ROME — A senior official traveling with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s entourage on Friday sought to blame the deal reached by Saudi Arabia and Iran to re-establish diplomatic relations on the previous Israeli government and the Biden administration’s combined weakness.
“There was a feeling of American and Israeli weakness, so Saudi Arabia turned to other channels,” said the senior Israeli official, briefing reporters who were traveling with Netanyahu in Italy.
The official falsely claimed that the talks between Riyadh and Tehran began during the tenure of Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid’s short-lived unity government when US President Joe Biden’s administration was more committed to re-entering the Iran nuclear deal. As a result, Saudi Arabia turned to China, which served as a counterweight to the US and helped broker the agreement announced Friday.
However, while the Bennett-Lapid government was formed in June 2021, the negotiations between began Riyadh and Tehran in fact began in April of that year, when Netanyahu was still prime minister.
Earlier on Friday, Bennett and Lapid blamed Netanyahu for the Saudi Arabia-Iran rapprochement, arguing that it was the result of diplomatic neglect, general weakness and internal conflict in the country since the current government was established on December 29.
The remarks represented a clear shot by the Prime Minister’s Office at Biden, who entered office pledging to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal but has gradually moved away from that effort over the past year amid Tehran’s military cooperation with Russia and the ongoing protests in the Islamic Republic against the regime there.
Dismissing claims that the current government was responsible, the senior Israeli official claims members of the previous government should ask themselves why the initial contacts began during their tenure — despite the latter claim being false.
Lapid — now opposition chairman — scoffed at the Netanyahu government’s accusations, tweeting that his government put every other issue aside when it became clear to them that the Biden administration was on the verge of re-entering the Iran nuclear deal. “We worked on it 24/7,” Lapid said, suggesting that Israel played a role in blocking the deal.
He contrasted that with the current government’s tenure, during which Iran has succeeded in enriching uranium to 84% purity.
“And this right-wing government? [It is focused] not on Iran, not on the terror attacks, not on the economy, not the cost of living. All they care about is destroying democracy and tearing the people apart. Oh, and holiday weekends in Rome too,” Lapid said referring to the criticism that Netanyahu was spending the weekend in Rome at the taxpayer’s expense.
Meanwhile Friday, Iran National Security Council secretary Ali Shamkhani told Iran’s Nour News that the agreement his government inked with Saudi Arabia “will definitely be a serious obstacle to the presence and interference of extra-regional countries and the Zionist regime in the region.”
The deal also appeared to mark a blow to Israeli efforts to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia.
However, the senior Israeli official briefing reporters insisted that the Friday agreement would not harm Netanyahu’s endeavor.
“What happens on the diplomatic level is not what happens under the surface,” the official said, hinting at ongoing efforts between Israel and Saudi Arabia taking place behind the scenes.
A senior Middle East diplomat told The Times of Israel Thursday that the Biden administration has held talks with Saudi Arabia in order to broker such a normalization agreement with Israel. However, the diplomat acknowledged that such a deal remains “very far off,” amid the Gulf kingdom’s far-reaching demands of the US.
The senior Israeli official speaking Friday argued that the tougher the Israeli and Western positions on Iran — including their demonstration of a credible nuclear threat — the more likely that Saudi Arabia will be willing to warm ties with Israel.
The official argued that the stances of Israel and the US “are more decisive” than the normalization agreement reached Friday.
The official added that the West’s position on Iran has begun to improve in Israel’s favor but that “it hasn’t changed enough.”
The US says that nuclear talks with Iran are not currently on the table but that it still prefers a diplomatic solution.