When two arch-enemies get closer again decades later, the familiar friend-foe pattern is shaken up: Suddenly even the friends of the former enemy are traded as possible partners. And Israel is a bit speechless right now.
You don’t want to offend the perhaps still suspicious former enemy. Rather, it is time for the first votes of confidence. So mutual invitations are given. And so Saudi Arabia invited Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi to the kingdom, and Tehran retaliated by inviting King Salman, according to a spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry.
The past few weeks have shown that the phrase “multi-front threat” is anything but an understatement. It is more relevant today than ever, because Israel’s opponents are working ever more closely together. The rocket attacks from Gaza and southern Lebanon were linked to the previous escalation on the Al-Aqsa plateau in Jerusalem. The conflict with Iran is in the background: hostility towards Israel and corresponding fantasies of annihilation are a pillar of the ideology of the Islamic Republic, whose propaganda disguises this as “resistance”. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards have set up a shadow army of loyal militias that are up to mischief in Iraq and Syria, for example, and are also threatening Israel from there. The most important of these is Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the country’s most powerful military force, forming a state within a state – and dominating southern Lebanon, which borders Israel.
At the same time, meetings suddenly take place that were just unthinkable. Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad was allowed to visit the Saudi port of Jeddah – also the first visit by a Syrian minister since 2011. Saudi Arabia actually supported the Syrian opposition, but it has been severely weakened by the intervention of Russian and Iranian forces. Now Riyadh is getting closer to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – and is thus making concessions to Tehran.
Saudis court Hamas
In addition, Riyadh is also ready to welcome a senior Palestinian delegation from Hamas. They will perform an Umrah, a small pilgrimage in Mecca, after which talks with Saudi officials are planned, according to Arab media reports. Hamas head Ismail Haniya, his deputy Salih al-Aruri and the group’s foreign head, Khalid Maschal, are said to be part of the delegation.
Such a visit would be the first since 2007, when Hamas violently seized control of the Gaza Strip. Since then, Riyadh has blamed Hamas for failing attempts to reach a peace settlement with Palestinian Fatah in the West Bank. The Saudis are also critical of Hamas’ proximity to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The rift came to a head in 2019, when Riyadh arrested dozens of Palestinians and Jordanians on charges of “threatening the stability of the kingdom” – they were accused of links to an unnamed “terrorist organization”. Human rights organizations accused Riyadh of unfair mass trials and vague allegations. Observers viewed the procedures as a concession to Israel and a sign of gradual rapprochement. As the guardian of Islam’s holy sites, Saudi Arabia plays a key role in the conflict with Israel. But the rapprochement seems – also due to the right-wing government in Israel – to have moved into the distant future.
Instead, if Hamas officials have their way, the issue of Palestinian detainees in Saudi Arabia should be high on the agenda of the talks. They probably have reason for hope: the kingdom released two Palestinians last February. At the time, Hamas official Issat al-Rishk expressed hope that this would be a “prelude to turning a new page with the brothers in Saudi Arabia.”
The talks are not the first attempt to restore ties between Hamas and Riyadh. A lower-ranking Hamas delegation had already pursued this goal in July 2015, in vain. In light of Saudi Arabia’s historic rapprochement with Iran, it’s now becoming much more likely.
Hezbollah longtime partner of Hamas
At the same time, Hezbollah in Lebanon is provoking Israel in a dangerous way. The evidence is not clear, but apparently the militia built up by Iran is attempting to carry out attacks in Israel itself, instead of bombarding the country with rockets from across the border, as has been the case up to now.
However, Hezbollah now has so many of these that they could even threaten Israel’s air defenses – probably the best in the world. The fact that Tehran is escalating its favorite militia on the Israeli border right now is a warning sign.
The Lebanese Shiite organization has maintained good relations with Palestinian militant groups, particularly Hamas’ Sunni Islamists, for decades. According to information from secret service circles, the cooperation is close and is therefore also carried out in coordination with the regime in Tehran. “Hamas has had a presence in Lebanon since the early 1990s, when the Israelis expelled 400 Hamas members from Israel and the occupied zone in southern Lebanon during the first Intifada,” explains a Hezbollah expert at the US think tank Atlantic Council. “They lived in tents in a no man’s land between Lebanese controlled territory and the occupation zone for two years, Hezbollah befriended them, trained them and they have had close ties ever since.” Hamas has arms caches in southern Lebanon, according to security officials and logistical facilities. Some of these are in the large Palestinian camps, sealed off slums to which the Lebanese security forces have no access. However, it is commonly said that the militant Palestinians could not operate in southern Lebanon without Hezbollah’s approval.
Relations between Hezbollah and Hamas had suffered when Hamas sided with the opponents of dictator Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian conflict, to whom Hezbollah provided massive arms assistance. But relations have long since been friendly again – and the organizations are now consciously flaunting this. Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh’s visit to Beirut was publicly commemorated, including a group photo with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Even before Haniyeh’s visit, a cross-border terrorist attack had shown the new proximity: In mid-March, a Palestinian invaded Israel from Hezbollah’s southern Lebanese empire and planted an explosive device there.
