With its surprise attack against Israel, Hamas has violently shifted the world’s eyes back to the Palestinians and dealt a severe blow to the momentum for securing a landmark US-brokered deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The Iranian-backed Islamist terrorists who run the Gaza Strip on Saturday fired thousands of rockets and infiltrated hundreds of gunmen into Israel, 50 years after Arab states’ assault on Israel during the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur.
The terrorists rampaged through the south of the country, killing at least 400 and injuring over 2,000 people in Israel. In addition, dozens of Israelis — soldiers and civilians — were apparently kidnapped and dragged back to the Gaza Strip as hostages.
Israel has responded with airstrikes on terror targets in the Hamas-ruled Palestinian enclave, while massing troops and weaponry near the Strip as part of what has been dubbed Operation Swords of Iron.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was at war. Just weeks earlier he had brushed aside the Palestinian issue during a speech at the United Nations and said normalization in 2020 with three other Arab nations in the so-called Abraham Accords had “heralded a new age of peace.”
Netanyahu said at the time that Israel was on the cusp of a bigger prize — recognition by Saudi Arabia, guardian of Islam’s two holiest sites.
US President Joe Biden, eager for a major diplomatic win before next year’s presidential election, has pushed for a deal, and more talks were expected in the coming weeks — despite skepticism from some of Biden’s fellow Democrats about the proposed security guarantees to the conservative kingdom, whose rights record has long been under scrutiny.
“It was always a tough hill to climb, and that hill just got a lot steeper,” said Brian Katulis, vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute in Washington, after the brutal assault from Gaza.
The violence throws a spotlight on disputes between Israel and the Palestinians and “makes it harder to sweep those complicated issues under the rug the way the 2020 Abraham Accords did,” he said.
Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has spoken recently of progress with Israel but also insisted on movement on the Palestinian cause, seen as a priority for the aging King Salman.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry returned to familiar language Saturday, saying in a statement that the kingdom had been warning of an “explosive situation as a result of the continued occupation and deprivation of the Palestinian people’s legitimate rights.”
Aziz Alghashian, a Saudi expert on Saudi-Israeli relations, said the statement was intended to dispel any notion that the kingdom would prioritize normalization at the expense of supporting the Palestinians.
“This kind of situation has made Saudi Arabia go back to its traditional role,” he said.
“Netanyahu put another obstacle to these normalization talks because he said this is now a war. I don’t anticipate normalization is going to take place against the backdrop of war,” Alghashian said.
A US official said it was “premature” to discuss the violence’s effect on normalization, as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed the conflict with his Saudi counterpart, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, by telephone.
A Saudi readout of the call said Prince Faisal stressed “the kingdom’s rejection of targeting civilians in any way and the need for all parties to respect international humanitarian law.”
Netanyahu has cast diplomacy with the Palestinians as antiquated and described a future of friendship with Gulf Arabs, who share Israel’s hostility toward Iran’s clerical rulers.
Netanyahu’s government, the most right-wing in Israeli history, has continued to pursue the West Bank settlement enterprise, although the prime minister backtracked in 2020 on annexation of territory as he sought to woo the United Arab Emirates, the lead country in the Abraham Accords.
Joost Hiltermann, Middle East director of the International Crisis Group, which looks to resolve conflicts, said Hamas may have acted in part due to fear of a “looming further marginalization of the Palestinian cause in Palestinian eyes” if Saudi Arabia recognizes Israel.
With Israel expected to respond forcefully to Saturday’s attacks, Arab states will likely feel obliged to take a harder stance in line with public sentiment, he said.
“If that all happens, then I would foresee a scenario where, just like we have a cold peace between Israel and Jordan, between Israel and Egypt, we end up with a cooling of the relationship between Israel and the Emirates and probably a delay, at least, of any sort of deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia,” he said.
Steven Cook, a senior fellow on the Council on Foreign Relations, pointed to a survey that showed just two percent of Saudis backed normalizing ties with Israel.
“It wasn’t that long ago,” he noted, “that there were telethons happening in Saudi Arabia in support of Hamas suicide bombers.”
Iran opposes normalization
The Biden administration has largely sought to lessen US involvement in the Middle East, also by easing tensions with Iran.
Iran’s clerical leadership, which since last year has suppressed major protests led by women, supports Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah terror group and hailed the offensive.
“This is about Iran’s priorities in the Middle East,” said Danielle Pletka of the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said that the attack appeared “designed to stop peace efforts between Saudi Arabia and Israel.”
“A peace agreement between those two nations would be a nightmare for Iran and Hamas,” he said.
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