possible effort in this respect. But he was not always successful: even among Republicans, he met with stiff resistance. In the words of the Haaretz correspondent in the US: “Netanyahu volunteered to shield Trump from the demands of both Democrats and Republicans that he punishes the Saudi Crown Prince and his realm for the Khashoggi’s assassination.” And the operation was a success. After some initial hesitancy, Trump publicly gave his support to the Saudi regime, justified by the need “to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region.”
Evangelical Christians in Riyadh
As soon as the Khashoggi murder was officially confirmed, Netanyahu made his own position public. True, the murder was “horrible,” but it was “very important for the stability of the world and the region that Saudi Arabia remain stable.” Since then, the Israeli Prime Minister has never denied lobbying the American president to convince him not to abandon the Saudi Crown Prince. It probably didn’t take much effort to achieve this, although it did take two days for Trump to adopt a point of view reflecting Natanyahu’s declarations. In the meantime, a huge delegation of Christian evangelists paid a visit to the royal family in Riyadh. This trip was organised by an Israeli and, as Haaretz pointed out, “the event was no coincidence.1
Why this unwavering Israeli support for MBS? Netanyahu’s calculation was almost a spur-of-the moment affair—but he met with very little internal opposition (neither from the ruling coalition nor the army nor the security forces). His conviction was that the strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia had to be preserved at all cost (a cost he felt was very low). As for Trump, besides the need to preserve US arms contracts with the Saudis, he quickly grasped the fact that promoting the interests of Israel in the Khashoggi affair gave an additional guarantee to the evangelists in his electorate—a backing he needed against the revolt of important Republican leaders like Senators Lindsay Graham and Bob Corker who advocate sanctions against Riyadh. Indeed, within the Republican Party, many voices have been raised to dispute the justice of US relations with the Wahhabi Kingdom. They point out that the latter took no part in the struggle against the Islamic State Organisation (ISIS) in Syria, has made little effort to participate in the “war on terror” and collaborates actively with the Afghan Talibans. As a consequence, Israel has mobilised all its US networks to convince the White House not to depart from its main guideline: death to Iran! all the rest is chicken feed.
In so doing, Netanyahu is indeed strengthening his ties with the US administration but is also increasing Israel’s isolation—in US public opinion in general and in the opinion of American Jews in particular: “ . . . 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,”2 wrote one editorialist in the Washington Post. Netanyahu is playing a risky game: in the worst case scenario, even though it seems unlikely at the present time, if by chance the Khashoggi affair turns sour on MBS and if Trump’s policies in the region become increasingly erratic and unintelligible, then it’s Netanyahu’s whole regional strategy for the last ten years which will have lost its legitimacy. “If the situation gets completely out of control, Netanyahu’s implication will be undeniable: his name in the Saudi disaster will be graven in marble,” wrote Chemi Shalev, Haaretz correspondent in the US.
From Oman to Chad
Until now, the list of Netanyahu’s recent “achievements” in his dealings with Arab countries, mainly the Gulf monarchies, seemed spectacular. This was largely due to the relationship established with Riyadh. Even after the Khashoggi murder, the Israeli Prime Minister paid a visit to Oman, and played host in Israel to the President of Chad, Idriss Deby, a visit which he described as “historical.” In Israel, Deby declared that the two countries were committed to the struggle against “the evil of the century, terrorism”. And the entire Israeli diplomatic community is abuzz with expectation over the immanent master stroke which should finalise the relationship which Netanyahu has undertaken to establish with Omar-el-Bechir who has ruled Sudan for thirty years (another relationship in which the Wahhabi realm plays a key role). It is worth noting that where “evil” is concerned, both chiefs of state know a thing or two: el-Béchir is the subject of an arrest warrant for war crimes and crimes against humanity issued by the International Criminal Court; and Deby himself is accused of human rights violations and war crimes.
Netanyahu intends to sell weapons to all these new friends but his chief role with them is travelling salesman for Israeli companies that have become world leaders in the techniques of cyberespionage, offering equipment and personnel-training in programs used to keep tabs on their populations and especially their political opponents. But the Khashoggi affair threatens to endanger the future of Israel’s diplomatic and commercial offensive towards the Sunni countries in the Arab world. Thus, on Monday 3 December, Omar Abdelaziz, an opponent of the Saudi regime and a close friend of Jamal Khashoggi, lodged a complaint in Tel Aviv against the Israeli firm NSO for having provided Saudi Arabia—with the agreement of the Israeli authorities—with the phone-tapping equipment which enabled MBS’s henchmen to monitor his conversations with Khashoggi until the journalist’s assassination.
