With more than 7,000 people, including 3,000 children, dead in Gaza, Israel’s war is turning into an issue that will continue to shape the Middle East for a long time. Already, the war has meant the end of Washington’s Abraham Accord policy and its possible expansion to Saudi Arabia. There are strong indications that the Middle Eastern states are increasingly turning to China and Russia to mediate conflict resolution. At the same time, however, Israel’s relentless bombing, ignoring the (Arab) states’ pleas – and Iran’s clear warnings of further escalation – is creating a new opportunity for anti-Israel politics to get hardened within these states. Whereas Riyadh has put the Washington-backed ‘deal’ with Israel on ice, Turkey has taken steps that it would not have taken otherwise. Sending a shock to Jerusalem – and its own NATO allies – Ankara has declared that Hamas is not a terrorist organization but a liberation group fighting to protect their lands and rights against Israel. Erdoğan has also cancelled his trip to Israel. Qatar’s emir, on the other hand, said, “It is untenable for Israel to be given an unconditional green light and free licence to kill, nor it is tenable to continue ignoring the reality of occupation, siege and settlement.”
Collectively, when most Middle Eastern states refuted Washington’s claim that Israel was not responsible for the al-Ahli hospital bombing, it sent a clear message: the Washington-Jerusalem nexus is fast losing its allies in the Middle East and that the war, if it continues to kill more and more innocent people, could freeze the Middle East’s relations with both Washington and Israel in a state of permanent tension. Israel’s occupation of Palestine – and the West’s overall support for it – is one issue that has historically received a lot of popular support across the Muslim world. Therefore, there already is this added danger of a new wave of jihad emerging from within the Muslim world, including the large Muslim diaspora living in the West, against the West and Israel.
But beyond that, Israel’s war on Gaza and the associated difficulty of normalization is going to complicate states like Saudi Arabia’s plans for massive economic transformation. There is no denying that Saudia’s Vision-2030 gives a lot of room to China. But, with the Middle East’s entire security landscape being compromised by this war, actualising that vision without first addressing security and ensuring peace will become a lot harder than would have been the case otherwise.
For instance, at the heart of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 is Muhammad Bin Salman’s (MBS) idea of making his Kingdom a driving force not only in the Middle East but in the world on the whole. A few years ago, MBS claimed that the Middle East would be “the new Europe”. Can Saudi Arabia achieve this dream and really lead the Middle East without first resolving a crisis that is now quickly assuming a genocidal proportion? Establishing peace was necessary, which is why MBS normalised relations with Iran, and which is why he was keen to normalise ties with Israel. This is now not extremely difficult, if not impossible. But even if this is to become possible, a concrete solution to this issue has become a pre-requisite.
Its reason is that, given the reaction, i.e., countries like Turkey and Iran openly supporting Hamas against Israel at a time when Israel is killing the Gazans and also repeatedly attacks Iranian interests in and beyond Syria, the threat of a wider war in the Middle East has increased manifold. War and economic modernization cannot go hand in hand. This is true not only for states like Saudia Arabi trying to modernize their economy, but also for states like the UAE to entrench their position as a key hub of global trade and supplies. Within this scenario, these states, if they decide to further normalise their ties with Israel, run the risk of facing yet another wave of Arab-spring-like protests, causing political instability to spread and forcing the regimes to shift their attention away from economic modernization to ensure their very survival. They want no such scenario unfolding within their borders.
But even if these states experience no internal upheavals, clouds of a wider conflagration are looming large. In the past, Israel and the US have seriously hurt Iranian interests. They have not only attacked Iran’s nuclear facilities, but the US also killed a top Iranian military official, the head of the Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani in January 2020. For Iran, therefore, this might be the best opportunity to exact revenge on Israel. Tehran is most likely to be emboldened by several factors.
First, the popular opinion throughout the Middle East is anti-Israel, allowing Tehran to contemplate an aggressive approach. Secondly, normalization between Arab states and Israel is no longer possible, at least in the immediate future. Thirdly, the Iran-backed Hezbollah possesses far superior military means than Hamas, and it has the capability to inflict serious damage on Israel. Fourthly, Israel’s inability to pre-empt the Hamas attack has also contributed to the perception that Jerusalem is not that strong either, that it can be attacked and that it is vulnerable. Fifth, even if Iran decides not to escalate the war, there is already this possibility of larger radicalization against Israel and the West – a wave of new jihad that might target the Arab states themselves for their eagerness to recognise Israel without first resolving the Palestinian issue.
These Arab states are, therefore, going to design – and tread – their policy paths very carefully, certainly in a way that no longer offers open support for normalization with Israel; maintains a calculated distance from the US (e.g., Jordan cancelling a summit with Biden); and supports the people of Palestine towards a just resolution of the conflict.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.