'Israel can send Lebanon back to the stone age'

FM Cohen to Arabic outlet: Israel will make gestures to Palestinians for Saudi deal

Foreign minister tells Elaph normalization will benefit Biden, Saudis; warns Hezbollah that Israeli society will unite against threats

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen visits people injured in a terror attack in Tel Aviv at Ichilov hospital in Tel Aviv. April 8, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90/File)
Foreign Minister Eli Cohen visits people injured in a terror attack in Tel Aviv at Ichilov hospital in Tel Aviv. April 8, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90/File)

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen told a widely read Arabic news site that if Israel has to offer gestures to the Palestinians to conclude a deal with Saudi Arabia, it will find a way to get it done.

“The Palestinian issue will not be an obstacle to peace,” Cohen said in an interview with the London-based Elaph, seen as a conduit for public messaging between Jerusalem and Riyadh. “We also proved this in the Abraham Accords. We all have an interest in improving life in the areas of the Palestinian Authority.”

A normalization agreement would be “a historic opportunity for a peace process that will change the face of the Middle East and the whole world,” the top diplomat said.

Cohen said that a deal would give US President Joe Biden “an achievement before the elections. This will strengthen the US domestic economy, and thus affect the global economy.”

He added that an agreement would also strengthen Saudi Arabia’s security and economy.

Elaph was founded by British-Saudi journalist Othman Al-Omeir, a confidant of Saudi King Salman.

File: In this photo released by the Saudi Royal Palace, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, welcomes US President Joe Biden to Al-Salam Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 15, 2022. (Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via AP, File)

Washington has sought to advance an Israel-Saudi normalization deal because of its perceived benefits to US national security. In recent years, Saudi Arabia and other pro-Western Gulf states have balanced a shift in US attention to the Asia-Pacific region and to Russia by expanding ties with Iran and with China.

Such a deal would see Riyadh offer an unprecedentedly large aid package to Palestinian institutions in the West Bank, significantly roll back its growing relationship with China and help bring an end to the civil war in Yemen.

The Saudis are reportedly asking for a mutual defense agreement with America, advanced defense technology and a civilian nuclear program.

It is unclear where exactly talks stand, and what Israel’s involvement in them is.

Cohen declined to say in the interview whether there have been secret meetings between the two sides.

He did say that he believes right-wing Israeli governments are best suited to make peace with Arab states. “Four of the five peace agreements signed by Israel were made by the Likud,” Cohen said. “And [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s governments concluded three peace agreements, unlike the previous government. I recall here that Yair Lapid did not attend the Knesset to support the peace agreement with the UAE at the time.”

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, left, US President Jimmy Carter, center, and Prime Minister Menachem Begin clasp hands on the North Lawn of the White House after signing the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, March 26, 1979. (AP/Bob Daugherty/File)

The mouse in the cellar

Addressing the threat from Hezbollah, which has been adopting an increasingly aggressive posture on the northern border, Cohen joined top Israeli officials in warning the Shiite militia not to test Israel’s patience.

Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, “is playing tricks, because he is weak and he is hiding like a mouse in the cellar,” said Cohen.

“Israel can send Lebanon back to the stone age,” he warned.

Cohen advised Hezbollah and its Iranian patrons not to mistake the domestic fight over the Netanyahu government’s polarizing judicial overhaul program for weakness on Israel’s part.

Fighters from the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah carry out a training exercise in Aaramta village in the Jezzine District, southern Lebanon, May 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

“They think that what is happening gives an indication of a kind of weakness inside Israel, and they are wrong,” he said. “These demonstrations express the strength and cohesion of the Israeli state. They should know that the Jewish people have always been distinguished by their internal debates, but in the hour of trial they unite.”

Senior intelligence officials have reportedly warned Netanyahu in a series of letters that Israel’s enemies, particularly Iran and Hezbollah, sense a historic opportunity to shift the balance of power in the region in their favor, amid deep, unprecedented divisions in Israeli society due to the overhaul plans, which they interpret as weakness.

North of the border, Nasrallah gloated after the first judicial reform bill passed that Israel’s “trust, awareness and self-confidence have deteriorated into the crisis it is experiencing today.” He said the protests in the wake of the vote marked Israel’s “worst” day since the state’s creation.

Hezbollah officials at the highest levels have discussed the upheaval in Israel, and plan to exploit the situation in the future, a Lebanese source told Reuters.

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