In Israel, it caused disappointment – with fingers pointing.
One of Netanyahu’s greatest foreign policy triumphs remains the Israeli normalization deals that the US brokered in 2020 with four Arab countries, including Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. They were part of a broader campaign to isolate and oppose Iran in the region.
He has portrayed himself as the only politician capable of protecting Israel from Tehran’s accelerating 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 that has led to suspected Iranian drone attacks on Israeli-linked ships transporting goods in the Persian Gulf, among other attacks.
A normalization deal with Saudi Arabia, the most powerful and richest Arab country, will achieve Netanyahu’s precious goal, reshaping the region and strengthening Israel’s standing in historic ways. Even as backwater relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia grow, the kingdom has said it will not formally recognize Israel until the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved.
Since returning to office late last year, Netanyahu and his allies have hinted that a deal with the kingdom might be on the horizon. In a speech to American Jewish leaders last month, Netanyahu described the peace agreement as “a goal that we are working on in parallel with the goal of stopping Iran.”
But experts say the Saudi-Iranian deal announced on Friday put a cold snap on those ambitions. Saudi Arabia’s decision to deal with its regional rival Israel has largely left it alone as it leads the charge of Iran’s diplomatic isolation and threats of a unilateral military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. The UAE also resumed official relations with Iran last year.
“It’s a blow to Israel’s concept and efforts in recent years to try to form an anti-Iran bloc in the region,” said Yoel Guzansky, an expert on Arab Gulf affairs at the Institute for National Security Studies, an Israeli think tank. “If you view the Middle East as a zero-sum game, which is what Israel and Iran are doing, then a diplomatic win for Iran is very bad news for Israel.”
Even Danny Danon, a Netanyahu ally and former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations who recently signed a peace deal with Saudi Arabia in 2023, seemed confused.
In response to a question about whether the rapprochement harms the kingdom’s chances of recognizing Israel, he said, “This does not support our efforts.”
In Yemen, where the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran has led to the most devastating consequences, both warring sides have been cautious, yet optimistic.
A Saudi-led military coalition intervened in the Yemen conflict in 2015, months after Iran-backed Houthi militias seized the capital, Sanaa, in 2014, forcing the internationally recognized government into exile in Saudi Arabia.
The Houthi rebels welcomed the agreement as a modest but positive step.
Houthi spokesman and chief negotiator Mohammed Abdel Salam said, “The region needs the return of normal relations between its countries, through which the Islamic community can regain the security it lost from external interference.”
Yemen’s Saudi-backed government has expressed some optimism and caveats.
She said, “The Yemeni government’s position is based on actions and practices, not words and allegations,” adding that it will proceed with caution “until noticing a real change in (Iranian) behavior.”
Analysts did not expect an immediate settlement to the conflict, but said direct talks and better relations could create momentum for a separate agreement that could offer both countries a way out of a disastrous war.
“The ball is now in the court of local Yemeni warring parties to prioritize Yemen’s national interest in reaching a peace agreement and to draw inspiration from this initial positive step,” said Afrah Nasser, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington. .
Anna Jacobs, senior Gulf analyst at the International Crisis Group, said she believes the deal is linked to de-escalation in Yemen.
“It is difficult to imagine a Saudi-Iranian agreement to resume diplomatic relations and reopen embassies within two months without some assurances from Iran to support efforts to resolve the conflict in Yemen more seriously,” she said.
Similarly, war-torn Syria welcomed the agreement as a step towards easing tensions that have exacerbated the country’s conflict. Iran has been a major supporter of the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Saudi Arabia has supported opposition fighters trying to remove him from power.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry described it as “an important step that will lead to strengthening security and stability in the region.”
In Israel, deeply divided and gripped by mass protests over Netanyahu’s far-right government’s plans to reform the judiciary, politicians have taken the rapprochement between the kingdom and Israel’s archenemy as an opportunity to lash out at Netanyahu, accusing him of focusing on his personal agenda at the expense of Israel’s international relations.
Yair Lapid, the former prime minister and head of the Israeli opposition, denounced the agreement between Riyadh and Tehran as “a complete and serious failure of the Israeli government’s foreign policy.”
“This is what happens when you deal with legal madness all day instead of doing the job with Iran and strengthening relations with the United States,” he wrote on Twitter. Even Yuli Edelstein of Netanyahu’s Likud party blamed “power struggles and head-butting” in Israel for distracting the country from its more immediate threats.
Another opposition lawmaker, Gideon Saar, mocked Netanyahu’s goal of establishing formal ties with the kingdom. “Netanyahu promised peace with Saudi Arabia,” he wrote on social media. “In the end (Saudi Arabia) did it…with Iran.”
Netanyahu, who is on an official visit to Italy, declined a request for comment and has not issued any statement on the matter. But Israeli media, citing an anonymous senior official in the delegation, sought to shift the blame to the previous government that ruled for a year and a half before Netanyahu returned to office. “It happened because of the impression that Israel and the United States are weak,” said the senior official, according to the Haaretz daily, which hinted that Netanyahu was responsible.
Despite the fallout for Netanyahu’s reputation, experts doubted the detente would harm Israel. Guzansky said that Saudi Arabia and Iran would remain regional rivals, even if they opened embassies in their respective capitals. Like the UAE, Saudi Arabia can deepen relations with Israel even while maintaining a transactional relationship with Iran.
Omar Karim, an expert on Saudi politics at the University of Birmingham, said that “the simple arrangements that the Saudis concluded with Israel will continue,” noting that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank remained more of an obstacle to Saudi recognition than disagreements. over Iran. “The Saudi leadership is involved in more than one way to secure its national security.”
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