Trump’s Quiet Meeting with Saudi Arabia and Israel Portends a Dangerous Collision Course with Iran

An under-the radar gathering at the White House exposes troubling new drifts in U.S. foreign policy.

Phyllis Bennis

President Donald Trump walks with the Saudi Arabia's Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Tuesday, March 14, 2017, along the Colonnade outside the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

This arti­cle was pro­duced in part­ner­ship with For­eign Pol­i­cy In Focus.

With these people running U.S. foreign policy, any moves by Washington to encourage the Israeli and Gulf Arab governments to join forces against Iran becomes even more dangerous.

It was a lot to take in, even in these whip­sawed media moments.

In one 24-hour news cycle, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump fired Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son, appoint­ed the war and tor­ture-back­ing CIA chief Mike Pom­peo to replace him, and then tapped Gina Haspel — who cov­ered up CIA tor­ture in Thai­land — to replace Pompeo.

While the media descend­ed on that cir­cus, many missed that the White House qui­et­ly con­vened high-lev­el rep­re­sen­ta­tives of 20 coun­tries osten­si­bly to brain­storm” about the cri­sis in Gaza, where Israel’s repeat­ed mil­i­tary incur­sions and block­ade have dev­as­tat­ed the ter­ri­to­ry’s infra­struc­ture, health and water systems.

The gath­er­ing, which took place on March 13, was less splashy than the Tiller­son-Pom­peo-Haspel saga. But it spoke vol­umes about dan­ger­ous new drifts in U.S. for­eign policy.

Look who’s in the room together

The Unit­ed States has long backed Israel’s siege of Gaza and defend­ed Tel Aviv’s suc­ces­sion of mil­i­tary assaults on the impov­er­ished, dense­ly pop­u­lat­ed ter­ri­to­ry of 2 million.

So the notion that Trump, whose uncrit­i­cal sup­port for the Israeli gov­ern­ment sur­pass­es that of any of his pre­de­ces­sors, is sud­den­ly con­cerned about mit­i­gat­ing the human­i­tar­i­an cat­a­stro­phe in Gaza seems pret­ty far-fetched. Espe­cial­ly when Israel, the coun­try most imme­di­ate­ly respon­si­ble for the destruc­tion of Gaza, was one of the nations play­ing a star­ring role in the White House gathering.

On the human­i­tar­i­an front, lit­tle came of the meet­ing. Offi­cial­ly, Reuters reports, the mul­ti-nation human­i­tar­i­an and recon­struc­tion effort remains in begin­ning stages.”

More sig­nif­i­cant than the out­come, how­ev­er, is the group­ing the meet­ing brought together.

The gath­er­ing fea­tured Euro­peans, Israelis, Egyp­tians and rep­re­sen­ta­tives of most of the Gulf Arab monar­chies — Sau­di Ara­bia, the UAE, Jor­dan, Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain — all sit­ting in the room togeth­er. Not includ­ed were Pales­tini­ans, who have been clear they won’t fol­low U.S. diplo­mat­ic lead­er­ship since Trump’s provoca­tive deci­sion to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.

Accord­ing to Reuters, unnamed offi­cials insist­ed that the for­mat did not allow for direct dis­cus­sions between Israel and the Arab states.” But that is like­ly not the end of the story.

It’s been clear for a long time that Israel and the Gulf monar­chies, led by Sau­di Ara­bia, are des­per­ate to cozy up to each oth­er. Both are U.S. allies and huge pur­chasers of U.S. arms. And both rely on U.S. diplo­mat­ic pro­tec­tion at the Unit­ed Nations to avoid account­abil­i­ty for their human rights violations. 

And most impor­tant­ly, at this moment, both sides are eager to join forces against Iran.

Sau­di Ara­bia and Iran have been bat­tling for region­al dom­i­nance for a long time. Their com­pe­ti­tion has stoked a bru­tal proxy con­flict in Syr­ia, and Sau­di Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has orches­trat­ed a dev­as­tat­ing attack on Yemen as a chal­lenge to Iran’s influ­ence there.

