In recent years, several Arab countries have adopted a more pragmatic attitude towards Israel. Some have even signed official agreements. But much geopolitical progress is now in danger of being reversed – and not only within the region.
Over recent years, the Palestinians have become increasingly isolated in the Arab part of the Middle East. In 2020, the Abraham Accords brought the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Morocco closer to Israel. And in recent weeks, there have been rumours that the regional superpower, Saudi Arabia, was close to concluding a similar agreement. But now the events of last weekend are forcing Middle Eastern countries to adopt clearer positions on the Palestinian conflict.
What are the likely consequences for the region? The answer will depend largely on how much other actors were involved in the attack on Israel, how the rest of the region reacts, and to what extent the United States chooses to direct renewed focus on the Middle East.
How much are Hezbollah and Iran involved?
The Wall Street Journal reports that Hamas met senior leaders from both Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard shortly before the attacks and had been working with them on plans for the attacks ever since August. Iran denies these claims.
If it turns out that Iran was in fact actively involved in the attacks, for example by providing ongoing support through Syria and/or Hezbollah in Lebanon, this could trigger a wider war, in which Israel might attack Iranian, Syrian and Lebanese targets. In the immediate future, however, the Israeli forces will no doubt have their hands full fighting Hamas and regaining control over Israeli territory.
Will we see a cooling in relations between the Arab countries and Israel?
The immediate responses of the various Arab countries give us an indication of their attitudes to the war. So far, few Middle Eastern countries have expressed clear support for the Palestinian attacks. Iran is a clear supporter, along with its allies, which include Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Assad regime in Syria, and the Houthi movement in Yemen.
Most Arab countries, however, are refraining from directly supporting the Hamas attacks and are requesting all parties to halt the fighting. At the same time, these countries vary in the extent that they attribute blame for the attacks to Israel. Several Arab countries argue that the attacks are a direct consequence of, and a response to, Israel’s annexation of Palestinian territory and its poor treatment of the Palestinians. Qatar was quick to place all the blame on Israel for the current attacks, which it sees as a consequence of Israel’s suppression of Palestinian rights and repeated attacks on the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Saudi Arabia made a somewhat similar statement Saturday morning, in which it focused on the many warning signals that the situation had become explosive due to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory, its undermining of Palestinian rights, and its systematic provocations targeted at religious sites. Kuwait’s foreign ministry followed suit, expressing its continued support for the Palestinian people, while at the same time withholding direct support for the attacks.
In this way, several Arab countries are lending some legitimacy to the attacks, although they are reluctant to give their direct support to the bloody events of last weekend. The UAE, Morocco and Egypt, which all have diplomatic relations with Israel, have so far been more neutral in their statements and are requesting the parties to re-engage in dialogue and negotiations with the help of the international community. But the mood may turn.
The imminent Israeli ground invasion will most likely cause huge loss of life and much suffering for civilians in Gaza over the coming weeks. The somewhat muted response of Arab countries may change rapidly if there is a rise in the numbers of people killed and wounded in Gaza. A more pointed and critical discourse could in turn make it difficult for Israel to build further on its dialogue with Arab countries. This would have the potential to influence political alliances in the Middle East far into the future and significantly turn back the clock on the relationships that Israel has secretly been trying to build with its former enemies.
Will the United States return to the Middle East?
The United States was quick to express its clear support for Israel’s military response to the weekend terror attacks. On Sunday evening a week ago, the US Defense Department announced that it was sending American warships and other military equipment to assist the Israelis and to deter Iran and Hezbollah from exploiting the situation by initiating attacks on new fronts.
The deployment of these troops raises the question as to how far the United States will go in once again prioritizing the Middle East when supplying military resources. The United States has been very reluctant to supply such resources ever since Trump withdrew American forces from northern Syria in 2019.
Since that withdrawal, the US Congress has had very little appetite for deploying soldiers on the ground in the Middle East. This time, however, the country under immediate threat is Israel, one of the United States’ closest allies. It remains to be seen to what extent Biden can succeed in mobilizing significant support in Congress to boost America’s presence in the Middle East and to what extent this will be at the expense of America’s current security-policy focus on China and the war in Ukraine.
Unfortunately, last weekend’s events will contribute to making the geopolitical situation in the Middle East even more unpredictable, at the same time as there is also a rising potential for violent conflicts beyond Israel’s borders. China and Russia may make use of the fact that an American reprioritization of its military resources will entrench the United States more firmly in the Middle East, which may make it difficult for the Biden administration to make sound decisions that will withstand the test of time. Any mistakes by Biden will be heavily exploited by the Republicans in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election.
The coming days will show whether Israel and its allies can succeed in containing this war to a battle against Hamas on its own territory, or if yet another dark chapter will be added to the geopolitics of the Middle East.
- Henrik Buljo Anstorp is a geopolitical analyst, KPMG. He has parts of his background from PRIO, e.g. as Coordinator for the PRIO Middle East Centre.
- This text was first published in Norwegian by Aftenposten 10 October 2023.
- Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext