In Part II of his analysis, Richard Silverstein explores the dangerous coalition of Israel under Netanyahu with Saudi Arabia under Crown Prince Salmon. Both seek to diminish Shiite Iran’s influence in the Middle East, and both are ready to bring financial and military pressure on Lebanon, Syria, and if need be, on Iraq, to assert Israeli-Saudi hegemony in the region. With the U.S. having gutted its diplomatic capability in the State Department and an executive in the White House who much prefers bellicose talk and a preference for “strong men” there is little pressure from here to restrain these two toxic Middle East meddlers.
New-found Israeli and Saudi Arabian assertiveness, along with the failure of the US to get involved, create an explosive situation in an already extremely unstable region. – Ed.
Bin Salman may have also learned another lesson from Israel: that it is fruitless to seek the help of outside powers in waging such conflicts. He saw Netanyahu spend years fruitlessly begging two US presidents to join him in a military adventure attacking Iran.
His new alliance with Saudi Arabia might provide the military punch he needs to forge a successful series of attacks on regional enemies.
Both the Saudis and Israelis watched ruefully as former US President Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, negotiated despite vociferous opposition from Netanyahu, removed this card from their political deck. Netanyahu had played the card for years in drumming up opposition to Iran’s purported nuclear programme.
He was furious he could no longer use it to defang domestic political challenges or invoke national crisis.
Over the past few months, both countries have lost another critical regional “card:” Their Syrian Islamist allies have folded under a joint onslaught from the Syrian regime and its Iranian-Russian backers.
A few years earlier, Netanyahu had joined Saudi Arabia in intervening in Syria, attacking military facilities associated with Iran or Hezbollah. He pursued this policy as a method of deterrence, to diminish the arsenal available to the Lebanese Islamists during the next war with Israel. But he acted no less in order to bolster his security bona fides among security-obsessed Israelis.
But with the civil war winding down and Saudi-Israeli proxies having failed, Netanyahu can no longer offer the Syrian bogeyman to Israeli voters. He has four major corruption scandals facing him. More and more of his closest confidants are being swept up in the police investigation.
Netanyahu desperately needs a distraction. A war against Lebanon is just the ticket. It would do wonders to unite the country just long enough to see the charges evaporate into thin air.
But there would be a major difference in this coming war: Saudi Arabia will join this fight specifically to give Iran a black eye. So attacking Lebanon will be only part of its agenda while attacking Iran directly will be the real Saudi goal.
With Israel joining the fight, the two states could mount a regional war with attacks launched against targets in Lebanon, Syria, and Iran, possibly sparking counter-attacks against Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Gulf states.
As I mentioned above, bin Salman appears to have learned a critical political lesson from his Israeli ally: you need a foreign enemy in order to instil fear within your domestic constituency. You must build that enemy into a lurking, ominous force for evil in the universe.
That’s one of the reasons bin Salman is intervening in the Yemen civil war. Despite a Saudi massacre inducing mass starvation and a cholera epidemic, bin Salman has been able to invoke Muslim schisms in order to paint Iran as “the aggressor” and threat to Saudi interests.
More recently, he declared his neighbours in Qatar to be persona non grata for not siding fulsomely enough with the Saudis against Iran. With bin Salman, you are either with him or against him. There is no middle ground.
Fortunately, most of the rest of the human race seeks that middle ground.
Those who eschew the middle end up being dictators or madmen. That seems to be the direction in which the Saudi royal is headed.
In Lebanon, his strategy seems to be to provoke a political and financial crisis. Saudi Arabia provides a huge level of financial and commercial support to Lebanon.
Bin Salman seems to believe that if he withdraws such support, it will force the Lebanese to rein in Hezbollah. Though it’s not clear how the Lebanese are supposed to restrain a political movement that is one of the largest and most popular in the country.
The Saudi prince is trying the same strategy which so far failed with Qatar. There he declared a boycott. He strong-armed all the states which relied on him for largesse to declare a blockade. Borders were closed. Flights were cancelled. Trade was halted.
But instead of folding, the Qataris (with Iranian encouragement no doubt) have taken their case to the world and fought back. They show no signs of folding.
The entirety of this post originally appeared in Middle East Eye on 7 November 2017.