Is the Khashoggi affair spotlighting Israel?

Several revelations have impacted the Trump administration’s Middle East policies and naturally affect the administration’s work with Riyadh and Jerusalem.

December 13, 2018 08:22
4 minute read.
 A demonstrator holds a poster with a picture of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi outside the Saudi

A demonstrator holds a poster with a picture of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi outside the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, Turkey October 25, 2018.. (photo credit: REUTERS/OSMAN ORSAL)


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“And now to apply the Bonesaw Doctrine to Palestine,” tweeted Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director for the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch, on Tuesday. The “bonesaw” referred to the method allegedly used to dismember Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi after he was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2. The reference comes on the heels of other revelations that could overshadow the Trump administration’s work on Israel-Palestinian peace issues amid attempts to link Israel to the Khashoggi crises.

Several revelations have impacted the Trump administration’s Middle East policies and naturally affect the administration’s work with Riyadh and Jerusalem. Some of these critics challenge the Trump administration’s view that its closest allies in the region are Israel and Saudi Arabia. Others are looking at different alleged connections between Israel and the Khashoggi affair.

First is the allegation that “Israeli spyware” was linked to the murder of Khashoggi. For instance Al-Jazeera’s Abdurahman Warsame tweeted on December 9 that the “Israel government approved sale” of spyware that tracked Khashoggi and his contacts.

“Freed from serious regulatory pressure, Israeli spy companies are free to maximize profits any way they can, even aiding despotic governments in crackdown on dissidents like Jamal Khashoggi. Their actions dishonor the Jewish state,” author Max Boot wrote on December 5.

Second, and more important, is the Politico report on December 11 that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and a key player in the administration’s Israel-Palestinian peace discussions, had “shifted from Khashoggi killing to Israeli-Palestinian peace.”

Karen Attiah, Global Opinions editor at The Washington Post and Khashoggi’s editor before his murder, tweeted about Kushner’s “shift.” She noted “nothing to see here, move along folks,” mocking his attempt to move on from the Khashoggi issue.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio also slammed reports that the White House and Kushner had attempted to get over the Khashoggi affair. “We don’t need direct evidence that [the Saudi crown prince] ordered the code red on this thing,” he said. MSNBC also ran a photo of Kushner and the Crown Prince, calling them “bad company” on December 12.

Iran’s Press TV created a special video attacking Israel and Saudi Arabia over the killing. “What is the link between Israel and the murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.” It claimed that “Khashoggi’s murder could be traced to the heart of Tel Aviv.” The US intends to remain a partner of Riyadh to “ensure the interests of Israel.” The video went on to claim that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had called senior officials in the Trump administration to support the crown prince. Journalist Jamal Dajani tweeted on December 9 that “Israel’s hasbara machine” was repeating Saudi news “to deflect from news about Khashoggi’s murder and MBS.”

Whitson, the Human Rights Watch director for the Middle East, attacked “Israel Saudi collusion” on December 11.

The voices that have excoriated Saudi Arabia and Israel make up a mosaic of critics. Some of these voices are connected to pro-Iran elements and are therefore naturally anti-Israel and anti-Saudi because of Tehran’s regime. Some of the voices are more closely connected to Qatar and Al-Jazeera and their criticism is partly due to the current dispute between Riyadh and Doha. However there is another group that are either neutral or pro-Israel but are outraged at what they see as the Trump administration’s downplaying of the Khashoggi murder.

They argue that Israel has been unwittingly swept up in this affair because Trump is pro-Israel, and those like Kushner are connected both to Israel policy and Saudi Arabia. In this narrative, the Israeli connection is seen as a betrayal of Israel’s values and an unfortunate series of circumstances that put Israel on the wrong side of the Khashoggi murder.

However there is one last group that tend to support a regional view in which both Israel and Saudi Arabia oppose Iran’s role in the region and see Saudi Arabia as pragmatically sharing common interests with Israel in any conflict with Iran. These voices argue Khashoggi was a former Saudi regime insider who had supported the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise in Egypt and only became alienated from Riyadh when the current crown prince began to distance Saudi Arabia from the Brotherhood and clamped down on critics like himself. In this narrative, Khashoggi fell afoul of internal Saudi politics, and there is nothing especially nefarious about the idea that Israel and Saudi Arabia are both US allies and should continue to be.

The puzzle is a risk for Israel because Israel counts on bipartisan support in Washington, and there are growing voices in Congress who seek to challenge the US-Saudi alliance. Insofar as the Trump administration is tarred with being too close to Saudi Arabia, there are questions about key administration officials, such as Kushner, and every time their name is mentioned alongside policy toward Riyadh and Jerusalem, the appearance of a problematic linkage increases. The larger context of this discussion is that Israel and the Trump administration are seen as being too cozy with authoritarian states and nationalist leaders. Defenders of Israel’s policy argue that the alternative to the US alliance with Saudi Arabia would be US engagement with Turkey or Iran, or other countries in the region, all of which trend toward varying degrees of authoritarianism.

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