On 13th September 1993, US president Bill Clinton watched as Yasser Arafat, PLO leader, and Yitzhak Rabin, Israeli prime minister, shook hands over the first Oslo accord © J. DAVID AKE/AFP via Getty Images

Under pressure

The war in Gaza will test Arab states’ relationships with each other, Israel and the west
November 1, 2023

The countries and peoples of the Middle East will be affected to varying degrees by the cold-blooded murder of thousands of Palestinians and Israelis in and near the Gaza Strip in October.

The heinous Hamas attacks that killed more than 1,400 civilians on 7th October lit the fuse of an unprecedented Israeli assault on the impoverished Palestinian territory that it has besieged for more than 15 years. In that assault, and in the resulting displacement of one million Palestinians, Israel has committed what could amount to war crimes: shelling densely populated areas; hitting civilian infrastructure and cutting off food, water and fuel supplies. In the weeks and months to come, far more Palestinians than Israelis will be killed and injured, in keeping with the established trend. Twenty days after the Hamas attack, more than 5,000 Palestinians had already been killed.

The Middle East—one of the most politically repressive and discriminatory regions in the world—is dramatically unequal in terms of wealth and income, but also in the access to and exercise of political power. The poorest and most disenfranchised have-nots will pay the heaviest price. 

Egypt and Jordan will likely be affected to a greater degree, economically and politically, than Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Shaky institutions such as the Palestinian Authority (PA) may well vanish, while long-established security agreements and arms deals among the regional powers could flourish.

The UAE–the third largest economy in the Middle East—will likely continue to strengthen economic and security ties with Israel, though it will flaunt them less. Saudi Arabia’s plan to normalise ties with Israel will be shelved, at least for a while. Oil-rich Iran is unlikely to go to war unless attacked, and until then it could send proxy rockets from Lebanon if it wants to relieve pressure from Hamas. Iran’s ally Hezbollah, the dominant political and military force in Lebanon, has complex calculations to make in a country devastated economically and still haunted by the destructive impact of its 2006 war with Israel.

The “Al-Aqsa Flood”, as Hamas nicknamed its brutal attack, will ultimately change the geopolitical calculus of the entire region.

Egypt and Jordan, among the poorer countries in the region, are extremely anxious. Egypt is concerned about the prospect of tens if not hundreds of thousands of Palestinians amassing at its borders as they flee the relentless Israeli bombardment of Gaza. Jordan is worried about rising public anger, fuelled by graphic images of dead Palestinian children and flattened Gazan buildings. Both need to make sure that there is no major expulsion of Palestinians into Sinai—the Egyptian peninsula that borders Israel—or across the Jordan river, and that public protest is not gradually directed at worsening economic conditions, with rising inflation and poverty.

The “Al-Aqsa Flood”, as Hamas nicknamed its brutal attack, will ultimately change the geopolitical calculus of the entire region. Not since the 1973 October War has a single military operation had the potential to radically reshape it like this. 

The Israeli “Iron Swords” operation will inflict heavy casualties in Gaza until Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu can claim he has achieved the impossible objective: the elimination of Hamas. Or until the Israelis are forced to cease their attacks by reaching a “threshold of blood”, as a western diplomat described it: the maximum number of Palestinian civilians who can be killed before European capitals—and, more importantly, Washington—press Israel to stop the carnage. 

Amid the Israeli bombardment and fearing a ground invasion by Israeli forces, one surgeon at the Shifa hospital in northern Gaza sent an SOS voice message to aid agencies, saying that he could not leave patients behind to die, and the hospital didn’t have enough ambulances to move them south. “I have to step over bodies as I walk in the corridors to get to the operation room where I performed a lot of surgeries in the previous few days.”

As conditions deteriorated, Israel accepted a request by US president Joe Biden to let tens of aid trucks with basic food and medical supplies enter through Egypt—far fewer than the 500 trucks of commercial and aid goods that used to enter the blockaded area each day. 

To escape this region’s cycle of revenge, in which one more powerful side exacts a disproportionate price for each act by its adversary, an understanding of the conflict’s history is needed.

