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The Sobering Significance of the Saudi-Iran Rapprochement

The Sobering Significance of the Saudi-Iran Rapprochement
At a certain point, even Netanyahu will have to recognize the harsh reality.
By Hugh Fitzgerald

At a certain point, one has to recognize reality. That includes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In Israel on March 11, 250,000 Israelis came out to protest the judicial overhaul that the new government has proposed. The total population of Israel is only nine million; at least 250,000 Israelis — and on other days other Israelis may have shown up to protest — constitute one-thirty-sixth of that population. In America an equivalent number of protesters would be ten million. Yet the Prime Minister continues to reject all pleas for a compromise; he seems to believe that if he just holds on, the listing ship of state will somehow right itself, even as the protests rage. He may think that those opposed to the judicial overhaul will, despite having turned out in such astonishing numbers, and having convincingly demonstrated that they represent what might be called the noisy majority, will simply decide to stop their protesting. He’s wrong. The sooner he persuades, or more likely threatens, his rightest coalition partners Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir into accepting a compromise, the faster the domestic wounds can heal.

Israel simply cannot afford more domestic conflict on this scale. The country has to deal with the murderers of such terror groups as Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, and the Lion’s Den. It has to worry about the 140,000 rockets and missiles that the terror group Hezbollah has stored in hideouts all over southern Lebanon, ready to be launched at Israel whenever Iran gives the go-ahead. It has to worry about Iran racing toward the finish line of being able to manufacture nuclear weapons. If it decides to do so, according to Western experts, Tehran can manufacture up to three bombs “within 12 days.” The IDF has not been left untouched. Hundreds of Israeli reservists have announced that they will not show up for training as long as “judicial reform” is still being considered. A total of 37 reserve pilots out of the 40 members of an elite Israel Air Force (IAF) unit announced that they will absent themselves from a scheduled training the first week in March in protest of the government’s judicial overhaul.

On March 6, all living former Israeli Air Force Commanders signed an urgent letter to the Prime Minister and Defense Minister. The ten retired Major-Generals, from Dan Tolkovsky (1953-1958) to Amikam Norkin (2017-2022), warned Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant that the “political and constitutional crisis” may develop into a “clear and present danger to Israel’s national security.” They asked Netanyahu “stop and find a solution.” When he comes back from Italy, he must at once start negotiations with the center parties that, in the past, had formed coalition governments with Netanyahu’s Likud. He has to distance himself from Ben Gvir and Smotrich and be prepared, in good faith, to compromise on judicial overhaul. The protests have now entered their tenth week. At this time of maximum peril, with Iranian threats to annihilate the Jewish state, and the possibility of Tehran being able to manufacture the weapons to do so, Israel cannot afford such violence and disunity.

Netanyahu has another reason for worry. For two years he has repeatedly held out the promise of Saudi Arabia joining the Abraham Accords. He has intimated that when this happens, it will have been the fruit of his personal connection to the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Now his claim has been undermined by the announcement that Saudi Arabia and Iran have agreed to resume the diplomatic relations that were ended seven years ago, when the Saudis executed a prominent Shi’a cleric, Nimr al-Nimr. “Iran-Saudi ties won’t hurt Israeli normalisation bid, official says,” Reuters, March 10, 2023:

Israel’s bid to normalize ties with Saudi Arabia will not be hurt by Riyadh’s rapprochement with arch-foe Iran, a senior Israeli official was quoted as saying on Friday.

There has been no official response from the Israeli government on the Chinese-brokered restoration of ties announced Friday.

The senior Israeli official was quoted by Israeli diplomatic journalists traveling with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Rome, as saying that the rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran began about a year ago and included reciprocal visits.

That “senior Israeli official” who was “traveling with Prime Minister Netanyahu” to Rome was, I am sure, none other than Netanyahu himself. After his years of predicting that Saudi Arabia was close to deciding to join the Abraham Accords and normalize relations with Israel, he now finds Saudi Arabia heralding closer ties not with Israel, but with Israel’s mortal enemy, Iran.

Netanyahu wanted to downplay for the reporters the significance of the event, assuring them that Israel had known that Saudi Arabia and Iran had been holding secret talks over the past year. And he refused to admit that his predictions about the Kingdom moving closer to Israel had been wrong. He lay the blame on the Bidenites, claiming that the Saudis had now responded to Iran because they had concluded that the West’s position towards Iran had weakened.

Nonetheless, it would not impact Israel’s bid to establish diplomatic ties with Riyadh, the official said.

Really? This rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran will have no bearing on whether the Saudis normalize ties with the Jewish state? That seems most unlikely. I’d call that whistling in the dark.

The determining factor for Israel was not the formal nature of Saudi-Iran ties but rather the West’s position toward Tehran, the official was quoted by public broadcaster Kan and Reshet 13 News as saying.

Netanyahu has said he wants full diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia, expanding on normalization deals reached with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain on 2020 under US brokership.

Israel and Sunni Muslim Gulf monarchies share concern over Shi’ite Iran’s nuclear and missile programs and its proxy network. But while Saudi Arabia blessed the UAE and Bahrain pacts, it has stopped short of formally recognizing Israel in the absence of a resolution to Palestinian statehood goals.

Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid called the restoration of ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran an “utter and dangerous failure of the Israeli government’s foreign policy.”

Lapid is right in one important sense. Netanyahu allowed Israeli hopes to soar too high, by his constant suggestions about Saudi Arabia joining the Abraham Accords. But Netanyahu is not wrong to claim that the West’s “weakening” stance toward Iran led the Saudis to hedge their bets – just in case Iran becomes a nuclear power – by agreeing to improve ties with Iran. It remains to be seen just how this renewal of Saudi-Iranian ties affects the behavior of both in Yemen. Will the Saudis stop bombing Houthi forces? Or will Iran stop sending aid to the Houthis? It’s hard to see what an end to the country’s long civil war would look like.

After beating centrist Lapid in a Nov. 1 election, Netanyahu returned to power in December at the head of a hard-right government. Lapid had briefly headed a ruling coalition that ousted Netanyahu in a previous election.

Whistling in the dark, Netanyahu downplays the significance of the Saudi-Iran rapprochement, and makes no mention of his disappointment – which must have been considerable – at this volte-face by Saudi Arabia. He told reporters that the Saudi change reflected Riyadh’s unease at the West’s failure to confront Iran, which may well be true. Biden has said repeatedly that Iran will not acquire nuclear weapons “on my watch,” but has yet to make a credible threat of violence, which is what both the Saudi Crown Prince and Netanyahu have been hoping for. Netanyahu brushes off the Iran-Saudi announcement, claiming that all that really matters is how the West chooses to deal with Iran. That’s not quite true; Netanyahu had been hoping for ever closer security ties with Saudi Arabia as the time for an attack on Iran inexorably draws near. Perhaps he had even hoped for Saudi permission to pre-position Israeli bombers on Saudi soil. That seems most unlikely now.

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