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How Trump saving MBS’s ‘ass’ begat Israel-UAE-Bahrain deal

It's a quid pro quo from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman following the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi
President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office of the White House on Friday, Sept. 11, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office of the White House on Friday, Sept. 11, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Bob Woodward has heard this advice before: “Follow the Money!”

Most of the well-deserved media attention to Woodward’s upcoming book Rage was focused on Donald Trump’s jaw-dropping confession – on record and on tape! – whereby he knew as early as February that the coronavirus was much deadlier than the flu and that it was airborne, while assuring the US public that it was going away and that masks were unnecessary. Why Woodward sat on this bombshell till now is a legitimate question, but not for this post: he isn’t president.

The resulting COVID-19 death toll in the States is likely to hit 200,000 this week, just in time to spoil whatever electoral benefit Trump might garner from the festive signing of his “peace” deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and, as we’ve just learned, Bahrain too. Of course it’s not a peace agreement – as Israel has never been at war with either nation – but just “normalization” wasn’t good enough for Trump, who has his eyes on the (Nobel peace) prize. He even managed to get nominated for the 2021 award, which made headlines here even though any member of any parliament (among others) can do so; there are more than 300 candidates for this year’s prize. The Norwegian populist who named Trump did so once before, for his bromance with Kim Jong-un, and we know how that ended. But I digress.

The Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward arrives at Trump Tower in New York, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2017. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

For Israelis as well as horrified Americans, another excerpt from Trump’s boasts – first obtained by the German-owned, Trump-critical Business Insidershould have caused at least as much concern: I saved his ass.” Trump bragged that he protected Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murder. Trump went on to explain his motivation for overruling US intelligence’s unequivocal finding that MBS was culpable. “He says very strongly that he didn’t do it,” Trump asserted, as he did in Helsinki with Putin’s denial that Russia intervened to help Trump get elected. “Bob, they [the Saudis] spent $400 billion [on US weaponry] over a fairly short period of time.” So he vetoed or ignored a series of bipartisan Congressional votes to block such sales and to sanction the Saudis for their role in the bloody Yemen civil war, as well as the grisly assassination of Woodward’s colleague at The Washington Post.

Why may this disclosure, even more specifically than the COVID-19 disaster in Israel as well as the States, rain on the Donald-and-Bibi parade this week? The UAE-Emirati deal, a notional boost for Trump’s reelection effort, is evidently MBS’s quid for Trump’s quo – but only up to a point. The Saudis will be conspicuously absent from the White House ceremony. So, more remarkably, will be MBS’s Emirati wannabe, Mohammed bin Zayed, who ostensibly should have been Netanyahu’s counterpart signatory. The honors will be done by his brother, the UAE foreign minister. His Israeli counterpart, Gabi Ashkenazi, wasn’t even in the loop negotiating the deal. It soon became obvious why: The matchmaker, Jared Kushner, confirmed what Bibi neglected to mention: that six years of delay (due to Israeli objections) on the UAE’ multibillion-dollar requests for F-35 stealth fighters and other advanced weaponry had suddenly been cleared.

An Israeli Air Force F-35 Lightning II fighter jet takes part in a graduation ceremony for IAF pilots at the Hatzerim base in Israel’s Negev desert on December 26, 2018. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Follow the money! And not only to the US weapons manufacturers. Kushner, you may recall, helped to precipitate a crisis between Qatar and the Saudis/Emiratis after the Qataris pulled out of rescuing Jared’s troubled real estate at the devil’s number, 666 Fifth Avenue. As Trump clarified in another stunning statement, the guiding principle for his ilk is “what’s in it for us?”

Bahrain’s accession to the deal with Israel brings the role of MBS into even starker relief. The UAE is a junior ally of Saudi Arabia; Bahrain is a Saudi-US dependency. It’s not in line for US arms; the Saudi military had to roll in over the causeway to the tiny island sheikhdom to put down its Shiite majority the last time it rebelled. Now even Sunnis there are protesting the Israeli deal. Bahrain’s other main guarantor is the home base of the US Fifth Fleet. What happens next, given Iran’s ominous presence across the Gulf, is anyone’s guess.

Israelis too gladly followed the money. Besides the Emirates’ gilded tourist destinations (for which there is somehow plenty of spare cash still available in corona-impoverished Israel), we were promised a bountiful return on the UAE deal, in the form of massive investments. Only a few weeks ago, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was here to inveigh against permitting Chinese acquisition of strategic Israeli assets. But Emirati cash is apparently safe. Even the owner of the viciously anti-Arab Beitar Jerusalem football club is already soliciting it.

For years, Israeli were told that peace agreements with Arab regimes could not be trusted as these were undemocratic despotisms which might be overthrown. Our new Gulf allies and their Saudi backers are absolute monarchies with dismal records on civil liberties and human rights. We were shocked at the beheadings by Da’esh/ISIS, while the Saudis still routinely behead people in public. The Emiratis prefer executions by stoning and flogging, under the kind of extreme Sharia law that Islamophobes are so fond of decrying. But this objection too has gone by the board.

Long before the ascent of MBS, the Saudis – and after them, the Arab League – proposed a regional peace plan that, despite all of the above reservations, could at least form the start for negotiating the peace that Israel really needs: with our neighbors and adversaries, the Palestinians, in a two-state dispensation. MBS is still bound enough by it to demand, and obtain, Netanyahu’s supposed deferment (and actual renunciation) of annexation designs on the West Bank. But Bibi’s cherry-picking of Jared’s “deal” by rejecting its main objective has so far kept the Saudis behind the scenes. And whatever lull we have in the continuing violence and fire around Gaza (where all of Israel’s high-tech couldn’t counter Palestinian kids with dime-store balloons) was achieved, for a while, by money from the Saudi archrival, Qatar.

But we’ll always have Bahrain. At least till November 3. Thanks, Bob.

About the Author
Gideon Remez, formerly head of foreign news at Voice of Israel Radio, is an associate fellow of the Truman Institute, Hebrew University. The views expressed here are his own and not the Institute's.
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