The end of Oslo

Exactly 30 years ago, Palestinian leaders and Israeli government officials shook hands on the White House lawn after they signed the framework of what was later called the Oslo peace accords. Hamas was then just a nascent offshoot from the Muslim Brotherhood—an Islamist organisation founded in Egypt almost a century ago—and had played a small role in the Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s. At the time, it was welcomed by Israeli security agencies as a counterweight that would undermine the nationalist and more influential Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), thus fracturing the Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation.

The crux of the Oslo deal was “land for peace”—Israel would withdraw from occupied lands in exchange for an end to violence—and the negotiation of final status arrangements for the millions of Palestinians who live under full Israeli control (then less than three million, now more than five). These talks were to reach an agreement within five years on the fate of territories occupied by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967 (when it seized the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordanian control and the Gaza Strip from under Egyptian administration). These territories had been exclusively inhabited by Palestinians until Israeli Jews started building settlements there in the late 1970s. Today, more than 700,000 such settlers live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, many of them hardcore right-wing and heavily armed.

The Oslo accords brought hope where little existed before. A Palestinian Authority was established to administer public services. Final status negotiations were intended to settle issues such as control over East Jerusalem; the right of return for millions of Palestinian refugees to the lands from which they or their ancestors had been ousted; and what kind of a state the Palestinians could have. For Israel the main function of this authority became the end to sporadic protests, including violent acts of resistance. The Palestinians wanted control over their own lives, freedom of movement and dignity. 

Long before Hamas’s October attacks, both Palestinians and Israelis have felt they were not getting what they bargained for, but the vested interests of many influential countries sustained the charade of a “peace process”.

With extremely high unemployment, and a draconian Israeli system of restrictions on Palestinian movement, building and other economic activities in much of the occupied territories, the Palestinians became more desperate. New radical groups sprouted beyond the control of the Palestinian Authority security forces. In Gaza, conditions were much worse than in the West Bank. The full Israeli blockade meant that, by 2022, only 17,000 Palestinians could cross for low-paying jobs in Israel. The unemployment rate approached 60 per cent, and remittances, as well as Israeli-sanctioned Qatari financial aid to Gaza, became the main means of support. Hamas rhetoric and rocket attacks helped fuel the disproportionately aggressive measures of their Israeli opponents. Even before Israel cut off food and water supplies as part of the military operation against Gaza, it often put the Strip on a “diet”,  restricting basic supplies to exercise pressure.

The promises of the Oslo accords have long been empty

A dire situation deteriorated further under the pre-war government in Israel, which included far-right, pro-settler parties that openly advocated the formal annexation of the West Bank. Members of these parties have called for Palestinians who approach or run away from Israeli Defence Force (IDF) soldiers to be shot; said they prefer “Jewish murderers over Arab murderers”; praised their children for wanting to kill Arabs; and called for “wiping out” a Palestinian town. Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel’s minister of national security, was barred from the usually compulsory military service because of his ties to Kach, an extremist group listed by the US as a terrorist organisation after a massacre of Palestinians in Hebron in 1994.

The promises of the Oslo accords have long been empty, but it is the Gaza war that has finished them off. “Oslo has ended, but no one would issue a death certificate,” Marwan Muasher, former Jordanian foreign minister, told me. This poses a challenge to the international community, mainly Europe and the US, who had long sponsored it. None of the alternatives are attractive.

It is probably a matter of months before the Palestinian Authority—kept together by Mahmoud Abbas, who is in his late 80s—also disintegrates. This would create a gigantic vacuum of governance and a vexing security challenge for Israel. Tel Aviv would have to directly manage security, with violent acts by armed settlers and by Palestinian youth continuing to rise. Additionally, and as an occupying power, Israel would have to administer to the daily needs of the more than five million Palestinians under occupation. This would make accusations that it is becoming an apartheid state—long challenged by Israel—much harder to refute. 

