Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been one of the few prominent leaders in the world who have clearly and seriously defended Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman since he was first accused of killing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. He also ignored the position of the CIA, which believes MBS is be behind the murder, justifying the matter with Saudi Arabia and Bin Salman’s importance in the fighting the so-called danger and increasing Iranian influence in the region and the world. To what extent will Netanyahu continue to defend Bin Salman? When will he abandon his position in the wake of recent developments?
Two key factors may prompt Netanyahu to abandon his efforts to support Crown Prince Bin Salman, against three factors that encourage him to move forward in doing so, albeit in different ways of continuing to show support for Bin Salman. These factors are as follows:
The first is related to the record of the relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia under Bin Salman, as the intelligence and security cooperation between the two countries in combating the forces of advancement in the Arab world, the so-called Iranian threat and Hezbollah has reached levels no one in Israel could have imagined. This was stated by senior officials in Israel. Furthermore, Western, Israeli and other sources have confirmed what was reported in Haaretz on 16 December, that the Director of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen, met more than once with senior Saudi officials and that Ahmed Al-Assiri has visited Israel several times under the supervision of Saud Al-Qahtani, who does not act on his own accord, but rather on direct orders from Bin Salman. The purchase of the spyware and surveillance programme, Pegasus, from the Israeli software company, NSO, is just one indication of this.
The second factor, which encourages Netanyahu to continue standing by Bin Salman, is Netanyahu’s growing need for reliable allies in the area and the region, especially after the sudden development of Trump’s shocking decision to immediately withdraw US troops from Syria. According to Israel, this leaves it alone to face what it calls the “Iranian threat in Syria” (and terrorism) in the region.
While the withdrawal will weaken Israel, it will strengthen its enemies and adversaries in the region, especially Iran, Russia and Turkey. This is why Netanyahu is increasingly in need of an ally like MBS, despite his weakness and decline due to the consequences of the killing of Khashoggi.
Netanyahu is keen on this, particularly during the time of the Knesset elections and internal Israeli tensions, and in light of developments in the corruption case, the most recent of which was the Attorney General’s agreement with the police, on 19 December regarding its recommendation to indict Netanyahu for corruption in the bribery case against him. He is also keen due to the security failure in Gaza and the West Bank. For such keenness not to appear as a failure in foreign relations is a third factor pushing him to continue supporting Bin Salman, at least on the outside and in the media.
Netanyahu has consistently presented the relationship with Bin Salman in particular, and the issue of normalisation in the Arab world, as a success story and a great achievement to all his political opponents, especially as this normalisation clearly contradicts the theories of his opponents and rivals. He has proved that normalisation is possible without a solution or even progress in the process of reaching a settlement with the Palestinians. It may even be possible that the Arabs could pressure the Palestinians in this context.
As for the factors that drive Netanyahu to abandon Bin Salman, there are two factors. The first is the shift in the American position, leaning towards abandoning Bin Salman, the most recent of which was the US Senate’s decision to charge Bin Salman with the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Netanyahu will not last long in the face of the American pressure in this regard, which may lead to forcing Bin Salman’s top defender, Trump, to back down from his position.
The second factor that raised the question of this article is what was confirmed in the Wall Street Journal on 18 December regarding the decline of Bin Salman’s ability to carry out political work and initiatives in the region as a result of the Khashoggi case. This has resulted in the dismissal of two of Bin Salman’s senior aides, who are considered the sponsors of relations with Israel, i.e. Al-Qahtani and Al-Assiri. Netanyahu wants MBS to be strong and proactive, as he was in the beginning, in order to present ihs relationship with MBS as a success and achievement for his internal and foreign policies. He does not want MBS to become weak and need the support of others, as the Israeli policy is based on making others work, not working for others.
Based on all of the above, it is likely that Netanyahu will favour the factors of standing by Bin Salman over the factors for abandoning him as long as there is no other alternative. Therefore, it is unlikely that Netanyahu will end his support for MBS as long as he remains Crown Prince, unless new radical developments occur with the moody President Donald Trump.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 20 December 2018
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.