New Arab allies navigate Israel ties, pro-Palestinian public opinion as war erupts

Abraham Accords signatories have been urging the need to protect civilians in conflict, but messaging may change as Israeli strikes on Gaza intensify

A photo of the first working group meeting of the Negev Forum in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi with the participation of the six founding countries: the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Morocco and the United States. (UAE's Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Ministry/AFP)
A photo of the first working group meeting of the Negev Forum in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi with the participation of the six founding countries: the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Morocco and the United States. (UAE's Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Ministry/AFP)

Confronted with the war raging between Israel and Hamas, Arab countries that have normalized relations with Israel in recent years have been forced to balance diplomacy with fiercely pro-Palestinian Arab public opinion.

But as analysts predict a long and violent response from Israel in Gaza, the position faced by those nations is expected to become increasingly troublesome.

In the wake of the Palestinian terrorists’ massacres in southern Israel, the United Arab Emirates condemned the kidnapping of Israeli hostages in a break with other regional players.

The oil-rich state was the first Gulf country to establish diplomatic ties with Israel in 2020 under the Abraham Accords.

“We are very grateful to the United Arab Emirates for its stance supporting Israel,” said Liron Zaslansky, Israel’s consul general in Dubai.

On Tuesday, as Israel bombed the besieged Gaza Strip, the UAE was also swift to announce $20 million in humanitarian aid for the Palestinians.

An aerial view of buildings destroyed by Israeli air strikes in the Jabalia camp for Palestinian refugees in Gaza City, October 11, 2023. (Yahya HASSOUNA / AFP)

Joseph Bahout, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs in Beirut, explained the UAE and other signatories to the Abraham Accords — Bahrain and Morocco — would have to walk a “fairly narrow line” as they weighed commitments to Israel with public sympathy for Palestinians.

For the time being, they are navigating this “very uncomfortable” situation by “focusing on the idea of protecting civilians,” said Cinzia Bianco, Gulf specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

However, Bahout explained the tactic would “not hold for long in the face of Israeli reprisals, which will probably be very violent.”

In Bahrain and Morocco, which have so far not moved beyond denouncing civilian casualties, demonstrations in support of the Palestinians were organized in the first days of the offensive.

‘Utopian’ idea

But these kinds of expressions of public support will only gain momentum if the conflict persists, said King’s College London analyst Andreas Krieg.

“Even countries like the UAE, where there is no civil society, have to make sure that public rallying around the Palestinian cause is consistent with government policy and communication,” he added.

The escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has undermined one of the arguments made at the time of the signing of the Abraham Accords, negotiated under the administration of former US president Donald Trump.

A man walks near a large painting by artist Or Bar-El, depicting an Arab man and a Jewish man drinking coffee together with text in Arabic and Hebrew reading “son of my uncle (my cousin)”, at the “Crossroads of Civilizations Museum” in Dubai on January 11, 2023. (Karim SAHIB/AFP)

Kuwaiti analyst Bader Al-Saif explained the move had “national interests in mind, but it has also been partly marketed as an outside-in approach to peace that could flip the stalemated conflict.”

“Now is the time for normalizing states to use whatever capital they have with Israel to positively influence policy… as much as other states are expected to do the same with Hamas,” he added.

Karim Bitar, an associate researcher at the Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS), in Paris, said the normalization process did not address problems at the root of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians — occupation, colonization, the status of Jerusalem, water resources and the fate of refugees.

“The idea of an economic peace, of a de facto solidarity that would be created and lead to a political peace, turned out to be utopian,” Bitar said.

Saudi Arabia, the preeminent power in the Gulf, has faced pressure to conclude its own normalization with Israel at the urging of the United States.

Randa Slim, a researcher at the Middle East Institute think tank in Washington, explained the Abraham Accords were “here to stay,” but “any future normalization between Arab countries and Israel is on hold for the foreseeable future.”

On Saturday, 1,500 Hamas terrorists stormed Israel’s border around the Gaza enclave and murderously rampaged through southern areas, taking over communities and killing the men, women and children they found, as well as overrunning military sites, with similar deadly results. The toll from the bloody assault, which came alongside a widespread barrage of 5,000 rockets fired indiscriminately at towns and cities across Israel, swelled to more than 1,200 dead by Wednesday, the vast majority of them civilians.

Among the dead were dozens of babies. Some of the victims, including entire families who were butchered, were reportedly beheaded. At an outdoor music festival, surrounded by the attackers, 260 people were systematically mowed down. In addition, the terrorists abducted around 150 people of all ages, including children and elderly women, dragging them back to Gaza as captives.

Israel has retaliated with artillery and airstrikes, and officials from the Hamas-controlled health ministry estimated more than 1,000 Palestinians dead by the fifth day of ferocious fighting. Israel says it is targeting terrorist infrastructure and all areas where Hamas operates or hides out while issuing evacuation warnings to civilians in regions it plans to attack.

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