Hamas probably hopes to survive the massive Israeli onslaught using the few tools they have, including the more than 200 hostages taken from Israel, and faint but growing international sympathy for the Palestinian civilians in Gaza, half of whom are children. These civilians have paid the heaviest price of this war—in lives, property and livelihoods—as they see their neighbourhoods flattened by Israeli rockets or are forced to move, under Israeli bombing and evacuation orders and without adequate support. The humanitarian disaster in the making could put tremendous pressure on Egypt, as the only other outlet for besieged Gazans.

Pressure from all sides

Egypt has long been the main interlocutor between Hamas and the outside world, as well as a main trade channel to the Gaza Strip through the border crossing it controls at Rafah. Israel and the US have been grateful to Cairo for playing this role, and it is broadly in Egypt’s interests to maintain good relations with these two countries. But it must also heed both public opinion, which is sympathetic to the Palestinian predicament, and certain national security concerns.

Egypt cannot afford hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to cross into Sinai—a region that has barely been stabilised after years of complex security operations against armed militant groups—either voluntarily or under Israeli pressure. Cairo would be concerned about having refugee communities to take care of, as well as about militant Islamists moving from Gaza to Sinai; in years to come, instead of armed Palestinians launching rockets against Israel from Gaza, they could launch them from Egypt, dragging Cairo into a conflict that it prefers to stay at a more comfortable distance from.

However, the Egyptian government also fears being an accomplice in a second Nakba, and then paying dearly for it. The Nakba (meaning “catastrophe”) refers to the events of 1948, when around 750,000 Palestinians fled their villages and homes in British-controlled Palestine because of a concerted military campaign by Zionist militias. Most of them could never return; many of these refugees ended up in Gaza. Now their descendants fear they could be forced to move again—this time completely out of Mandated Palestine. 

It appears likely that Egyptian–Israeli diplomatic relations will hold, along with their security cooperation. The peace agreement between the former enemies has lasted for nearly 45 years, surviving two Israeli invasions of Lebanon and several Israeli bombardments of Gaza. Despite being a “cold peace”—only 5 per cent of Egyptians polled support normal relations with Israel—it has solid economic and security grounds. Israeli natural gas, piped from eastern Mediterranean fields to liquefaction plants in Egypt before being exported to Europe, is one solid tie.

The situation for Jordan is slightly less complex, with fewer Palestinians killed in the neighbouring West Bank since 7th October than in Gaza (around 100 at the time of writing). With millions of Jordanian citizens being of Palestinian descent, public pressure could force the government to at least symbolically alter its diplomatic relations with Israel. However, the bilateral peace agreement between the two countries since 1994 will likely hold, unless the Israeli government formally annexes the West Bank or takes over Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Jordan values its relations with the US too highly; at a time when Biden can’t afford for Republicans to show more support for Israel than Democrats, any moves from Amman that could anger Washington could be very costly to Jordan’s own interests.

The Gulf and normalisation

Shortly after the Hamas operation, the UAE’s foreign minister called his Israeli counterpart to discuss the crisis. The two countries have gradually been deepening relations that were warmly formalised in 2020 as part of the Abraham accords, an Arab–Israeli normalisation initiative led by former US president Donald Trump. They now have open ties in the fields of trade, finance, energy and security. As many as 450,000 Israeli tourists have flocked to Dubai over the past three years.

The UAE’s usually apolitical social media scene was electrified as horrifying images emerged of dead Palestinian civilians, including children in Gaza. Some of the pro-Palestinian posts came from influencers close to the government. This should not lead to any major change in the already firm relationships between the two countries, at least in the fields of trade and security cooperation, but could put a brake on public displays of friendship.

What will be put on ice are the prospects of normal Israeli ties with Saudi Arabia. In exchange for establishing diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv, Riyadh has in recent years asked for unprecedented security guarantees from the US to shield itself against feared Iranian aggression. These talks will now stall. 

As Israel’s response to the Hamas attacks escalated, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), spoke with Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi to discuss the “necessity of adhering to the principles of international humanitarian law and expressed deep concern for the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza.” This was followed by calls from MBS and the Saudi foreign minister for a ceasefire and the protection of civilians. Soon after, MBS received the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, in Riyadh. Crucially, Saudi Arabia has to manage public opinion, which is sympathetic to the Palestinians, with a vast majority opposing normal ties with Israel even before recent developments, according to a private poll by a western embassy.

