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Sylvain Cypel

Netanyahu rides to the rescue of the Saudi crown prince (part one)

Trump has downplayed Prince Mohammed's involvement in the brutal killing of Khashoggi [Getty]

Date of publication: 12 December, 2018

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Comment: Sylvain Cypel explores the dynamics of the Saudi-US-Israel trio of strategic allies.
In the first of a two-part commentary, Sylvain Cypel explores the motivations and risks of Netanyahu's support for the Saudi crown prince in the post-Khashoggi era. 


No sooner had he set foot in Buenos Aires on 30 November for the G20 summit than the reigning Saudi Prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) was informed that an Argentinian magistrate, at the demand of 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 Benjamin Netanyahu 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 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, Sheikh Yassine (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. This is, in fact, a quadrilateral strategy if we include the United Arab Emirates.

In Netanyahu's mind, this alliance is meant to completely reformat 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

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 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."

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 Netanyahu'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."

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 (IS) 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.

In Netanyahu's mind, this alliance is meant to completely reformat Middle Eastern geopolitics for the benefit of the allies

"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," 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 Netanyahu's whole regional strategy for the last 10 years will have lost its legitimacy.

"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," 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 "historic".

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 imminent master stroke which should finalise the relationship which Netanyahu has undertaken to establish with Omar-al-Bashir who has ruled Sudan for 30 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: Bashir 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 as a travelling salesman for Israeli companies that have become world leaders in the techniques of cyber-espionage. They offer equipment and personnel training in programmes 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 agenda with 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' henchmen to monitor his conversations with Khashoggi until the journalist's assassination.


This article was originally published by our partners at Orient XXI

Sylvain Cypel, a former correspondent for Le Monde, is the author of 'Walled: Israeli Society at an Impasse'.


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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