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The US has gone back to the table with Iran. Why is Israel silent?

TJI Pick
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Published: 23 June 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

ALON PINKAS discusses the geopolitical developments that have forced the US to recalibrate foreign policy back to the Middle East.

Israel’s decade-long opposition to any agreement with Iran over its nuclear program is well documented. Any idea, any framework, any premise ever considered – Jerusalem was against it.

Now that there are indirect negotiations between the United States and Iran on a limited, “less for less” agreement – which may not even be a formal agreement but a set of mutually agreed tacit and reciprocal understandings –  Israel is quiet. A changing geopolitical landscape, strains with Washington and political calculations didn’t generate a new Israeli policy but a temporary hiatus on the old one.

There are five possible explanations for Israel’s silence.

First, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knows that coming out aggressively and vociferously against a limited agreement would further alienate the Biden administration, deepen the already existing rift and make his coveted D.C. trip even less likely in the foreseeable future.

Second, he knows there is nothing he can do to influence an agreement, let alone prevent it. Vocal criticism would cut Israel off from the briefings and updates it is receiving on the talks.

Third, he is quietly working with Republicans in Congress to undermine a deal and turn it into a partisan issue that would distract US President Joe Biden and hurt him.

Fourth, he is waiting for more details, or even a framework of an agreed deal, before beginning to criticise and lament. That would be an ex post facto campaign, just the way Netanyahu likes it: retroactive opposition where he is exempt from making suggestions of his own. Just like 2015, when the original Iran nuclear deal (the JCPOA) was finalised and he went to Congress and put on a show, and later lobbied Congress not to ratify it.

But there is a fifth interpretation: Saudi Arabia. Netanyahu wants the United States to mediate an upgrade in Saudi-Israel relations. This for him would be a major achievement, neatly falling into his worldview that the Palestinian issue is irrelevant and that, despite the criticism and being ostracised in Washington, he is a statesman capable of delivering geopolitical success.


What the US Is Really Trying to Get Out of the Iran-Saudi-Israel Triangle (Haaretz)
The US previously made clear that it wanted to make China and the Indo-Pacific region the focus of its foreign policy. Geopolitical developments have forced a recalibration in the Middle East and Israel is looking on with interest

Iran's game plan: From Saudi ties to conspiring against Israel (Seth J. Frantzman, Jerusalem Post)
For Iran, many things are now coming together. If one connects the dots between these various themes, a pattern emerges.

Saudi Arabia is quietly changing its textbooks. Could that lead to acceptance of Israel? (CNN)
Textbooks in Saudi Arabia have been changing. For years, researchers have been observing a gradual moderation on subjects ranging from gender roles to the promotion of peace and tolerance.

Israel says hoped-for direct Hajj flights to Saudi Arabia won't happen now (Reuters)
Israel said on Monday that hoped-for direct flights to Saudi Arabia for the Muslim Hajj pilgrimage would not happen this year and played down any prospects of an imminent US-mediated normalisation of relations with Riyadh.

Photo: Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, right, with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan in Tehran on Saturday (Saudi Press Agency/REUTERS)

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