Reasons for Israeli concerns: For Trump, the Saudi star is rising

“King Salman of Saudi Arabia could not have been kinder, and I will tell you, he’s a very wise, wise man.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump at Ben Gurion airport on May 23, 2017 (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump at Ben Gurion airport on May 23, 2017
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
During his lightning 27-hour stay in Jerusalem, what US President Donald Trump did not say during his seven public statements was almost as noteworthy as what he did say.
Shattering the mold set by former president Barack Obama, Trump addressed the Israeli-Arab conflict without once mentioning settlements, a Palestinian state or a two-state solution.
All of that must have given Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reason to smile.
Less pleasing to Netanyahu, however, was Trump’s failure to mention one of his oft-repeated campaign promises: moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
While the president did extol Jerusalem’s beauty and spirituality during his concluding speech Tuesday at the Israel Museum, he made no mention of the embassy.
Although this must have been disappointing for the prime minister, it should not have been surprising, considering how much momentum the embassy issue has lost since Trump’s inauguration in January.
What was surprising, however, and what should concern Israeli policy makers, is the degree to which Trump praised Saudi Arabia’s King Salman during his visit.
Trump calls for peace in the region, tougher line against Iran (credit: REUTERS)
While Trump did not mention the settlements or a twostate solution in any of his statements, he mentioned and praised King Salman in six of his seven appearances, with the name of the Saudi king absent only in the remarks Trump made Tuesday at Yad Vashem.
At the Israel Museum, it even sounded as if Trump was talking about the biblical King Solomon when he mentioned the Saudi monarch, saying, “I was hosted by King Salman, a very wise man.”
A few hours earlier, standing in Bethlehem alongside Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, he said, “King Salman of Saudi Arabia could not have been kinder, and I will tell you, he’s a very wise, wise man.”
And at the Prime Minister’s Residence the night before, he praised King Salman with these words: “In my visit to Saudi Arabia, I met with many leaders of the Arab and Muslim world, including King Salman, who treated us so beautifully and really wants to see great things happen for the world.”
Israel obviously need not be jealous that Trump repeatedly mentioned and showered praise on another leader during his visit here. It should be concerned, however, that it seems the Saudis have edged out Israel in terms of influence over Trump’s foreign policy.
It is within this context that Trump’s failure to even discuss an embassy move publicly while in Jerusalem is telling, because it was the Saudis – along with the Jordanians – who strongly urged Trump against the move. And it appears the US president yielded to their demands.
In addition, the fact that the first country Trump visited on his first trip abroad as president was Saudi Arabia – only coming to Israel afterward – may be more significant than it appeared at first glance. It becomes important because Netanyahu made note triumphantly on a couple occasions that Israel was a destination of Trump’s initial trip. Yes, but only after going to Saudi Arabia first.
Some may also argue that a close relationship with Saudi Arabia fits in with Trump’s “America First” philosophy even more so than a close relationship with Israel.
Trump articulated an interesting truth during his Israel Museum speech: There is no reason why ties with Israel have to come at the expense of ties with the Arab and Muslim world. They don’t.
Nevertheless, for a president keen on investments and creating jobs in America, which country – using only this as a benchmark – has more to offer: Israel, with its strong but small market, or Saudi Arabia, with its ability to pump hundreds of billions of dollars into the US economy? During Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, the two countries announced 23 foreign investment export licenses that, according to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, will lead to $350 billion in direct investments, and – as Tillerson put it – “result in literally hundreds of thousands of American jobs.”
Israeli hi-tech companies also create American jobs, but in the tens, not hundreds, of thousands. And for a president whose clarion call is “jobs, jobs, jobs,” the Saudi investments are no trifling matter. As an aside, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir pointed out during a press conference with Tillerson that ExxonMobil, the company Tillerson led before becoming secretary of state, is the largest single investor in Saudi Arabia.
Currently, as Netanyahu has pointed out on many occasions, Israel and Saudi Arabia have a convergence of interests, as both are threatened by Iran and Islamic extremists.
Trump’s tough words against Iran – he said that it will never get a bomb and that it is destabilizing the region – were clearly music to Netanyahu’s ears. And it was also exactly what King Salman wanted to hear. Whose talking points was he adopting – King Salman’s or Netanyahu’s? And while whose script Trump was reading from seems inconsequential while Israeli and Saudi interests are aligned, the question will become more significant down the line, when those interests diverge.
Right now the Saudis are preoccupied by their epic battle with Iran and have pushed the Palestinians way down on their list of priorities. So far down, in fact, that during Tillerson and Jubeir’s press conference Saturday in Riyadh, the Palestinians were mentioned twice. By contrast, Iran was mentioned 42 times, and Yemen, 26.
But all that could change.
And if and when it does, if and when the Saudis make the Palestinians a central issue, that Riyadh – more than Jerusalem – seems to be emerging with an inside track to Trump may become a significant problem for Israel.