Middle East Eye’s managing editor published a major exclusive saying that Jared Kushner had secretly negotiated with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to meet with Bibi Netanyahu in Washington DC this month. They were to have a “private handshake” at the secret meeting. But word of the meeting leaked and the Saudis immediately canceled it.
Though Hearst did not mention the source of his information, he is known to have deep knowledge and sources throughout the region. Also, when he queried the White House and State Department, they each refused to deny the report.
This is yet another in a long list of strange developments regarding the Kushner-Trump Middle East policy. They threw decades of precedent to the winds in moving the embassy to Jerusalem and recognizing it as Israel’s capital, along with recognizing Israeli sovereignty in the Golan.
Recently, Trump announced to great fanfare that UAE and Israel had agreed to normalization of relations. Though apparently none of the exact terms of the deal had been negotiated or agreed. Now, MBS would have flown to Washington, stayed secretly at private homes the Saudis had purchased in order to conceal his presence, and then met with Trump and Netanyahu at the White House. Apparently, none of the terms of the meeting had yet been clarified: would the handshake have been documented? Would a picture have been published? What exactly would such an image signify? Was there anything of substance to back it up? Trump and Kushner are big on gestures and often come up empty on substance as noted above.
Hearst wrote that one of the goals of the meeting was for the Saudis to help in Trump’s re-election campaign. Trump needs as many rabbits as he can pull out of his hat given how poorly he’s doing in the polls. This would have been a fairly large one:
“MBS agreed to it because Trump and Kushner were pushing for it. MBS needs Trump to win. Trump allowed him to become crown prince by agreeing that his elder cousin [Mohammed bin Nayef] could be deposed. Trump gave him legitimacy, and then much needed political cover for all the other things that happened: Khashoggi’s killing, imprisoning his cousins in the Ritz-Carlton, the siege of Qatar. The signals coming out of the Democrats for MBS are not encouraging,” he said.
In addition, Kushner sold the photo opportunity to MBS as a way for him to repair his tarnished image on the world stage. Further, the Saudi understood that a Democratic administration would adopt take a far less hospitable approach his interests than Trump would. It would be best, the Trump camp argued, to strike now while the iron was hot.
As I wrote about the UAE-Israel deal, the strategy is for Israel to gradually negotiate deals with many of the Arab states with whom it has technically been at war for decades. The intent was for UAE to go first, then have countries like Bahrain, Oman, Morocco, and others follow. The final capstone would be signing a peace treaty with the Saudis, who are the major player among the Sunni states in the region.
But the entire arrangement placed the cart before the horse. Jimmy Carter didn’t have Sadat and Begin to the White House until a complete treaty had been negotiated. And we can see what happens when you arrange such events prematurely: Clinton had Rabin and Arafat to the White House for a similar event which did not lead to the peace that had been promised. In fact, it raised hopes sky-high which were repeatedly dashed when Israel refused to honor commitments it had made.
An MBS-Netanyahu handshake under the auspices of Trump would promise much and deliver little. None of the parameters of any agreement have been hammered out as far as we know. In fact, many Arab leaders are mocking UAE for giving away the store and getting nothing in return:
The first problem arose when it emerged that Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, did not get annexation taken off the table by Israel as he had expected. Netanyahu vowed to go ahead with it, and called the deal a freeze. This has now led to bigger demands from Saudi Arabia if the kingdom is to consider going down the same path.
Though the Saudis refuse to be taken to the cleaners as the UAE was, what exactly they would get is not clear.
Ever since MBS commanded Mahmoud Abbas to appear before him and threatened him if he would not sign a deal with Israel, the Saudi has essentially abandoned Palestine. So it’s unlikely the Saudis will play the Palestinian card in such talks with Israel. Israeli weapons, cyber and nuclear technology–all of these would interest them. But how far Israel would be willing to go in sharing its know-how in these critical areas is not clear.
Other states in the region expected to fall in line with UAE have not done so. Mike Pompeo and Kushner have completed separate jaunts to Arab capitals only to come away empty-handed. This is what happens when your policy is based on whim rather than on a solid foundation and mutual trust.