Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Top Israeli officials to discuss Iran and Saudi Arabia with Biden’s aide

Senior Israeli officials are set to travel to Washington next week as the United States reportedly looks to enhance efforts on the Iranian nuclear deal and a normalisation between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Ron Dermer, the Israeli minister for strategic affairs, and national security advisor Tzachi Hanegbi are expected to meet with White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and other senior officials, Axios reported on Thursday, citing four Israeli and US officials.

The high-level visit comes as Israel’s ties with Washington face some strain. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s dependence on far-right lawmakers in his government has put Washington in an awkward position.

US President Joe Biden made a rare public foray into Israel’s domestic politics in March when he called for a compromise to Netanyahu’s contentious plans to overhaul Israel’s judiciary. The proposed judicial law sparked massive protests in Israel and elicited rebukes from American Jews, including lawmakers in Biden’s party.

Despite the tensions, Israel remains the US’s closest Middle East ally. The country receives around $3.8bn a year in military aid from Washington. Earlier this month, Axios reported that the US had asked Israel to engage in “unprecedented” joint military planning against Iran.

Tensions with Iran have simmered amid collapsed efforts to revive the 2015 agreement.

Israel lobbied against the accord at the time, but in a sign of its continued concern about Washington’s efforts, Israeli officials reportedly questioned whether closer military cooperation with the US could tie their hands from unilaterally striking Iran.

On Tuesday, the chief of staff for the Israeli military, General Herzi Halevi, said Iran’s uranium enrichment was more advanced than ever before and warned that Israel was preparing “for a situation where a confrontation will be inevitable”.

Tehran has repeatedly stated that it has no intention of developing nuclear weapons, with Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei even issuing religious edicts against the atom bomb and other weapons of mass destruction.

Against the backdrop of rising tensions, Israel is likely to welcome reports that the Biden administration plans to renew efforts to coax Saudi Arabia into normalising relations.

President Biden made closer ties between the two US partners a key feature of his visit to Saudi Arabia in July when he unveiled a plan to transfer two Red Sea islands from Egypt to Saudi Arabia. The agreement required Israel’s approval due to Cold War-era security agreements and led to Riyadh agreeing to open its airspace to Israeli flights.

Those efforts, however, have been eclipsed by Saudi Arabia’s recent move to restore ties with Iran, Israel’s arch-rival. The deal, which was brokered by China, left Washington out in the cold and raised concerns in Israel about being isolated in the region.

On Thursday, Newsweek quoted a senior Israeli military commander saying that “Iran is everywhere”, and that the possibility of war was “getting bigger and bigger”.

“There’s more chance of a large-scale war than ever before, that is, in the last 20 or 30 years,” Amir Avivi, a brigadier general in the Israeli army stated.

The Iranian permanent ambassador to the UN Amir Saeid Iravani has reiterated Iran’s right to respond to any act of aggression by the Israeli regime against Tehran’s nuclear program, warning that Iran will hold the US accountable for explicitly supporting such terrorist moves.

But it’s unclear whether Saudi Arabia will agree to establish relations with Israel. The move would hand Biden a major foreign policy victory ahead of the 2024 US elections. Ties between the US and Saudi Arabia have sunk to historic lows under Biden’s presidency over differences on energy policy, the war in Yemen, and human rights.

In January, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister said the kingdom would not normalise relations with Israel until Palestinians are granted statehood.

In March, the Wall Street Journal reported that Riyadh told Washington it would normalise ties with Israel in exchange for new security guarantees and help with its civilian nuclear programme, steps that are likely to face resistance in congress.

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