WORLD : In a rare show of unity, Middle Eastern leaders gathered in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on November 11 to condemn Israel’s military bombardment of Gaza in a joint summit of the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi traveled to Riyadh, the first Iranian leader to do so in over a decade, to compel Gulf monarchies to sever all ties with Israel and throw their support behind Hamas.
In the end, the final joint statement amounted to a rehearsed indictment of Israeli military bombardment and a call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, a far cry from Iranian ambitions.
But the message was consistent with the Arab world’s stance since the start of the conflict following the heinous terrorist attacks carried out by Hamas on October 7, when neighboring states scrambled to balance their response between reactionary rhetoric and restraint.
Guilty of a chronic shortage of action in the defense of the Palestinian cause since at least the First Intifada, Arab states are facing mounting pressure to act as the humanitarian crisis worsens in Gaza. But Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has said unequivocally that Egypt will not open its border, citing national security concerns if Hamas militants were to infiltrate into the Sinai Peninsula.
While the streets of Amman have witnessed unprecedented outpours of pro-Palestinian solidarity, Jordan, fearing an influx of Palestinian refugees, can do little in practice. And contrary to Iran and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s urging oil-producing countries to impose an oil embargo against Israel, Saudi Arabia has refused.
The Riyadh Summit declaration—condemnation without any real punitive policy—illustrates the desire to placate enraged Arab publics, while leaving the door open to future (re)engagement with Israel, especially for the Abraham Accord states and other Gulf nations that perceive Iran as a threat. It also demonstrated the rift between Iran and much of the Arab world.
Over the past few years, a consensus had emerged among policymakers and think tankers in Washington that the default in Gaza was Hamas rule. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was variously seen as a lost cause and a case for containment rather than resolution.
The October 7 attacks and their aftermath disrupted a phase of normalization and regional security cooperation in the Middle East.
Closer alignment in threat perceptions was emerging between Israel and the Gulf states experiencing common air, land, and sea risks from Iran and its “Axis of Resistance” operating in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen.
The Abraham Accords were followed by the Israel-Lebanon maritime border agreement in October 2022 and the China-brokered Saudi-Iran détente in March 2023.
But the United States appears to have badly miscalculated the implications of its diplomatic overtures to the Saudis and other states interested in normalizing their relations with Israel in the absence of a settlement to the question of Palestinian statehood.
The parameters of Israel’s existing strategy need to emerge urgently—the absence of one will cost more Palestinian and Israeli lives. Without a plan, Israel and its allies are facing regime change with no clear candidate to which to transfer power in a post-Hamas Gaza.
U.S. secretary of state Antony Blinken and others have suggested that Arab states could take on a direct role in the administration of postwar Gaza. A multilateral Arab force, with the majority of military and administrative personnel sourced from Saudi Arabia is one scenario. Another sees the Saudis financing the rebuilding of Gaza’s homes, roads, and hospitals.
A different scenario assigns control of Gaza to the temporary stewardship of the United Nations, backed by a UN Security Council resolution until power is peacefully transferred to the Palestinian Authority. For its part, Turkey has floated a peace proposal, where it acts on behalf of the Palestinians through a
“humanitarian, political, and military presence.”
Each one of these options has glaring holes in its reasoning. The Israeli intelligence and security establishment is actively assessing how each scenario may end in failure. One former senior Israeli intelligence chief told the author it is simply too soon: “It is like asking Winston Churchill on D-Day to lay out a vision for what postwar Europe would look like.”
Meanwhile, Arab states fear that if they step in to take responsibility for Gaza, they may be seen as condoning the Israeli operation that wreaked havoc on Gaza and its civilian population.
The divide between Arab states and society is perhaps nowhere as stark as it is on the Palestinian cause, where the proverbial Arab street is enraged by the Israel incursion and the failure of their governments to effect a ceasefire.
Egypt views the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoot Hamas as a terrorist organization but sees Gaza as Israel’s responsibility and not its own. Saudi Arabia opposes extremist ideologies as a threat to its Vision 2030 prosperity plan.
For many Arab states, October 7 is a watershed that unequivocally shows that Hamas cannot be treated even superficially as a trusted actor.
The architects of a postwar political process may try to weed out the (remaining) hardened ideologues of the Hamas military command from its political wing. But it is very unlikely that Israel will accept a “de-Baathification” for Hamas, nor is it a palatable option for other stakeholders.
Peace will require determined and sustained engagement from the international community, probably with the United States and Saudi Arabia at the helm.
To be sustainable, any formula will need to withstand the sets of tensions that will no doubt test the resolve of both Palestinians and Israelis to practice peace, both from within and without.
Normalization is essential to peace in the Middle East, and while Saudi Arabia has suspended the process for now, its desire for greater security guarantees from the United States will not go away.
Moreover, many Arab states see Israel as a gateway to access cutting-edge technology, and multilateral engagement between Israel and neighboring states can still bear security interdependence against a resurgent Iran that will see its proxy game paying off, even if it loses Hamas in the short term.
Importantly, any postwar scenario must empower Palestinians who, cast free from the oppressive subjugation of Hamas, which ruled Gaza without an electoral mandate since 2006, may finally exercise their right to determine their own fate.
The right to self-determination as a foundational principle of international law has delivered little for stateless peoples since the wave of state-building following the era of decolonization, apart from the exceptions of Kosovo and South Sudan.
An ascendant position since the end of the Cold War has been that the principle of self-determination is not a trump card or necessarily an automatic right belonging to a people, but must be balanced by other principles, namely the requirement for international peace, order, and security.
The Middle East will emerge from the Israel-Hamas war having changed profoundly. Much of what this will look like depends on the governing structure that will rule Gaza the “day after” the war.
It is clear that the future of the two-state solution is more urgent than it was before October 7.
By Burcu Ozcelik
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