It appears that Israeli-Saudi ties are one of the casualties of the Jamal Khashoggi affair.
As a result of the outcry in the U.S. media and Congress following the recent murder of Saudi journalist and Muslim Brotherhood supporter Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, according to the Wall Street Journal, two key advisors to Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman (MBS) who were responsible for carrying out direct contacts with Israel were sacked. Moreover, MBS’s power to navigate a new course for Saudi domestic and foreign policy has been cut.
The Khashoggi affair has been a major setback for the Trump administration. The administration seized on MBS’s desire to reform the Kingdom’s economy and realign its domestic and foreign policies towards Israel and the U.S., and away from the Muslim Brotherhood and other Sunni extremist groups and regimes.
The President and his senior advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner have viewed MBS as the linchpin for a new U.S. led alliance of moderate Sunni states and Israel against Iran. MBS’s diminished status in the Kingdom following the Khashoggi affair has harmed these efforts, at least in the short term.
In the long term, as the Journal noted, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia shares key strategic interests with Israel in relation to blocking Iran’s bid to acquire nuclear weapons and achieve regional hegemony. And as a consequence, even if in the short term, the growing ties become less intensive, the general drift of the two states towards each other is unlikely to change.
One of the Trump administration’s key hopes for the Saudi relationship with Israel was that it would lead to a Saudi embrace of Trump’s plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Outgoing U.S. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley alluded to this in her speech to the Security Council on Tuesday when she said that the Trump administration’s peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians “recognizes the realities in the Middle East have changed … in very powerful and important ways.”
The plan, she said, “embraces the reality that things can be done today that were previously unthinkable.”
But it wasn’t clear before the Khashoggi murder that the Saudis or any other Arab regime would step out of the shadows and pressure the Palestinians to accept peaceful coexistence with Israel. And now that Israel’s Saudi interlocutors have been removed from power, and MBS, who has served as the most important force behind Saudi Arabia’s strategic realignment towards Israel has been weakened, the administration would be well advised to abandon its belief that the Saudis – or any other Arab regime – will be willing to do what is necessary to bring about a deal.
Consequently, the administration should consider the more basic question of whether it has any interest in expending political and strategic capital to try to bring Saudi and other Arab officials on board supporting the Trump team’s peace plan or anything at all related to a deal between the Palestinians and Israel. This is doubly true in light of the European Union’s condemnation of the administration’s peace efforts following Haley’s speech.
To this end, it is important to ask the following questions.
- If a deal were reached, would it make the region more or less stable?
- If a deal were reached, would it strengthen or weaken U.S. allies, first and foremost Israel?
- If a deal is reached, would it be likely to advance or impede U.S. national security interests?
- Is there any chance of reaching a deal?
To answer these questions it is important to think about the nature of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) autonomous government in Judea and Samaria – the Palestinian Authority.
The PA is an authoritarian, corrupt fiefdom run by PLO chief Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas is 83. He is serving the 13th year of his four-year term in office. He is unhealthy and has no successor. Hamas is already currently making a play to take over the PLO and the Palestinian Authority by ratcheting up its terror attacks in Judea and Samaria.
Abbas is touted as a moderate, but his behavior in power shows that the opposite is the case. Under his leadership, the PA has spent the past ten years refusing to carry out peace negotiations with Israel.
Abbas’s response to the passage of the Taylor Force Act earlier this year — which curtails U.S. funding of the PA so long as the PA pays salaries and pensions to Palestinian terrorists sitting in Israeli prisons and to the families of terrorists killed by Israel — was to pledge never to end those payments.
Following last week’s spate of terrorist attacks against Israelis in Judea and Samaria in which three Israelis – including a baby – were murdered, and a dozen more were wounded, Abbas and his Fatah party celebrated the murders and referred to the killers and to Palestinian terrorist murderers in general as heroes.
Given both his record and his current behavior, it is clear that Abbas will never agree to make peace with Israel. So too, none of his possible successors, including Hamas, will agree to a deal.