Though a signatory of the Abraham accords, Bahrain will remain cautious, watching Riyadh closely for guidance while keeping an eye on domestic public sentiment (anti-Israeli protestors took to the streets a few days into the war). 

Nothing is likely to change for Qatar. Like Bahrain, it will largely follow the Saudi lead. But, unlike any other Gulf country, it will feel no domestic or international pressures because Doha maintains open channels with all sides, including Hamas. 

The worst-case scenario for Gulf countries could materialise if Iran is dragged into this war directly. This remains unlikely.

Iran’s tightrope

Despite a threatening statement from the Iranian foreign minister in Beirut a few days into the war, Iran observers do not see measurable support in Tehran for jumping into the fray. Although Tehran probably knew something was cooking, since it maintains close relations with allied militias in the region, allegations that Iran had a role in the Hamas operation have not, at the time of writing, been proven. 

Gulf observers think Iran will not go to war, unless attacked first. Its military targets then would likely include oil infrastructure in Arab Gulf countries, or it may seek to blockade the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 per cent of the global oil supply passes. Such a scenario could herald a truly global war, double oil prices to $150 a barrel and hurl the world into a recession that could wipe $1 trillion off world output.

This is why the US seems to have sent a strong signal to all third parties to restrain themselves and leave Israel to finish whatever job it has in Gaza. This signal was very visible as American warships sailed into the east Mediterranean. The US has more than 30,000 troops in the region, and a couple of bases and military arrangements in Bahrain and elsewhere. In some ways, this is reminiscent of what Washington did in 2006, allowing Israel to continue bombing Lebanon for almost 33 days before letting the UN Security Council order a ceasefire.

Even if pushed by radical elements within the government to relieve pressure on Hamas, Iran would most likely use Hezbollah rather than formally go to war itself. However, the Lebanese Shiite militia is reportedly reluctant to fight: “[Hezbollah] would hate to leave an ally like Hamas alone, but they will not ride a train that has already left the station without having taken part in charting its course,” a diplomat in Beirut tells me. “However, if conditions worsen and Hamas is faced with annihilation, Hezbollah could come under intense ideological pressure to act.”

The hierarchy of loss

There will probably be no winners at the end of this war. The biggest losses will be borne by the Palestinians, especially in Gaza, where many thousands have already been killed or injured, and many more displaced. Billions of dollars will be lost in an already impoverished enclave, as Israeli bombs destroy private property, businesses, agricultural lands and public infrastructure.

Israel will exact draconian revenge for the people it lost, but it will then be saddled with deep challenges of governance and security over the more than five million Palestinians it will most likely have direct control over in Gaza and the West Bank after Hamas is “eliminated” and the Palestinian Authority disintegrates. 

Past crises of this kind have sometimes led to breakthroughs. The October War in 1973 led to peace between Egypt and Israel; the Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s led to the Madrid peace process and the Oslo accords. The stars, however, might not align this time. The Israeli government is the most right-wing in the history of the country, the Palestinian leadership sclerotic and fractured. The US administration—key in past talks—will become increasingly preoccupied with the presidential elections in 2024. There is little hope that any medium-term positive development could emerge out of this horrific war.

The heaviest and most enduring loss may well be that of the already eroded international rules governing the conduct of war. These norms, which have been enshrined in the Geneva conventions for many decades, have already been violated by militant groups and then by Israel, the US, Russia and others in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Syria and repeatedly in the occupied Palestinian territories. The mortal weakening of these norms would presage more catastrophes for the civilians in conflicts waged in urban areas all around the globe. In the long term, this could be the heaviest price the whole world would have to pay. 

Editor’s note: This essay, for Prospect’s December print edition, was written in the aftermath of the 7th October attack on Israel. The situation in the Middle East is changing fast and we acknowledge that further events may have taken place since it was finalised.