Tel Aviv’s Questionable Strategy
Because even if MBS remains in power, his capacity for serving Israel’s interests will be considerably impaired, at least for a while. According to Daniel Shapiro, former US ambassador to Tel Aviv (and known adversary of the Trump-Netanyahu line) “the Khashoggi murder is a disaster for Israel.” In the first place, because “it sheds light on the fundamental lack of Arabia’s dependability as a strategic partner under the rule of MBS.3 What is the point, he goes on to wonder, of pursuing an alliance with someone who has failed in so many areas (his Yemen war, his relations with Qatar, or his competition with Turkey, the other Sunni power in the region, etc.)? And in the second place, because Netanyahu was relying greatly on Saudi Arabia to help strengthen his ties with various Gulf monarchies (especially with Bahrain and Oman) in view of moving ahead with US State Secretary Mike Pompeo’s “12-point plan,” made public in May 2018 and meant to gradually tighten the screws on Iran until the regime collapsed.
Though the issue of relations with Saudi Arabia can hardly be said to exercise Israeli public opinion, many regional “experts” on Israel are now voicing doubts about the perspicacity of the strategy advocated by Netanyahu. All the more so as it may well turn out to be a short-sighted one (what if, two years from now, Trump fails to be re-elected?). Many fear, for example, that MBS, instead of finding a way out of the quagmire where Saudi Arabia has embroiled itself in Yemen, becomes increasingly bogged down there, frittering away energy that should be devoted to its confrontation with Iran. And besides, what is in it for Israel to build a coalition with a country about which it is hard to convince the rest of the world that it is more enlightened than Iran. Thus, at every step we are confronted with the heart of the Israeli debate: as long as MBS is in power, he himself is likely to constitute an obstacle in the way of any effort to build an international coalition against Iran.
However, Netanyahu does not seem to have any alternate strategy. Keeping intact his ties with Trump and his influence on the US administration determines the fate of his whole strategy, aimed in particular at showing that it is possible to establish permanent ties with the most important Arab regimes in the region without being hampered by the Palestinian question. Yet whatever his personal future, we may already wonder whether MBS, even if he continues to hold the reigns of power, will still be in a position to help Trump and Netanyahu force the Palestinians into submission.
Now that his implication in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi is averred, the implementation of that mirage known as the “American peace plan for the Middle East” has become even less likely. It is hard to imagine that MBS, considering the weakness of his position now, including within the Sunni world where he already has to deal with opponents little inclined to yield to him (primarily Erdoğan’s Turkey), will return to his original idea of settling the Palestinian question by obliging Mahmoud Abbas to abandon his remaining national ambitions. He would then appear to have definitely become hostage to the two top dogs who have bent over backwards to save the day for him: Trump and Netanyahu.
Moreover, the Khashoggi affair has come at a time when the list of Netanyahu’s recent failure is at least as spectacular as the one of his successes. It began on 17 September when the Syrian air defence shot down a Russian Il-20, killing 15 Russian soldiers. Moscow blamed this fiasco on the Israeli airforce which was carrying out at that very moment a major operation nearby on Syrian territory. Although the matter was settled between Netanyahu and Putin, the friendly relations established over the past few years between Russia and Israel took a markedly sour turn. Moscow provided the Syrian army with S-300 missiles which were more sophisticated than those it already had. And after that, Israel, which had been carrying out regular strikes against Hezbollah in Syria and more recently against the Iranian forces there (over 200 strikes between January 2017 and September 2018) has practically stopped. On 20 September, Netanyahu had to admit before his Parliament that “Russia does not on its own have enough leverage to make Iran’s troops leave Syria.” A way of saying that Israel’s main political objective in Syria—i.e. Iran’s departure from that country or, failing this, a massive withdrawal of Iranian and pro-Iranian forces far from the Golan border—had been turned down flat by Putin.
Besides which, in his efforts to “stabilise” Syria, Putin also seems to have convinced Iran to stop supplying Hezbollah by way of Syria (the missiles from Iran arrived in Damascus and were then transferred by lorry to Hezbollah forces in Syria and Lebanon). As a result, for the first time, the Iranians have begun sending the missiles directly from Tehran to Beirut by air using a private company . . . owned by the Guardians of the Revolution. Placed before the fait accompli, Israel hesitated: how to justify a strike against commercial planes and a civil Lebanese airport? A strike aimed at putting an end to these deliveries might have unforeseen consequences. Or should they wait and run the risk of seeing Hezbollah greatly improve its firepower on Israel’s Northern border? A meeting in Brussels between Netanyahu and Pompeo on 3 December appears to have constituted a final Israeli warning to Iran before a major offensive against Lebanon was launched to force Tehran to remove its missiles. However, it is very unlikely that Iran will yield to the threat. At a time when sabre-rattling is again to be heard between Israel and Iran, the weakening of the Saudi regime is certainly not good news for the former.
1Amos Harel, “Trump’s Decision to Stand by Saudi Prince Has Netanyahu Fingerprints on It,” Haaretz, 30 November 2018.
2Jackson Diehl, “Why is Israel tossing a lifeline to Jamal Khashoggi’s killers ?”, Washington Post, 11 November 2018.
3Daniel Shapiro, “Why the Khashoggi Murder Is a Disaster for Israel”, Haaretz,21 October 2018.