Israel worried about Saudi deal with Iran, stir in Middle East

JERUSALEM (AP) — News of a rapprochement between longtime regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran sent shockwaves through the Middle East on Saturday and dealt a symbolic blow to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has rebuffed threats made public by Tehran. made public. Diplomatic priority and personal crusade.

The breakthrough – the culmination of more than a year of talks in Baghdad and more recent talks in China – also became mired in Israel’s internal politics, reflecting the country’s divisions at a moment of national turmoil.

The agreement, which gives Iran and Saudi Arabia two months to reopen their respective embassies and re-establish ties after a seven-year break, marked one of the most significant changes in Middle Eastern diplomacy in recent years. represents. In countries such as Yemen and Syria, which have long been torn between a Sunni kingdom and a Shia powerhouse, the announcement sparked cautious optimism.

In Israel, this caused dismay – along with finger-pointing.

One of Netanyahu’s biggest foreign policy triumphs remains Israel’s US-brokered normalization deal in 2020 with four Arab states, including Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates – a broader push to isolate and antagonize Iran in the region Part of.

He has portrayed himself as the only politician capable of defending Israel from Tehran’s rapidly expanding nuclear program and regional proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Israel and Iran have also waged a regional shadow war, which has led to suspected Iranian drone attacks on Israeli-linked ships carrying cargo in the Persian Gulf, among other attacks.

A normalization deal with Saudi Arabia, the most powerful and wealthiest Arab state, would fulfill Netanyahu’s prized goal, reshaping the region and boosting Israel’s status in historic ways. Even though ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia have grown through the backdoor, the kingdom has said it will not officially recognize Israel until the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved.

Since returning to office late last year, Netanyahu and his allies have hinted that an agreement with the state could be reached. In a speech to American Jewish leaders last month, Netanyahu described a peace deal as “a goal that we are working on in parallel with the goal of stopping Iran.”

But experts say Friday’s deal dashes those ambitions. Saudi Arabia’s decision to align with its regional rival has left Israel largely alone as it leads to diplomatic isolation of Iran and the threat of a unilateral military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. The UAE also resumed formal ties with Iran last year.

“This is a blow to Israel’s perception and efforts in recent years to try to build an anti-Iran bloc in the region,” said Yoel Guzansky, a Persian Gulf expert at Israel’s think tank Institute for National Security Studies. “If you view the Middle East as a zero-sum game, which Israel and Iran do, then a diplomatic victory for Iran is very bad news for Israel.”

Even Danny Danon, an ally of Netanyahu and former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, who recently predicted a peace deal with Saudi Arabia in 2023, seemed dismayed.

“It is not supporting our efforts,” he said, when asked whether reconciliation harms Israel’s chances for state recognition.

In Yemen, where the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran has produced some of the most devastating results, both warring sides were guarded but hopeful.

A Saudi Arabia-led military coalition intervened in Yemen’s conflict in 2015, months after Iran-backed Houthi militias seized the capital of Sanaa in 2014, forcing the internationally recognized government into exile in Saudi Arabia It was lying

The Houthi rebels welcomed the deal as a modest but positive step.

Houthi spokesman and chief negotiator Mohammad Abdulsalam said, “The region needs a return to normal relations between its countries, through which the Islamic society can regain the security it has lost from foreign interference.”

The Saudi-backed Yemeni government expressed some optimism – and warnings.

“The position of the Yemeni government depends on actions and practices and not on words and claims,” ​​it said, adding it would have to proceed with caution until “a real change in (Iranian) behavior is seen.”

Analysts did not expect an immediate resolution to the conflict, but said direct talks and improved ties could build momentum for a separate accord that could offer both countries an exit from the devastating war.

“The ball is now in the court of Yemeni domestic warring parties to prioritize Yemen’s national interest in reaching a peace agreement and be inspired by this initial positive step,” said Afrah Nasser, a non-resident fellow at the Washington-based Arab Center. ,

Anna Jacobs, senior Gulf analyst at the International Crisis Group, said she believed the deal was linked to de-escalation in Yemen.

“Imagine a Saudi-Iran agreement to resume diplomatic relations and reopen embassies within a two-month period without certain assurances from Iran to more seriously support conflict resolution efforts in Yemen,” he said. It’s hard to do.”

War-torn Syria equally welcomed the agreement as a step towards reducing the tensions fueled by the country’s conflict. Iran has been a main supporter of the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, while Saudi Arabia has backed opposition fighters trying to oust him.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry described it as an “important step that will strengthen security and stability in the region.”

In Israel, deeply divided and gripped by mass protests over plans by Netanyahu’s far-right government to overhaul the judiciary, politicians have used the conflict between the state and Israel’s archenemy as an opportunity to criticize Netanyahu. Thackeray seized on him, accusing him of focusing on his personal agenda. The cost of Israel’s international relations.

Former prime minister and head of Israel’s opposition, Yair Lapid, described the agreement between Riyadh and Tehran as “a complete and dangerous failure of the Israeli government’s foreign policy”.

“This is what happens when you deal with legal insanity all day instead of working with Iran and strengthening relations with the US,” he wrote on Twitter. Even Yuli Edelstein of Netanyahu’s Likud party blamed Israel’s “power struggle and head-butting” to distract the country from its more pressing threats.

Another opposition lawmaker, Gideon Saar, scoffed at Netanyahu’s goal of formal ties with the state. He wrote on social media, ‘Netanyahu promised peace with Saudi Arabia.’ “Finally (Saudi Arabia) did it … with Iran.”

Netanyahu, on an official visit to Italy, declined a request for comment and has not issued a statement on the matter. But Israeli media quotes by an unnamed senior official in the delegation sought to pin the blame on the previous government, which ruled for a year and a half before Netanyahu returned to office. According to the Haaretz daily, the senior official said, “It happened because of the perception that Israel and the US were weak,” alluding to Netanyahu being authoritative.

Despite the fallout to Netanyahu’s reputation, experts were skeptical that easing tensions would hurt Israel. Guzansky said Saudi Arabia and Iran would remain regional rivals even if they open embassies in each other’s capitals. And like the UAE, Saudi Arabia could deepen ties with Israel while maintaining transactional ties with Iran.

“The Saudis’ low-key arrangement with Israel will continue,” said Omar Karim, an expert on Saudi politics at the University of Birmingham, noting that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank remained more of an obstacle to Saudi recognition than differences. over Iran. “The Saudi leadership is engaging in more ways than one to secure its national security.”


Magee reported from Cairo. Associated Press writers Bassem Mourey in Beirut and Albert Aji contributed to this report in Damascus, Syria.

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