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Middle East pact bad for Israel, US

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It would be hard to overstate the strategic significance of the weekend announcement of a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the remarkable diplomatic coup the accord represents for China, which brokered the deal. For seven years, the deep-seated hostility between nominally pro-Western Saudi Arabia, the most powerful Sunni state in the Middle East, and terrorist-supporting Iran, the biggest Shiite power, has divided the Islamic world. After four days of negotiations in Beijing last week, however, mainly over their support for rival groups in Yemen’s civil war, they agreed to sink their differences in a move that also confirmed China’s emergence as a key player in Middle East politics.

China’s top politburo member for foreign affairs, Wang Yi, presided over the negotiations. Nowhere in sight, or even on the periphery, was the US, which, with Joe Biden in the White House, appears to be pivoting away from the Middle East. As Michael Stephens of the Royal United Services Institute, the world’s oldest defence and security think tank, noted: “This is a big deal, not because Saudi Arabia and Iran have patched things up, but because the US was nowhere near it. Shifts are happening very, very fast.”

There can indeed be no doubt about the significance of China being allowed a diplomatic rails run to broker a crucial deal between two of the Middle East’s most powerful states. It says much about the Biden administration’s handling of the US’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in the aftermath of the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Since Mr Biden arrived in the White House promising to isolate the Saudis, he has cut off US support for the Saudi-backed war against the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen. He has also toyed with stopping all US arms sales to the most powerful country in the Arab world. Worried about US support, the Saudi crown prince began to hedge his security bets. He courted China, flirted with selling it oil in yuan and also sought better relations.

The consequence is a deal between two bitter foes brokered by Beijing that challenges US dominance in the Middle East. Ominously, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian hinted on the weekend his country, Saudi Arabia and China could be taking “more regional steps” together. This is an alarming development for Israel, where the Jewish state is mired in one of the deepest crises since its foundation. Israel is the most effective and committed counter to Iran’s malign terrorist activities across the Middle East and beyond, especially its nuclear ambitions. Yet it is being torn apart by a searing crisis over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wish to bring about controversial judicial reforms that have led to 10 weeks of mass protests. As Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid, prime minister until December, said on the weekend, the rapprochement represents a massive failure for Mr Netanyahu, who has tried to bring Saudi Arabia “on side” as part of an alliance against arch enemy Iran under the US-brokered Abraham Accords. “It’s a collapse of the regional defence wall that we began to build against Iran … it is a total and dangerous foreign policy failure of the Israeli government. This is what happens when you are occupied all day by an insane legal project instead of handling Iran.” Mr Lapid has a point. The protracted upheavals and the deep divisions Mr Netanyahu’s proposed judicial changes are causing are doing Israel no good at a particularly dangerous time in its history.

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Article source: The Australian | March 13, 2023

2024-05-08 07:04:10.000000