Isabelle Agerbak- PNN/ BETHLEHEM/
When it comes to the White house’s agenda in the Middle East, the US relationship with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (known as MbS) is instrumental to Trump’s aims.
This week’s senate resolution, which plainly condemns MbS as responsible for Khashoggi’s death, presents an existential threat to this relationship, as well as to Trump’s broad strategy in the Middle East. The senate decision is, in itself, a powerful reproach of the Trump administration’s conduct towards MbS. Whether it will result in substantive policy change remains to be seen. The House will probably consider the resolution early in the New Year, when the Democrats are in control, and it looks likely that at that time it will be passed. The resolution will then arrive on Trump’s desk for veto or signature. He will be forced to make a historic choice between siding with Congress, or with MbS. The outcome of this choice will be highly significant for the future of Israel-Palestine peace negotiations.
The issue of Israel-Palestine has been central to the Trump-MbS relationship from the start. A New York Times report last week brought to light how MbS and his officials used their state’s potential to influence the conflict as a tool to win over Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor. The ties between the White house and MbS are formed of a rich fabric of financial interest, anti-Iranian strategizing, and power consolidation, and the issue of Israel-Palestine is all-pervasive.
It seems that MbS has proved good on his propositions to Kushner, leveraging his power to push forward Trump’s agenda in Israel-Palestine peace negotiations. In December last year, he reportedly brought Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to Saudi Arabia for discussions regarding the US’ proposed deal. He allegedly put pressure on the leader to make concessions which have been regarded by Palestinians (and, historically, their Arab allies) as categorically unacceptable. According to a Channel 10 report, the Crown Prince also told Jewish leaders in New York, “It’s time for the Palestinians to accept the proposals and agree to come to the negotiating table, or for them to shut up and stop complaining”.
MbS goes against decades of policy on the part of Arab leaders, who have spoken out in defence of Palestinian rights, and who have refused to recognize the state of Israel. His father, King Salman, recently affirmed that “the Palestinian issue will remain our primary issue…until the Palestinian people receive all of their legal rights”. While King Salman continues to be resistant to the Trump agenda in the Middle East, MbS seems to be quite the opposite.
In an interview with The Atlantic, MbS sketched out his view of regional players; it turns out to be one which the White house would certainly not view unfavorably. He casts Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood and Sunni terrorist groups as the nexus of evil in the region. On the opposing side stands a coalition of countries, led by Saudi Arabia, including Egypt, Jordan and UAE, which he sees as the force for good in the region. What remains unsaid, but seems to be clear from the way MbS has conducted himself, is that Israel is seen as part of this conceived righteous coalition.
Israel has been keen to develop ties with the Crown Prince, and signal to the world that the relationship between the two nations is developing positively. In response to Khashoggi’s death, Ron Dermer, Israeli ambassador to the US, has said that the US and Israel must “be careful about not throwing away a relationship that has strategic value” and that he would like Trump’s administration to “make clear that this action is unacceptable, but also not throw out the prince with the bathwater”.
In the wake of Khashoggi’s death, many had hoped that the position of MbS would be weakened, and that Trump and the US would distance themselves from the prince. This would leave room for forces within Saudi Arabia which are more loyal to the Palestinian cause to have greater influence in the Israel-Palestine peace process moving forward. However, Trump is, for the moment, standing by the Crown Prince. He told Reuters, “He’s the leader of Saudi Arabia. They’ve been a very good ally.”
At least until discussions take place in the House, it seems like Trump will be able to continue to consolidate his relationship with the Crown Prince, and work with MbS as a key partner in putting forward his ‘Deal of the Century’, which Kushner this week revealed will be ready in the next couple of months.
The White house faces two competing interests. On the one hand stands the interest represented by continued close association with the Crown Prince. On the other, the interest in at least appearing to have responded appropriately to Khashoggi’s death.
In light of mounting evidence that MBS was in fact aware of, if not directly involved in, the murder, and the Senate’s decision, one might wonder whether Trump will be able to get away with continued partnership with the prince.
However, Trump has consistently proved to be invulnerable to negative consequence when it comes to standing on the wrong side of justice in such a manner. It seems he has the privilege of exemption from the demands of justice in the eyes of his supporters when those demands find their basis in the human rights of women and ethnic minorities.
Trump’s agenda in the region is founded upon financial interest, but also, and more pertinently, upon pandering to the Christian bloc, which is supportive of Zionism, and fears terrorism and immoderate Islam more than anything. Trump’s current primary concern is reelection in 2020, for which he will be heavily reliant upon the votes of conservative evangelical Christians, who want Israeli interests to be championed in ‘the Holy Land’. I fear that the strength of this interest is likely to outweigh the interest of justice, the interest in substantive change in the relationship with MbS.
In the pursuit of Trump’s agenda, it seems that the rights of Palestinians will be trodden underfoot. While the murder of Jamal Khashoggi might have proved a setback to the pro-Israeli ‘Deal of the Century’, I suspect that it will in fact be of little consequence to ongoing discussions. Rather, the onward march of Trumpism in the Middle East will continue, in part through MbS, at the cost of Palestinian liberty and lives.