With the Jamal Khashoggi affair shaking up Saudi-Washington relations, and with multiple Gulf countries predictably coming out in support of Riyadh’s denials that it was behind the journalist’s disappearance and apparent murder, it will be interesting to see Israel’s stance on the issue.
We fully expect Israel to do all that it can to lobby Washington toward keeping its bulls-eye ever steadfast on Iran. Indeed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears already cognizant of Iran receding into the background of priorities for the West as the alleged gruesome death and dismemberment of Khashoggi at the hands of a Saudi hit team ordered by MbS takes center stage.
On Monday Netanyahu opened a parliamentary session at the Knesset by addressing his familiar theme of “Iranian expansion” in Syria, except that the timing is now more interesting given some of the public heat and attention has now been taken off Tehran for a time: “We must act against the Iranian regime in Syria,” Netanyahu said.
But crucially, he added a new theme — important in light of the past two weeks: “Because of the Iranian threat, Israel and other Arab countries are closer than they ever were before,” the prime minister said. This acknowledgement comes after years of Saudi Arabia joining in a covert partnership to topple the Syrian government — a project which has clearly failed.
And not only has it utterly failed, but Israel’s repeat air strikes on Syria (acknowledged recently by Israel’s military to be over 200 strikes in the past year alone), culminated in last month’s accidental downing of a Russian Ilyushin-20 reconnaissance plane with 15 crew members on board, resulting in the now accomplished transfer of the advanced S-300 anti-aircraft defense system to the Syrian government.
Concerning this, Netanyahu also addressed the ongoing diplomatic crisis with Moscow in the aftermath of the September 17th Russian aircraft downing, claiming that he “maintains a direct connection with Vladimir Putin.”
“A strong connection is important,” Netanyahu said. “This allows us to deal with all the problems in our region. It is important for the safety of Israel.” And he stressed: “But the most important connection is our alliance with the United States.”
However, by invoking Iran’s presence in Syria once again, Netanyahu is signalling that he wants the White House to keep its eye on the ball. As The Atlantic notes the rhetoric has noticeably shifted, at least over the past week:
When the Trump administration talks about “severe punishment” for a country in the Middle East, it is generally referring to Iran, a country whose regional influence troubles both its Arab neighbors as well as the United States. Yet on Sunday, President Trump used those words to describe what could happen to Saudi Arabia— arguably the closest U.S. ally in the Muslim world— if investigations determine that the regime is complicit in the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, the dissident journalist.
However, these are the very Arab countries, led by Saudi Arabia, that Netanyahu in rare fashion just declared Israel in solidarity with.
The prime minister continued while referencing US sanctions on Iran, “This is once again an opportunity to thank Trump for his brave decision to renew the sanctions on Iran and to exit the Iran nuclear deal.” It was this context in which Netanyahu added that due to the Iranian nuclear threat, “Israel and other Arab countries are closer than they ever were before.”
As much of the world’s attention continues to fixate on Saudi Arabia and crown prince MbS, who has clearly lost the angelic halo that the mainstream media represented in the likes of Thomas Friedman previously bestowed on him, we fully expect Netanyahu to shout even louder about the “Iran threat” in Syria.
This brings up the possibility: should US-Saudi relations erode further over the Khashoggi case, resulting in a general or even temporary “softening” of the West’s rhetoric against Iran, perhaps Netanyahu will launch a well-timed militarily adventurous provocation or “distraction” in Syria to remind the world that Assad, Rouhani, and Nasrallah remain the real “bad guys” in the region?