Middle East Ticker

Peace Talks Possible in Yemen, Trump Briefed on Khashoggi Murder, Netanyahu Averts Early Elections

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, November 20, 2018, 11:00 AM

Yemen Moves Toward Peace Talks, But Fighting Continues

The war in Yemen may be inching toward renewed peace talks, but a ceasefire remains elusive. A lull in fighting in the frontline city of Hodeidah, where forces backed by the Saudi and Emirati intervention are pressing into neighborhoods fortified by Houthi rebels and jeopardizing a vital aid lifeline, fell apart on Monday. Residents in the area reported that skirmishes resumed Monday evening between Houthi and pro-government ground forces, coalition planes carried out at least 10 airstrikes, and that Houthi forces had launched a missile from the city center at advancing troops.

The new clashes came after a series of statements from Houthi and Saudi officials that raised hopes for at least a temporary halt to the conflict. Earlier on Monday, Houthi officials said they would stop launching missiles and drone strikes over the Yemeni border at targets in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and that they were ready for a ceasefire if the coalition “wants peace.” Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has also signaled in recent days that he supports U.N. efforts to resume negotiations. Houthi officials declined to participate in international peace talks earlier this year, but U.N. Special Envoy Martin Griffiths says that now both sides have made credible commitments to rejoin talks.

The parties to the conflict have come under increasing pressure to wind down the war. The United States, which has supported the Saudi intervention despite strong criticism of Saudi Arabia’s indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets, called last month for the Houthis to halt their missile attacks and for Saudi forces to freeze their air campaign in order to facilitate negotiations. The Houthis and the coalition now appear to be moving in that direction, but implementation is faltering on the ground.

Trump Resists CIA Assessment that MBS Involved in Khashoggi’s Murder

Since Jamal Khashoggi disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul a month and a half ago, President Donald Trump has consistently gestured toward holding accountable the parties responsible while also avoiding implicating Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). Trump has stressed the importance of lucrative arms contracts with Saudi Arabia, and the crown prince has been an important part of the the administration’s regional strategy, including the development of its Israeli-Palestinian peace plan (MBS even reportedly summoned Mahmoud Abbas and tried to strongarm him into supporting the deal). But denying MBS’ involvement is becoming more and more difficult.

Last Friday, the Washington Post reported that the CIA has concluded with high confidence that MBS was involved in the operation to have Khashoggi killed. The CIA’s assessment was based on much of the evidence that the Turkish government had already shared with the United States and leaked to the press; that includes a grizzly audio recording of Khashoggi’s torture and murder that Trump said on Sunday he has refused to listen to because of the violence it contains. But the CIA also reviewed other intelligence, including a call to Khashoggi from Saudi Ambassador to the United States Khalid bin Salman, MBS’ brother, in which Khalid told Khashoggi he could retrieve the papers necessary for his remarriage at the Istanbul consulate and assured him of his safety. The Post’s sources say that the call to Khashoggi was made at the direction of MBS. (The Saudi government denies that such a call occurred.)

Asked about the report over the weekend, Trump said that the crown prince had repeatedly denied his involvement in conversations with him and that he was still reserving judgement about MBS’ role. Fox News host Chris Wallace pressed Trump on the issue in an interview that aired on Sunday:

WALLACE: But what if the crown prince speaking to you, the President of the United States, directly lied to you—

TRUMP: Yes, he told me that he had nothing to do with it, he told me that—I would say maybe five times at different points.

WALLACE: But what if he's lying?

TRUMP: As recently as a few days ago.

WALLACE: Do you just live with it because you need him?

TRUMP: Well, will anybody really know? All right, will anybody really know?
But he did have certainly people that were reasonably close to him and close to him that were probably involved. You saw we put on very heavy sanctions, massive sanctions on a large group of people from Saudi Arabia. But at the same time we do have an ally and I want to stick with an ally that in many ways has been very good.

The State Department issued a statement on Saturday that did not deny the CIA’s assessment but noted that it was “inaccurate” to suggest “that the U.S. government has made a final conclusion.” Trump has said that a “very full report” will be made on Tuesday. A senior administration official told the New York Times that it is unlikely the administration will take additional punitive measures beyond the visa cancellations and sanctions leveled at 17 Saudis allegedly involved in the operation to kill Khashoggi, most of whom have already been indicted by the Saudi government. Kirsten Fontenrose, a member of the National Security Council staff involved in the development of the sanctions, who the Times reports pushed for tougher measures, resigned quietly on Friday; the exact details about her departure are unclear.

