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Bin Salman seeks US approval by sucking up to Israel

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By Abdel Bari Atwan

A close reading of Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin-Salman’s lengthy interview with The Atlanticleaves the impression that it is the most important and significant he has yet given  — not just because of the new attitudes and information it revealed, but also in terms of the concrete steps the young prince may take once he returns from his current three-week tour of the United States.

The prince was not addressing the Saudi people in this interview, but decision-makers, legislators and the deep state in the US. He was presenting himself, his outlook and his future policies to them as a reliable and dependable ally, in anticipation of a ‘green light’ for his imminent assumption of the Saudi throne — which could happen just days or weeks after he gets back from this trip.

Bin-Salman clearly chose his words carefully. He knew what he wanted to say and what he should avoid talking about, and who his target audience was. He sought to present his credentials to the supreme ally by outlining his political, social and economic plans, and he is likely to have achieved considerable success in this regard– at least with President Donald Trump’s White House and the ‘war cabinet’ he is currently putting in place.

Several conclusions can be drawn from the questions and answers that featured in the carefully scripted interview, and from reading between their lines, as well as from interviewer Jeffrey Goldberg’s introduction.

      Bin-Salman concurred, for the first time in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, that Jews have the right to establish a state in “part of their ancestral homeland.” Dennis Ross, the former Israel lobbyist who handled Arab-Israeli negotiations under successive US administrations, enthused that this recognition was unprecedented. Previously, he noted, ‘moderate’ Arab governments had recognized Israel’s existence as a fait accompli, but none had gone so far as to cross this red line.

      Throughout the interview, as Goldberg reported, Bin-Salman “did not have a bad word to say” about Israel, and made no mention of its annexation of occupied Jerusalem as its capital – indeed he praised it and its economic accomplishments. Nor did he make any reference to a Palestinian state or to Jerusalem as its capital. He sufficed with expressing his belief that “the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to their own land.”

      He divided the Middle East into two camps (exactly as former al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin-Laden used to do, albeit using different terminology). First, there is the “triangle of evil” comprising Iran and Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood, and sundry terrorist groups; pitted against a moderate camp including Jordan, Egypt, the UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and Yemen alongside Saudi Arabia. It was striking that he did not include Morocco or other North Africa countries on this list.

      The Saudi crown prince acknowledged that his country had historically used the Muslim Brotherhood as a tool to combat communism, which he claimed had threatened the US, Europe and Saudi Arabia itself during the Cold War. In this context he cast former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime as ‘communist’.

      He categorically denied the existence of ‘Wahhabism’ in Saudi Arabia, insisting that there were only the four mainstream Sunni schools of theology, and that there was no discrimination between Sunnis and Shia in the kingdom.

      He denied that Saudi Arabia had ever funded terrorist or extremist groups, conceding only that some Saudi individuals – who he did not identify – may have backed them.

       He categorically refused to answer questions about his supposed anti-corruption campaign. Goldberg admitted that he did not even ask about the subject, because when he was questioned about buying a $500 million yacht and other purchases in an earlier interview with CBS, he had angrily replied that he wanted to keep his personal affairs private.

      Finally, Bin-Salman launched a particularly ferocious attack on Iranian leader Ali Khamenei, describing him as worse than Hitler, because Hitler had only wanted to conquer Europe whereas Khamenei wants to conquer the entire world.  He must therefore be stopped and not appeased as the Europeans appeased Hitler before they realised how terrible he was.

From these and other remarks made by the Saudi crown prince, it can be concluded that he is planning for a future alliance with Israel as part of a ‘moderate’ Arab axis that confronts Iran with US backing, and also to adopt Israel as an economic partner and strengthen mutual interests with it. He seemed to make this contingent on a just regional peace settlement. But he made no mention of the Arab peace plan and its provisions, even though it was originally authored by Saudi Arabia itself.

To recognize an “ancestral” Jewish right to Palestine is a very serious development. King Salman hastened to ‘correct’ the impression given by his son by calling Trump to reaffirm Saudi Arabia’s commitment to a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. But the damage had already been done… and the real ruler in Riyadh is Prince Muhammad.

He is navigating a minefield. It may be worth reminding him that every Arab ruler who banked on Israel in the past came to regret it. There is still time to rethink.