This is a huge problem for Israel and its lobby who see the Saudi de facto ruler – commonly referred to in English-language media by his initials MBS – as their key regional ally.
But following the Khashoggi killing, many are running for cover, especially one of the Saudi crown prince’s most egregious cheerleaders, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.
Friedman and company had been marketing MBS as a “reformer.”
Israel lobby stalwart and longtime US “peace process” steward Dennis Ross even dubbed the prince “a Saudi revolutionary.”
This was all in keeping with a tradition – which as Georgetown University in Qatar professor Abdullah Al-Arian documented goes back decades – of US elites greeting every new Saudi ruler as a “reformer.”
This ruse operates as cover and justification for a deep US alliance with a regime whose brutality and abuses have always gone unchecked.
But the ruse can only work if the Saudis keep their side of the bargain, by refraining from actions that fall outside the elite consensus of acceptable and marketable behavior.
Killing thousands of children in Yemen and starving millions more, beheading dozens of people each year and funding jihadist groups to sow chaos across the region can all be tolerated by the US and Europe, because such atrocities are seen as necessary to keep the Saudi regime in power, or essential to implement Western “foreign policy.”
Murdering and dismembering a Washington Post columnist inside a Saudi diplomatic mission, however, just goes too far and hits too close to home.
“Now, as Saudi Arabia struggles to rebut accusations that Crown Prince Mohammad was complicit in the grisly killing of a Saudi dissident, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and the prince’s other allies across the region are starting to worry that damage to him could upend their own plans and priorities,” The New York Times acknowledged on Monday.
But amid the howls of outrage, there are still quite a few voices cautioning against being too hard on MBS, because of his value to Israel.
As BuzzFeed noted on 18 October, Israel, Saudi Arabia’s “unofficial ally,” has remained “noticeably quiet” about Khashoggi’s killing.
The Israelis are “in a very difficult position,” Dan Shapiro, President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Israel, told the publication. “They count very much on Saudi Arabia,” which is “central to their strategic concept of the region.”
Indeed, Israel and Saudi Arabia are staunch allies, sharing an enmity towards Iran.
But a Saudi Arabia weakened as a result of the Khashoggi affair would “undermine Arab cover provided by the kingdom for [President Donald] Trump’s efforts to impose a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that would favor Israel at the expense of the Palestinians,” James Dorsey, of Israel’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, warned in a commentary Tuesday.
Given what Israel hopes to gain from its relationship with Saudi Arabia, some are arguing that it should stand by the Saudi crown prince no matter what.
Haaretz commentator Tzvia Greenfield counseled that even if MBS ordered the murder of Khashoggi, “it’s necessary to treat the suspect with kid gloves.”
“For 50 years we’ve prayed for a key Arab leader who agrees to sign a significant pact with Israel. Such a leader has finally arrived,” Greenfield stated, adding that calls to remove MBS “are destructive.”
That view is shared by Israeli political and military elites, according to The Times of Israel, which noted that Israeli officials are likely engaged in “quiet diplomacy” in support of Saudi Arabia.
“Israel’s knowledge of the Middle East is highly respected in large parts of the world, including in Europe, and therefore Israeli warnings of the impact of moving away from Saudi Arabia are very important,” Dore Gold, former director-general of Israel’s foreign ministry, told The Times of Israel.
But Gold cautioned that such work should be done behind the scenes, according to the publication.
Martin Indyk, another long-time US “peace process” diplomat who launched his career from a think tank founded by the Israel lobby group AIPAC, has also gone into damage control mode on behalf of the Saudis.
Indyk told Bloomberg television that the Saudis should try to change the subject from Khashoggi.
Given that the US has made Saudi Arabia a “pillar” of its anti-Iran strategy, Indyk said, “we have to find a way to get the Saudi leadership, particularly Mohammad bin Salman, the crown prince, to take an active role, not only in terms of saying there will be a thorough, transparent investigation – we should aim for that, we’re not going to get it – but also in terms of switching the channel, in making the focus something positive.”
Indyk suggested that MBS could announce “getting out of Yemen,” or releasing some female political prisoners as a way to change the subject.
MBS needs to “do something to double down on his positive reform agenda to make it clear that there’s a reason to be supporting him,” Indyk urged.
In other words, Indyk is hoping that the old rules can quickly be restored: where Saudi leaders pretend to be “reformers,” and US elites pretend to believe them, and that this would rescue MBS.
Josh Block, the head of another lobby group, The Israel Project, took to Twitter to call Khashoggi “a radical Islamist terrorist ally who was close to Osama bin Laden, ISIS, Hamas and wanted to overthrow the Saudi ruling royals, who oppose both the Sunni terrorists, sponsored by Turkey and Qatar, as well as Iran’s Shia terrorist armies and allies.”
Without going as far as openly defending the killing of Khashoggi, Block nonetheless minimized it by claiming that the columnist was a “bad guy prob[ably] killed by bad guys.”
In other words, there’s nothing to see here.
Block also echoed Riyadh’s crude propaganda that the press reports detailing Khashoggi’s killing were part of a plot sponsored by powers hostile to Saudi Arabia, which he characterized as one of several “Western-oriented Arab regimes.”
Changing Saudi lobby
AbuKhalil told The Electronic Intifada that the aggressive mobilization reflects the elevated status of the Saudi lobby as a result of its alliance with Israel.
“Until this decade, lobbying for Saudi Arabia has been an American affair largely relying on oil companies, arms manufacturers and former politicians,” AbuKhalil explained.
But in the last 10 years, groups including SAPRAC and the Arabia Foundation “came along at a time when there was more acceptance of lobbying with a Saudi face, and this is part of the crowning of the Saudi-Israeli alliance.”
“Arab lobbying in Washington, DC, cannot occur without the blessing of the Israel lobby, and this is true of the Qatari lobby, the Lebanese lobby, the Egyptian lobby and the Saudi lobby,” AbuKhalil said.
Can all this effort save MBS from the storm over Khashoggi?
“The Israel lobby is really nervous,” AbuKhalil said. “The Israel lobby wants to save that prince so badly, but there is so much outrage in US media and in Congress.”
AbuKhalil thinks much of the advocacy for MBS is being done behind the scenes. Nonetheless, he sees the Saudi crown prince as solidly entrenched internally, with little chance of being overthrown by a royal family whose influential members the crown prince has totally sidelined.
“The only way it’s going to happen is if the US decides to get rid of him,” AbuKhalil said. “The Israelis don’t want to abandon him either, and so his best bet is to get even closer to Israel.”
“That’s why I predict [MBS] may go to the Knesset next year,” AbuKhalil said, a reference to former Egyptian ruler Anwar Sadat’s dramatic 1977 trip to the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem that cemented Egypt in the US-Israeli camp.
- Saudi Arabia
- Saudi-Israeli relations
- Mohammad bin Salman
- Jamal Khashoggi
- Thomas Friedman
- The New York Times
- Dennis Ross
- Abdullah Al-Arian
- The Washington Post
- United Arab Emirates
- Dan Shapiro
- James Dorsey
- Dore Gold
- Martin Indyk
- Josh Block
- The Israel Project
- As'ad AbuKhalil
- Arabia Foundation
- Anwar Sadat