Saudi Arabia's newest lobbyist is the prime minister of Israel - opinion

Israeli diplomats around the world have long been trading favors and contacts in small nations with promises to help open doors in Washington.

 THE NEWEST Saudi lobbyist is the prime minister of Israel, says the writer.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
THE NEWEST Saudi lobbyist is the prime minister of Israel, says the writer.
(photo credit: REUTERS)

There’s a myth in Washington that Israel has the biggest, most powerful, richest, most influential lobby in town. I know. I spent many years trying to promote that image. One problem: ain’t so.

There are many more, but they tend to get less attention. There was a time when after every election, The Wall Street Journal did a feature on the influence of Jewish money. But not about the bigger spenders. Like those pushing oil, guns, weapons, drugs (both kinds), banks, health care, hi-tech, realtors and labor.

But when it comes to foreign policy, notwithstanding the threat of those Jewish Space Lasers, none can match the Saudis. 

Saudis and their foreign policy

If you go to FARA.gov, you can look up the list of the kingdom’s hired guns from the K Street Corral. Dig deeper, and you can find who their lobbyists are, what they’re paid, who they meet and, supposedly, what they’re telling members of Congress and the administration. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/REUTERS)Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/REUTERS)

The number one Saudi lobbyist is what president Dwight Eisenhower warned about, the military-industrial complex. Saudi Arabia is the Pentagon’s favorite cash cow. It has a voracious appetite for weapons systems and, as they reminded a former defense secretary, “You’re just salesmen and we pay cash.” Plus, the Pentagon charges a commission, like shipping and handling, that gives it a chance to replace the old stock in its own arsenal. 

Of course, the defense industry has a major interest in keeping its customers happy. And there’s a bonus. Some of their best salesmen are the diplomats, military attaches and other personnel whose interest is to persuade their clients to buy American. After their hitch in the US government, they often cash in on their service by working as consultants for the industry or its customers.

Along the way, the customers are persuaded to buy training, maintenance and spare parts packages for the life of their purchases. 

It’s not just the Pentagon and defense industry; there are many more interests that want to lobby for the Saudis and their wealthy neighbors. From toy manufacturers to high-profile Jews, like the son-in-law and treasury secretary of the former president and the disgraced Duke of Mar-a-Lago.

There is nothing new in recent revelations about former top defense and security officials going to work for the Saudis and other Gulf states.

Who's the new Saudi lobbyist?

The newest Saudi lobbyist is the prime minister of Israel. His task is to mend Saudi relations with the Biden administration, and his reward will be the normalization of diplomatic relations between the kingdom and the Jewish state – not full diplomatic recognition but going public with what has been semi-private so far.

It is unusual for the head of any government to go to bat for another government with which it has no diplomatic relations, especially when one is a democracy and the other a feudal monarchy with a long history of antisemitic incitement and financing anti-Israel terrorism.

But this isn’t the first time Israelis lobbied for Arab states. When Congress threatened to cut aid to Egypt because of its abysmal human rights record, Israeli diplomats were the first to rush to Capitol Hill to object. There were also incidents involving jets for Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. 

Israeli diplomats around the world have long been trading favors and contacts in small nations with promises to help open doors in Washington, where it boasts enormous influence. 

IT IS THE Saudis’ dismal human rights record, which led Biden to label it a pariah, that brings together Benjamin Netanyahu and Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman.

The two have met privately at least once, which the Israelis admit and the Saudis deny, and their common cause is to repair frayed relations with the Biden White House. Netanyahu may not be the best messenger, but he is motivated. Despite public denials, the administration no longer considers either leader a reliable ally.

Netanyahu wants the Saudis to join the Abraham Accords, his greatest diplomatic achievement and the opening to normalization with several Arab states, because of the political and economic benefits it will bring Israel. He sees it as effectively ending the Arab-Israeli conflict. What about the Palestinians? The two leaders share a disdain for the Palestinians, though the Saudi prince is not as anxious to publicly express it as his Israeli friend.

The new far-right Israeli government adamantly opposes Palestinian statehood and is considering annexing part of the West Bank and vastly expanding its settlements enterprise. Netanyahu is reportedly willing to drop annexation for now in exchange for normalization. Biden, in his congratulatory call to Netanyahu, reminded him of US support for the two-state solution.

Leaders of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank, met with the crown prince on a recent trip to the kingdom and asked him what would bring his country to join the Abraham Accords and normalize relations with Israel.

He listed three demands, all referring to Washington: an affirmation of the US-Saudi alliance, access to weapons on the same level as Israel and other major non-NATO allies, and allowing the Saudis to exploit their extensive uranium reserves for a domestic nuclear program. There was no indication the Palestinian issue came up.

Netanyahu told Al Arabiya, a Saudi-owned website, that the US-Saudi “traditional alliance” needs to be “reaffirmed” because it is “the anchor of stability in our region.” He said he would take the case directly to Biden.

Normalization with Saudi Arabia will “facilitate, ultimately, a Palestinian-Israeli peace,” Netanyahu said. He’s just kidding. He’s not interested.

Biden seems unlikely to invite the Israeli leader or the prince to the Oval Office any time soon. But Netanyahu may try an end run around the president and go directly to his Republican friends in Congress. There are still hard feelings from the last time he tried that by blindsiding the Obama White House in a blistering 2015 speech to the Republican-led House of Representatives in opposition to the Iran nuclear deal and spearheading the GOP assault.

He failed to stop it, but his main achievement was winning the distrust of the Obama-Biden administration, the Democrats and many American Jewish voters.

The architect of that debacle was his then-ambassador, Ron Dermer, a former GOP operative. The Times of Israel reports that Dermer, whom Netanyahu just named as his strategic affairs minister (de facto foreign minister) will be Netanyahu’s point man for the Saudi cause.

The Biden White House will be watching to see if Netanyahu has learned any lessons from that damaging plunge into partisan American politics.

If Netanyahu wants to help his new royal pal, which is in Israel’s interest, he must first repair his own strained relations with Biden, the Democrats and the Jews. Given the extreme makeup of his new government, that will be one tall order. 

He cannot rely on his Republican and evangelical friends in the House of Representatives to badger the administration with their usual divisive rhetoric accusing the Democrats of being anti-Israel.

The writer is a Washington-based journalist, consultant, lobbyist and former American Israel Public Affairs Committee legislative director.