The changed Arab street opinion, possible Turkish activism, outright Iranian support for Hamas and Qatar’s blaming of Israel for the current explosion certainly limit the bandwidth for the Kingdom, which could potentially slow down its covert diplomatic engagements with Tel Aviv for an overt normalisation deal, if not lead to an outright break in engagement.
A day after the anniversary of Yom Kippur War, or the Ramadan War of 1973, a shock and awe military campaign called “Operation Al-Aqsa Flood” by Palestinian militant factions led by Hamas and Islamic Jihad from Gaza has surprised many worldwide. The Palestinian fighters breached the Southern Israeli border security exactly 50 years after the October War when coordinated attacks from Syria and Egypt had challenged Israel’s so-called military superiority, before American support reversed Tel Aviv’s fortunes.
In a significant departure from its three-decade-long history of guerilla warfare, this dangerous military incursion by Hamas has managed to breach the Israeli security, which was being regarded as impregnable. Since 2005, when Israel withdrew from the entire Gaza Strip Hamas brought it under its sway in 2007 and ever since, it has adopted a policy of confrontation with Israel. There have been mutual ceasefires at times but the relationship between the two has been mostly hostile.
What distinguishes the current attacks is the unprecedented scale in which Hamas started its assault in a coordinated manner from land, air and sea. It has surprised Israelis and dented the image of Israeli intelligence as the most efficient of its kind in the world. As it has been reported, this time round, the Palestinian militants infiltrated deep inside the territory under Israel’s control along the border causing a large number of casualties on the Israeli side. As of now, over 700, including 73 soldiers and some Americans have died in Israel, while in counter attacks launched by the Israeli government, in its bid to take what Benjamin Netanyahu called ‘mighty vengeance’, almost 424 have died in Gaza. As per the Israeli media, many soldiers and settlers have been taken hostages by Hamas. The enormity of the situation can be gauged by the fact that this is the first time Israel has suffered as many casualties in recent memory. The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has further vowed a “long and difficult” ground offensive against Hamas.
The Hamas attack has shocked the region and global community alike, with the Western world, as usual, extending unflinching support to Israel, whereas the regional governments, such as Saudi Arabia, have been forced to recalibrate their reactions. US President Joe Biden condemned “this appalling assault against Israel by Hamas” and repeated Washington’s commitment “to offer all appropriate means of support” to Tel Aviv. Lloyd J. Austin III, Secretary of Defense, reiterated the US commitment to provide Tel Aviv with “what it needs to defend itself and protect civilians from indiscriminate violence and terrorism.” Likewise, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called the Palestinian military campaign “cowardly and depraved” while offering the UK’s “unequivocal” support to Israel, emphasising that they are partnering with its “international partners…to co-ordinate support” to Israel.
Interestingly, along with the justification that this military operation was to avenge increased Israeli settler violence against Palestinians, the desecration of Al Aqsa Mosque, along with Christian holy spaces, a Hamas spokesman, Ghazi Hamad, in an interview with Qatar-based Al Jazeera English, insisted that the campaign aimed to demonstrate Palestinian resentment to the Arab governments for their normalisation deals with Israel at the cost of the Palestinian cause. Describing the normalisation deals of some Arab governments with Tel Aviv as a “big shame” and this military operation as a message to the Arab world to “disconnect and cut the relationship” with the Jewish state, Hamad called on the Arab countries to “understand” that Israel “is a brutal country, which is built on the blood of the Palestinians.” Further, in a televised speech, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh emphasised on Arab governments “that this entity, which cannot protect itself in the face of resistors, cannot provide you with any protection” and insisted that “all the normalisation agreements that you signed with that entity cannot resolve this (Palestinian) conflict.”
This is significant given that recent months have seen enhanced diplomacy between Riyadh and Tel Aviv (blessed by the US) to the extent that many believed a normalisation deal was around the corner. The US, during the presidency of former president Donald Trump, had succeeded in pushing for a normalisation spree with Israel of many pro-Saudi Arab governments, such as the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan, through the Abraham Accords of 2020 in exchange for lucrative defence deals.
These normalisation deals were seen by many as an effort by Israel and its American security sponsors to render the issue of Palestine irrelevant. However, these diplomatic engagements have been, in essence, an elite affair in Arab countries, given that voicing dissent against governmental decision-making is a far reality, with the Arab street fervently supporting the Palestinian resistance. This round of military incursion by Hamas has broken the myth of the Israeli military’s invincibility and stands to reinvigorate the Arab street in favour of Palestine, signifying that the Palestinians are ready to take matters into their own hands.
