The US-led effort to normalise ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia has been categorically cited as one of the drivers behind the unprecedented attacks on Israel by the Palestinian militant group Hamas, resulting in the ongoing war between the two sides.
The attack by Hamas was apparently meant to convey, once again, that any effort to normalise ties between the Arab states and Israel at the expense of the Palestinian cause would be rendered fruitless.
The effort to normalise the ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel followed the Abraham Accords signed in 2020 between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco.
Recent developments towards an agreement between the two countries not only excluded any serious consideration of the Palestinian issue but also overlooked the will of the Arab street.
The Price of Ending 'Normalisation'
According to the 2023 , most Arab youth oppose the normalisation of ties with Israel; and a mere two percent of Saudi Arabians supported the Saudi-Israel normalisation effort. Additionally, a cursory look at the history of the Palestine-Israel conflict since the formation of Israel in 1948 would show that the Arab street has remained steadfast in their support for the Palestine issue.
Nevertheless, the recent agreements between Israel and some Arab countries overlooked the popular will and compromised with the Arab position on Palestine rooted in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. And the progress on the possible Saudi-Israel agreement amounted to rendering the Palestine issue irrelevant.
The attacks by Hamas on Israel apparently scuttled the talks on Saudi-Israel normalisation. However, millions of civilians living in Gaza are paying a huge price for it. Since 7 October when Hamas launched the attack on Israel, over 2000 Palestinians have been killed and thousands injured. They have been denied basic facilities – water, food, medical supplies – and subjected to indiscriminate attacks.
Last Friday, Israel issued an order for over one million residents of northern Gaza to move to the southern part of the besieged strip within 24 hours. But the evacuees were reportedly targeted on their way to the southern Gaza Strip. Social media is awash with disheartening calls from the Palestinians in Gaza, with some posting their last words.
Israel is massing its troops and tanks on the border with Gaza as it plans a ground offensive in the besieged strip.
The Yemen Factor in Saudi Arabia's Calculus
In the meantime, gulf countries, primarily Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain, have had calculative responses to the war, while the long-time ally of Israel – the US – stood by it from the beginning. In that context, it may be underlined that as part of the agreement with Israel, Riyadh sought to exact a formal security guarantee from the US – reportedly to deal with long-term security challenges with Iran.
Riyadh’s security concerns cannot be brushed aside primarily because of the ever-growing relationship between Iran and the Houthi rebels in Yemen – the country with which it shares a border of almost 1,800 km.
Having fought a prolonged battle with the Tehran-backed Houthi rebels since 2015, Saudi Arabia recently entered into dialogue with the group after restoring its diplomatic ties with Iran in April this year. However, the Houthis’ attack on the border of Saudi Arabia halted the progress of the talks.
And the Houhti rebels’ readiness to join the Axis of Resistance - an alliance among Iran, Palestinian militant groups, Syria, the Lebanese Hezbollah and other factions – in case the US intervenes in Gaza would be a matter of grave security concerns for Saudi Arabia and the region at large.
Iran's Stance is in Sync With the Arab Street
Iran has warned of regional escalation if Israel goes ahead with its plans for ground offensive in Gaza. “If the attacks of the Zionist regime (Israel) against the defenceless citizens and people of Gaza continue, no one can guarantee the control of the situation and the non-expansion of the conflicts,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian was cited as saying. Meanwhile, Hezbollah has already entered the fray and exchanged fire with Israel.
Regardless of Iran’s debatable role in the ongoing war, it won’t be wrong to say that its stance seems in sync with the Arab Street. Despite the efforts by the Arab states to suppress demonstrations in support of the Palestinian people in Gaza, protests were reported from Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco.
In fact, the growing outrage against “war crimes” in Gaza is also becoming palpable with pro-Palestinians rallies held around the world.
The situation would amount to deepening the chasm between the Arab states and its populace. It wouldn’t hold a good omen primarily for Saudi Arabia as it is engaged in large-scale reforms as part of its Vision 2030. The programme would transform relations between the state and its citizens – politically, socially and economically – with the latter possibly demanding greater involvement in the decision-making.
Thus, it is amply clear that keeping its stance aligned with the will of the Arab Street and the rights of Palestinians is in the interest of Saudi Arabia and other states in the region. And any reconciliation or normalisation efforts should incorporate rather than abandon the Palestine issue.
(The author is an independent researcher and holds a Ph.D. in international studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)