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Gaza war calls Middle East de-escalation into question

James M. Dorsey



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The jury is out on the degree to which the Gaza war threatens pre-war efforts by Middle Eastern states to freeze their differences and focus on economic and security cooperation.

To be sure, the war has raised the stakes with tension mounting on the Lebanese-Israeli border and in the Red Sea.


Lebanese soldiers take a position during an anti-Israeli demonstration near the blue line area. Photo: Mohammad Zaatari/AP)


In addition, Israel’s devastating assault has complicated, if not made impossible, overt cooperation between Israel and Arab states, like the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, that have diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.


The war has also delayed US-led efforts to mediate Saudi recognition of Israel.

The kingdom will need serious progress towards an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement entailing the creation of an independent Palestinian state to justify the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Jewish state in the wake of the Gaza war.


Even so, no Arab state has broken off relations despite mounting anti-Israeli sentiment across the region.


Egypt may be the only Arab country that can counter public pressure with some justification, arguing that its border is the major funnel for humanitarian aid into Gaza.


Egypt, one of the few countries with a direct line to Hamas, also plays a crucial role in arranging truces to facilitate prisoner exchanges and efforts to end the war.


In a twist of irony, Qatar, which has refused to formalise relations with Israel without a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has emerged, alongside Egypt, as Israel’s foremost Arab channel, particularly regarding war-related issues.


The Egyptian and Qatari efforts have not earned them unambiguous acknowledgment by Israel, members of the US Congress, and some of Qatar’s long-standing Arab critics.


Long a football, in Israeli and American politics, Qatar, home to the United States’ largest military base in the Middle East, has been taken to task for maintaining a relationship with Hamas, despite its proven utility and the fact that it enjoyed tacit Israeli and American approval.


A headline in Haaretz, Israel’s equivalent of The New York Times, read this weekend, “Netanyahu Wants to Make Qatar the Fall Guy for October 7 Massacre. Don't Let Him.”


In November, Qatar negotiated a one-week truce during which Hamas released more than 100 hostages kidnapped during its October 7 attack on Israel in exchange for 240 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons and a limited amount of humanitarian aid.


Released Israeli hostages arrived in Ofakim in southern Israel. Photo: Menahem Kahana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images


That didn’t prevent a senior Israeli official from questioning Qatar’s role. “Right now, we need them. But when this thing passes from the world, we will settle accounts with them,” said Israeli foreign ministry deputy director general for strategic affairs Joshua Zarka.


Amid calls on Qatar to crack down on exile Hamas leaders in the Gulf state, the outside world’s link to the group, by Republican members of Congress, Qatar agreed in October with the United States to revisit its relationship with Hamas once all hostages have been released.


Last month, the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which was founded by Yigal Carmon, a former advisor to Israel’s West Bank and Gaza occupation authority and Prime Ministers Yitzhak Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin, regurgitated documents leaked in 2019 indicating Qatari interference in the internal affairs of European, African, and Middle Eastern states.


In 1993, Mr. Carmon resigned in protest against Mr. Rabin’s signing of the Oslo accords, which laid the foundation for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. The accords created President Mahmoud Abbas’s West Bank-based Palestine Authority.


The leaks, reportedly orchestrated by the United Arab Emirates, were part of a covert information war between the Gulf state and Qatar during a 3.5-year-long Emirati-Saudi-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar in which both sides used leaks to portray each other negatively. The UAE and Qatar also hired intelligence companies to surveil and blacken their opponents’ reputations in Europe and the United States.


There was no obvious news peg for MEMRI to regurgitate a story with no updates that first broke three years ago and has lied dormant for the past two years as the media organisation documented in last month’s publication.


MEMRI did summarily reference Qatargate, a 2023 scandal involving European parliament members who allegedly were on the Qatari payroll, and Project Endgame, reportedly a Qatari-financed operation, involving a former CIA operative, to spy on the Gulf state’s detractors in the run-up to the 2022 World Cup.


European Parliament Vice Vice President Eva Kaili, one of the main suspects in a cash-for-influence corruption probe at the European Parliament. Photo: Jalal Morchidi/EFE via EPA


Similarly, Israel has not made Egypt happy with calls to ethnically cleanse Gaza by moving a majority of its already displaced 2.3 million population to the Sinai Peninsula.


In the latest incident, Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich called his weekend for Israeli re-occupation of the war-ravaged territory, arguing that “if there are 100,000 or 200,000 Arabs in Gaza and not two million, the whole discourse about the day after will be different."

At the same, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu insisted that Israel should retain control of the Egypt-Gaza border zone.


"The Philadelphi Corridor - or to put it more correctly, the southern stoppage point (of Gaza) - must be in our hands. It must be shut. It is clear that any other arrangement would not ensure the demilitarisation that we seek," Mr. Netanyahu said.


Egypt has rejected both suggestions.


Egypt and other Arab states fear that Israel’s conduct of the war and expansionist ambitions will further inflame public opinion at home and upset, if not deliver a death knell to a fragile apple cart designed to shelve rather than resolve regional differences that like the Palestinian issue could spin out of control.


Earlier this month, 96 per cent of Saudis polled favoured Arab states cutting all ties with Israel, while in a steep increase compared to previous surveys 40 per cent of those surveyed looked favourably at Hamas.


Eighty-seven per cent believed the war had shown “that Israel is so weak and internally divided that it can be defeated some day.”


In a blow to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s effort to project the kingdom as a moderate and tolerant Muslim state, just 5 percent agreed that Saudis should “show more respect to the world’s Jews and improve our relations with them.”


Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images


Even so, 75 per cent supported Arabs engaging in diplomatic efforts to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians.


In response to hardening public sentiment, Saudi authorities sought to restrict public support for the Palestinians.


Last month’s Red Sea Film Festival in Jeddah, the biggest film event in the Middle East and North Africa, welcomed Palestinian cinema but banned the donning by attendees of keffiyahs, the chequered black-and-white scarf, which is a popular icon of Palestinian identity.


Similarly, the UAE disregarded optics when it last month put on trial on charges of terrorism 87 Emirati activists, some of whom have lingered for a decade behind bars, as it hosted what officials dubbed “the most inclusive Cop ever,” the 28th United Nations Climate Change Conference.


The charges did not involve Gaza-related issues but the opening of the trial as world attention focused on Dubai sent a message to Emirati nationals and residents that the UAE would not entertain public dissent, including in connection with the war and the Palestinians.


Human rights groups and journalists reported the arrests of activists in the UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia who had expressed support for the Palestinians. Others were warned not to.


Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.


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