For Riyadh, though the Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed Bin Salman recently acknowledged that the Kingdom was getting closer to a major agreement with Washington for a potential normalisation deal, it remains aware of the potential fallout on the Arab streets. The Saudis have insisted that a normalisation deal with Tel Aviv will only happen with Israel’s express commitment towards creating a Palestinian state. However, Palestinians have avowedly remained sceptical of Riyadh’s overtures and previously rejected Donald Trump’s much-touted ‘Deal of the Century’, which the Saudis unsuccessfully tried to sell regionally.
The current assault on Israel also effectively dents Saudi efforts to that end, more so because of the outpouring of popular Arab street support for the Hamas military campaign, akin to the 2006 Hezbollah moment. This puts Riyadh under pressure and, hence, is forced to recalibrate its response as it can ill afford to go against the Arab street opinion and the broader Muslim world from where it exacts its share of legitimacy, being the guardian of Islamic holy sites in Mecca and Medina, and a terrain with multiple claimants from Turkey to Iran.
This is evident in the initial response from Saudi Arabia on the unfolding events, which it called an “unprecedented situation”. The Kingdom called for “an immediate halt to the escalation between the two sides, the protection of civilians, and restraint.” Interestingly, the statement insisted that Riyadh had repeatedly warned that Israeli ‘occupation of Palestinian territory’, ‘denial of rights to people’, and ‘the repetition of systematic provocations against its sanctities’ could dangerously explode the situation on the ground.
This appears contrary to its diplomacy in recent months wherein Riyadh went the extra mile to court the Israelis in exchange for a comprehensive defence agreement with the US. The Kingdom has seen a systematic domestic campaign towards preparing the ground for an impending normalisation deal with Israel. However, what appears lost in the Saudi transaction is the plight of Palestinian people, who perceived that the regional governments were making peace with Tel Aviv at their cost.
The Kingdom’s regional rival, Iran, described the Palestinian military campaign as “a spontaneous move… in defense of their inalienable and undeniable rights” while reaffirming its support to “Palestinians to defend themselves vis-à-vis the crimes of the usurpers of Palestine.” Turkiye under Erdogan has tried to be cautious and called on both sides to avoid “further escalation”. However, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan is in touch with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amirabdollahian and engaged in discussions on the unfolding situation.
In this context it is also useful to remember Erdogan’s earlier rhetoric warning Israel of consequences and taking diplomatic measures, including recalling his ambassador from Tel Aviv during the Israeli aggression along the Gaza border in 2018. However, Erdogan had subsequently sent back his ambassador in 2022 aimed at normalising Turkiye-Israel relations. Whether Erdogan’s bid to assume leadership of the Islamic world would take him down the path of another round of verbal duel with Tel Aviv remains to be seen.
The changed Arab street opinion, possible Turkish activism, outright Iranian support for Hamas and Qatar’s blaming of Israel for the current explosion certainly limit the bandwidth for the Kingdom, which could potentially slow down its covert diplomatic engagements with Tel Aviv for an overt normalisation deal, if not lead to an outright break in engagement. This could be the reason behind Riyadh’s intensified efforts towards de-escalation initiatives, along with Egypt, its regional ally, to impress its regional leadership credentials even as it is forced to walk a complex diplomatic tightrope. As such, its Foreign Affairs Minister Faisal Bin Farhan has started deliberating with many of his regional counterparts from Qatar, Egypt, and Jordon while also calling on the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell Fontelles, with a view to lowering the temperature in the Middle East.
The changing landscape in the West Asian region, post-Hamas attacks, with the Arab sentiments likely to favour the Palestinians, certainly constrains the manoeuvring space for the Kingdom in its continuing bid to transform its relations with Israel based on its own way of settling the Palestinian issue through positive diplomatic engagement. The fallout of the attacks could affect Riyadh’s covert efforts to strike a normalisation deal with Tel Aviv. Whether the Kingdom could help de-escalate the situation and lead to a regional consensus remains to be seen.
*Dr. Mohmad Waseem Malla is a Research Fellow with the International Centre for Peace Studies, New Delhi, India. He is also affiliated as a Short-Term Researcher with the University of Religion and Denominations, Iran.