World Politics

Israel PM cautions Saudi Arabia about Iran after China-brokered deal, urges greater U.S. presence

Key Points
  • "Those who partner with Iran partner with misery," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Saudi Arabia, following Riyadh's China-brokered deal with long-standing rival Iran.
  • He reiterated hopes for Israel to rekindle ties with Saudi Arabia, leading to a potential relationship where "even the sky's not the limit."
  • "I think it's very important for the United States to be very clear about its commitment" in the Middle East, Netanyahu said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Sean Gallup | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned the Saudi leadership of the dangers of reigniting ties with long-standing rival Iran following a China-brokered deal last month, while urging greater U.S. engagement in the Middle East region.

"Those who partner with Iran partner with misery. Look at Lebanon, look at Yemen, look at Syria, look at Iraq," he told CNBC's Hadley Gamble in an interview Wednesday, stressing that "95% of the problems in the Middle East emanate from Iran." CNBC has reached out to the Iranian foreign ministry for comment.

The China-brokered March 10 détente between long-term rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran has dealt a blow to Netanyahu's diplomatic crusade of pursuing Tehran's political isolation. It also prospectively set back Israel's attempts to normalize relations with Riyadh, one of the wealthiest and most influential Arab states and a historical supporter of Palestinians.

Already, relations have resumed to a point of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi inviting King Salman bin Abdulaziz to visit Iran, according to comments of an Iranian foreign ministry spokesman cited by Iran's state news agency Irna.

Addressing the deal, Netanyahu told CNBC on Wednesday, "I think it has probably a lot more to do with the desire to de-escalate or even eliminate the long-standing conflict in Yemen. I think that Saudi Arabia, the leadership there, has no illusions about who are their adversaries, and who are their friends."

The foreign policy hit comes at a time when Netanyahu contends with domestic tensions over his controversial judicial overhaul and recent salvos against alleged Lebanon-based infrastructures belonging to the Iran-funded Hamas militant group — which both Israel and the U.S. designate as a terrorist organization. Before that, footage of Israeli forces beating worshippers in Jerusalem's al-Aqsa mosque during the Arabic holy month of Ramadan drew international condemnations, including from Saudi Arabia.

Watch CNBC’s full interview with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Watch CNBC’s full interview with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

The Saudi-Iran agreement also marked a breakthrough for China — a key ally of Iran and major trade partner of Saudi Arabia — which has increasingly attempted to position itself as a diplomatic mediator in global politics and has inclusively been entreated by European leaders to use its sway on Russia to help resolve the war in Ukraine. Beijing's 12-point peace plan for Ukraine, introduced on the one-year anniversary of the conflict, has yet to gain traction.

Netanyahu denied awareness of any Chinese initiative to intercede to end the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

"I'm not aware of any specific offer of this kind," he said. "Look, we respect China, we deal with China a great deal. But we also know we have an indispensable alliance with our great friend the United States."

Israel seeks Saudi rekindling

Israel has made critical inroads to reconnect with Arab states since the September 2020 Abraham Accords mediated by the administration of former U.S. President Donald Trump. The agreement re-established relations between Israel and Saudi allies Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates — a second divergence from the Saudi agenda, after Abu Dhabi in December 2018 then-controversially announced it would reopen its embassy in the Iran-allied Syria. A day later, Bahrain stated it had never interrupted diplomatic relations with Damascus.

Sudan and Morocco have also recognized Israel in the years since the Abraham Accords.  

But Saudi Arabia — with whom Israel has historically shared security concerns over Iran's nuclear progress and military funding activity in the Middle East — has so far eluded Netanyahu's diplomatic courtship.

"We'd like very much to have peace with Saudi Arabia. Because I think it would be another huge quantum leap for peace. In many ways it would end the Arab-Israeli conflict," the Israeli prime minister told CNBC on Wednesday, noting this could pave the path for further diplomacy with Palestinians. "We would like to expand the circle of peace to its totality," he added.

Israel PM cautions Saudi Arabia about Iran after China-brokered deal, urges greater U.S. presence
Israel PM cautions Saudi Arabia about Iran after China-brokered deal, urges greater U.S. presence

Narrowing down to just the potential of a relationship with Saudi Arabia, Netanyahu said, "I think the sky's the limit. And even the sky's not the limit, because there are many opportunities in space as well."

Saudi Arabia has yet to show signs of thawing fidelity toward the Palestinian Authority, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meeting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Jeddah on April 19, according to both Saudi and Palestinian outlets.

U.S. commitment

The U.S. has long attempted to mediate a rekindling of Israel and Saudi ties, which has lingered out of reach as Riyadh seeks a resolution to the statehood of Palestinian territories. A day before the Saudi-Iran announcement, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal reported that Riyadh had requested U.S. security guarantees and help with developing a civilian nuclear program in exchange for clinching an agreement with Israel.

"The better the relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors, the better for everybody," U.S. President Joe Biden said on March 10, when asked about the impact of the reestablishment of Saudi-Iran relations on Israel. White House spokesperson Karine-Jean Pierre later that day stressed that conflict de-escalation and diplomacy in the Middle East are "key pillars" of Biden's policy, as outlined in his first visit to the region in July last year — when the U.S. leader stopped in both Israel and Saudi Arabia, hoping to reset Washington's relationship with Riyadh following the 2018 murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

"I think that not only Israel but I think in many ways most of the … countries in the Middle East would welcome an American, not merely the American involvement in the Middle East which has been ongoing, but a greater engagement of America in the Middle East," Netanyahu said.

"I think it's very important for the United States to be very clear about its commitment and engagement in the Middle East."