Presumed incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday that the United States needs to reaffirm alliances with its traditional partners in the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia, adding that a normalization deal between Jerusalem and Riyadh could serve as a “quantum leap” for long-moribund peace talks with the Palestinians.
In an interview with Saudi broadcaster Al Arabiya, Netanyahu said he plans to tell US President Joe Biden that “there is a need for America’s reaffirmation of its commitment to its traditional allies in the Middle East.”
Netanyahu noted Israel’s “unbreakable” alliance with the United States, but said that “the traditional alliance with Saudi Arabia and other countries has to be reaffirmed.”
“There should not be periodic swings or even wild swings in this relationship,” he said, calling these alliances the “anchor of stability in the region.”
US ties with Saudi Arabia have been tense under the Biden administration, which has sought to call out the kingdom on human rights issues. Riyadh has in return refused US appeals to step up energy production to bring down global prices.
While Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have formal relations, they are both closely aligned against common foe Iran.
Netanyahu expressed hope for progress in normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which has conditioned the establishment of diplomatic ties between the countries on the creation of a Palestinian state. The Likud party leader instead suggested that Israeli-Saudi normalization could pave the way for a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
“I think we can have a new peace initiative that will form a quantum leap for the achievement of both the Arab-Israeli conflict and ultimately, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” he said. “And of course, I’m referring to what could be a truly remarkable historic peace with Saudi Arabia.”
The longtime Israeli leader — who was in power in 1996-1999 and in 2009-2021 and is set to reclaim the position in the coming weeks — stressed his commitment “to deepening and strengthening the remarkable Abraham Accords,” referring to the US-backed normalization deals between Israel and several Arab nations that were inked during his last stint as premier.
“But I think the peace with Saudi Arabia will serve two purposes. It will be a quantum leap for an overall peace between Israel and the Arab world. It will change our region in ways that are unimaginable. And I think it will facilitate, ultimately, a Palestinian-Israeli peace,” he said.
Watch: #Israel’s Prime Minister-designate Benjamin @netanyahu tells Al Arabiya English he thinks peace with #SaudiArabia will be a quantum leap for an overall peace between Israel and the Arab world.https://t.co/XUMGMYoo9b pic.twitter.com/a4puyPUwVE
— Al Arabiya English (@AlArabiya_Eng) December 15, 2022
Turning to Iran, Netanyahu reiterated his opposition to the 2015 accord between Tehran and world powers that limited the Iranian nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, which he argued would not prevent the Islamic Republic from eventually acquiring an atomic bomb.
“That’s crazy. That’s folly,” he said of the agreement’s terms.
He added that he believed there was “a change in Washington” on a possible US return to the nuclear deal, which then-president Donald Trump withdrew from in 2018 with Netanyahu’s encouragement. Since taking office, Biden has sought to revive the deal but top administration officials have recently said they are not currently focused on the agreement amid Iran’s deadly crackdown on anti-regime protests and supply of drones to Russia to use in its invasion of Ukraine.
“And I think given what has happened in Iran, given the extraordinary courage of the Iranian men and these extraordinary Iranian women, I think there’s been a change and a lot of people now across the board in many lands say: ‘You really cannot go back to the JCPOA and we have to do everything in our power to stop Iran from having a nuclear arsenal,'” Netanyahu said.
He vowed “we’ll do whatever is necessary to stop Iran from having a nuclear arsenal,” even without US consent.
“The actions that we took so far, and I’m not saying which ones we did, we did without the US. We didn’t do it with US approval because the US probably would disapprove. I mean, they were for many years going on with the assumption that they have to broker or reach a deal with Iran. And if we told them what it is, every operation, what we were about to take, you know, they would say ‘we oppose it,’ in which case would be a direct conflict,” Netanyahu said.
He added: “Why do that? Just make you make your move. And secondly, it might leak. And if it leaks in The Washington Post, in The New York Times, then the Iranians would have forewarning, and our action would be nullified in advance.”
Netanyahu also indicated that he would not tear up the US-brokered maritime border agreement between Israel and Lebanon, which he had denounced as a “surrender” after it was reached in October and vowed not to be bound by it if he returns to power.
“I don’t necessarily go tearing documents up, and I don’t think that’s going to be the case,” he said, while again expressing concern the deal will benefit the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group and not the Lebanese state.
“I’ll see what I can do to moderate any damage or to secure Israel’s economic and security interests,” he added.
During the interview, Al Arabiya asked Netanyahu about the coalition deals his Likud party has inked with far-right factions that will give them extensive powers in the West Bank, including handing control over civilian affairs in the area to the Religious Zionism party, likely to its leader Bezalel Smotrich.
“I didn’t hand over great powers in Judea-Samaria, the West Bank, not at all. In fact, all the decisions will be made by me and the defense minister, and that’s actually in the coalition agreement,” he said.
Following the interview, however, Likud issued a “clarification” saying that Netanyahu was referring to “the security powers that will be in his and the defense minister’s hands,” and not to the agreement with Religious Zionism on the Civil Administration, which is one of two Defense Ministry bodies it is slated to gain control over.
The Likud statement added that decisions at the Civil Administration “will be made in coordination with the prime minister, as is written in the coalition agreement.”
Outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid bashed Netanyahu over the apparent backpedal.
“Netanyahu in English: Only I determine [policy]! Netanyahu in Hebrew: Sorry Smotrich, I didn’t mean it,” Lapid wrote on Twitter. “Netanyahu is a weak, a junior partner in the government.”
The interview with Al Arabiya came as Netanyahu works to finalize his government ahead of a December 21 deadline. Along with Likud and several far-right parties, the expected new coalition will include a pair of ultra-Orthodox factions. Together the bloc won a majority of Knesset seats in the November 1 election.