Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The Saudi-Israeli Rapprochement

For the sake of context and to provide some perspective about what is happening in the Middle East, I bring you this story from the Wall Street Journal. Now that most people believe that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was implicated in the Khasgoggi murder, the Journal tells us the MBS was also involved in improved ties with Israel. The Trump administration has refrained from denouncing the crown prince because it wants to see an alliance between Israel and Sunni Arab nations, as a bulwark against the Iranian drive for hegemony.

Discrediting MBS has put the Saudi-Israeli rapprochement on hold… especially because two of those who were held responsible for the Khashoggi murder were most closely involved in negotiations with the Jewish state.

Thus, it makes sense that the Trump administration has been reticent about denouncing MBS. It makes less sense that holier-than-thou American senators have chosen this moment to denounce Saudi Arabia… and thus, necessarily, to advance Iranian interests in the region.

The Journal reports:

A secretive U.S.-backed initiative to forge closer ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel faces setbacks after the crown prince, who spearheaded the effort, was implicated in a journalist’s killing along with two of his aides.

The two close advisers to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who played key roles in the behind-the-scenes contacts between the two countries, lost their jobs over suspected involvement in the operation that led to journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s death inside the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate in October.

The international uproar that followed the murder and the fallout within the royal court also curbed the prince’s room to maneuver among prospective rivals and dampened appetite for risky foreign policy endeavors such as the outreach to Israel, a longtime foe, say people familiar with the situation.

The Saudi figures involved in negotiations with Israel were Saud al-Qahtani and Ahmad al-Assiri. They have since been relieved of their duties because they were apparently involved in the Khashoggi killing. Their roles were as follows:

Mr. Qahtani, as media adviser, issued directives to the Saudi press to help soften Israel’s image in the kingdom, where the country has long been portrayed as the Zionist enemy. He was also involved in the kingdom’s purchase of advanced surveillance technology from Israeli firms, say Saudi officials. That brief dovetailed with his role monitoring critics and stifling dissent in Saudi Arabia, which included the hacking of electronic communications.

And, also:

Maj. Gen. Assiri, a subordinate of Mr. Qahtani, secretly traveled to Israel on several occasions, making him the most senior Saudi official known to have set foot in the country, according to several people familiar with the matter. His trips focused on how the kingdom could benefit from Israel’s state-of-the-art surveillance technology, some of the people said.

The uproar about the crown prince has caused his father King Salman to become more actively involved in governance. But, the King is less interested in developing better ties with Israel:

King Salman, who has taken a more active role in government in the aftermath of the Khashoggi crisis, has been more adverse to warmer ties with Israel than his 33-year-old son, recently describing resolving the Palestinian’s plight with Israel as the kingdom’s “foremost priority” in the region.

The setback to burgeoning links between the Saudi kingdom and Israel also throws into doubt the broader realignment in the region that the Trump administration sees as crucial to its Middle East strategy, including containing Iran and resolving the decades long conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis.

As for the nature of the developing relationship, the Journal reports this:

The Saudi government, meanwhile, has been weighing an investment of at least $100 million in various Israeli technology companies, according to people familiar with the deal. Since the Khashoggi killing, negotiations on that deal have cooled but contacts continue, some of these people said.

Apparently, self-interest dictates taking a time out but not ending contacts:

On Israel’s side, Mossad Director Yossi Cohen met Saudi officials several times over the past year, say the people familiar with the matter, including a June meeting with senior Saudi officials at a U.S.-brokered rendezvous that also included Egyptian, Jordanian and Palestinian intelligence officers….

Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates now regularly share intelligence on shared threats, mostly on transit through the Red Sea but also on other matters related to Iran, according to people familiar with the matter.

Israel and Saudi Arabia began to draw closer in the twilight of the Obama administration, their approach smoothed by a shared antipathy toward an Iran nuclear deal that both governments believed would empower their rival.

Evidently, the rapprochement began as a reaction to the calamity of the Iran Nuclear Deal, but it has continued under the aegis of the Trump administration. The Journal remarks that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu joined the Trump administration is supporting the crown prince. It was, as noted on this blog, classical Realpolitik:

The closer relationship has benefited both sides. Following the global backlash to Mr. Khashoggi’s killing, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was one of few world leaders who came out in Prince Mohammed’s support despite the CIA’s conclusion that he had likely ordered the killing.

As for signs of opening, consider these:

Saudi Arabia has quietly began issuing a special waiver to Israeli businessmen that allows them to travel to the kingdom on special documents, people familiar with the process said. The documents, provided by the government of Saudi Arabia and aimed at facilitating business between the two countries, allow Israelis to enter the kingdom without showing Israeli passports….

“The level of direct security, military and intelligence cooperation between Israel and the Gulf states, with America as a partner, is light-years ahead of what it was” a few years ago, said Robert Wexler, a former Democratic congressman and president of the S. Daniel Abraham center for Middle East Peace. “But without a resolution on the Palestinian-Israeli issue there is a glass ceiling.”

That gives you the state of the game. Surely, it is in America’s interest that the crown prince regains more authority.

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