Netanyahu's new alliance with Saudi Arabia's crown prince might provide the military punch he needs to forge a successful series of attacks on regional enemies
Over the past 24 hours, the drumbeat of war in the Middle East has risen to a fever-pitch. Saudi Arabia has provoked both an internal domestic, and a foreign crisis to permit Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to realise his grandiose vision of the Saudi state.
Internally, Salman suddenly created an anti-corruption commission and within four hours it had ordered the arrest of some of the highest level royal princes in the kingdom, including at least four sitting ministers and the son of a former king.
The most well-known name on the list, and one of the world's richest men, was Alwaleed bin Talal.
Just a few hours earlier, after being summoned to Saudi Arabia for consultations, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri told a Saudi TV audience that he was quitting his job due to "death threats" against him. Why the prime minister of a country would resign in the capital of a foreign nation is inexplicable.
Coverage of Hariri's statement noted that he spoke haltingly into the camera and looked off-camera several times, indicating that the statement may have been written for him and that he may have delivered it under duress.
Given the strong-arm tactics used by bin Salman to both secure his own title as crown prince, and the subsequent arrest of scores of prominent Saudis deemed insufficiently loyal to him, it would not be at all out of character to summon the leader of a vassal state and offer an ultimatum: either resign or we will cut you off (literally).
Middle East Eye editor David Hearst agrees: "It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that when he left Lebanon, Hariri had no intention of resigning, that he himself did not know that he would resign and that this resignation had been forced on him by the Saudis."
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called Hariri "our prime minister" in his own address to the nation after the "resignation". This doesn't sound like a man who wanted Hariri out of power. Lebanon's president announced he would not accept Hariri's resignation till he returned in person to affirm it.
Further, Saudi Arabia announced that Hariri would not be returning to Lebanon due to the so-called threats on his life. Something doesn't smell right.
READ MORE ►
Both Hariri and his late father earned their wealth thanks to Saudi largess. They also owed their own leading role in Lebanese politics to Saudi patronage.
The assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005 came after threats levelled against him by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which partly explains lingering hostility between the Syrian regime and the Saudi royal family.
This hostility was likely a prime factor in Saudi Arabia becoming the principal financier of the Syrian armed opposition groups, including some of the most bloodthirsty militants affiliated with Islamic State (IS) and al Qaeda.
Saudi National Guard forces (REUTERS)
Bin Salman's new ally
After losing in Yemen and Syria, bin Salman appears willing to try yet a third time, turning Lebanon into a political football to even scores with foreign enemies. Unfortunately Hariri, like his father before him, is being squeezed to within an inch of his life. This time, by the Saudis instead of the Syrians.
The Saudi crown prince appears eager to ratchet up the conflict with Iran. Bin Salman, like his new ally, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, appears willing to exploit and manipulate hostility to a foreign enemy in order to bolster his own domestic stature.
Given that he's hellbent on establishing his own dominance in Saudi internal politics, such an enemy is very helpful in holding rivals at bay.
Israel has responded in kind. On Monday, the foreign ministry sent an urgent cable to all diplomats demanding that they mouth a pro-Saudi line regarding the Hariri resignation. Haaretz' diplomatic correspondent, Barak Ravid, tweeted the contents of the cable:
1 \ I published on channel 10 a cable sent to Israeli diplomats asking to lobby for Saudis\Hariri &against Hezbollah https://t.co/AbeLPC35GP
— Barak Ravid (@BarakRavid) November 6, 2017
This indicates that Israel and Saudi Arabia are developing the sort of "no-daylight" relationship that Israeli leaders used to tout with their American counterparts. Together with their combined military might and oil wealth, these two countries could pose a highly combustible commodity.
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.
READ MORE ►
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 sparkingy counter-attacks against Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Gulf states.
Netanyahu desperately needs a distraction. A war against Lebanon is just the ticket (REUTERS)
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.
READ MORE ►
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 Russia factor
It's unclear how the Saudis believes he will force a much larger and distant state like Lebanon to submit. He can turn off the spigots and declare a boycott. Indeed, Bahrain, one of the Saudi vassal states, directed its citizens to return from Lebanon and declared a travel ban like the Qatari ban which preceded it.
All this will only strengthen Hezbollah's hand. It will also serve as a tacit invitation to Iran to play a much larger role in Lebanon. When there is a vacuum, it will be filled.
There is an even larger power looming behind this all: Russia. The stalemate in Syria between the Saudi-funded rebels and Assad permitted Putin to intervene decisively and effect the eventual outcome of that conflict. If Putin perceives a similar Saudi strategy in Lebanon, I see little reason Iran and Russia might not team up in the same fashion to support their allies on the ground.
It's interesting to note that King Salman made the first ever visit by a Saudi royal to Moscow this past month and held talks with Vladimir Putin.
Wouldn't one like to know what they discussed? It certainly had to have involved Syria and Lebanon, since those are the two places in which Saudi interests either conflict, or potentially conflict with Russia's.
READ MORE ►
Perhaps the Saudi king warned Putin not to take advantage of chaos in Lebanon as he did in Syria. I doubt that Putin would be much intimidated given the Saudi failure in Syria.
Russia's future actions will be determined by how much Putin feels he has to gain if he were to side with Hezbollah and Iran in a future conflict in Lebanon.
It's important to remember that during the days of the Soviet Union, with the US a dominant force in the region, it supported most of the frontline Arab states in their conflict with Israel.
Putin is well-known for seeking to restore the former glory that was the Soviet empire. No doubt, it would please him no end to engineer a fully fledged Russian return to power and influence in the Middle East.
Military strategists in Riyadh and Tel Aviv
Israel is the elephant in the room here. It borders Lebanon and has fought two major wars there, along with a 20-year failed occupation of the south. Hezbollah is Israel's sworn enemy and Iran, the movement's largest backer, is also one of Israel's chief adversaries.
The Saudis have the financial wherewithal to support a protracted conflict in Lebanon (they also spent $1bn in support of Israel's sabotage campaign against Iran). They may be more than willing to bankroll another Israeli invasion.
Bin Salman, like his new ally Netanyahu, appears willing to exploit and manipulate hostility to a foreign enemy in order to bolster his own domestic stature
For their part, the Saudis may be willing to create yet another Lebanese government cobbled together by collaborators and bought-off politicians, while shutting Hezbollah out of political power.
Similarly, the history of Israeli intervention is filled with such sham political constructs. In the West Bank, they created the "village councils". In south Lebanon, they created the South Lebanese Army. And in Syria, they funded the al-Nusra rebels fighting the regime in the Golan Heights.
One can only hope that the military strategists in Riyadh and Tel Aviv aren't mad enough to contemplate such a scenario. But given the gruesome history of Lebanon, and its role as a sacrificial lamb in conflicts between greater powers, one cannot rule it out.
Finally, the US which had played a decisive role in preventing an Israeli attack on Iran for years, is now led by a president who's quite enamoured both of Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Trump's first foreign visit as leader of the country was to Saudi Arabia. His warm relations with Netanyahu and support for Israel's most extreme policies is also well-known. No one should expect this administration to restrain either the Saudis or Israelis. If, anything, they may goad them on.
- Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog, devoted to exposing the excesses of the Israeli national security state. His work has appeared in Haaretz, the Forward, the Seattle Times and the Los Angeles Times. He contributed to the essay collection devoted to the 2006 Lebanon war, A Time to Speak Out (Verso) and has another essay in the upcoming collection, Israel and Palestine: Alternate Perspectives on Statehood (Rowman & Littlefield).
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (Reuters)
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.