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 made public the threat posed by Tehran. priority diplomacy and personal crusade.
The breakthrough, the culmination of more than a year of negotiations in Baghdad and more recent talks in China, also caught up in Israel’s domestic politics, reflecting the country’s divisions at a time of national turmoil.
The agreement, which gives Iran and Saudi Arabia two months to reopen their respective embassies and restore ties after seven years of rupture, represents overall one of the most stunning changes in Middle East diplomacy in recent years. In countries like Yemen and Syria, long caught between the Sunni kingdom and the Shiite powerhouse, the announcement sparked cautious optimism.
In Israel, it caused disappointment, along with a cascade of accusations.
One of Netanyahu’s biggest foreign policy triumphs remains Israel’s 2020 US-brokered normalization agreements with four Arab states, including Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, as part of a broader push to isolate and oppose Israel. Iran in the region.
He has portrayed himself as the only politician capable of protecting Israel from Tehran’s rapidly accelerating nuclear program and its regional proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Israel and Iran have also waged a shadow regional war that has led to alleged Iranian drone strikes against Israel-linked ships carrying goods in the Persian Gulf, among other attacks.
A normalization deal with Saudi Arabia, the richest and most powerful Arab state, would fulfill Netanyahu’s cherished goal of reshaping the region and boosting Israel’s position in historic ways. Even as clandestine relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia have grown, the kingdom has said it will not officially recognize Israel before the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved.
Since returning to office late last year, Netanyahu and his allies have hinted that a deal with the kingdom may be close. 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 the deal that blew up on Friday has thrown cold water on those ambitions. Saudi Arabia’s decision to engage with its regional rival has left Israel largely alone as it leads the charge over Iran’s diplomatic isolation and threats of a unilateral military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The UAE also resumed formal relations with Iran last year.
“It’s a blow to the notion and Israel’s efforts in recent years to try to form an anti-Iran bloc in the region,” said Yoel Guzansky, a Persian Gulf expert at the Institute for National Security Studies, a think tank. Israeli experts. “If you view the Middle East as a zero-sum game, as Israel and Iran do, a diplomatic victory for Iran is very bad news for Israel.”
Even Danny Danon, a Netanyahu ally and former Israel ambassador to the UN who recently predicted a 2023 peace deal with Saudi Arabia, seemed baffled.
“This does not support our efforts,” he said, when asked if the outreach hurt the kingdom’s chances of recognizing Israel.
In Yemen, where the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran has had its most destructive consequences, both warring parties were on guard but hopeful.
A Saudi-led military coalition intervened in the Yemen 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.
The Houthi rebels welcomed the agreement as a modest but positive step.
“The region needs the return of normal relations between its countries, through which the Islamic society can regain the security lost by foreign interventions,” said the Houthis’ spokesman and chief negotiator, Mohamed Abdulsalam.
The Saudi-backed Yemeni government expressed some optimism and warnings.
“The Yemeni government’s position depends on actions and practices, not words and claims,” he said, adding that he would proceed with caution “until we see a real change in (Iranian) behavior.”
Analysts did not expect an immediate solution to the conflict, but said direct talks and better relations could build momentum for a separate deal that could offer both countries a way out of a disastrous war.
“The ball is now in the court of the Yemeni national 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, a senior Gulf analyst at International Crisis Group, said she believed the deal was linked to a de-escalation in Yemen.
“It is hard to imagine an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran to resume diplomatic relations and reopen embassies within a two-month period without some assurances from Iran to more seriously support conflict resolution efforts in Yemen,” he said.
War-scarred Syria also welcomed the deal as a step toward easing tensions that have exacerbated the country’s conflict. Iran has been a major backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government, while Saudi Arabia has backed opposition fighters trying to remove him from power.
The Syrian Foreign Ministry called it an “important step that will lead to strengthening security and stability in the region.”
In Israel, bitterly divided and rocked by mass protests over plans by Netanyahu’s far-right government to reform the judiciary, politicians used the rapprochement between the kingdom and Israel’s arch-enemy as an opportunity to criticize Netanyahu, accusing him of focusing on his personal agenda at the expense of Israel’s international relations.
Yair Lapid, former prime minister and head of Israel’s opposition, denounced the Riyadh-Tehran deal as “a complete and dangerous failure of the Israeli government’s foreign policy.”
“This is what happens when you deal with legal madness all day instead of getting the job done with Iran and strengthening relations with the US,” he wrote on Twitter. Even Yuli Edelstein of Netanyahu’s Likud party blamed Israel’s “power struggles and head-butting” for distracting the country from its most pressing threats.
Another opposition lawmaker, Gideon Saar, scoffed at Netanyahu’s aim to establish 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, on an official visit to Italy, declined a request for comment and did not issue a statement on the matter. But the quotes to the Israeli media by an anonymous senior official in the delegation sought to blame the previous government that ruled for a year and a half before Netanyahu returned to power. “It happened because of the impression that Israel and the United States were weak,” the senior official said, according to the Haaretz daily, which hinted that Netanyahu was the official.
Despite the consequences for Netanyahu’s reputation, experts doubted that a détente would harm Israel. Saudi Arabia and Iran will remain regional rivals even if they open embassies in each other’s capitals, Guzansky said. And like the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia could deepen relations with Israel even while maintaining a transactional relationship with Iran.
“The low-key deal that the Saudis have with Israel will continue,” said Umar Karim, an expert on Saudi politics at the University of Birmingham, noting that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank remained more of a barrier to Saudi recognition than differences. about Iran. “The Saudi leadership is getting involved in more ways than one to ensure its national security.”
Magdy reported from Cairo. Associated Press journalists Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria contributed to this report.