As Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman tries to escape consequences for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, it has been revealing to see who has stepped forward to help him out. There have been fellow Arab dictators, such as Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sissi. There have been cynical opportunists, like Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Then there’s Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of a nation whose right to exist has yet to be recognized by Saudi Arabia. You wouldn’t think Israel, in contrast to every Western democracy, would be explicitly endorsing a latter-day version of Saddam Hussein — a man so toxic that even K Street lobbyists are rejecting his money. And yet Netanyahu is emerging as Mohammed bin Salman’s friend-in-need.
For a month after Khashoggi disappeared inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, the Israeli government was conspicuously silent. Then, a day or two after it was reported that Netanyahu had phoned the White House to lobby for Mohammed, he spoke up: While “what happened in the Istanbul consulate was horrendous, and should be duly dealt with,” he said, “it’s very important for the stability of the world . . . that Saudi Arabia remain stable.”
In case there is some doubt what it means to “duly deal” with the strangling and dismemberment of a journalist by a team of 15 thugs, Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Ron Dermer, was more clear: It means, he said, that the United States should “not throw out the prince with the bathwater.”
Why throw a lifeline to this killer? For Netanyahu, the Khashoggi crisis threatens to undo a carefully constructed regional strategy built around the 33-year-old Saudi crown prince — and President Trump. The idea is to forge a de facto alliance between Israel and the Middle East’s new generation of Sunni dictators, united against Iran — and to enlist the United States to provide muscle. As a side benefit, Mohammed would support a Trump Middle East peace plan that, while yet to be unveiled, seems to amount to coercing Palestinians into accepting Israel’s terms.
Until Khashoggi’s disappearance, everything was going smoothly: Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran and restored economic sanctions; cut off U.S. aid to Palestinian refugees in Gaza while moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem; and resumed U.S. support for a Saudi bombing campaign against Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen that has killed tens of thousands of civilians. Netanyahu was meanwhile invited to visit Oman, a Saudi ally.
Netanyahu also has made a show of identifying himself with Trump. He has been the Mike Pence of the Middle East; he even called out CNN for “fake news.” When Trump visited Tree of Life synagogue following the Pittsburgh massacre, against the wishes of local leaders, just one official was there to welcome him: Dermer. Naftali Bennett, a Netanyahu cabinet member who also flew in, spent the next few days vigorously defending Trump against charges that his support for white nationalism had encouraged U.S. anti-Semites. On the eve of the midterm elections, Bennett, who aspires to succeed Netanyahu, took to Twitter to heap still more praise on the president — in English — for “Making The Ayatollahs Scared Again.”
Of course, Israel has a long history of cultivating nasty dictators, as well as occupants of the Oval Office. Netanyahu’s problem is that in betting so heavily on Mohammed and Trump, he took a large risk with two very unstable actors, each of whom has polarized their political systems. If Mohammed survives — something that for now seems more likely than not, given that the Trump administration remains committed to him — he will be weakened and wary. He won’t be able to deliver the Palestinians for Trump’s peace plan. There’s a good chance Congress will cut off aid for bombing Yemen. Saudi Arabia’s support for the anti-Iran coalition will amount to pumping oil.
Trump, too, has been weakened by the Democrats’ capture of the House of Representatives — and so has Netanyahu. What was once bipartisan U.S. support for Israel disappears when it comes to its current leader, who feuded with Barack Obama and all but campaigned for Mitt Romney in 2012. According to a Pew Research Center poll released this year, only 18 percent of Democrats had a favorable view of Netanyahu; twice as many regarded him unfavorably. That compared with 52 percent of Republicans who approved of the Israeli leader.
While key Democratic leaders in the incoming House, including likely speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Eliot L. Engel (N.Y.), are staunchly pro-Israel, many of their new rank and file will not be. And a lot of Republicans as well as Democrats will be repelled by Netanyahu’s appeals on Mohammed’s behalf. Instead, 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.