Has Saudi Arabia changed more than Washington’s obsession with the “peace process”?
“Prior commitment,” I replied politely, but disingenuously.
Given my questions about justice in Saudi Arabia, the aide to the Governor of Riyadh had invited me to a beheading “Friday at noon” at what my American embassy escort called “chop chop square.”
This was more than three decades ago. The Governor of Riyadh of the House of Saud was our main host. He was Prince Salman, more precisely, Salman bin Abdullaziz Al Saud. Today the 81-year old Salman is King of Saudi Arabia, and he just hosted President Donald J. Trump. The traditionalist Salmon is no longer operating at full speed, and his son, a reformer by Saudi standards, now has great influence.
When I had visited Saudi Arabia, an American woman (except in the Aramco compound) might walk with her arms and legs covered, and at least a large headscarf. In recent years Hillary Clinton was so covered. But while First Lady Melania and First Daughter Ivanka also dressed modestly, demonstrating courtesy so as not to offend, they did not hide their long hair. That is not only progress, but telegraphed that women are not second-class citizens, a stance that so-called feminists Hillary and Michelle would not assert.
In my day, we flew from Riyadh to Amman. After a few days in Jordan, we crossed into Israel on foot via the Allenby Bridge. Air Force One is flying President Trump from Riyadh directly to Israel. This implies recognition of the Jewish state, a heresy. This is not surprising given that Israel and Saudi Arabia are quietly cooperating on intelligence and security, especially against Iran.
The airport reception in Riyadh for President Trump was overwhelming. In contrast, the welcome for President Barack Obama was perfunctory. Why the difference? Mainly because the Saudis did not respect Barack Obama and found his policies, shall we say, curious? Obama began his administration with an apology tour to the Muslim world. The bad guys obviously were not swayed. And the so-called moderates found Obama, apparently embarrassed by Western values and pluralism, to be a masochist.
In contrast, Trump — while saying he would not lecture — then diplomatically but still bluntly challenged the Arab nations to root out the religious extremists who preach violence and practice terrorism. Thinking back, I cannot imagine that Saudi leaders would have listened to such a speech.
The cornerstone of Obama’s regional foreign policy was to assert the primacy, if not the perpetuity of the Iranian regime; worse, Obama’s priority was an “Iranian deal” that, unless derailed in the future, will ensure an Iranian nuclear capability and thus Iranian hegemony. Obama’s stupidity and deviousness were evident to Israel’s Bibi Netanyahu, and also anathema not only to the Saudis, but also to most of the other Arab nations.
The silver lining in this Obama’s dark cloud is that Arab nations and Israel have drawn closer. Who would have thought? This presents Trump with an opportunity, not to pressure Israel, but to pressure the Palestinian “leaders.” The leaders of Arab nations are maturing, in general, and also focused on Iran.
Over the long term Iran is more of a threat to the U.S. and the world than North Korea, though North Korea (which is allied with Iran and shares technology) appears moving rapidly toward nuclear empowerment. Kim’s regime depends much on the personality cult built about Kim. Despite his Stalinist-type hardliners, it is not ideology but sheer oppression that binds the regime. In contrast, Iran is a regime that includes in its leadership religious zealots who believe their theology must rule the region, the world. Some of Kim’s generals are rational. If Kim and a few dozen North Korean leaders are eliminated, the regime could fall in a military coup. But in Iran, its brand of Islam is a political ideology, its religious zealots so empowered.
The Saudi Wahhabi clerics remain extreme, and Saudi officials have for decades condoned, if not funded, promotion of this Islamist ideology. To stay in power the Saudi rulers apparently concluded the best way to control extremism was to fund it. Now, finally they are having second thoughts. Inadvertently, they were creating a fifth column in their nation.
As the Saudis began slowly to reconsider their funding of extremists and indirect enabling of terrorists, Obama was going in an opposite direction. He supported the replacement of the pro-American Egyptian government with a regime whose origins were in the anti-American Muslim Brotherhood. And when a subsequent coup installed the pro-American al-Sisi who honors the Israel-Egyptian peace accord, Obama balked. Now al-Sisi, a moderate Muslim, has a friend in the White House.
But the Arabists in the State Department and intelligence agencies continue to undermine Trump. Obama holdovers even extend to the National Security Council, where they obsess over “Israeli settlements in occupied land.” The Saudis and other Arab nations consider the number one regional issue to be Iran, not the “Israeli-Palestinian dispute.” And surely the crisis in Syria is hardly trivial. At a time of change the Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Georgetown Arabists are caught in a time warp.
Even the Saudi leaders have lost patience with the ineffectual Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas and the farcical “peace process,” yet the Beltway Arabists blame “Bibi” and now want Trump to pressure Israel. Earlier this month Trump met with Abbas, presumably for show, but he erred in making a joint public appearance that was a coup for Abbas; even worse that Abbas conceded nothing and actually lied in his statement. Arabists had persuaded Trump that we should further empower Abbas, because he is, they insist, the antidote to Hamas that controls Gaza. This failed strategy for years was the rationale to keep the “moderate” Yassir Arafat, a corrupt thug and pedophile, in power, because the alternative was supposedly worse. Have we seen this movie before?
Trump has boasted that he knows when to walk away from the negotiating table. But the situation today parallels when newly elected Bill Clinton elevated Arafat, who had been discredited in the Arab world after backing Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Trump’s original thinking was to telegraph to Abbas that the train was leaving the station. The Obama holdovers convinced Trump that Abbas is too weak to make a deal, therefore we need to make him stronger!
