“The resumption of relations between the Saudis and Iran is a serious and dangerous development for Israel, and represents a diplomatic victory for Iran. It is a decisive blow to efforts to build a regional coalition against Iran,” former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett tweeted after news of the deal broke. The Saudi-Iran rapprochement is a failure of Israeli efforts to build a Middle East coalition with the Sunni governments to oppose Iran’s hegemonic designs.
Even lawmakers from the ruling Likud party have been cautiously critical of the development. “The agreement is very bad for Israel and the entire free world,” said Likud MK and head of the Knesset Foreign Relations and Defense Committee Yuli Edelstein. “It’s time to sit down and resolve the disputes between us to unite again against the existential threat.” No comment was heard from Benjamin Netanyahu, who was on a trip to Italy over the weekend. This deal took Israel by surprise, as Netanyahu had spoken as recently as a few days ago of his hopes for normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia.
Countries around the world and in the region see a divided Israel with a dysfunctional government heading toward self-destruction. And that’s why these countries, which are otherwise at odds themselves, have opted for a new approach. In recent weeks we have shown several times how the Arab media reports on the split in the Jewish state. Israel’s enemies have said publicly that Israel has hit rock bottom, and this presents an opportunity for the Arab world. The renewed relations between the Shiites in Tehran and the Sunnis in Riyadh signal a possible new epoch in the Middle East. What brought Israel and the Sunni governments closer was Iran’s nuclear program, which also posed a threat to the Sunni people.
The new understanding between Riyadh and Tehran could severely hamper efforts to expand the Abraham Accords, a goal set by Netanyahu upon his return to office. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has apparently realized that Israel currently has no reliable military option against Iran’s nuclear program, and has decided to reconcile with the Islamic Republic. A dramatic move that is seen primarily as an expression of mistrust of the American leadership, but also a Saudi statement against the vision of Netanyahu, who had promised to isolate Iran.
As recently as Friday morning, Netanyahu mentioned his vision of normalizing relations between the two countries with a railway line from Saudi Arabia to Haifa. “My goal is to achieve normalization and peace with Saudi Arabia. The railway will connect Saudi Arabia and the Arabian Peninsula to the port of Haifa via Jordan. All that needs to be added is 200 kilometers of railways, as well as a direct oil pipeline from the Arabian Peninsula to the Mediterranean,” Netanyahu said in Rome. “In this way we can make the energy supply that Europe needs much more efficient and do without the Suez Canal. I think those are real possibilities.”
For Netanyahu and his efforts, the weekend’s news was like a punch in the gut. Israel viewed Saudi Arabia as solidly in its camp in opposing Iran, and this was the foundation of closed-door relations between Jerusalem and Riyadh in recent years. Riyadh had an ally in Jerusalem that could take on Iran directly in an emergency situation. And based on this relations between the two countries had been warming considerably of late. Now it looks like Israel is ready to implode. Had the present situation occurred under any other prime minister, Netanyahu would have criticized them in the strongest possible terms.
And of course that’s what his opponents, like former Prime Minister Yair Lapid, are doing now. He also described the Iran-Saudi deal as a complete failure for Israel, calling it “a collapse of our regional defense walls that we have built against Iran. That’s what happens when you focus on judicial madness instead of doing the work against Iran and strengthening ties with the US.”
“The Netanyahu government is a terrible economic, diplomatic and security failure, and every day it carries on it endangers the State of Israel. We need a comprehensive national emergency government,” Bennett added.
The Chinese-brokered renewal of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia comes seven years after the two countries severed ties. Riyadh took that dramatic step in 2016 after Iranian protesters attacked Saudi diplomatic missions in Tehran in response to Saudi Arabia’s execution of revered Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr.
Cairo praised the renewal of relations: “Egypt is following the agreement with interest and expects that it will help to reduce the level of tension in the region and stabilize security.” Jordan and Bahrain also welcomed the new understanding between Iran and Saudi Arabia and hope for a more stable Middle East. Bahrain further commended China for its mediation, and expressed hope that the deal is a positive step towards ending regional differences and conflicts through diplomatic channels. Of course, Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon are also happy because this will benefit all peoples in the region. “This unites Islam against Israel’s occupation of Palestine,” Hamas said.
But there are also other opinions. “We need to understand why it happened and when. It started about a year ago, in a round of meetings between Riyadh and Tehran,” a senior security source told the Maariv newspaper, adding: “The Saudis have felt that the West’s position toward Iran is weak. The rapprochement happened at that time. Even if the West’s position has changed since then, that was not enough. You have to understand that the stronger the Western position on Iran, the less Riyadh needs relations with Tehran.”
The same source also thinks it won’t complicate further deals under the Abraham Accords. For years we have emphasized that the West misinterprets the Middle East and here we probably have another example. “The more the Saudis recognize determination, the more it will result in Saudi behavior that Jerusalem can be content with,” the source added.
But Washington needs to be worried about much more than just how this impacts Israel, according to security expert Ron Ben Ishai. The signing under Chinese auspices represents a defiant reaction to the US and its status in the Middle East. It is a strategic diplomatic and economic achievement by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Washington is becoming irrelevant and China is becoming increasingly powerful. Already during the presidencies of Barack Obama and Donald Trump, China was becoming a competitor and the real arch-nemesis of the USA in areas such as the economy, the military and also the status of the leading power in global competition, as is now the case in the Middle East.
Over the weekend, voices were raised around Israel’s prime minister who blamed the previous government of Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid for the Sunni-Shia alliance. “It all started when Netanyahu was in opposition,” an official said at a closed news conference in Rome. “It started at the time of Bennett and Lapid because there was a sense of American and Israeli weakness. Western and Israeli weakness led to rapprochement between Tehran and Riyadh.”
But the evening before his departure for Rome, Netanyahu gave an interview in English to a Washington-based Iranian radio station, which was also translated into Persian and broadcast in Iran. “A terrible nuclear war will erupt unless the world prevents Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu warned in his first address to the Iranian people. “If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, we will all face this problem. It will change the world.” We shall see in the near future how the new Shiite-Sunni covenant will affect a divided Israel. Perhaps we too must finally learn from our enemies and urgently unite.
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