The fact that the Palestinian groups and the Shiite organization are moving closer together complicates the already extremely dangerous deterrent competition on the Lebanese-Israeli border. Hezbollah and Israel walk a fine line between war and peace there. With every incident, such as rocket fire, the question arises as to what the retaliation will be and whether it could trigger another counterstrike, setting in motion an escalation mechanic that would be difficult to stop.
Hezbollah can now additionally play the Palestinian card in this deterrent competition by attributing attacks to its allies. This gives Iran and its allies more scope for needle sticks and provocations, because it gives Hezbollah the opportunity to deny that it was the perpetrator or mastermind.
Israel’s reluctance can be dangerous
The dovish response of an Israel weakened by internal strife may embolden Hezbollah to keep testing the borders. The fact that five of the last 34 rockets fired from Lebanon overcame the “Iron Dome” defense system should cause concern for the Israeli leadership. Because Hezbollah has tens of thousands of rockets in its arsenal. In the Lebanese-Israeli border region, the Shiite organization has repeatedly provoked the often helpless UN peacekeeping force. It maintains shooting ranges in what is actually the demilitarized zone. And an environmental organization loyal to Hezbollah has set up bases directly on the demarcation line that can easily be expanded for military purposes. Hezbollah deputy chief Naim Qassem said: “The Zionist attempts to threaten and intimidate us will not succeed.”
Netanyahu’s house of cards collapsing?
Netanyahu’s greatest achievements are in the field of foreign policy, and they are closely related. It was – first – Netanyahu who, with considerable pressure and incessant warnings, drew the world’s attention to the danger of Iran’s nuclear program.
Without his urging, comprehensive sanctions and serious negotiations with Tehran might never have happened. Secondly, Netanyahu used the polarization in this conflict in the most beneficial way imaginable for Israel and the region, by securing peace agreements between Arab states and his country.
The so-called Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco used the negative energy of the nuclear dispute in an almost ingenious way for a change that stabilized the Middle East and brought Israel closer to the fulfillment of a dream that its mothers and fathers had when the state dreamed.
It is clear that the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement caught Jerusalem off guard. The resulting developments, including the visit of the Hamas delegation to Riyadh, give plenty of cause for concern. Above all, the Prime Minister must fear for his favorite diplomatic project: including Saudi Arabia in the Abraham Accords.
These contracts were brokered in 2020 by then US President Donald Trump. In a first step, they led to a normalization of relations between Israel and the three Arab states of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco. The aim was also to build a common front against Iran – and it was clear from the start that Saudi Arabia should definitely be part of it. When Netanyahu returned to the prime minister’s office at the end of December, he explicitly declared this a priority of his policy.
Netanyahu’s hope for discord
He had reason to think he was on the right track: the leadership in Riyadh has always officially linked any rapprochement with Israel to the condition that a compromise with the Palestinians has to be found first. However, there were a number of positive signals. At the end of 2020, for example, the Israeli media reported on a secret meeting between Netanyahu and the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. After US President Joe Biden visited both states last summer, the Saudis also opened their airspace to Israeli aircraft.
Riyadh’s move towards Tehran, however, now alienates Israel. Netanyahu has to book it as a multiple blow: dreams of blossoming with Saudi Arabia are fading, arch-enemy Iran is strengthened, Hamas is gaining acceptance – and on top of that, Israel’s opposition has another point of attack. In any case, opposition leader Jair Lapid calls the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement “a dangerous failure of Israeli foreign policy.”
Israel’s partner status is being questioned
There were good reasons to hope for more Abraham contracts. Now all of that is in question. The Emirates have banned their ambassador in Israel from government contacts until further notice. Saudi Arabia, with whom Netanyahu wanted to achieve the next and strategically most important contract, is instead opting for strategic relaxation with the once common archenemy Iran.
Israeli democracy may be heartily indifferent to the Emirati and Saudi monarchs. But the governmental chaos in Jerusalem no longer makes Israel appear as a reliable partner, but as a state that its prime minister is rebuilding in order to escape its corruption processes on the one hand, and to serve the interests of its ultra-religious coalition partners on the other, who are deliberately escalating the conflict with the Palestinians .
The most recent development also exposes a mistake by the Israeli conservatives in their peace policy in the Gulf. Israel’s hope for a peace agreement with the Saudis was mostly answered from Riyadh with the remark that a peace with Israel remains unthinkable as long as the Jewish state has not concluded a just peace with the Palestinians.
This argument was never taken seriously in Jerusalem. The Palestinian question had not been an obstacle for Bahrain and the Emirates either. It was underestimated that Saudi Arabia does not have around one million citizens like the Emirates, but almost 40 million, and that the opinion of this population is quite relevant for the ruling house of Al-Saud.
If the monarchy is suspected of betraying the Palestinians for economic gains from a peace with Israel, then this can become a problem for the acceptance of the royal family, especially if a coalition governs in Jerusalem whose members support the deportations of Arabs, showing sympathy for the devastation of Palestinian villages by Jewish settlers and appearing in front of Israel maps that also include part of Jordan in Israeli territory.
All publishing rights and copyrights reserved to MENA Research and Study Center.