Over the last fortnight, Saudi crown prince Salman has conducted a purge or power grab, under the guise of an anti-corruption drive, concentrating all power in his hands. With a carefully orchestrated PR campaign featuring “liberal” reforms, such as allowing Saudi women to drive in the near future and a reduction in the powers and role of the religious police, Salman seeks to project a new, acceptable face for the desert kingdom.
A new flagship Prince Salman project is the scheme to build a $500 billion Red Sea metropolis, Neom, which will extend across the kingdom’s borders into neighbouring Jordan and even across the straits of Tiran into the southern tip of Egyptian Sinai, a western Arabian version of Dubai. This seems like a major project with the capacity to enrich the moderate pro-western Arab states which are relatively benign towards Israel.
So what’s there for us to worry about? Well this.
Last week, Saad Hariri, the premier of Lebanon was summoned to an urgent meeting with the Crown Prince’s father, King Salman, in Riyadh. As soon as his plane touched down, he was placed in a kind of house arrest and had his phones removed by Prince Salman’s agents. He later made a broadcast on the Saudi controlled Arabiya TV channel, reading a prepared script in which he resigned his premiership of Lebanon on the grounds that he was likely to be assassinated by Hezbollah.
He was in effect “resigned”. He is in effect a Saudi hostage; he was allowed to briefly visit the Saudi dominated UAE, albeit on a very tight choke-lead. He is not allowed go home, even if he dared. His fate echoes that of leaders in USSR’s satellite states summoned to Moscow – often a terminal event.
Immediately and on cue, the Israeli foreign ministry secretly cabled all its ambassadors worldwide to urgently contact the “highest officials” in their host country to “ramp up” the pressure against Iran and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, claiming that Tehran was engaging in “regional subversion” and calling for the expulsion of Hezbollah from Lebanese coalition and politics.
Some worried, moderate Israeli officials saw in this a plot to destabilise Lebanon and perhaps to trigger a civil war there to allow Netanyahu’s Israeli forces to become involved. They were alarmed by his recent claims that Iran will move aerial forces, naval forces (including submarines) and Iranian armed “divisions” into Lebanon. Heady stuff - but blatantly untrue.
And so they leaked the secret cable to Channel 10, an Israeli TV channel – much to the outrage and embarrassment of Netanyahu and his hawkish ministers.
All this was so obviously orchestrated that even former Obama US ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, felt obliged to write an article in Haaretz on Thursday warning against Israel being sucked into a war provoked by Prince Salman’s attempt to break up the Lebanese government.
Shapiro admitted that Israel and Saudi Arabia are “fully aligned in this regional struggle” and that war with Hezbollah in Lebanon was a real possibility. But he warned Israelis to take care not to find themselves backed into a premature confrontation by the manoeuvers “of their allies who sit in Riyadh”. So this Israeli-Saudi alliance is an open secret even if they have no formal diplomatic relations.
Not since the British and French contrived with Israel to trigger the Suez war in 1956 has there been such a blatant attempt to kindle a crisis using diplomatic deception to create tension and a plausible pretext for war.
Netanyahu has long been trying to suck Trump into military action against Iran without success. Trump has made bellicose noises but the EU and the Russians will not hear of it.
But a small war in Lebanon would suit his purpose. It might check Tehran’s influence in Lebanon if a civil war erupted in which Israel could use its forces to assist a Sunni victory over the Shia, Christian and Druze minorities. Such a scenario would help Netanyahu to pose as the man of action willing to stand in the gap.
Also summoned to Riyadh last week was Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Prince Salman wants to recruit him to a grand alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia against Iran and the Shia. Abbas however made clear that he wants recognition of the Palestinian state.
The Saudis plan to suck Abbas into a deal that confronts Iran, Assad, Iraq, and Hezbollah now - while agreeing to enter some form of peace process that might deliver recognition for Palestine later. That is the grand plan of Trump, Jared Kushner and Prince Salman. It involves ditching or co-opting Hamas
As part of the process of softening up world, and more specifically US opinion, for armed intervention in Lebanon, Israel has been complaining to the US about the UNIFIL force in South Lebanon which is under the overall command of Irishman, Major-General Mike Beary, and includes an Irish contingent, alleging that the UN force is turning a blind eye to Hezbollah infiltration of the area.
Trump’s newly appointed hawkish ambassador to the UN, Nikki Hayley, a former Republican governor of South Carolina, was in June meeting Maj Gen Beary about the UNIFIL mandate when a senior Israeli officer, Maj Gen Aviv Kochavi, interrupted Beary alleging that UNIFIL was failing to contain Hezbollah in the UNIFIL zone and demanding that UNIFIL now be mandated to confront and disarm Hezbollah.
By August, Ms Haley was dishonestly accusing Maj Gen Beary personally of being “blind” to Hezbollah activity and of having a “baffling” lack of understanding on the matter and accusing UNIFIL of giving Hezbollah a “free pass” in the territory.
That the French government and UN Sec Gen Antonio Guterres fully backed up Maj Gen Beary made no impression on Ms Haley. She insulted and demeaned the Irish general and the UNIFIL mission simply because that plays well with the White House, with the Israelis and with the folks back home in South Carolina
Strident criticism of UNIFIL and of the Irish contingent is nothing new. I witnessed at first hand a similar bad-tempered, arrogant tirade from an Israeli brigadier general at an IDF briefing of Irish TDs on the shores of Lake Galilee more than twenty years ago.
But Israeli sources now anonymously demand withdrawal of UNIFIL to give them a clear line of intervention into Lebanon, saying “we no longer need this force here any longer” (sic). The confrontation with Maj Gen Beary in front of Ms Hayley, it turns out, was carefully pre-planned. An anonymous IDF source later told Al-Monitor columnist Ben Caspit that they had a “terrible crisis with UNIFIL” which causes “more harm than good” and that the UNIFIL battalions should “vacate the premises.”
We have got to see the big risks in current developments. Israel is quite capable of smashing its way through UNIFIL in pursuit of the American-Israeli–Saudi grand plan against Iran.Irish soldiers’ lives are at risk here too.
Let’s just hope Trump does not end up offering sympathy to Irish families bereaved by Israeli war-making. That would be so sincere.