It’s true that Abbas cooperates to a certain extent with the U.S. and even Israel on intelligence and security matters. But he is two-faced; his supporters claim he must be, to stay in power. His critics note he speaks of peace for international consumption, but his message at home in Arabic is quite different. Further, Abbas continues to use Palestinian Authority funds to condone, if not incentivize terrorism; the PA rewards Palestinian terrorists and their families.
A year and a half ago, 18-year-old American Ezra Schwartz, after graduating high school in Massachusetts, went to Israel to study Judaism. An Arab terrorist murdered the young Ezra, who I later found is related to me. Here we have the spectacle of the U.S. providing funding for the PA, which in turn is providing stipends to the family of the terrorist who killed an America citizen. Defenders of Abbas say that this policy must be accepted, for Abbas to remain credible. To which I say, drain the swamp at State and the CIA.
Often Trump’s instincts are solid, yet he believes he can charm the other side (he would be “honored” to meet with Korea’s Kim). Trump also seems strangely impressionable. Conservatives faulted Obama for his embrace of Turkey’s Erdogan. But because Turkey remains in NATO, Trump was somehow persuaded to embrace the Turkish autocrat who has contempt for the West, the U.S., and Israel.
Trump’s negotiating background is mainly about real estate. Consider the Mideast and Israel. We are not talking about real estate; otherwise there would have been a “deal” a long time ago. How else do you explain the Palestinian “leaders” repeatedly turning down a proposed agreement including nearly all the “disputed” land?
The danger in foreign policy and in Israel is that Trump somehow sees the objective as the deal, rather than what is the deal. It said that only President Richard Nixon, whose political career was highlighted by his opposition to “Red China,” could fly to China for rapprochement. The mythology now is that Jared Kushner, Trump’s religiously observant Jewish son-in-law, has the credibility and clout to serve as a kind of third party mediator for an Israeli-Palestinian “deal.” Presumably, Kushner will be trusted by Israel because he has “skin in the game,” and by Arabs because he has the ear of the president.
All of which brings us to Jerusalem. It is not only in the campaign, but following his election, that President Trump insisted the U.S. would finally recognize Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel. Trump’s appointment of his friend and lawyer David Friedman, a hardliner supporter of Israel, to be U.S. ambassador to Israel, underscored the Jerusalem policy. And vice president Mike Pence has been unambiguous about moving the American embassy to Jerusalem.
While President Trump was en route to Israel from Saudi Arabia, a CNN analyst-professor opined that many Israelis are apprehensive about the new president because of anti-Semitism within the Trump administration, and Trump’s improving relationship with Saudi Arabia. First, anti-Semitism in the Trump administration is fake news. The alleged anti-Semites in the administration oppose any further U.S. support of the Palestinian Authority unless the PA abandons its incitement to terrorism and its financial support for families of terrorists.
Second, Israel welcomes closer ties between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis had a greater comfort level with Bibi than with Barack. The concern about the arms deal with the Saudis is mainly if that nation were overthrown, and advanced weapons fell into the hands of radical Islamists. But this is a ten-year deal with ample safeguards, although the U.S will require caution.
Further, the CNN “expert” said many Israeli government officials do not want the U.S. to recognize the obvious, that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, because such recognition would upset the “peace process.” In fact, some Israeli officials fear that if the U.S. recognizes Jerusalem, the Arabists at State and the NSC who oppose the recognition of Jerusalem will then urge Trump to demand, in return, concessions from Israel. If that were the case, Israelis would rather keep the American embassy in Tel Aviv.
The CNN anchor asked the analyst — a prolific author of history books — what about Trump’s repeated pledge to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem? He replied that Trump could learn, especially “in the Mideast, what you say really matters… so Trump has to rethink what he said.” Of course the opposite is true: precisely because this is the Middle East, and what you say matters; Trump’s refusal to honor his commitment will call into question his credibility. If a close ally can’t depend on his word, can others?
The issue is not whether the U.S. recognizes Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel, and whether it moves the American embassy there from Tel Aviv. The issue is what President Donald J. Trump stands for. If there is a Trump strategy, within which the U.S. pauses on the relocation of the embassy, that is at least plausible. But if it is simply another example of the President of the United States influenced by old-line Arabists and Obama holdovers who would just as soon welcome his impeachment, that’s another matter.
Nothing could be worse for President Trump than an alliance of the status quo that seduces his own family members into politically correct policies, here and abroad, that Trump’s base rejected. The status of Jerusalem hopefully will not be settled by Twitter.
The front page of the Los Angeles Times headlined “‘Two Princes’ shape Trump, Saudi bond.” The subhead read: “Jared Kushner and Mohammed bin-Salman are building a strategic alliance.” And here is the article’s lead: “They’ve been dubbed the two princes, the rising powers behind the thrones in the budding strategic alliance between the House of Saud and the House of Trump.” This kind of media spin undermines Jared Kushner and his father-in-law, and makes a travesty of American foreign policy.
Perhaps this is the liberal Times’ clever way of killing Trump with kindness, depreciating Trump in the clever guise of showcasing his son-in-law. The reality is that we do not have, we do not want royalty in this country. Americans will tire soon if they believe the Trump family is acting like royalty. The higher security costs for the multiple Trump residences and for adult family members and their foreign travel for business, and the appearance of possible conflicts with the public interest — all this compromises policy.
In the Mideast the affairs of state and family wealth are intertwined. Indeed, Saudi Arabia is a nation of many thousands of princes who are given sinecures and wealth. They are the insiders who control their nation. That is not our way in America or the way we do affairs of state abroad.