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Iran-Saudi deal: Why Israel wants tensions to remain high

Regional conflicts work to Israel’s benefit, helping it to maintain strategic superiority and sell arms

Most countries worldwide welcomed the recent Iran-Saudi deal, in which the regional rivals resumed diplomatic relations – with the notable exception of Israel, which was shaken by the rapprochement. Many analysts expected this, as the two countries have long been rivals, and Israel considers Iran a major threat to its “national security”. 

But this cannot solely explain the Israeli stance, as Israel has played a key role in many conflicts in the Middle East since 1948 – sometimes for opportunistic reasons, and sometimes in an effort to weaken Arab states by fuelling their own internal conflicts. 

In 1956, Israel agreed with Britain and France to attack Egypt in the infamous Suez Crisis. At the time, newly decolonised Egypt posed no threat to Israel – but Tel Aviv aimed to seize control of Gaza, undermine the nationalist Egyptian president, and get help from France for its nuclear programme. 

Israel’s participation in this assault was thus an opportunistic attempt to benefit from a conflict between a newly independent country and two declining empires, rather than a defensive action against any real threat from Egypt.

In the Gulf region, Israel for years maintained good relations with the shah in Iran, with both viewing as threats the Soviet Union and pan-Arabism. But after the 1979 Iranian revolution, even as negative rhetoric intensified on both sides, Tel Aviv supported Tehran with arms during the Iran-Iraq War. 

While building the only military nuclear power in the Middle East, Israel has simultaneously created conflicts and fuelled wars in the region, aiming to prevent other countries from catching up. In 1981, Israel attacked an Iraqi nuclear site

Israel’s lobby in the US played a role in the American decision to invade Iraq in 2003, and it worked to prevent a nuclear deal between the West and Iran. Israel has also been accused of attacks and assassination operations against Iranian nuclear scientists. 

With regards to Egypt, which is embroiled in a conflict with Ethiopia over construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to support Ethiopia to develop its water resources by enhancing its agriculture systems.

History of intervention

Israel also has a long history of intervening in civil wars in the Middle East. During the Lebanese civil war, Israel’s 1982 invasion – with the stated goal of targeting the Palestine Liberation Organisation – fuelled the conflict, infamously enabling a Lebanese-Christian militia to carry out the Sabra and Shatila massacre, in which up to 3,500 people were killed.

Israeli weapons also flowed into South Sudan, where they were used in the civil war that followed the country’s 2011 independence from Sudan. And in Iraq, Tel Aviv inserted itself into the conflict between the Kurds and Baghdad, supporting the Kurdish drive for independence. 

The Middle East is a tense region with prolonged conflicts, due to the nature of establishing new states after colonialism. But Israel has exacerbated this situation for several reasons.

Israel has reasons to prefer a tense region with endless conflicts; it is left to Arab countries to work towards a more peaceful Middle East

Firstly, Israel seeks to maintain strategic superiority in the region, and it can do so by weakening other countries. This can explain why it supported Iran against Iraq in the 1980s, and why Israel has played a low key but important role in the Syria conflict, carrying out continuous air strikes against Iran-linked targets in Syria to this day, including bombing its major airports.

Secondly, as an imperial state, Israel aims to benefit from arms sales, and it knows that the more conflicts there are in the Middle East, the more arms it can sell.

Thirdly, Israel has created a narrative in the West to assert that it is the only democracy in the Middle East – a prosperous and modern country in the midst of a jungle. More conflicts and civil wars in the region work to validate that claim.

Israel’s globally unique position on the Iran-Saudi rapprochement is not surprising. Israel wants the conflict between Iran and Arab countries to continue to weaken both sides, while it maintains its own superiority, making security deals with the UAE and helping to counter the mutual “Iranian threat”.

Today, with a far-right government in power in Israel, such toxic policies will expand far beyond Iran. Amid ongoing provocations at Al-Aqsa Mosque, tensions with Jordan could increase, especially after Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich recently spoke by a map that annexed Jordan to Israel, while asserting that Palestinians did not exist.

Israel has reasons to prefer a tense region with endless conflicts; it is left to Arab countries to work towards a more peaceful Middle East.

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