Mean­while, Israeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Netanyahu’s efforts to per­suade the Unit­ed States to aban­don the nuclear deal and attack Iran have served as a back­drop to Israel’s region­al pol­i­cy for years.

At a qui­et Wash­ing­ton meet­ing sup­pos­ed­ly dis­cussing some­thing quite unre­lat­ed, they were all sit­ting down togeth­er — ahead of Sau­di Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s own vis­it to Wash­ing­ton.

A dan­ger­ous region­al agenda

Despite years of Israeli and Sau­di pro­pa­gan­da, Iran isn’t actu­al­ly an exis­ten­tial threat to either Israel or to Sau­di Ara­bia. But Iran’s rise is def­i­nite­ly a chal­lenge to long-stand­ing Israeli and Sau­di efforts at region­al dominance.

The more dire region­al threat, how­ev­er, is that the Trump admin­is­tra­tion is show­ing every indi­ca­tion of want­i­ng to esca­late ten­sions with Iran. That’s exact­ly what will hap­pen if the Trump admin­is­tra­tion pulls out of the Iran nuclear deal, as Netanyahu con­tin­ues to urge, and as Sen­ate For­eign Rela­tions chair­man Bob Cork­er (R‑TN) recent­ly pre­dict­ed.

Trump’s appoint­ment of Mike Pom­peo, a lead­ing Iran hawk, to the post of Sec­re­tary of State increas­es this risk. Pom­peo has gone even beyond Trump him­self in crit­i­ciz­ing the Iran nuclear deal, a posi­tion that bodes very bad­ly for diplo­ma­cy under this poten­tial new diplo­mat-in-chief. So does the fact, as Peter Beinart wrote in The Atlantic that Pom­peo embraces anti-Mus­lim big­ots, and defames Mus­lims, with almost as much gus­to as Trump himself.”

As Sec­re­tary of State, it will be up to Pom­peo to inform the pres­i­dent whether or not Iran is com­ply­ing with its oblig­a­tions under the nuclear deal. The inter­na­tion­al agency charged with mon­i­tor­ing Iran says it is com­ply­ing. But Pom­peo, even before he became CIA direc­tor, was already tweet­ing that he was look­ing for­ward to rolling back” the dis­as­trous” nuclear deal.

Pales­tini­ans left out

With these peo­ple run­ning U.S. for­eign pol­i­cy, any moves by Wash­ing­ton to encour­age the Israeli and Gulf Arab gov­ern­ments to join forces against Iran becomes even more dangerous.

Tel Aviv and Riyadh are both eager for this front. What stands in their way is pop­u­lar out­rage at home.

In places like Sau­di Ara­bia, absolute mon­archs shed croc­o­dile tears about the plight of Pales­tini­ans while doing noth­ing to actu­al­ly end Israel’s oppres­sion of Pales­tini­ans. But thanks to wide­spread pop­u­lar sup­port for the Pales­tin­ian cause in the Arab world, Arab offi­cials are pret­ty much for­bid­den to pub­licly meet with Israelis.

Trump son-in-law Jared Kush­n­er and his BFF Prince Mohammed bin Salman are work­ing to change that. Get­ting Saud­is and oth­ers in the region accus­tomed to the idea of Israelis and Arab lead­ers sit­ting in a room togeth­er is a key com­po­nent of this strat­e­gy. That not-so-pub­lic meet­ing in the White House may have been just the beginning.

Once again, the Pales­tini­ans — and espe­cial­ly the peo­ple of Gaza — are being held hostage to the region­al and glob­al aspi­ra­tions of more pow­er­ful coun­tries. Instead of actu­al­ly address­ing the suf­fer­ing in Gaza, the Unit­ed States and its allies may have turned a con­fer­ence on human­i­tar­i­an assis­tance into a war room aimed at Iran,

Phyl­lis Ben­nis is a fel­low of the Insti­tute for Pol­i­cy Stud­ies. Her most recent book is the 2018 edi­tion of Under­stand­ing the Pales­tin­ian-Israeli Con­flict: A Primer.
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