The murder of Jamal Khashoggi has dominated news since Khashoggi walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, never to be seen again. Khashoggi was a former journalist and government adviser who had been living in exile in the U.S. as a gadfly critical of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. If the reporting is to be believed, his criticism of MBS was too much for the Saudi regime to handle. Despite a past of supporting Muslim Brotherhood movements and political Islam, Khashoggi was not particularly focused on Israel. But the Israeli government should be paying close attention to the Khashoggi story since there will be ramifications for Israel that center around the Trump administration’s relationship with MBS and the Saudi regime, and one important lesson that from the incident that Israel should absorb.
It is unclear what the fallout from the Khashoggi affair will be on the U.S.-Saudi relationship. President Trump has swung back and forth from initially dismissing the allegations and saying that he wasn’t going to put arms deals at risk, to stating that there would be serious consequences for Saudi Arabia should the story of Khashoggi’s murder prove true, to then blaming hypothetical “rogue killers” inside the consulate. But while the White House appears to want to put this episode behind it as quickly as possible, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are not nearly as eager to give Saudi Arabia or MBS a free pass. Crafting an entire Middle East policy around Saudi Arabia as the linchpin to everything from containing Iran in the aftermath of pulling out of the JCPOA to overseeing Israeli-Palestinian peace has now become much harder.
What this means for Israel is that the dream of an American peace initiative entirely weighted in Israel’s favor that MBS would strongarm the Palestinians into accepting – always a long shot at best – has now completely dissipated. It should have been clear from the outset that MBS could not deliver Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinians as easily as promised, and should have been beyond dispute following his father King Salman’s very public repudiation this summer of his son’s position on Jerusalem and the Palestinians. But even if the White House still clings to the fantasy that MBS and Jared Kushner can cook up a deal to remake the Middle East over late night chats in Washington and Riyadh, it would be foolhardy to be seen as outsourcing salesmanship for the ultimate deal to the international community’s current pariah of the month. To the extent that the Trump administration peace plan hinged on Saudi Arabia, that will now have to be shelved.
Furthermore, even if the White House still wanted MBS to run point for its plan to get the Palestinians on board, the Saudi prince is no longer in a position to agree. MBS has done much to upset Saudi business and religious elites, which in part explains his resort to increasingly extensive and brutish authoritarian measures to keep people in line and public dissent to a minimum. There is simply no way in the current environment, as his behavior is under worldwide scrutiny and inviting criticism from all corners while governments and high-profile figures pull out of his second annual investment conference, that he can take the unpopular move of administering tough love to the Palestinians. MBS’s play to lean on Abbas was the move of an overly confident ruler, and there is no rational reason for MBS to currently display his previous level of brash confidence.
There is a lesson in here for Prime Minister Netanyahu and Israel that goes beyond the Trump peace initiative. More than any current world leader, MBS had a blank check from the White House that was repeatedly and publicly telegraphed. Nothing that MBS did was too far for Trump, whether it was holding Saudi businessmen hostage in a blatant shakedown; threatening our immediate neighbor, ally, and trading partner Canada; instituting a blockade of Qatar, whose foreign policy is problematic to put it charitably but also hosts the largest American military base in the Middle East; jailing Saudi civil society activists; or piling up shocking numbers of civilian casualties in Yemen in a war MBS launched. Not only did Trump not criticize MBS or even quietly urge restraint, in most of these instances he went out of his way to publicly back him. This included tweeting that he had “great confidence” in MBS during the infamous Ritz Carlton shakedown, and the administration certifying just last month that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are working to avoid civilian casualties in Yemen, a claim that beggars belief.
In light of the above, MBS and the Saudi regime would have no reason to expect blowback from the U.S. for anything, and certainly not for killing a Saudi citizen thousands of miles away from American soil. The problem is that this type of hubris often leads to bad miscalculations, which is precisely what appears to have happened with Khashoggi. The problem is compounded by the Saudi assumption that they had carte blanche from Trump and that every other actor could be ignored, and the fact that the White House does not wield absolute control over how the U.S. responds means that the damage that has been done is not so easily or quickly reversible.
The only other leader who has been treated by the White House in a similar fashion has been Netanyahu. This is not to suggest any equivalence between him and MBS, who aside from being far more reckless and brazen is an unelected despot. But Israel is prone to the same reading that as far as the U.S. is concerned, it can do pretty much anything it likes and that Trump will support it. This may be true, but the lesson from the Khashoggi affair is that tripwires can be hard to spot and that the White House is not the only game in town. Even this administration may be forced at some point to contend with Israeli overreach in some form, and while it is not going to be anything as viscerally brutal as Khashoggi’s alleged end, every government – including Jerusalem – should keep in mind that their stock in Washington can easily plummet with one badly timed and ill-conceived move.