WASHINGTON (JTA) — Saudi Arabia is in hot water because its agents murdered a journalist, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is asking the West not to throw away the kingdom’s prince.
It’s a major ask — one that could get Netanyahu and his nation in their own tepid tub.
The problem facing Israel was evident in a piece published Sunday in The Washington Post by Jackson Diehl, a columnist whom Israeli officials have in the past trusted to be fair and sensitive to the country’s concerns.
“Why is Israel tossing a lifeline to Jamal Khashoggi’s killers?” the headline read for an essay that ripped Netanyahu.
“The spectacle of an Israeli leader lobbying to excuse an Arab dictator for murder will only compound the damage he has done to his country’s relationship with the United States,” Diehl wrote.
Khashoggi, who was assassinated last month in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, voiced his dissent with the Saudi regime as a Washington Post columnist. Diehl, like others at the paper, would be more naturally inclined than others to express outrage at any attempt to whitewash the Saudi regime.
But Diehl’s warning was substantive: JTA has learned that Democrats in Congress — the party has just wrested control of the U.S. House of Representatives from the Republicans — are furious with Netanyahu for being among the few leaders to publicly defend the regime as evidence mounts that Khashoggi was killed on orders from above.
“What happened in the Istanbul consulate was horrendous and it should be duly dealt with,” Netanyahu said Nov. 2 at an event in Varna, Bulgaria. “Yet the same time I say it, it is very important for the stability of the world, for the region and for the world, that Saudi Arabia remains stable.”
The question at the heart of the Khashoggi murder is whether the country’s effective ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, directly ordered the hit. The prince has denied it vehemently to President Donald Trump, who has tended to give bin Salman the benefit of the doubt. Middle East hands wonder how such a sophisticated assassination could have been carried out without bin Salman’s OK.
On Tuesday, The New York Times reported that one of the alleged hitmen instructed a superior to “tell your boss” that the job was done; the “boss” is assumed to be bin Salman.
Netanyahu’s investment in Saudi Arabia goes beyond the country’s stability. He is particularly close to bin Salman, as is Trump.
“I think the administration, when they know all the facts, are going to have to decide how can they on the one hand make clear that this action is unacceptable, but also not throw out the prince with the bathwater, let’s put it that way,” Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer, perhaps Netanyahu’s closest adviser, said earlier this month at a synagogue event in Houston.
The key to understanding Netanyahu’s positioning is the enemy that Israel and the Saudis share: Iran.
“It’s a tightrope act for Netanyahu right now,” Jonathan Schanzer, the vice president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said in an interview. “For him and for Israel, there is a question of who will fight Iran’s regional aggression other than Israel. The Saudis have assumed that role. They have the eastern flank of the Middle East, Israel has the west.”
Another factor is Netanyahu’s strategy of seeking broader acceptance in the Middle East absent substantive progress in any peace deal with the Palestinians, Schanzer said.
“This is an opportunity for him to publicly come out and not overtly state that there are ties between Israel and the Saudis, but certainly to imply it, and to show the Arab world Israel can be an ally,” he said.
The cost, said Aaron David Miller, a top Middle East negotiator under Republican and Democratic presidents, is to Israel’s reputation.
“The Israelis have to be very careful that they should not become MbS’s lawyer in Washington,” said Miller, using bin Salman’s nickname. Miller is now the vice president of The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
While Netanyahu and his predecessors naturally tended toward an interests-based foreign policy, Miller said, “It’s very bad for Israel’s image and credibility to be cavorting with a regime that is killing and murdering its dissenters on the streets of Arab capitals or European capitals.”
The immediate cost may be in how responsive the new Democratic House is to the pro-Israel agenda. In the immediate future, defense assistance will remain untouched, but Democrats would likely be less inclined to back the feel-good declarative statements that are often the bread and butter of pro-Israel lobbyists. That, in the long run, could erode overall support in the party for Israel.
An accelerant to the bad will among Democrats is that Netanyahu appears to be propping up Saudi Arabia as a means of pleasing Trump, who is the bete noir of the party and of liberals more than any other Republican leader.
“They’re looked at as if they’re coming out in support of a Trump ally,” said Schanzer.