Khashoggi's Death Shakes Trump Goals for Middle East Peace

A U.S. official familiar with the peace effort said the team remains committed to its plan and does not expect the crisis surrounding the Khashoggi killing to affect it

In recent months, the Trump administration has repeatedly put off the release of its long-awaited Mideast peace plan. Now, the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi agents may put the plan into a deep freeze.

Saudi Arabia's powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, was meant to be the linchpin of the plan, providing key diplomatic cover to both Israelis and Palestinians. But with the Saudi prince's credibility facing serious questions following Khashoggi's death, President Donald Trump may soon have to rethink his Mideast strategy.

"It definitely complicates their plans to release their proposal, if indeed they have one," said Dan Shapiro, who served as President Barack Obama's ambassador to Israel.

Trump took office promising a new approach to peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians.

Criticizing decades of failure by his predecessors, he named a Mideast team headed by his son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner. The team has deep ties to Israel and the West Bank settler movement.

The Trump administration notably refused to endorse the establishment of a Palestinian state, distancing itself from the two-state solution favored by the international community for more than two decades.

Instead, Kushner's team turned to the Saudis, hoping that the kingdom's deep pockets and prestige in the Arab world could somehow help bring the Israelis and Palestinians together.

Kushner struck up a special relationship with the crown prince, portraying him as a swashbuckling force, a leader who could help modernize a troubled region. Last year, Kushner paid a secret visit to Saudi Arabia to discuss his strategy for Israel and the Palestinians.

But long before the current crisis over Khashoggi's death, the peace plan ran into in trouble.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was invited to Saudi Arabia twice last year to talk to Prince Mohammed about the emerging American proposal.

Palestinian officials say that in briefings with the Saudis, Abbas raised objections after concluding the plan would fall far short of his goal of establishing an independent state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.

Aides say Abbas believes the Americans want to keep him quiet by attracting large sums of money from Gulf Arab investors to develop the Palestinian economy. With the Palestinian front quiet, the United States could then proceed with the broader aim of creating an Israeli-Saudi alliance to serve as a regional counterweight to Iran.

In the meantime, his relations with the Americans have deteriorated. Abbas severed ties with the White House after the U.S. recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital last December and then moved its embassy to the holy city. Relations worsened as the U.S. cut hundreds of millions of dollars of direct and indirect aid to the Palestinians.

Amid this backdrop, Abbas has already said he will not accept the White House initiative, arguing that Trump is unfairly biased in favor of Israel.

At the same time, Prince Mohammed's credibility has taken a beating with a series of questionable decisions in recent months. He has pushed for an unsuccessful blockade of Qatar, led a bloody and unpopular war in neighboring Yemen and abruptly cut off ties with Canada after its foreign minister criticized Saudi Arabia.

Although the prince has not been directly implicated in the death of Khashoggi at a Saudi Consulate in Turkey, the slaying has raised further questions about his suitability to lead.

A U.S. official familiar with the peace effort said the team remains committed to its plan and does not expect the crisis surrounding the Khashoggi killing to affect it.

The official added, however, that the team has not yet discussed the matter since the Saudis confirmed Khashoggi's death over the weekend, and plans a discussion in the coming days. He said it remains unclear when the proposal will be made public. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue with the media.

Israel and the Palestinians, wary of antagonizing the Saudis, also have said little about Khashoggi's killing. Israel has not commented, though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week boasted in speeches about improved behind-the-scenes ties with moderate Arab countries, an apparent reference to Saudi Arabia. Abbas, meanwhile, expressed his "absolute confidence" in the Saudis last week.

Shapiro, the former U.S. ambassador, said that even if Trump agrees to work with the Saudis, the weakened Prince Mohammed is not in a position to "break taboos" and push the Palestinians into making concessions that are unpopular in the Arab world.

And on the international stage, he said other actors, including the U.S. Congress and the Europeans, will have deep misgivings about engaging with the crown prince, who is known by his initials MBS.

"That Saudi partner needs to be predictable, needs to be reliable, needs to be responsible. What this incident tells us is that that's not the Saudi partner we have right now," he said. "None of them are likely to sit with MBS anytime soon to strategize on regional matters and he will be seen as a pariah."

Mkhaimer Abusada, a Palestinian analyst, said he thinks the Khashoggi killing will have a "huge effect" on the crown prince's own behavior as well.

"I think from now on, he is going to count his steps carefully and stop being that impulsive," he said. "The Palestinians will reject the U.S. peace plan when it's officially on the table and MBS will not be in any good position to wield any pressure on the Palestinians to accept it."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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