Gaza crisis shakes up the Middle East’s political landscape

The Hamas attack and Israel’s offensive are changing the rules of the game in the region, slowing down normalization efforts and putting many Arab nations in an uncomfortable position

Protest in Yemen in solidarity with Palestine, on Friday in Sana'a.
Protest in Yemen in solidarity with Palestine, on Friday in Sana'a.YAHYA ARHAB (EFE)
Marc Español

At the end of September, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the stage at the U.N. General Assembly to deliver another of his unique speeches. On this occasion, Netanyahu brought with him a poster with two maps of the Middle East, one on each side. The first, titled “Israel in 1948,” showed his country painted in blue occupying the entire territory of historical Palestine, but on its own. The second showed Israel and the countries, with which it had since established relations or were in the path to doing so. This map was called “The New Middle East.”

Only a month after that speech, the reality presented by Netanyahu appears much more blurred and fluid. Since Hamas’s surprise attack on Israeli territory on October 7, and especially in the wake of Israel’s military campaign and siege on the Gaza Strip, the political landscape has been upturned. And the crisis threatens to have major repercussions throughout the Middle East.

New rules of the game

Although Iranian authorities have adopted very strong rhetoric against Israel’s offensive in Gaza, in practice they have been more cautious, which many attribute to the country’s internal crisis of political legitimacy, its economic problems and its aversion to having a direct confrontation with the United States. In mid-September, in fact, Tehran and Washington agreed to a prisoner exchange and the release of $6 billion dollars frozen in South Korea in a rare display of diplomacy, although the second part of the deal is now on hold after what happened in Israel.

Despite this relative caution, Iran and Israel have been involved in a shadow war for years — one that both believed could be managed without it getting out of control. But the current spiral of violence and the volatility that surrounding it has increased the risk of a possible miscalculation or misstep, as has happened in Gaza. This would be the case if Tehran chooses to take advantage of Israel’s vulnerability to try to redefine the rules of the game, weaken Israel even further and continue to erode its image and deterrence capacity.

In this context, the Israeli army and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah have been testing their respective red lines for several days, with the two engaging in low-grade and calculated attacks on the border. For now, however, Hezbollah does not appear to want to openly enter into battle. But Israel’s blunder in its assessment of Hamas’s intentions prior to its unexpected attack on October 7, which caught them completely by surprise, has raised doubts among the militant group.

In recent days, U.S. forces have also been attacked with drones in at least two points in Syria and in two military bases that house U.S. troops and personnel in Iraq. On Thursday, the U.S. Navy said it had also intercepted a volley of missiles and drones launched by Yemen’s Houthi movement, which were aimed at Israel. The link between these attacks and the crisis in Gaza, however, is not entirely clear.

“This conflict will only remain contained if all parties have an interest in avoiding a regional war. For now, that condition seems to hold. But there is no guarantee that it will hold in the future,” wrote Dalia Dassa, a researcher in international relations at the University of California, in a recent analysis for the magazine Foreign Policy. “The situation on the ground is fluid, and changes to the strategic calculus in Israel, Iran, or both countries may lead their leaders to believe that avoiding wider conflict poses a greater danger to their survival than does confronting one another in war.”

Clouded normalizations

Israel’s intense military campaign against Gaza and the increased regional instability also represent a major setback for the Gulf Arab powers that in recent years have chosen to normalize relations with Israel. These countries committed to work to reduce tensions in the region, prioritize diplomatic channels and side line the Palestinian cause with the aim of being able to focus on their internal economic development.

The most notable movement on this diplomatic front was carried out by the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, which began to normalize relations with Israel in 2020 with the Abraham Accords. Despite this, the Abraham Accords never had significant popular support in the Arab signatory countries. In view of this, these governments have chosen to adopt a low profile in the current crisis. In Morocco and Bahrain, protests in solidarity with the Palestinian people and against the Israeli offensive in Gaza have also called for an end to the normalization of relations with Israel.

