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Why Netanyahu Can't Count on MBS

And why the Gulf may still feature prominently in Israeli PM's election campaign

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman gestures as he arrives at Diriyah E-Prix 2021 in Riyadh, last month
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman gestures as he arrives at Diriyah E-Prix 2021 in Riyadh, last monthCredit: BANDER ALGALOUD/SAUDI ROYAL CO
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

An internal opinion poll about Netanyahu’s performance in office, covering the range from Iran to the pandemic, appears today in Yedioth Ahronoth. A., the outgoing deputy head of the Mossad – who lost in the contest to become the espionage organization’s next chief – tells the paper: “The bottom line is bad management, both with the coronavirus and with the nuclear issue.” The Mossad man, who played a central role in the impressive operation to steal the Iranians’ nuclear archive, maintains that the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement with Iran (which took place immediately after the operation was made public) turned out to be a mistake.

“It was a bad deal,” he’s quoted as saying. “Our situation today is worse. The Iranians are enriching uranium at a fast pace.” That’s an acute departure from the official line being marketed by Netanyahu, but the same opinion can be heard from other senior officials who retired from the defense establishment in the past two years. Many of them make the point that Netanyahu – even before we get into ideological questions or take account of his personality and moral traits – is simply a bad manager.

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On Wednesday, Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel (Likud) tried to resuscitate the Iranian front in a somewhat odd press conference, in which she claimed that the huge oil spill that polluted Israel’s shores last month was caused by a Libyan oil tanker which set sail from Iran. Gamliel added that Tehran was behind the incident, which she termed “environmental terrorism.”

There’s only one small problem with her hypothesis: Neither the navy nor Military Intelligence nor any other intelligence body share this conclusion. In fact, they had no advance knowledge of what Gamliel was going to say. Even the experts in her ministry dissociated themselves from her remarks. Gamliel is apparently suffering from the same problem that afflicts her party colleague, Transportation Minister Miri Regev. After her personal untrustworthiness was exposed (in Gamliel’s case, her trips to Tiberias in the second lockdown), it’s hard to accept her authority in matters relating to her ministry.

With limited room for maneuver on Iran, Netanyahu could try to focus the rest of his campaign on the positive side: the major political-diplomatic success in this term, namely the normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco. On the agenda is a lightning visit to the Gulf or some other symbolic move to tighten relations.

In more convenient circumstances, Netanyahu would likely press his friend, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to at last come out of the closet in regard to Riyadh-Jerusalem relations. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who maintains close ties with the Saudi royal house, this week wrote that the kingdom’s joining the Abraham Accords could transform the strategic situation in the region. Riyadh, he suggested, could make this contingent on opening two embassies: one in West Jerusalem and one in East Jerusalem (for the Palestinians). That move by itself, Friedman believes, could keep the two-state solution alive.

One of the problems is that the crown prince is mired in his own troubles. He barely extricated himself, with serious bruises, from the U.S. intelligence report on the murder of the dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And the Houthi rebels in Yemen have recently stepped up – at Iranian direction and guidance – their drone and missile attacks against strategic targets in Saudi Arabia. This week, too, there were reports of similar attacks. But more interesting were two drone attacks at the end of January, which came shortly after Joe Biden’s inauguration and drew very little attention.

The two attacks, writes Dr. Michael Knights from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, took place in broad daylight, and the drones were finally intercepted by the Saudi air defense system. No great damage was caused, but one drone apparently reached the royal palace in Riyadh. Knights’ assessment is that the January attacks came from a base near Baghdad, which is operated by one of the Iran-funded local Shi’ite militias. Like in the attack on the oilfields in the fall of 2019, the Iranians are showing again how exposed the Saudis’ soft underbelly is.

An internal strategic analysis carried out lately in the Israeli defense establishment describes the regional situation as a combination of “heightened tensions that are expanding into other arenas.” At the same time, the normalization between Israel and the Sunni countries is termed a possible “tiebreaker,” which in a fairly short time could alter the regional balance of forces. To begin with, the recent accords bypassed the Palestinian channel, where the lack of progress prevented an improvement of Israeli relations with the Gulf states for years. Second, these developments are curbing the Iranian effort to achieve regional dominance. And third, it’s possible that the potential for a kind of regional strategic alliance will be realized, which will encompass Israel, the Gulf states, Egypt and Jordan, and even Greece and Cyprus.

Israel does not believe that Saudi Arabia or the UAE will fight for it in Iran. They are too close to that country, and too vulnerable. But a future possibility does exist for tighter defense and intelligence cooperation, which, according to reports in the international press, has existed for years in a low profile. Thus, there were reports in past years of air and sea exercises led by Greece in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean, with participation by Israel and the UAE. This year it might even be possible to hold the exercises in a higher media profile, with declared cooperation between the two countries.

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