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Saudi deal with Iran surprises Israel and Jolts Netanyahu


JERUSALEM — Israeli leaders have for years considered Iran an existential threat, viewed Saudi Arabia as a potential partner, and hoped that shared fears of Tehran might help forge formal relations for the first time with Riyadh.

The news of a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia on Friday was therefore greeted in Israel with surprise, anxiety, and introspection. It also compounded a sense of national peril set off by profound domestic divisions about the policies of the government led by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And it seemed to catch Netanyahu — who has long presented himself as the Israeli leader best qualified to fight Iran and most able to charm Saudi Arabia — off guard.

The announcement undermined Israeli hopes of forming a regional security alliance against Iran. It suggested that although other countries in the Middle East may see Iran as a menace, they see little gain in isolating and opposing Tehran to the extent that Israel does. Israel views Iran and its nuclear weapons program as a danger to Israel’s very survival. But the Saudi decision was a reminder of how Iran’s neighbors in the Gulf see Tehran as a troublesome neighbor that must nevertheless be engaged with.

These realizations also sparked soul-searching about Israel’s internal crisis. Israelis are currently consumed and divided by a contentious government proposal to increase its control over the judiciary. To politicians in both the government and the opposition, the news underscored how that domestic turmoil risked distracting the country from more urgent concerns such as the threat of Iran.

For Netanyahu, the news was perceived as particularly damaging. For years, his two chief foreign policy goals have been the isolation of Iran and the normalization of ties with Saudi Arabia, which has never recognized Israel. Although analysts agreed that the timing of the Saudi decision had little to do with Netanyahu, who reentered office in December, it still gave his opponents a chance to present him as weak on foreign policy.

“The agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran is a complete and dangerous failure of the Israeli government’s foreign policy,” Yair Lapid, leader of the opposition, said in a post on social media. “This is what happens when you deal with legal madness all day instead of doing the job.”

Netanyahu, currently in Italy, did not immediately issue a formal statement, and his office ignored requests for comment. But an anonymous senior Israeli official quoted in Israeli news reports and widely assumed to be Netanyahu briefed reporters traveling with the prime minister that Lapid’s administration, which left office in December, was to blame for the Iranian-Saudi thaw.

Beyond the political rhetoric, however, some Israeli experts on Iranian and Gulf affairs said the news was not entirely disastrous for Israeli interests, or completely unexpected. It was long known that Riyadh was negotiating with Tehran.

Saudi Arabia and Israel have never had formal ties, because of Saudi reservations about recognizing Israel before a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel normalized relations in 2020 with three other Arab countries — Bahrain, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates — as leaders in those states appeared to calculate that the economic, technological, and military benefits derived from a relationship with Israel superseded the importance of solidarity with the Palestinians.

Although Friday’s announcement suggested that Riyadh was not rushing to follow suit, Saudi officials have still been quietly discussing with US counterparts about their conditions for normalization with Israel at some point in the future.

Saudi relations with Iran and Israel are not mutually exclusive, said Sima Shine, an Iran expert, and former senior official in the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency.

The UAE also restarted formal relations with Iran last year, even as it deepened its military and trade ties with Israel. And despite the re-establishment of Saudi-Iranian ties, Iran remains a threat to Saudi Arabia. Riyadh may still see the closer partnership with Israel, particularly on military and cybersecurity issues, as another way of blunting that threat.

“I don’t think it is such a terrible thing for Israel,” Shine said. “In a way, it even improves the possibility of kind of a normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia.”

But to other Israeli analysts, the recasting of Saudi-Iranian ties might prevent the emergence of a more formal Saudi-Israeli relationship, even if it accelerates those relations in private.

“Iran and Saudi Arabia will continue to be rivals, and Saudi Arabia and Israel will continue to actively cooperate against Iran,” said Yoel Guzansky, an expert on the Persian Gulf at the Institute for National Security Studies, an Israeli research group. “But it might affect the more public sides of normalization” with Israel, Guzansky said.

And in symbolic terms, the Saudi decision was undeniably a blow to Israel, Guzansky said.

“It sends a message that Israel is all alone in the region to fight Iran,” said Guzansky, who dealt with Iranian issues while a senior official on Israel’s National Security Council. “And that the Gulf countries are getting closer to Iran.”

The fact that this happened under Netanyahu’s watch left him exposed to criticism Friday and undermined his reputation for stability and foreign policy prowess. For years, he has presented himself as the politician best able to protect Israel from the threat of Iran and its nuclear program.

In recent months, he has also repeatedly suggested that he might oversee the normalization of Israeli-Saudi relations. Just hours before Friday’s announcement, he had spoken in Italy of the possibility of building a railway line between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

His opponents seized on the rare chance to dent his foreign policy credentials.

“Netanyahu promised: peace with Saudi Arabia,” Gideon Saar, an opposition lawmaker, posted on Twitter. “In the end, they did it ... with Iran. A league of his own.”

Separately, analysts and politicians of all backgrounds said the news underscored how Israelis needed to quickly solve the domestic crisis about the future of the Israeli judiciary, in order to focus on more pressing concerns such as Iran.

Fighting Iran is “complicated,” wrote Tamir Hayman, a former director of Israeli military intelligence. “It requires attentiveness. Regrettably, that attentiveness is focused at present inwardly.”

Since early January, Israelis have been locked in a bitter dispute about the government’s plans to limit the Supreme Court's influence and expand government control over who gets to be a judge.

The debate has consumed both the government and its critics, setting off weekly mass protests, unrest in the military and the beginnings of capital flight, and straining Israel’s relations with Washington as well as American Jews.

The news about Saudi Arabia prompted even supporters of Netanyahu’s to call for a shift in priorities.

“The world does not stop while we are busy here with power struggles and clashes,” said Yuli Edelstein, a senior lawmaker from Netanyahu’s party.

“The time has come to sit down, talk and resolve our differences in order to come together and unite against the existential threat to us,” Edelstein added.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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