Either this is a first-class power play by Mohammed bin Salman, or it’s a potential reason why Donald Trump wants to avoid a full break with Saudi Arabia. The Jerusalem Post picked up a report carried by London-based The New Arab (al-Arabi al-Jadid) about a new initiative brewing between MbS and Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. They want to break the Arab boycott of Israel by encouraging new trade with the Jewish state, likely to form a more complete bulwark against Iranian hegemonic activities in the Middle East:
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who met late Monday night, resolved to encourage Arab nations to establish economic relations with Israel, the Al-Arabi Al-Jadid newspaper reported Thursday.
There doesn’t appear to be a corresponding report in The New Arab‘s English language website as of this afternoon. One can find quite a few articles about MbS on their website ranging from the skeptical to the openly hostile, most of which concern the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. The most recent report on its English-language version about MbS and al-Sisi was from two days ago, a critical report on Egypt’s official welcome for the “disgraced Saudi Crown Prince” that doesn’t mention anything about Israel.
The Tazpit News Service also picked up on the news, however, and offered a little more detail in the Jewish Press:
The report quoted Egyptian diplomatic sources as saying that the two leaders were attempting to convince as many Arab nations as possible to be neutral toward Israel and to accept economic relations with it, “or at the very least, a state of no war,” as part of a broader effort to promote acceptance of US President Donald Trump’s so-called ‘Deal of the Century’, aimed at ending the Israeli-Arab conflict.
The two are also said to be trying to get Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu-Mazen) to accept the deal. According to the report, Bin Salman promised Abbas that he will not accept any deal that does not address “the issues of Jerusalem and the Palestinian right of return,” but so far, Abbas’ rhetoric has been very critical of any possible deal.
Furthermore, the two discussed a possible formation and meeting of a quartet of Middle Eastern Arabic states, consisting of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi-Arabia and the Palestinian Authority – a proposal Abbas has also refused to, as he fears he would be pressured into making concessions.
Color me a little skeptical until the sources for this report come out of the shadows. MbS and al-Sisi had plenty to discuss in Cairo earlier this week even apart from this idea, and this could be more projection than reality. It might very well be just some propaganda aimed at forestalling more action in the US against the Saudis after Khashoggi’s brutal assassination.
Getting a Sunni coalition to recognize and trade with Israel would certainly make Congress stop and think about how far they want to go against the Crown Prince — if that’s in fact what is happening. The timing of this, however, seems pretty convenient. The Senate just voted to consider a bill that would cut Saudi Arabia off from US assistance in its war against Iranian proxies in Yemen, a move that would greatly hamper their ability to keep pushing back against Iran:
The bipartisan vote was viewed as a rebuke to both Saudi Arabia and the Trump administration, which is leading the war in Yemen, and President Trump for their handling of the Jamal Khashoggi murder, Senate leaders said.
“The Saudis have gone off the rails. They’ve killed more civilians this year than any year prior in the Yemen war,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told AFP.
“They obviously made a giant strategic error in abducting and murdering Jamal Khashoggi. So, a lot has changed in the last few months to get us to this point.”
Anger over Khashoggi has peaked on Capitol Hill if not on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. To change the narrative dramatically enough to reverse its momentum, the Saudis would either have to get rid of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, which doesn’t appear to be in the cards, or to make him suddenly indispensable. Presto! Rumors of a pro-Israeli alliance led by MbS suddenly emerge! Er … okay.
If it’s not on the level, though, it should be. The Sunni Arab nations need to combine forces with Israel if they are serious about isolating Iran, and they also need to eclipse Tehran in their influence over the Palestinians. Abbas won’t like that one bit because he would be forced into concessions, especially on the “right of return” demand, but Abbas will never win on that point anyway. Iran wants him to keep that demand up and pushes Hamas to force his hand on it because the mullahs want to keep the wounds open as a means to increase their own influence in the region. The Sunnis need to break that cycle and force the Palestinians to reach an accommodation that they can guarantee, allowing them to deal with the biggest threat in the region.
Will they get their act together? Maybe the crown prince’s terrible position might actually force them into this Hail Mary play, so to speak. But let’s wait until we get some solid sourcing before we buy it.