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After thaw with Iran, Saudi Arabia sends negative signals to Israel

From Israel’s point of view, the China-brokered Iran-Saudi Arabia agreement could dramatically hamper its efforts to normalize with Riyadh.
Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen addresses a joint press conference after talks with his German counterpart at the Foreign Office in Berlin, Germany on February 28, 2023. (Photo by Odd ANDERSEN / AFP) (Photo by ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images)

Israel’s Foreign Minister Eli Cohen was forced to cancel his trip to Saudi Arabia scheduled for Sunday, in what is considered by Israeli officials as a negative diplomatic signal by Riyadh.

Cohen decided not to travel to Saudi Arabia after Riyadh repeatedly ignored requests to discuss security measures for the visit.

No Israeli minister has ever made a public visit to the kingdom. Still, Cohen was hoping to participate in the United Nations World Tourism Organization "Best Tourism Villages" ceremony, as the Israeli Circassian Kfar Kama village has been selected as one of the 32 winners for the UN competition.

A report by Israeli Walla news outlet said that Riyadh did not reject outright the request by the UN event organizers for Cohen’s arrival. Still, when Israeli authorities tried to discuss security arrangement for the visit, it became clear that the Saudis were not open for such talks, effectively pushing Cohen to halt his arrival plans. Representatives of the Kafr Kama village did not receive visas for Saudi Arabia, thus could not travel either.

Reportedly, Israel was hoping for the Saudis to enable Cohen’s arrival as a sort of balancing act after the agreement reached last Friday between Riyadh and Tehran via China for the renewal of diplomatic ties. US officials also pushed Riyadh to enable Cohen’s arrival, as a sign of rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel, but that did not happen.

The Saudi-Iranian announcement seemingly caught Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by surprise. Two hours only before the news came out, Netanyahu told Italian businesspeople he was hoping to advance the normalization process with Saudi Arabia, noting that the economic possibilities that such a rapprochement would generate were obvious and would be significant for the whole region.

Later, a senior Israeli official who traveled with Netanyahu to Rome told journalists that the prime minister was aware of the contacts between the two countries for a very long time, and that this new development should not affect efforts for Israeli-Saudi normalization.

Be that as it may, fears are growing in Israel over a new China-Iran-Saudi Arabia axis that could also include Iraq. Such an alliance would isolate Israel regionally and threaten the desired expansion of the Abraham Accords. It could unravel Israel’s efforts to consolidate a regional anti-Iran coalition.

Things looked much different for Israel until Friday. Geopolitical developments in the past year and a half have pushed the West closer than ever before to Israel’s positions on Iran, offering Jerusalem hope that no new nuclear agreement would be reached.

Tehran has not been in full compliance with International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, keeping parts of its nuclear program under wraps. News this month on Iran enriching uranium up to 84% further alarmed the West. The prevailing assessment has been that a new Iran nuclear deal was not feasible in the near future, and other alternatives have to be put in place to curb Iran's program.

The protests in Iran after the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody in September, and continued crackdown on demonstrators has further complicated nuclear diplomacy. Iran's military assistance to Russia against Ukraine by supplying it with attack drones, has further isolated Tehran within Europe.

All these "achievements" for Israel were undermined on Friday, as the United States and Europe tepidly congratulated Saudi and Iran on renewing their diplomatic relations. Some experts in Israel believe Saudi Arabia had come to the conclusion that Israel is not strong enough to bring down the Iranian nuclear program, thus chose other measures to protect its own security. 

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