Moreover, the PA, which he leads, controls very little of the Palestinian areas in Judea and Samaria. Villages owe their allegiance to various local bosses or Hamas or both. Even in Ramallah, the city which is the PA’s seat of government and effective capital, Hamas is rising in power against the PA.
Hamas’s efforts to take over the PA and the PLO are a reflection of its growing power and influence. The fact that last week’s terror attacks against Israel were carried out by terrorists affiliated with Hamas who hail from the Ramallah area drove home, yet again, the PA’s weakness and Hamas’s growing strength.
Given this state of affairs, two things are clear. First, there is no chance that any Palestinian leader will make a deal with Israel.
Second, talk of making a deal empowers radical actors. The likes of Hamas and its supporters in Iran, Hezbollah and Turkey use the talk of negotiations as a way to discredit the supposedly moderate PA and as an invitation to carry out terrorist attacks against Israelis.
As for America’s Arab allies — including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE — talk of negotiations place pressure on them to at least publicly support the Palestinians and their allies against Israel because negotiations move the issue from the back-burner to the front-burner. And since the Palestinians’ chief state sponsors – Iran, Qatar and Turkey – are all adversaries of the Saudis, the Egyptians, and the UAE, due to internal Arab politics, just putting the issue on the table serves the interest of America’s enemies and harms those of America’s allies.
As to Israel, to achieve a deal, Israel would be forced to accept various compromises on its right to sovereignty in Judea and Samaria and presumably parts of Jerusalem. Past experience, from the failed peace summit at Camp David in July 2000 and in subsequent negotiations ,shows that when Israel agrees to compromise its rights, it looks weak and even suicidal. That then invites aggression from its enemies.
Haley alluded to that point Tuesday when she said “the Palestinians would benefit more [from a peace agreement] and the Israelis would risk more.”
In light of past experience, then, it is clear that a deal between Israel and the Palestinians, or even a serious push by the U.S. to renew negotiations towards a peace deal, harms Israel.
To summarize, a serious effort by the U.S. to push for a deal between Israel and the PLO will fail to achieve a peace deal. America’s Arab allies are weakened in relation to Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood, Iran, and Hezbollah when the Palestinian issue is moved to center stage. Israel is destabilized and weakened when it agrees to even theoretical concessions to the Palestinians.
So far from advancing stability and peace, renewing a peace process — even one based on more realistic assessments of the situation on the ground and what the parties can reasonably achieve — will weaken and destabilize Israel and increase the chance of war.
Obviously, none of this advances U.S. interests either regionally or globally.
Given this state of affairs, perhaps the apparent breakdown of the Trump administration’s efforts to coddle the Saudis into playing a significant role in negotiations between Israel and the PLO is a blessing in disguise. It gives the administration the opportunity to reconsider its efforts to reach a deal in the first place.
The steps that the Trump administration has already taken to end its predecessors’ unhealthy unconditional support for the mordant peace process – ending the ritualistic condemnations of every new Israeli home built beyond the 1949 armistice lines; ending U.S. subsidization of Palestinian terror financing through aid to the PA; ending U.S. support for UNRWA, the UN “refugee” agency that has played a central role in ensuring there will never be a resolution of the Palestinian conflict against Israel; and moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Israel’s capital city of Jerusalem – have all played a key role in stabilizing the region. They have also made it easier for the Arab states to work cooperatively with Israel.
Rather than push a “peace deal” that will fail to bring peace while harming Israel and America’s Arab allies, if the Trump administration were to publicly acknowledge that there can be no peace between Israel and the Palestinians so long as the Palestinian people remain committed to Israel’s destruction, and that the U.S. is abandoning efforts to reach a deal in light of this reality, it would stabilize the situation still more by diminishing the chance of a major Palestinian campaign against Israel.
Were the Trump administration similarly to give Israel a green light to secure its long-term strategic interests by applying its laws to the areas of Judea and Samaria that it requires to defend itself against invasion from the east and from Palestinian attacks within Judea and Samaria, the move would similarly diminish the chance of war in the medium and long term.