Calls fears of overhaul's economic impact 'momentary fluff'

Netanyahu says peace prospects with Saudis not dented by Iran rapprochement

PM tells CNBC Riyadh knows who are its adversaries and who are its friends, and ‘countries who partner with Iran partner with misery’; FM Cohen says visit to kingdom ‘on the table’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) speaks with CNBC's Hadley Gamble on April 19, 2023 (Screencapture/CNBC)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) speaks with CNBC's Hadley Gamble on April 19, 2023 (Screencapture/CNBC)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shrugged off concerns over the diplomatic thaw between arch-nemesis Iran and hoped-for-ally Saudi Arabia, telling US media Wednesday that Riyadh has no illusions about whom it can trust.

In a wide-ranging interview with CNBC, the latest in a string of appearances on American outlets by the premier — despite an apparent ongoing boycott of the mainstream Israeli press — Netanyahu claimed that the Saudis’ concerns about terror would outweigh their qualms over his government’s hardline stance on the Palestinians.

Netanyahu said that Saudi Arabia’s restoration of ties with Iran had “very little” to do with Israel and was mainly about deescalating tensions in the regions, particularly in Yemen.

Yet, when asked why Riyadh was also restoring ties with Syria and hosting leaders of the Hamas terror group and the Palestinian Authority, Netanyahu posited that those moves were meant to send them a message ahead of a possible peace deal with Israel.

“Maybe to tell them they are going to have to prepare themselves — maybe to try to tell them to stop doing the kind of terror they foment,” he said.

“Saudi Arabia, the leadership there, has no illusions about who their adversaries are and who their friends are in the Middle East. They understand that Israel is an indispensable partner for the Arab world in achieving security, prosperity and peace,” Netanyahu said.

“Ninety-five percent of the problems in the Middle East emanate from Iran — terrorism, aggression, many many subversions,” he said, adding that countries like Yemen, Syria and Lebanon, who “partner with Iran, partner with misery.”

Netanyahu reiterated his belief that peace with Saudi Arabia would end the larger Arab-Israeli conflict, although he conceded it would not immediately solve the conflict with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu said that Riyadh was very aware of the benefits of partnering with Israel: “We have done enormously well alone, but we can do a lot better together.”

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, who is currently visiting Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, both neighbors of Iran, also indicated that Saudi rapprochement with Tehran could be a precursor to ties with Israel and said he was hopeful he would visit Riyadh.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen meets with Azerbaijani Economy Minister Mikayil Jabbarov in Baku on April 18, 2023. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

“It is exactly these things that could lead to a balancing act of [Riyadh] moving closer to Israel,” he told Army Radio.

Cohen said a visit to Saudi Arabia “was on the table,” but there was no date yet set.

He also predicted that at least one more Arab state would join the Abraham Accords — Israel’s normalization deals with the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco — within the year, but gave no further details.

Saudi Arabia has repeatedly said that it will not normalize ties with Israel until a peace deal is inked with the Palestinians.

In his CNBC interview, Netanyahu also appeared skeptical when asked about China’s growing influence in the Middle East, brokering the Iran-Saudi deal and also offering to help negotiate between Israel and the Palestinians.

In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, at right, shakes hands with Saudi national security adviser Musaad bin Mohammed al-Aiban, at left, as Wang Yi, China’s most senior diplomat, looks on, at center, for a photo during a closed meeting held in Beijing, March 11, 2023. (Luo Xiaoguang/Xinhua via AP)

Netanyahu said he was “unaware” of any specific Chinese offer to mediate and skirted the question of whether he favored a greater role by Beijing, by calling for the US to boost its own presence in the area.

“We respect China, we deal with China a great deal but we also know that we have an indispensable alliance with our great friend the United States,” he said. “It is very important for the US to be very clear about its commitment and engagement in the Middle East.”

During the interview, Netanyahu also dismissed mounting concerns about the influence of his government’s judicial overhaul plan on the Israeli economy, calling things like a steep drop in investment in high-tech and ratings agencies downgrading Israel’s credit outlook as “dust.”

“The momentary fluff, the momentary dust that is in the air, is just that, dust,” he said. “The fundamentals of the Israeli economy are very powerful.”

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