“The Abraham Accords countries are very worried and disconcerted,” notes Hussein Ibish, a researcher at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, who points out that “they cannot stand Hamas” but are also “not particularly supportive of the Netanyahu government.” He adds: “The conflict certainly puts them in a difficult situation. It’s the kind of thing they were hoping to avoid completely.”

Ibish believes that if Israel does not commit “truly genocidal crimes or total ethnic cleansing or extreme outrages” and the violence spreads to the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, the Abraham Accords “can probably survive.” But he warns: “If Israel goes too far, then they could back down, freeze cooperation, close embassies or something like that. But they don’t want to give Hamas, of all groups, a veto over their foreign policy and independent decision-making.”

The jewel in the crown of this diplomatic offensive was Saudi Arabia, the main power in the region. In the weeks before the Hamas attack on Israel, the Saudi crown prince and strongman of the kingdom, Mohamed bin Salman, declared that they were getting “closer” every day to an agreement with Israel. But since the attack, Saudi authorities have said negotiations have been suspended. Some experts, however, believe that the current crisis benefits Saudi Arabia, because it places it in a stronger position from which to resume negotiations in the future.

“As long as the regional environment remains in the current phase, the Saudis will maintain their rhetoric, condemn Israel, and insist on the need for a ceasefire and respect for international laws to be seen on the right side of history,” says Umer Karim, an expert on Saudi politics at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies.

“But once this episode is over, they will be willing to restart the process, although their conditions for normalization with Israel will be much stricter and will undoubtedly include more provisions related to the Palestinian cause, because they now understand that a flare-up of this issue in the future may also put them in the spotlight, like it has done with its Gulf neighbors that are part of the Abraham Accords,” adds Karim, who notes that Riyadh also “does not want to antagonize Iran any further.”

Former allies

The conflagration in Gaza is especially worrying, as it represents a major political challenge for Egypt and Jordan, neighbors of Palestine and Israel and the regional states with the longest-standing relations with Tel Aviv. From the beginning of the crisis, both nations have tried to stop the spiral of violence. They are aware that the offensive against Gaza places them in a compromised position, as it has become increasingly difficult for them to balance their relations with Israel and the United States and the popular support for the Palestinian people. The worsening situation also comes at a moment when both nations are facing internal problems, particularly economic ones, and there is fear that the collective rage triggered by the crisis in Gaza could spread internally.

In Jordan, where about half the population is of Palestinian origin, there have been large demonstrations in support of Palestine. These have forced the country’s security forces to intervene to protect sensitive points such as the U.S. and Israeli embassy, as well as the border area with the occupied West Bank.

“The widespread protests are demanding that the Jordanian government adopt a firm stance in support of the Palestinians, which has so far materialized in strong condemnations from the highest levels through statements by King Abdullah and in the cancellation of last week’s summit with President Biden and Egyptian and Palestinian leaders [in Amman],” explains Tuqa Nusairat, an expert on Jordan at the Atlantic Council research center. “Jordanian authorities will press their American counterparts [to address] the threats to their internal security, and to regional stability in general, if the United States continues to support Israel’s attacks on Gaza and avoids addressing the root causes of the conflict,” she adds.

In Egypt, where demonstrations have been practically banned for a decade, protests have also broken out in the last two weeks. Given this situation, Egyptian authorities seem inclined for now to try to channel this popular indignation in a controlled manner, with pro-government sectors organizing protests that promote the image of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. But it is a risky move: some of these marches have got out of control, and other independent protests have been organized. On Friday, hundreds of protesters managed to reach, despite a heavy police deployment, Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square, the heart of Egypt’s 2011 revolution.

“[El Sisi] is trying to straighten the course of collective anger to use it to legitimize the regime and present himself as a defender of Egyptian national security and more of the Palestinian cause,” says Egyptian analyst Maged Mandour. But it is, he adds, a “very difficult and delicate balancing act, because he is trying to mobilize the street when it has spent 10 years trying to repress it, so it can easily get out of control.”

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