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Opinion After protests and violence, Israel faces a diplomatic blow

Protesters clash with police on Saturday in Tel Aviv during a massive demonstration against the Israeli government's judicial overhaul plan. (Amir Levy/Getty Images)
4 min

An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Iran as a Sunni state and to Saudi Arabia as a Shiite state. This version has been corrected.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog has called the national upheaval over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s assault on the judiciary a “national nightmare.” Ongoing mass demonstrations were joined by hundreds of thousands on Saturday night. And after violence by Israeli settlers, fears have intensified that Israel is heading toward a third intifada. Now comes news that fierce foes Iran and Saudi Arabia are reestablishing relations.

This might be the biggest blow of all to Netanyahu, who fancies himself a diplomat who can make peace with Arab neighbors, forge an alliance against Iran and put off indefinitely any prospect of Palestinian statehood.

From the perspective of the United States, a lowering of tensions between Iran, the leading Shiite power, and Saudi Arabia, the leading Sunni state, may be a positive development, although the arrival of China, which brokered the deal, as a major player in the region can hardly be encouraging. But Netanyahu has reason to see things differently.

However, the Saudi-Iran agreement might be less than it seems. Veteran Middle East diplomatic Dennis Ross told me it “is really not a rapprochement.” The Saudis, he said, want to find out if the Iranians are willing to limit what the Houthi rebels do in Yemen. “They would like to be out of Yemen, or at a minimum to keep the Houthis in a cease-fire,” Ross said. For their part, the Iranians want to “show they are not isolated in the region,” he said. But “the fundamentals” in the Saudi-Iranian relationship have not changed.

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The last thing Netanyahu wants, however, is to see the Saudis repair relations with Israel’s archenemy, and to deflect criticism would prefer to blame supposed Saudi concerns about U.S. “weakness.”

For someone who continually crows about the Abraham Accords and hints he will normalize relations with Riyadh, Netanyahu appears to have been caught off guard by the move. The Saudis and Iranians grip-and-grin undercuts his claim to international prowess.

As he is prone to do when things go badly, he lashed out at others — in this case the United States — claiming the deal resulted from weakness shown by the Biden administration and the previous Israeli government.

Nevertheless, the surprise Saudi-Iran pact feeds the perception that Netanyahu is leading Israel toward greater chaos and turmoil.

As Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, explained, “Netanyahu has told Israelis that he is the guy who is going to make peace with the Saudis, which would cement Israel’s place in the region and bring an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict once and for all.”

Moreover, by easing Iran’s international isolation, the Saudi move may stymie Netanyahu’s desire to heighten confrontation with Tehran. Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, said this “is one of the reasons why he and his echo chamber are critical.”

Netanyahu’s domestic opponents are only too happy for the opportunity to excoriate the prime minister. Yair Lapid, the former leader, denounced the deal as “the complete and dangerous failure of the Israeli government’s foreign policy.” “This is what happens when one deals with legal insanity all day instead of doing one’s job against Iran and strengthening relations with the United States,” he said.

Naftali Bennett, Lapid’s partner in the previous government, called the pact a “resounding failure” for Netanyahu. “Countries in the world and the region see Israel divided with a nonfunctional government, focused on serial self-destruction,” he said.

Netanyahu has already been playing defense against widespread domestic and international criticism. He has tried to give the impression that he is open to compromise on the judicial reform plan that has provoked protests, and he has paid lip service to Herzog’s efforts at mediation.

However, in denouncing peaceful protesters as “anarchists” and comparing them to the marauding settlers on the West Bank, Netanyahu has (intentionally or not) undermined efforts to cool tempers.

Netanyahu’s reputation as a strong leader who can bring security, prosperity and international respect is in tatters. He seems determined to pick fights with the United States despite President Biden’s considerable restraint in responding to his assault on the judiciary and confrontation with the Palestinians.

Driven by arrogance, contempt for critics and thirst for power, Netanyahu has always been his own worst enemy. Tragically, he may now be Israel’s as well.