Israel and Saudi Should not Allow Hamas Terror to Destroy Normalisation
This article was written by Matthew Brooker, Pinsker Centre Policy Fellow '24, and was originally published in Reaction.
Source: Benjamin Netanyahu
At the UN General Assembly last month, Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, laid out his vision for the future of the Middle East. His speech told us nothing we did not know before; his vision is a Middle East where Israel and the Arab states are partners unified against Iran. What was different from Netanyahu’s last UNGA address in 2018, was that he had five years of progress to show that this vision was becoming a reality.
This progress has now been halted. Hamas’s terror attacks on October 7 means Netanyahu’s future of cooperation between Israel and the Arab states looks less likely to materialise. The attack was not just an attack on Israel and its people, but also on the process of normalisation between Israel and the Arab world. It is a desperate attempt by Hamas to turn the clock on Middle Eastern politics backward to the early 1990s. Hamas and Iran want to drive wedges between Israel, Arab states, and the US. Netanyahu must not let this happen; the first thing he must do is not play by Hamas’s rules.
Netanyahu will be remembered for breaking down the assumption that Israel would never be accepted in the Middle East without a solution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Netanyahu has pioneered a strategy of “shrinking” the conflict with Palestine. On one hand, Israel manages and mitigates attacks from Hamas, Hezbollah, and other Palestine-linked terrorist groups, while on the other hand, Israel develops its economy and builds links with Arab neighbours. Ultimately, Netanyahu wants to bring peace to the region by curbing support from radical Palestinian groups from traditional Arab-world supporters.
This plan has been working. The Abraham Accords, a series of bilateral agreements of recognition and cooperation between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan, has widely been seen as a warmup to the establishment of Saudi-Israeli diplomatic relations. Only days before October 7th, the Israeli Tourism Minister visited Riyadh for a UN Conference, the first-ever official visit to Saudi Arabia by an Israeli Cabinet Minister.
However, normalisation has been paused due to the attacks on October 7 as eagerness for a deal in Riyadh has cooled and the Kingdom has returned to its default position on the conflict. Within hours of Hamas’s first attack, Saudi Arabia issued a statement: “The Kingdom is closely following up on the unprecedented developments between a number of Palestinian factions and the Israeli occupying forces,” adding that it has “repeatedly warned of the consequences of [the deterioration] of the situation as a result of the occupation as well as of depriving the Palestinian people of their legitimate rights and of [not halting] systematic provocations against their holy [sites].”
The pullback by Saudi Arabia is unsurprising. While not a democracy, Saudi’s leaders still have to monitor public opinion on issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And while Western coverage of the crisis has focused on the horrors perpetrated by Hamas, Middle Eastern media will focus on Israel’s response. Riyadh has now said it is waiting until after the war for a resumption of normalisation efforts. This is Saudi sitting on the sidelines as the Middle East’s geopolitical landscape shifts to see whether restarting normalisation efforts is feasible given its clash between secular and religious objectives.
Stopping normalisation, especially in the long term, would play into Iran and Hamas’s hands. A Saudi-Israel-US alliance created by normalisation would place a stranglehold on Iran, firmly condemning it as the Middle East’s pariah. Hamas would be further isolated from historical (non-Iranian) allies, thus reducing its ability to parade as a cause célèbre for the Arab world. Hamas and Iran fear the creation of this united front against them, and the attacks on October 7 are part of their efforts to stop it.
Netanyahu cannot let Hamas and Iran drive this wedge, he needs to bolster goodwill for Israel in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia has many security, economic, and reputational reasons to do a deal with Israel; Netanyahu has to make sure recent events in Israel don’t create any reasons to make Riyadh unable to. This would just be playing along with Hamas and Iran’s plan.
Fortunately, Netanyahu’s ‘wartime coalition’ has been a step in the right direction to solidify Saudi-Israel relations. The inclusion of Benny Gantz’s National Unity has stabilised and unified Israel’s government for the short to medium-term; introducing a more moderate force into a coalition previously propped up by the minor far-right Religious Zionist and Otzma Yehudit parties.
While Israelis have rallied behind the government and security forces after the recent attacks, it would be foolish to think the effects of the past five years of domestic Israeli political turmoil will vanish. Over the past few weeks, Israel has had to face the fact that it is not as secure as it once believed, and inevitably the country will soon look at where to place blame.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud government will be at the top of that list, they should expect to face hard questions about what went wrong. To avoid the same fate as the Labor Party after the Yom Kippur War, Netanyahu needs to be proactive. This new “broad church” coalition has brought into government some of those who would gain from Likud’s weakness (although Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid refused to join the coalition over the continued inclusion of the Religious Zionist Party and Otzma Yehudit). This has strengthened and stabilised the government, helping Israel navigate the mountain of challenges ahead. The diluting of hardliners with the introduction of moderate National Unity Ministers into government will also have appeased the White House’s ongoing concerns about the influence of the far-right in the Israeli government, helping strengthen relations with the US, the key broker in a Saudi-Israel deal.
However, Netanyahu’s continued coalition with Israel’s far-right parties creates two obstacles to a future Saudi-Israel deal. The first is immediate; many worry Netanyahu will be held hostage by his current far-right partners into an overaggressive response. While it would be difficult for any Israeli Prime Minister to accept Hamas’s control of the Gaza Strip anymore, a long-term Israeli operation in Gaza would stretch Israel’s military forces at a time when Hezbollah on the northern border is looking to take advantage of the chaos. While the moniker of “Israel’s 9/11” for Hamas’s attacks is accurate with regard to the scale and horror of the attacks, Israel should not follow the US model of response. Israel doesn’t need to be pushed into a drawn-out conflict for little gain by minority coalition partners.
In the long term, any anticipated deal with Saudi Arabia would likely involve Israel offering concessions to the West Bank’s Palestinian Authority. This is unacceptable to Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners; meanwhile Gantz and Lapid are open to negotiations and both place a high importance on getting a Saudi-Israel deal across the line. At an uncertain time, Netanyahu cannot afford to be bogged down by domestic partners not proscribing to the same international vision for Israel.
At a time where everything in the Middle East is uncertain, Benjamin Netanyahu must show leadership by remaining committed to normalisation with Saudi Arabia. Israel must not give Riyadh any reasons to stop normalisation; else Israel risks undoing years of diplomatic successes and playing right into Hamas’s hands.
Matthew Brooker is a Policy Fellow of The Pinsker Centre, a campus-based think tank which facilitates discussion on global affairs and free speech. The views in this article are the author’s own.