Since taking office in January 2017, the Trump Administration has alluded to achieving Middle East peace based on a vision that is different from that of previous administrations. President Donald Trump’s team has adopted an outside-in approach where it would seek to use the shared opposition to Iran to bring Israel and Sunni Arab states together to squeeze the Palestinians into accepting Israeli demands. However, doing so required a bold partner who is prepared to take risks and is willing to abandon traditional opposition to such a move––someone who is not afraid to shake things up. It seemed that Trump found that partner in Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), who became the kingdom’s de facto ruler in 2017. But after the crown prince allegedly ordered the October 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, MbS’s willingness to take risks might prove to be more of a problem than an opportunity for the Trump Administration.
The Trump Approach to “Peace”
Donald Trump has spoken about the importance of Middle East peace since announcing his presidential bid in 2015. Throughout his campaign and once in office, however, it became clear that regardless of the importance he accorded this effort, his administration’s pursuit of it would deviate from longstanding US policy. Trump’s advisors on Israel during the campaign, David Friedman and Jason Greenblatt, both right-wing Zionists, were named to key positions in shaping the administration’s policy on Israel/Palestine. Friedman, Trump’s bankruptcy lawyer and a supporter of Israel’s illegal settlements in the Palestinian territories, would become his ambassador to Israel while Greenblatt would serve as his envoy for Middle East peace. Both men would work with general czar for Middle East issues Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, whose family has a close friendship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Given what was known about the Friedman-Greenblatt-Kushner trio, it was expected that they would lean heavily toward fashioning a deal that fits Israel’s maximalist demands and Netanyahu’s long vision of “economic peace”
Given what was known about the Friedman-Greenblatt-Kushner trio, it was expected that they would lean heavily toward fashioning a deal that fits Israel’s maximalist demands. This would mean adopting Netanyahu’s long sought-after vision of “economic peace” whereby Palestinians would, at most, look forward to an improved quality of life through economic incentives—but never sovereignty or independence in a Palestinian state where they could exercise self-determination. Achieving this goal required not only breaking from the established international consensus, which supported an independent Palestinian state, but also finding a way to negate the Arab-Palestinian compact around this principle, one enshrined in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative (API). The API is considered Saudi Arabia’s most significant contribution to Middle East peace diplomacy in modern history in part because the Gulf nation played the leading role in bringing Arab and Muslim states together to offer Israel recognition and normalized relations in exchange for a two-state solution based on international law. Thus, getting Saudi Arabia to lead in a different direction––one that seeks improved Arab-Israeli relations before reaching a peace deal––to help press the Palestinians into accepting Israeli demands, Trump’s trio determined, would be useful for achieving their goals.
We know now that Trump’s long-time friend Tom Barrack, an Arab-American himself, introduced Kushner to the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the United States, Yousef al-Otaiba, who then introduced Kushner to MbS. As defense minister of Saudi Arabia, the youngest in the world, MbS had proceeded to launch a major Saudi military operation on Yemen. He would climb nearer to the center of power in Saudi Arabia as he grew closer to Kushner, ultimately spending late nights with him discussing strategy ahead of orchestrating a purge to consolidate power in his hands. For Kushner and company, the young prince may have seemed just the right partner they needed to push their new strategy for the region, one that required driving a wedge between the Arab states and the Palestinians to pressure the latter on peace with Israel.
For Kushner and company, MbS may have seemed just the right partner they needed to push their new strategy for the region which required driving a wedge between the Arab states and the Palestinians to pressure the latter to compromise on peace with Israel.
MbS Over the Line
There is a fine line between being bold and behaving recklessly, and in just about every major step he has taken, Mohammed bin Salman has landed on the wrong side of that line. In Yemen, his first major act as defense chief in Saudi Arabia, he launched what appears to have become an unwinnable war against a far weaker but entrenched adversary. He has not achieved his strategic objectives so far but has suffered the costs of international ire for continuing to bombard an already desperate nation. MbS apparently abducted Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri in a bizarre and unprecedented predicament that only seemed to be resolved when French President Emmanuel Macron came to the rescue. MbS also supported an ill-advised effort to isolate and antagonize the neighboring nation of Qatar, an ally and GCC partner; that situation became so petty that Saudi Arabia threatened to dig a canal along its border with Qatar to turn the small peninsular country into an island. Internally, MbS’s effort to tighten his grip on power involved the rounding up and detention of dozens of powerful and well-connected princes and other leading businessmen in Saudi Arabia before the world to see and holding them at the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh.
