November 29, 2023

IntelBrief: Pre-Conflict Trends in Middle East Likely to Endure After Israel-Hamas War

AP Photo/Hussein Malla

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Most Middle Eastern leaders are trying to preserve key tenets of their policies toward Israel and the United States while appealing to popular pro-Palestinian sentiment.
  • It is highly unlikely that any Arab state that has normalized relations with Israel will break relations over Israeli operations against Hamas.
  • Many Arab leaders have long seen Hamas as an obstacle to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
  • Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has jeopardized a year-long effort to rebuild relations with Israel by applauding Hamas’ resistance to Israel.

Many global diplomats and strategists have assessed that the Israel-Hamas war might produce profound and lasting changes to the region, including derailing the trend toward de-escalation that prevailed prior to the war. However, responses by a wide range of regional leaders suggest the geopolitical trends that existed prior to the outbreak of the conflict are likely to endure once it is over. Despite the emotion and unrest that Israel’s operations have triggered among the populations of many Middle Eastern states, most leaders in the region appear to view Israel’s operations to remove Hamas from power in the Gaza Strip as insufficient cause to alter their regional and geopolitical strategies. Some Arab leaders, including Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi as well as King Abdullah of Jordan, have long viewed Hamas as an obstacle to productive Palestinian negotiations with Israel. Their views suggest that much of the region’s leadership might privately welcome the demise of Hamas at the hands of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Virtually all Arab states are in support of the “two state-solution” that would recognize Israel alongside a Palestinian state. In 2002, the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia put forth the Arab Peace Initiative, which called for a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict within the framework of a two-state solution. This initiative was endorsed by the Arab League in 2002 at the Beirut Summit and re-endorsed both at the 2007 and 2017 Arab League summits. After representatives from 40 European, Middle Eastern, and North African states met Monday for a summit in Barcelona, the European Union’s foreign affairs head, Josep Borell, said that nearly all Middle Eastern and North African states support a two-state solution, which U.S. officials also advocate for as a long-term prescription for the region. Although critical of what they claim is unconditional U.S. support for Israel, none of the region’s leaders have indicated they have any intent to curtail the close security relations with Washington that they view as vital to their national interests.

Rather than discard their strategic playbooks, regional leaders have sought to engineer a balancing act, expressing positions that align them with their populations’ outrage at the high level of Palestinian casualties while preserving key policy pillars. Most regional leaders, including those in Iran, have publicly called for an immediate ceasefire in the interest of preserving the lives of Gaza civilians. Most have also criticized Israel for excessive use of force and what they view as the collective punishment of the Palestinians in Gaza in retaliation for the October 7 attack launched by Hamas. Several Arab leaders have stated that their countries would not participate in a post-war peacekeeping operation in Gaza, although their opposition has sometimes been nuanced to potentially permit themselves a role in certain circumstances, such as in a UN or U.S.-led peacekeeping force. Reflecting popular sentiment, the elected legislative and consultative assemblies in some Arab states have enacted non-binding legislation or issued hardline statements against Israel. Kuwait’s elected National Assembly adopted a resolution demanding the prosecution of Israeli leaders as “war criminals before international bodies.”

No Arab leader that has normalized relations with Israel, including those such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain that did so in 2020 under the U.S.-brokered “Abraham Accords,” has broken relations with Israel or abrogated any bilateral peace treaties with the Israelis. That said, Bahrain’s elected National Assembly – which Reuters describes as “a consultative body with no powers in the area of foreign policy” – claimed early this month that country’s ambassador was to return from Israel, that Israel’s ambassador to Bahrain had departed the country, and that economic ties between the two states had been cut. Bahrain’s leaders downplayed the statement, and Israel insisted it had received “no notification or decision … from the government of Bahrain and the government of Israel to return the countries' ambassadors.” Nonetheless, Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa sharply criticized Israeli operations in Gaza earlier this month, calling the situation in Gaza “intolerable,” but has also condemned Hamas for its October 7 attack on Israel.

Sudan, who also re-established ties with Israel via the Abraham Accords, resumed diplomatic relations with Iran, a major adversary of Israel and supporter of Hamas, two days after the October 7 attack. Jordan, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, withdrew its ambassador from Israel on November 1, and its foreign minister announced on November 16 that the country would exit the UAE-brokered deal in which Jordan would supply Israel with solar energy in return for desalinated water. By contrast, Egypt, which has had a peace treaty with Israel since 1979 and played a key role in the Gaza Strip since 1948, including governing the territory from 1948-1967, did not withdraw its ambassador or otherwise downgrade relations with Israel. Cairo has been instrumental in working with Qatar, the U.S. and Israel to organize hostage release deals and humanitarian assistance shipments to Gaza since the crisis began. Suggesting that it opposes any change to the demographic architecture of the region, Cairo has steadfastly refused to admit any Palestinian refugees from the Gaza Strip, apparently concerned that Israel would not permit them to return to Gaza after the conflict.

While it was widely expected that Hamas’ attack would derail ongoing talks between U.S. and Saudi leaders on a potential Saudi normalization agreement with Israel, U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on October 31 that Saudi Arabia had assured U.S. officials that it is still interested in normalizing relations with Israel. Kirby’s statement followed a visit to Washington by Saudi defense minister Khalid bin Salman, the brother of de-facto leader Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, for talks about the Gaza fighting. During the crisis, Saudi air defense crews have deployed U.S.-supplied Patriot batteries to down missile volleys launched by the Iran-backed Houthis of Yemen toward Israel in a show of Saudi-Israeli cooperation against Iran’s “axis of resistance.” The Saudis also soundly rejected an Iranian proposal early in the crisis for Muslim states to boycott the sale of oil to Israel. The Saudi stance, as well as statements by Saudi and other Muslim state leaders, suggest there is no regional appetite to destabilize the global oil market in the interest of protesting Washington’s position on the crisis. This shows a marked juxtaposition from when Middle Eastern oil powers embargoed the United States and others over their support for Israel during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

One regional leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Türkiye, seems willing to jeopardize key relationships with Washington and European leaders in the interest of expressing the anti-Israel sentiments of his political base in the Justice and Development Party. In late October, Erdogan attended a pro-Palestinian rally in Istanbul in which he denied that Hamas is a terrorist organization and instead characterized it as “a liberation group,” while accusing Israel of war crimes. The remarks have derailed Erdogan’s more than year-long effort to rebuild relations with Israel and caused experts and some U.S. officials to call for a review of U.S. policy toward Türkiye, including its membership in NATO. In early November, Türkiye recalled its ambassador to Israel, citing the “humanitarian tragedy” in Gaza and “Israel’s refusal of calls for a ceasefire.” Israel’s ambassador to Türkiye had already left Ankara prior to the Turkish diplomatic withdrawal. Still, U.S. officials have engaged with their Turkish counterparts, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stopped in Ankara during a regional crisis-related tour in early November, suggesting that both governments seek to avoid a wider rift on the Mideast crisis issue.

Correction: In our IntelBrief from 29 November 2023, it was incorrectly stated that the Yom Kippur War was in 1967. This page provides a corrected version of the IntelBrief.