As Bob Woodward recounts in his new book, “Fear,” the key American players in the astonishing alliance between the state of Israel and the kingdom of Saudi Arabia —which had hitherto been anything but friendly — were former Army colonel Derek Harvey and President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, both of whom displayed a prescience that eluded former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former national security advisor H.R. McMaster.
As Woodward notes, last February, Harvey, whom Woodward describes as “one of the premier fact-driven intelligence analysts in the U.S. government, ” was appointed director for the Middle East on the National Security Council staff. Harvey had a reputation for farsightedness; before the 9/11 terrorist attacks he wrote a paper asserting Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda network posed a strategic threat to the United States. He again proved his mettle by predicting the strength of the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan after the U.S. invaded.
Harvey informed Kushner that Hezbollah, the Iranian-supported terrorist organization in Lebanon, had mustered over 48,000 full-time military in Lebanon along with 150,000 rockets, as compared to 2006, when they had 4,500. At the same time, Iran was paying $1 billion a year to Hezbollah to pay its bills.
As Woodward writes, “Harvey argued there was potential for a catastrophic war, with immense humanitarian, economic and strategic consequences. An Iranian-Israeli conflict would draw in the United States and unhinge efforts to bring regional stability.” Woodward points out that Harvey was supported by DNI Dan Coats and CIA Director Mike Pompeo when the case was brought before President Trump, but Defense Secretary James Mattis, Tillerson and McMaster were less supportive.
In the summer, the Israeli ambassador to Washington and its national security advisor invited Harvey to come to Israel; Woodward writes that McMaster refused to give Harvey permission, but would not offer a reason for his refusal. Woodward continues, “In early July, Harvey arranged to meet with senior intelligence officials from Mossad, military intelligence, and representatives from the Israeli Air Force and Army. McMaster, angry with Harvey, would not let him move forward.”
Harvey then met with Kushner, who asked what Harvey thought of pushing for Trump to visit Riyadh as his first presidential trip. Harvey agreed it was a good idea, saying, “It fits perfectly with what we’re trying to do, to reaffirm our support for the Saudis, our strategic objectives in the region. Our position has deteriorated so much during the Obama years.”
Kushner informed Harvey he had inside intelligence that the key man in the Saudi hierarchy was the deputy crown prince, 31-year-old Mohammed bin Salman, the son of the Saudi king, known as MBS, who was the Saudi defense minister.
Woodward writes, “When McMaster learned of Kushner’s Saudi summit idea, he asked Harvey nervously, ‘Who’s pushing this? Where’s it coming from?’ … McMaster clearly disliked the out-of-channel approach but there was not much he could do about it.”
Woodward notes that the intelligence community said MBS was not the key; Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 57, known as MBN, was the key figure. They warned appealing to MBS could cause a rift in the Saudi hierarchy.
Woodward writes that Kushner envisioned a summit in the next two months. He describes what happened next:
In March, McMaster chaired a principals meeting on the possibility of a Saudi summit. “From my experience at Exxon,” said Secretary of State Tillerson, waving his hand dismissively, “the Saudis always talk a big game. You go through the dance with them on the negotiations. When it comes time to putting the signature on the page, you can’t get there.” Engagement with MBS should be taken with a grain of salt. The U.S. could work hard on a summit, and in the end have nothing. “It’s a bridge too far,” Mattis said. “We’re better off waiting until next year. A new administration should be more careful and prudent.” Secretary of Energy Rick Perry said there was too much to do in too short a time.
Kushner argued for the summit, saying, “I understand this is very ambitious. I understand the concerns. But I think we have a real opportunity here. We have to recognize it. I understand we have to be careful. We need to work this diligently, as if it’s going to happen. And if it looks like we can’t get there, we’ll have plenty of time to shift gears. But this is an opportunity that is there for the seizing.”
Woodward continues, “McMaster was still not enthusiastic. Because Kushner wants it, he told Harvey, we need to keep working it. But there’s not a lot of support for it. We’ll go through the motions, and then we’ll kill it at some point.”
On March 14, Kushner invited MBS to the United States and brought him to the White House to lunch with Trump. Woodward notes, “Tillerson and Mattis continued to express their doubts. This is too hard, too much work to do, too many questions about the contracts.” But Trump green-lit the summit, which occurred on May 20.
Woodward concludes that Kushner and Harvey proved correct:
Harvey believed the summit had reset the relationships in a dramatic way, a home run-sending a strategic message to Iran, the principal adversary. The Saudis, the Gulf Cooperation Council countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia) and Israel were united. The Obama approach of straddling was over. The next month Saudi king Salman, at age 81, appointed MBS, age 31, the new crown prince and next in line to lead the Kingdom perhaps for decades to come.