Israel-Hamas war prompts rare call between Iran and Saudi leaders

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman spoke with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on the first such call between the regional rivals’ leaders in years as concerns mounted that the war between Israel and Hamas risked triggering a broader Middle East conflict.

Prince Mohammed told Raisi in the call that he was working on de-escalating the conflict that erupted after Hamas militants broke out of Gaza on Saturday and launched a deadly attack in southern Israel.

Saudi Arabia and Iran, the region’s Sunni and Shia heavyweights, only agreed to restore diplomatic relations in March, seven years after they were severed.

The talks between the two leaders come as regional powers engage in a flurry of diplomacy in an effort to convince Hamas and Israel to contain their war so that it does not spill across borders and suck in neighbouring nations. 

Turkey, Egypt and Qatar are liaising with US president Joe Biden’s administration as they talk to Israel and the Palestinian militant faction, an Arab diplomat said.

Doha, which hosts Hamas’s political office, is also focusing on convincing the group to release the dozens of hostages, hoping that would lead to a de-escalation, the diplomat said.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken is scheduled to visit Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Qatar after holding talks with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday.

The main fear of regional powers is an eruption of fighting between Hizbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group, across Israel’s northern border, which would open a second front in the war. There has already been artillery exchange across the frontier, although both sides appear so far to be seeking to contain the hostilities. 

A broader conflict also has the potential to draw in Iranian-backed militant groups in Syria and Iraq. Syrian state television reported on Thursday that Israeli missiles struck airports in the capital Damascus and the northern city of Aleppo.

Also on Thursday, Iran’s foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian visited Iraq to discuss issues including Gaza, and was to make a subsequent stop in Lebanon.

The Arab official and western diplomats in Tehran said they believed Iran did not want the Israel-Hamas war to escalate into a regional conflict. But they added that it was unclear how the Islamic republic and its regional proxies would react if Israel pursued a massive military offensive on Gaza.

Prince Mohammed said in his talks with the Iranian president that Riyadh “was reaching out to all international and regional sides to end the current escalation”. Raisi said their countries “should defend the Muslim and oppressed nation of Palestine at this critical time,” according to an Iranian readout.

Hamas’s assault killed at least 1,200 civilians and soldiers, according to Israeli officials. Palestinian officials said on Thursday that 1,417 people had been killed by the Israeli strikes in Gaza, including 447 children and 248 women. They said 6,268 people had been wounded.

Prince Mohammed has in recent years sought to de-escalate tension in the region as he pushes ahead with an ambitious domestic development plan. Riyadh will also be concerned that regional escalation puts the kingdom at risk of attacks from Iranian-backed militants, particularly Houthis rebels in Yemen.

Israel-Hamas war

The Houthis have threatened to join the fight against Israel if the US intervenes on Israel’s behalf after it sent aircraft carriers to the region.

Hamas’s attack has also upended a push by the Biden administration to strike a deal to normalise relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Riyadh was negotiating a three-way deal with Washington and Israel that could have secured the kingdom a US military pact in return for it establishing formal diplomatic ties to the Jewish state.

But the kingdom had even before the Hamas attack grown frustrated with Israel, which balked at providing concessions to the Palestinians as part of the deal, according to three people briefed on the discussions.

The Saudis were angered at what they saw as leaks from Israel suggesting Riyadh was not seriously pursuing concessions for the Palestinians, the people said.

When the conflict erupted on Saturday, the kingdom released a strongly worded statement saying it had repeatedly warned about Israeli “provocations” against the Palestinians. Prince Mohammed later told Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in a phone call that the kingdom “stands by” the Palestinians.

The Saudi messaging was partly fuelled by its frustrations with Israel over the Palestinian question, said one of the people.

Mohammed Alyahya, a Saudi researcher and journalist familiar with the government’s thinking, wrote in an opinion piece published by the Washington Post that a “senior Saudi official told me in frustration . . . that he finds it mind-boggling that Israelis can’t seem to understand that it is fundamentally in their interest to seek a credible framework for negotiations that could deliver lasting peace”.

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