This was followed by what can be described as the reckless brutality of murdering and dismembering Jamal Khashoggi and the subsequent lying and cover up of the affair. Whether due to Khashoggi’s network, built up over years of closeness to Saudi elites, or the fact that he was a Washington Post journalist, his gruesome assassination seems to have created a watershed moment in US-Saudi relations. Additionally, the Saudi public relations response in the aftermath of Khashoggi’s disappearance was so disjointed and confused that the Saudis allowed the Turks to repeatedly expose them as liars every time the Turkish government released information about the crime.
The sad truth is that Khashoggi is not the first Saudi to be liquidated by his government. In fact, the Saudi regime has often found ways to eliminate political opponents—like many other regimes around the world. But the way the murder took place, with reckless disregard to the public fallout, should make clear to anyone that MbS is either incompetent, careless, or both. These are certainly not favorable characteristics for the key player in a regional strategy, as Kushner was hoping MbS would be. If Saudi Arabia were to lead an Arab effort to normalize relations with Israel, a remarkably unpopular and controversial idea in the Arab world to say the least, it would need to be guided by a level-headed leader who excels at diplomacy and at navigating extremely complicated political divides.
The way Khashoggi’s murder took place and the disregard to the public fallout should make clear to anyone that MbS is either incompetent, careless, or both. These are certainly not favorable characteristics for the key player in a regional strategy, as Kushner was hoping MbS would be.
What Does It All Mean for the So-called “Deal of the Century”?
The Trump Administration’s peace plan has been described as imminent for over a year. In November of 2017, it was reported that the plan would be revealed in early 2018. Then, in March of 2018, it was said to be forthcoming. By May there were reports that it would be released after Ramadan. Both Eid al-Fitr (June) and Eid al-Adha (August) came and went and by September, Trump vowed he would issue the plan in four months. On December 10, in a rare television interview with Sean Hannity, Jared Kushner said he was focused on Middle East peace and the plan would be announced in a couple of months. If the peace plan actually exists—and even that is in doubt at this point—then there is no serious timetable for its release. Further, any thinking about a release date will likely be complicated by the prospect of Israeli elections, which look increasingly likely in the spring of 2019.
The murder of Jamal Khashoggi has received extraordinary attention and this week Khashoggi was named Time Magazine’s person of the year. The cloak and dagger plot, replete with gruesome details, international intrigue, and video and digital content tracing the exact steps of the victim and murderers, made this story unavoidable for print and television journalism alike.
Does the Khashoggi killing make coveted Saudi cooperation with the American plan any more likely? There are two ways of looking at this question. One outcome is that Trump’s and Kushner’s support of MbS, even as the whole world turns against him in the aftermath of the gruesome killing, will come with strings attached and harbor an expectation that MbS returns the favor by backing the Trump peace plan. At the same time, the killing has provoked a massive backlash and has begun to jeopardize the US-Saudi relationship in unprecedented ways. This will surely exacerbate the internal dissent that has been simmering quietly in Saudi Arabia after the purge MbS spearheaded, thus making him more cautious of taking further divisive steps than can be used against him by his domestic opponents.
Dead on Arrival
There are many reasons why Trump’s deal, if it is ever going to be revealed, will be dead on arrival. Neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian leaderships are in a position to work with this administration and bring their respective publics along toward a just peace. For the Israelis, a right-wing government has been committed to opposing Palestinian rights. For Palestinian leaders, getting public support for working with Trump after he upended the foundation of the peace process and insulted Palestinians with his embassy move is not possible. Further, Israeli elections loom and no peace plan could be considered seriously in the midst of an internal politicized fight in Israel. Perhaps the biggest reason why a Trump peace plan would fail is because the people introducing it have little experience or credibility.
Whatever MbS’s abilities may be, he has proven conclusively that he is the wrong man for the job of marketing Trump’s deal. This reality, however, may not give the US president much pause.
For the sake of argument, however, let us grant that the Trump Administration does introduce a fair peace plan that both parties take seriously and are somehow prepared to engage with it along with their publics. All that is highly unlikely, but if it were to come to pass and intense negotiations were to begin again within the Trump framework, then the US president would need an adept, legitimate, cautious, and skilled salesman to push his agenda in the Arab and Muslim worlds that will surely react to it derisively and divisively. Whatever MbS’s abilities may be, he has proven conclusively that he is the wrong man for the job. This reality may not give the US president pause, however. Trump believes his strength in identifying skill and talent are unparalleled and that he only hires “the best people”—even though those he has hired have been fired or are resigning at a record pace.
If Trump goes ahead with his peace plan with MbS as his salesman, the prognosis is extremely poor. The flaws in Trump’s policy and approach, however, are so deep that with or without MbS, the results would likely be the same.