Perhaps because he was at a conference in Bulgaria, just a few hundred miles up the Black Sea coast from Istanbul, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got around to publicly commenting last Friday on the murder of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamil Khashoggi a month earlier in the Turkish capital.
“What happened in the Istanbul consulate was horrendous, and it should be duly dealt with,” Netanyahu said. The first part of that sounds fine. The second part sounds like he was talking about someone being pulled over for DUI, rather than about a brutal murder carried out by agents of the government of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Both parts belonged to the lip-service clause, after which Netanyahu got to his point. “Yet … it is very important for the stability of the world, for the region and for the world, that Saudi Arabia remain stable.”
Read that in light of the report the day before in The Washington Post that Netanyahu (along with Egyptian dictator Abdel Fatah al-Sissi) has “reached out to the Trump administration to express support for the crown prince”—that is, to lobby against any weakening of the personal alliance between President Trump’s hubristic inner circle and the equally overconfident MBS.
When Netanyahu says that Saudi Arabia should “remain stable,” he means that the rule of Mohammed bin Salman should continue, and that America shouldn’t get worked up over a small matter of murdering a critic.
For American policy, Netanyahu’s urging was superfluous. Neither Trump nor his expertise-free Middle East expert, Jared Kushner, shows any serious sign of reducing their reliance on MBS.
Netanyahu’s comments do, however, underline his own dangerous reliance on the Saudi crown prince.
Explicitly, Netanyahu’s motive is that he sees Saudi Arabia as a bulwark against Iran. But there’s more going on. Netanyahu has long hoped to leverage shared opposition to Iran into a Sunni-Israeli alliance, a grand rearrangement of the Middle East. Netanyahu regards Mohammed bin Salman’s ascent and his alliance with Kushner as the fulfillment of his hopes.
If Kushner ever comes up with an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, Netanyahu expects it to be written very close to his requirements—meaning that it will create a “Palestinian state” far short of real independence. He also expects that MBS will head an Arab coalition coercing the Palestinian leadership to accept America’s terms.
In the more likely case that the Trump-Kushner plan remains a chimera, Netanyahu is betting that Saudi Arabia under MBS will lead the way to evermore open relations with Israel—thereby orphaning the Palestinians from Arab support. And poof! The occupation can continue forever.
There are precedents for this fantasy in Israeli history, dating from the premiership of Likud founder Menachem Begin. The relatively successful example, from the official Israeli perspective, was the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt. As Seth Anziska shows in his new book, Preventing Palestine, Begin’s price for full withdrawal from the Sinai was a peace treaty that abandoned the Palestinians. The resulting peace with Egypt is much colder than Israel hoped for, though still much better than a hot war.
But the treaty could not erase the reality of occupation or of Palestinian nationalism. Contrary to what Begin imagined—and contrary to what Netanyahu can see today—the greatest long-term threat to Israel is the attempt to rule permanently over a people denied basic rights.
The much more dangerous precedent was Ariel Sharon’s attempt, as Begin’s defense minister in 1982, to remake the region, starting by invading Lebanon. Sharon expected that by driving the Palestine Liberation Organization from Lebanon, he’d eliminate the Palestinian national movement. By installing Bashir Gemayel of the Christian Phalange movement as president of Lebanon, he’d turn Israel’s northern neighbor into an ally.
Gemayal was indeed elected president—and was assassinated, and the Phalange carried out the massacre in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps. The expected peace with Lebanon was stillborn, and years of Israeli occupation of part of the country contributed to the rise of Hizbollah. And the Palestinian national movement did not conveniently vanish.
Netanyahu’s alliance with MBS doesn’t involve a war, thank heavens. But it still ignores a key lesson of the Bashir Gemayel experience: He’s building his hopes on one individual in a fragile country.
In the Saudi case, the crown prince is himself a key factor in the fragility. For decades, the Saudi monarchy was in fact an oligarchy—a carefully constructed coalition of the many sons and grandsons of the kingdom’s founder, Abdulaziz Ibn Saud. MBS and his father, King Salman, have replaced the brother-to-brother line of succession with father-to-son inheritance. MBS’s “anti-corruption” reforms have been aimed at eliminating competition from the rest of the royal family. His foreign policy has likewise ignored care in favor of impetuous conflict.
Who knows, he may succeed. The very clear danger, though, is that MBS could be eliminated by one faction or another, or that the whole structure of the Saudi state begins to crumble. Whoever comes in place of MBS will have no obligation to his policies, and may well come dressed in an ideology that demands reversing his semi-covert flirt with Israel.
And no matter what happens to MBS or Trump, Palestinians will still want their rights, as individuals and as a people. Netanyahu’s alliances with distant, dangerous rulers will not change the reality so close to his office window. Israel will yet have to make the decision to preserve itself by ending the occupation. But that decision will have to be made by another leader, free of Netanyahu’s fantasies.