On 7 October, the Gaza-based militant group Hamas launched an unprecedented, coordinated attack on Israel. At least 1,400 people were killed in the country, triggering an Israeli retaliation on Gaza in which thousands more have died. Despite the ongoing and concentrated aerial bombardment of Gaza, this conflict is not limited to just Israel and Hamas. Many neighbouring countries have a stake in its outcome, from those that have long stood against Israel – like Iran – to those that have sought beneficial economic ties with Tel Aviv.
Steps towards rapprochement?
In the years leading up to the October attack, we saw Israel improving bilateral relations with several of its Arab neighbours. In September 2020, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Israel signed the ground-breaking Abraham Accords, the first deal signed between Israel and any Arab state in 26 years. The accords facilitated security cooperation between the signatories, boosted trade, and were later expanded to include Morocco and Sudan, raising hopes that the trend of rapprochement would spread through the region. And just weeks before Hamas’s incursion, a deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel seemed within reach for the first time. Mediated through Washington D.C., Saudi Arabia would see formalised ties with Israel pave the way for a critical defence pact with the US.
Yet the Abraham Accords, and recent Saudi-Israel talks, had secured little in the way of addressing the Palestinian issue. For the UAE in particular, the formation of Israel’s far-right-leaning coalition government in December 2022, and Israeli settler expansion in the West Bank, disrupted bilateral relations. Now, Hamas’s attack has stopped the trend of improving relations in its tracks and the conflict in Gaza has thrown the Palestinian cause back into the international spotlight.
While the Accords are unlikely to break in the immediate term, a major escalation in violence will disrupt ties between Israel and its Arab neighbours, impeding any prospect of expanding the Accords in the coming years. And, as the conflict unfolds, it is increasingly evident that for each regional player, navigating an appropriate response is deeply embedded in unique historical, geographical and domestic factors far beyond their foreign policy position.
Navigating an appropriate response is deeply embedded in unique historical, geographical and domestic factors far beyond their foreign policy position.
Traditionally anti-US and strongly anti-Israel, Iran is one of the most influential players in this conflict. When Hamas attacked Israel, Iran responded with encouragement and (verbal) support. Some officials have even suggested that Iran was directly complicit in the 7 October attack, although the true extent of Iran’s involvement remains subject to debate. That said, and although Iran is unlikely to risk direct involvement on behalf of Hamas as the conflict continues, many are watching whether long-time Iranian proxy, Hezbollah, will leverage this new conflict to push forward with Iran and its own interests in the region.
Increased Iranian support for Hezbollah could prove critical to establishing a new and complicating second front along Israel’s border with Lebanon which would divide Israeli forces. Meanwhile, the continued backing of Iran’s various proxies across Syria, Iraq and Yemen will sustain ongoing agitation for US and Israeli regional interests. This could pave the way for increased Iranian aggression across its sphere of influence, threatening to disrupt maritime lanes in the Strait of Hormuz or Bab Al Mandab, and worsen existing insecurity in parts of the Middle East – even in the absence of direct Iranian involvement in the conflict.
Saudi Arabia treads along one of the most delicate lines in the region. In recent years, the kingdom has pursued economic reforms aimed at diversifying its oil-based economy to adapt to the global energy transition; and introduced policies looking to attract foreign investment and resolve long-standing conflicts in the region. In January 2021, for instance, Saudi Arabia ended its four-year blockade of Qatar; in early to mid-2023, it took steps to normalise relations with Iran and engaged in peace talks with Houthi rebels in Yemen; and just prior to the conflict, it came close to establishing formal diplomatic ties with Israel.
However, Hamas’s aggression, as well as the deepening crisis in Gaza, has served to place the Palestinian cause at centre stage of regional security, making the option of renewed talks with Israel and cosying up to Israeli ally, the US, particularly complicated. When (or if) rapprochement talks resume, they will likely be accompanied by stronger Saudi demands for Israeli concessions for the Palestinian people, a solution US brokers will need to take seriously if still seeking a foreign policy win.
Qatar also holds a unique position in this conflict. Qatar is a close ally of the US – it houses the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) for the region in Doha; is reportedly home to the political bureau of Hamas; and maintains close relations with Iran. Qatar has expertly managed this balancing act for years, and this places the country in a critical position at the negotiating table. Publicly, the presence of Hamas (and other militant groups) in Qatar causes concern among Western leaders, but it also creates opportunities for back-door dealing and negotiations that are not possible elsewhere. In past years, for example, Qatar has played an integral part in negotiating for prisoner swaps and hostage releases between the US and its rivals in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Iran, and will likely do the same in negotiating for de-escalation and the release of the more than 200 hostages held in Gaza. Nevertheless, Qatar’s efforts will be weighed down the longer the conflict goes on, and by the actions of its less savoury allies.
Egypt is one of the regular mediators between Israel and Palestinian groups, and therefore plays a critical part in efforts to de-escalate conflicts – both past and present – between the opposing sides. Egypt falls ideologically on the Palestinian side, but it also maintains important economic and security ties with Israel and the US. The US provides key military aid and counterterrorism support for Egypt, allocating USD 1.3 billion per year in military and other aid, and bilateral trade agreements with Israel were expanded as recently as March 2023. In addition, already struggling with a severe economic crisis, Egypt can ill afford a refugee emergency spilling over its shared border with Gaza. With this in mind, the conflict is unlikely to change Egypt’s core position. Egypt may disapprove of Israel’s actions if the humanitarian situation in Gaza worsens, but a scenario in which Egypt abandons its bilateral relationship with Israel – and by extension, the US – is unlikely.
Jordan too, is a long-time arbitrator between Israel and Palestinians, and enjoys unparalleled influence in the West Bank due to its shared border. A staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause, Jordan’s bilateral relations with Israel have always been tense, and further strained over the years by stalled bilateral projects and trade disagreements. Following the particularly deadly blast at the Al Ahli hospital in Gaza, in which hundreds of civilians were killed, Jordan cancelled an emergency summit between US President Joe Biden and Arab leaders, and called for three days of public mourning. Meanwhile, thousands of Jordanians have taken to the streets to protest Israel’s actions in Gaza, clashing with police outside the Israeli embassy in Amman, and issuing calls to cross the border into the West Bank and join the fight. Nonetheless, Jordan and Israel share strong regional security interests, and Jordan retains a strong incentive to help prevent the conflict spreading to the West Bank and spilling over its borders. Consequently, its government will continue to work towards a ceasefire, while working to avoid an escalation that could encompass its own territory.
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As Israel’s bombardment of Gaza continues, regional and international stakeholders grow wary of the ramifications for the Middle East and the world. Increasingly, the US – the unequivocal friend of Israel – must strike a balance between outward support for its ally and efforts to de-escalate and contain the conflict; a position made increasingly difficult the longer the fighting goes on. All the while anti-Israel – and anti-US – sentiment is on the rise, evidenced by the regionwide pro-Palestine protests that have targeted Israeli, US and other Western interests, as well as a spate of militant attacks targeting US troops stationed in Iraq and Syria. The 7 October attack and subsequent Israel-Hamas conflict are clear gamechangers in the state of play in the region, and with fighting continuing, it will be a while until a new status quo is clear in the Middle East.