Like many things in the Middle East, timing is rarely a coincidence. On Tuesday, as IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Herzi Halevi was addressing a conference in Herzliya where he issued a threat to attack Iran, a mysterious explosion took place at a chemical factory about 100 km west of Tehran.
Israel has the ability to strike Iran, Halevi said, just as reports came out of the explosion. Was one connected to the other? Even if the chemical blast was not caused by Israel, the timing was hard to ignore and in the Middle East, sometimes perception is all that is needed.
What is also hard to ignore is the escalation in Israeli threats over the last few days. Before Halevi, Military Intelligence chief Maj.-Gen. Aharon Haliva addressed the conference and warned that Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah is close to a mistake that could lead to a massive war with Israel. As Halevi clarified in his speech, such a war would be painful for Israel, but it would be doubly painful for Lebanon and even more so for Hezbollah.
Based on the two speeches and the timing of the mysterious chemical blast, one could get the impression that a conflict is quickly brewing beneath the surface and just waiting to erupt. While this might be the case, what is more likely happening here is the rollout of a public relations campaign by the IDF brass aimed at ensuring the opposite – that such a war does not happen.
Will Israel go to war with Iran?
There is little doubt in Israel that an overt and direct clash with Iran will happen one day. It could be over its nuclear program – if the ayatollahs decide to break out to a bomb and Israel decides to attack – or if an Israeli strike in Syria, for example, spills over into Iran and draws a retaliation. Iran has an open account with Israel over the number of soldiers that have been killed in recent years – mostly in Syria – and it has in the past tried to avenge those deaths. A successful Iranian attack would force Israel to respond, and such a response might not be limited to Syria.
The same is true for Hezbollah. When a member of the Iran-backed group snuck into Israel in March and detonated a sizeable explosive device, thankfully it only wounded one person. Imagine that it had done much more. Would Israel have been able to restrain itself? It likely would have needed to do something against Hezbollah in Lebanon and, if that were to have happened, a larger conflict would have been as close to a fait accompli as is possible.
The messages from Halevi and Haliva are heard loud and clear on the other side. The drill Hezbollah guerillas held along the border in recent days to simulate a cross-border infiltration into an Israeli town, as well as the satellite footage revealed by AP of Iranian construction deep underground near its nuclear facility at Natanz, are just the latest illustrations of how this battle is playing out.
For now, all sides are calculated in what they do and within Military Intelligence there is no hard piece of intelligence that says Iran is breaking out in the coming weeks to a bomb or Hezbollah is about to invade Israel. On the other hand, as seen in the past, sometimes conflagrations happen in this region even when they are not intended. Mistakes and miscalculations are made and the next thing we see are rockets being launched. That can happen once again.
Will Israel normalize ties with Saudi Arabia?
ON MONDAY night, Lahav Harkov published a story in these pages revealing that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held two phone calls in recent weeks with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed Bin Salman. The calls were said to have been facilitated by Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, whose country Israel already has diplomatic relations with under the 2020 Abraham Accords.
The report was not surprising – Netanyahu visited Saudi Arabia at the end of 2020 and met with MBS in the presence of then-secretary of state Mike Pompeo – and while the two leaders were said to have focused on an Israeli request to allow Israeli-Arabs to fly directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia for the Haj, there is hope for much more.
The sense in Jerusalem right now is that there is a window of about a year to finalize a normalization deal with Saudi Arabia. The reason is not because of something in Riyadh or Jerusalem but rather due to the upcoming presidential election in the United States, and because it is there, in Washington DC, where the real decision has to be made about such a deal.
As seen by the phone calls, there is communication between Saudi and Israeli leaders. There are economic ties, security ties and even diplomatic coordination that goes on behind the scenes. Can those ties be deepened? Of course, but for now, the question is more about the big step that needs to be taken toward full-blown normalization.
The key to that is in Washington. Saudi Arabia has felt the cold shoulder from the US ever since Joe Biden was elected president. It was this distancing that enabled China to insert itself into the region and broker the rapprochement between Saudi and Iran, something that in the past would not have happened.
The message was heard in Washington and has been followed up by action. There is a new ambassador in Riyadh who happened to have served in Jerusalem just a few years ago, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan recently visited there as well and spoke publicly about the administration’s desire to see Israeli-Saudi normalization happen.
To move forward with Israel, Saudi Arabia wants to receive a few benefits from the US: arm sales, security guarantees and even a civilian nuclear program with the ability to mine uranium and enrich it domestically.
US diplomats do not hide the fact that the decision on this will need to be made by Biden and that it will depend on more than just US ties with MBS. A normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia would be a huge win for Netanyahu. Does Biden want to give him that right now?
Biden has not held back on his discontent with Netanyahu and his democratically-elected government. He has yet to invite the Israeli premier to the White House and – as long as it is not clear that the coalition’s judicial reform is completely dead and buried – he might not want to.
On the other hand, Biden does need a foreign policy feather in his cap. Until now, the president’s track record in the Middle East does not look great. There was the hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan that enabled the Taliban to quickly take over, and China’s growing role in the region. Brokering a deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia would give the president a big win that could help on the campaign trail.
The situation is dynamic, and Netanyahu is doing all he can to move this forward. For him too, a deal with Saudi Arabia would be a huge win and a much-needed distraction from the chaos – caused by the judicial reform, the public protests and the budget talks – that has enveloped his government since it took office at the end of December.
Such a deal has the potential to alter the balance of power in the Middle East. With Israel’s top military officers warning of the possibility of war, a normalization deal would be a better alternative.
The writer is the immediate past editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.