Members of the U.S. Senate continue to take a harder line. Sen. Lindsey Graham said on Sunday that it was “impossible” for him to believe that MBS did not know about the operation to kill Khashoggi. He went on to call the crown prince “irrational” and “unhinged,” and reiterated a previous warning that his continued rule would make U.S.-Saudi relations problematic. European countries also took additional actions: 18 Saudis allegedly involved in the plot have been banned from entering Europe’s Schengen Zone, and Germany announced Monday that, in addition to freezing potential new arms sales with Saudi Arabia, it would also halt previously approved arms deals.

The Saudi government has consistently maintained that the operation was carried out without MBS’ knowledge. The most thorough denial to date is a new report issued by the Saudi public prosecutor last Thursday, which concluded that the operation was intended to forcibly return Khashoggi to Saudi Arabia an that the decision to kill him was made on the spot; the story, one of several versions that have been proposed by Saudi officials in recent weeks, does not account for why a forensic specialist carrying tools to dismember a body was included on the team sent to Istanbul. In a speech on Monday, King Salman stressed that justice was a founding principle of the kingdom, but did not address Khashoggi’s murder or the indictments directly. Many analysts and members of the royal family believe that the king will protect MBS, his chosen successor, despite the political firestorm. But that may only last as long as King Salman remains alive and in power. Reuters reports that there is a movement among members of the royal family to replace MBS in the line of succession with the king’s brother, Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, when Salman dies.

Netanyahu Staves Off Early Elections with Weakened Coalition

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has held on to his narrow majority in the Knesset by convincing Naftali Bennett and his Jewish Home party to remain in his coalition. Netanyahu was threatened with early elections last week when his defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, announced he would resign to protest reestablishing a ceasefire with Hamas after two days of clashes along the Israel-Gaza border. The withdrawal of Liberman’s Israel Beitenu party left Netanyahu’s coalition with a narrow one-seat majority in the Knesset; with Bennett threatening to leave as well, opposition parties could have forced early elections to oust Netanyahu.

Bennett, currently acting as the education minister, had reportedly requested the defense minister’s seat, vacated by Lieberman, in exchange for remaining in the coalition, but on Monday he said he was remaining in the government without any preconditions. In the past week, Netanyahu has stressed that elections would be “irresponsible” at the moment, citing security concerns. "In such a period you don't topple a government. In such a period you don't go to elections," he said recently. "If the prime minister is serious in his intentions, and I want to believe his words from last night, I am saying here to the prime minister we are removing at this moment all of our political demands and will help you in the huge mission of making Israel win again," Bennett said on Monday.

Netanyahu has staved off the most immediate threat to his office, at least for now, but will be in a weaker position going forward. With any party able to scuttle the coalition, their demands will carry more weight. "We don't know if the coalition is actually going to hold,” Emmanuel Navon, a member of the Likud Party’s central committee, told the Wall Street Journal. “Nobody can travel abroad, nobody can be sick, nobody can go to the bathroom when there's a vote in the Knesset … Any schmuck in the coalition can blackmail him with whatever reason, it's really hard to handle."

Netanyahu’s efforts to reach a ceasefire with Hamas, and now rebuild that truce, have been unpopular in Israel and opened him to criticism from the right from rivals within his government like Bennett and the recently-departed Lieberman. And the prime minister remains vulnerable to other threats. Israel’s attorney general is still deliberating on whether the prime minister will be indicted in relation to any of the corruption investigations that have dogged him over the past two years and is expected to reach a decision early next year. Even without early elections, Netanyahu will still have to face the ballot box in just a year’s time.

Trump administration officials told the Journal this week that Netanyahu’s increasingly tenuous position may delay the administration’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan. That plan has been in the works for more than a year, but the plan has been set back by (among other issues) the political fallout from the Trump administration’s decision to unilaterally move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, which rattled the United States’ Arab partners. “The team charged with the peace negotiations doesn't want to add a possible trip wire for Mr. Netanyahu into the run-up to elections and could hold off on putting the proposals forward,” the Journal reports.