How does the China-brokered Saudi-Iranian normalization affect Israel?
Robert Inlakesh, RT, March 17, 2023 — The restoration of diplomatic relations could derail the strategy of uniting the region against a ‘common threat’.
A key goal of both the Israeli and American governments is to foster the normalization of ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and part of the strategy to make this happen was to unite the two against what has been depicted as a common enemy, Iran. The Saudi-Iranian rapprochement now appears to have thrown a spanner in the works of such efforts, and hence enraged the Israelis.
After five rounds of talks throughout the span of two years, Iran and Saudi Arabia were unable to reach a compromise for the re-establishment of diplomatic ties, something China has now managed to broker in a shocking turn of events. Based upon the long rivalry between Tehran and Riyadh, US and Israeli policy towards Saudi Arabia has been based on combating a common enemy shared between all sides. Although the US government itself has not reacted with open animosity to the sudden change in regional dynamics, the Israelis are publicly interpreting this as a negative development.
In June 2022, the Wall Street Journal reported that a previously undisclosed meeting had taken place in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, whereby a number of Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia, had met with the Israeli military chief of staff at the time, Aviv Kochavi. Part of the discussions that took place was allegedly geared towards forming an Israeli-Arab defense alliance. Although no such alliance was formed, it was largely speculated at the time that US President Joe Biden’s visit to both Israel and Saudi Arabia the following month would include discussions on this topic. Despite the failure of the US and Israel so far to put together such an alliance, it is clear that part of the strategy for achieving normalization has been to secure defense interests.
Across the Israeli political spectrum, from both the coalition government and opposition, finger pointing has been taking place, in attempts to pin the blame for the perceived failure of Israel to prevent Saudi-Iranian normalization. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has attempted to shift the blame onto the former government, an idea refuted by former Israeli Mossad head Efraim Halevy as “factually incorrect.” On the other hand, former Israeli PM Naftali Bennett has called the agreement “a serious and dangerous development for Israel.” Yair Lapid, another former PM and current leader of the opposition, also said it is an “utter and dangerous failure of the Israeli government’s foreign policy.”
The big question now is whether the Chinese-brokered normalization agreement will negatively impact potential normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Reuters reported that, according to an unnamed senior Israeli official, the Saudi-Iranian deal will have no significant impact on Israeli-Saudi relations. It is also not clear whether the agreement has any clauses to do with Israeli normalization. According to Carmiel Arbit from the Washington-based Atlantic Council, the Saudis could be attempting to conduct a balancing act the way the United Arab Emirates has. The UAE, which signed its own normalization deal with Israel in 2020, has since 2019 managed to de-escalate tensions with Iran and is currently maintaining cordial ties with both sides.
It is not clear, however, whether the model of Abu Dhabi will be applicable for the Saudis. Riyadh, simply put, has a lot more to lose than the Emiratis, due to its wide regional entanglements and domestic constraints, and hence it has chosen to maintain a distance from the Israelis at this time. The internal political crisis in Tel Aviv may also play a crucial role in the Saudi decision to push forward with the normalization of ties with Iran, as instability within Israel, coupled with a potential escalation in the conflict with the Palestinian people, could severely hinder a formal diplomatic breakthrough.
One crucial result of Saudi-Iranian normalization, however, is not necessarily to do with Israel’s own relations with the Saudis. Combating Iran, specifically its nuclear program through coercive measures, is an active policy position on both sides of the political divide in Israel. Netanyahu placed the issue of combating Iran, even through direct force, at the forefront of his campaign to win the election late last year. Throughout the past unity coalition of Bennett and Lapid, the anti-Iran position also proved a cornerstone of Israeli regional policy.
Performing aggressive actions, such as a direct attack against Iranian nuclear facilities, could now be much more difficult for the Israelis to pull off, with Saudi Arabia taking a non-combative approach to Iran. Although the nuclear issue is perhaps the most pervasive issue for the Israeli public, Iran’s regional alliances and defense programs are the true threats posed to Israel. If Saudi-Iranian ties are able to flourish and the Chinese-brokered deal holds, this could mean that Riyadh’s efforts in Lebanon against Hezbollah could be curtailed, and this surely represents a concern for Israel.
Iran, through its relationships with regional political parties, governments, and localized militia forces, also possesses the ability to pull strings that could benefit Saudi Arabia if it reciprocates by doing the same. This is especially the case when it comes to the conflict in Yemen. One thing that Ansarallah, also known as the Houthis, have been able to prove in their efforts against the Saudi-led coalition since 2015 when the war began, is that they are capable of overcoming US-made defense equipment. Iran, as a close ally of Ansarallah, could aid in setting up a long-term truce or even lasting peace, which the likes of the US simply cannot offer. To end this war would be in the security interests of the Saudis, who will undoubtedly suffer if the violence resumes, especially if missiles and drones begin striking their vital infrastructure again.
Just as Beijing proved capable of fostering Saudi-Iranian normalization, Tehran could offer the ability to properly negotiate a peaceful solution in Yemen. However, it is simply too early to tell whether such a development will take place. What the deal undoubtedly does is prove the weakness in Israel’s regional capabilities, along with the waning influence of the US. Israel’s security concerns regarding Syria and Lebanon may be heightened if the Chinese-brokered agreement delivers a more peaceful approach inside both of these nations. Saudi Arabia could also re-establish ties with the Syrian government, as the UAE has already done, which could help Damascus on the road to recovery from its brutal war and current state of economic ruin. A strong and united Syria could in the future also pose a strategic threat to Israel. While Saudi-Israeli normalization is by no means off the table, the Saudi-Iranian agreement could pose a serious challenge regionally for Israel’s current policy approach.