The Middle East Looks in the Mirror

Jordi Quero

5 mins - 2 de Noviembre de 2023, 07:00

Many foreign ministries in the Middle East are searching for a magic formula that will allow them to do the bare minimum so that no one can accuse them of inaction in the face of the barbarity in Gaza yet are unwilling to assume the costs of any substantive engagement. A trompe-l’œil of urgency and shared responsibility is projected which, on closer inspection, turns into idleness and exhaustion. The rapid calls for de-escalation from the outset, beyond signalling prudence, are an unmistakable sign to Israel and the rest of the international community of their unwillingness to assume greater responsibility for the human tragedy in the making. Qatar is focusing its mediation efforts on advancing a solution to the Hamas hostage problem. Egypt has only raised its voice to make clear that it will not open the Rafah crossing to the exodus of Gazan refugees so as not to encourage a larger humanitarian crisis - and fearing it could become a new Lebanon if they are prevented from returning after any Israeli invasion of the Strip. The rest moves within a framework of statements of condemnation that are as blunt as they are innocuous.

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For decades, the commitment to the Palestinian cause of many regional governments has been more symbolic than substantive. The normalisation of relations between Egypt and Israel with the Camp David Accords in 1979 initiated a process of fragmentation within Arab ranks.  The Yom Kippur War, now fifty years old, had marked a point of no return in duty vis-à-vis the Palestinians, highlighting Arab difficulties in imposing a different material reality on the ground and the military impossibility of wiping out Israel. The logical conclusion, many would say, was to turn the page, not to expend any more energy on a conflict with an increasingly intractable solution, to leave the Palestinians to their own struggle, and to focus on the domestic priorities of each of their countries.

Over the years, many others would join the normalisation of relations: Jordan in 1994 and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco in 2020 in the framework of the Abraham Accords promoted by the United States. At the time of the outbreak of the conflict on 7 October, all reports indicated that the final breaking point was very close: Saudi Arabia was negotiating with Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to establish full diplomatic relations. The Al-Saud royal family, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the helm, seemed ready to put a definitive end to any condition regarding Palestinian statehood as a precondition for normalisation with Tel Aviv and, incidentally, to reduce tension with Washington after years of major disagreements over the war in Yemen and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

The shift has only been possible if we understand that over the past four decades the central axis of conflict in the region has shifted from Tel Aviv to Tehran. The central enemy in the minds of many Arab leaders is no longer Israel but the Islamic Republic. With the Iranian Revolution of 1979, many capitals in the region, but especially all the Gulf monarchies, with Saudi Arabia at the forefront, understood that the greatest risk to the continuity of their autocratic regimes was that the revolutionary wave initiated in Iran would be echoed among their own populations. The penetration and involvement of the Revolutionary Guard in many of the regional crises or conflicts (Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen, to cite the most obvious), and the efforts to acquire nuclear technology, in the view of Arab leaders, has confirmed over time that all their efforts and dedication must be focused on responding to the Iranian threat. Israel, by comparison, would no longer pose such a clear and direct threat to them.

Reluctant attitudes are also explained by regional exhaustion with wars and crises, following a cycle that began twenty years ago in Iraq and continued in Libya, Yemen, and Syria. Appetite for a new round of chronic violence, humanitarian crisis, refugees, and regional economic uncertainty is low in Middle Eastern chancelleries. Reserves are stretched to the limit. This is the case even for those who a priori would have maintained a clearer commitment to the Palestinian cause in recent years. Bashir Al-Assad in Syria or Hezbollah in Lebanon have domestic contexts marked by deep social and economic crises that limit their capacity to act. Even Iran, where the fear of military escalation against another nuclear power like Israel is very present in its calculations, has incentives to measure its response very carefully: it is one thing to support Hezbollah’s actions on Israel’s northern border and thus avoid the accusation of lack of commitment; it is quite another to be willing to take a gamble on the Palestinian cause, no matter how much solidarity it arouses.

Yet the costs of any regional war would be too high for the present level of engagement. As long as they are able to keep their citizens’ street protests at bay, and do not panic at the threat of a new round of 2011-style revolutions forcing them to compensate in Gaza for the domestic miseries of their despotisms, the region’s leaders will prefer to keep a low profile.
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