Saudi Arabia and UAE, despite war, maintain support for Israel ties

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The News

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, key Middle East powers, plan to continue their diplomatic and economic rapprochement with Israel, despite surging opposition in the Arab and Muslim world to Israel’s military offensive in the Gaza Strip.

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s positions — if they hold — could offer the Biden administration crucial partners to try and forge a new political leadership in the Palestinian territories if Israel makes good on its campaign to dislodge Hamas, the militant group that killed 1,400 Israelis in its October 7 terrorist attack. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is traveling to Israel and Jordan this week to engage in what U.S. officials said will be initial discussions with regional leaders aimed at creating a post-war order and potentially restarting long-dormant Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

“We have been thinking through, and discussing with our partners in the region, different post-conflict scenarios,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said on Wednesday in relation to Blinken’s trip.

Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been central players in the Abraham Accords, a diplomatic track initiated by the Trump administration that promoted Israel’s normalization of ties with Arab and Muslim countries. The UAE was the first to sign in 2019, and the Biden administration was in advanced talks with Saudi Arabia before October 7. Riyadh, as the custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites, is seen as the crown jewel of the Abraham Accords and could help end Israel’s isolation among Muslim countries.

Saudi Arabia’s Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman, brother of Riyadh’s de facto ruler, visited the White House this week and reaffirmed his country’s interest in pursuing the Abraham Accords, despite calling for a cease-fire in Gaza, according to U.S. and Arab officials. “Without getting into specifics, we came away from those discussions confident that we have a path to get back towards normalization and that there is an interest on the Saudi side to pursue that,” said the White House’s national security spokesman John Kirby.

Emirati officials have also said they remain committed to the Abraham Accords and their diplomatic ties with Israel, despite also calling for a cease-fire. “The Accords are our future. It is not an agreement between two governments, but a platform that we believe should transform the region where everyone will enjoy security, stability and prosperity,” said Ali Rashid Al Nuaimi, a top Emirati official, at a Wednesday event with American- and European-Jewish organizations. Other UAE officials have made similar comments.

Jay’s view

Prior to October 7, the Biden administration was in advanced talks with Saudi Arabia to finalize a normalization pact with Israel, which would have included the U.S. extending major security guarantees to Riyadh. The White House saw the agreement as altering the balance of power in the Mideast by aligning the U.S., Israel and the leading Arab states against Iran and its proxies, which includes Hamas. Now, Biden’s team is seeking to revive this partnership to help stabilize the Palestinian territories and prevent a broader Mideast war.

Anger in the Arab world is mounting against Israel as its war intensifies. Jordan, which has had diplomatic ties with the Jewish state since 1994, pulled its ambassador this week to protest the assault on Gaza. But Amman, along with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, is locked in its own competition with Iran and Hamas — part of Tehran’s Axis of Resistance — which could drag it into any broader conflict. Saudi Arabia last week intercepted missiles fired by Yemen’s Iranian-backed Houthi militia that U.S. officials believed were aimed at Israel.

“I don’t think the Houthis make a distinction really, between Saudi Arabia and Israel, frankly, when it comes to when they fire their missiles,” said Bernard Haykel, a Princeton University professor who regularly consults with senior Saudi officials, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. “It’s not obvious that it’s going to hit Israel versus hitting Saudi Arabia. And the Saudis are extremely vulnerable, to not just the Houthis on the border, but also to Iran.”

Past Middle East conflicts I’ve covered highlighted the delicate balance Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan and other Arab states walked. In 2006, Israel engaged in a month-long war with the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, probably Iran’s most powerful regional ally. Publicly, most of the Arab states called for a formal cease-fire to end the conflict. But, in private, many Mideast officials told me they hoped Israel would seriously degrade Hezbollah’s capabilities due to the military and political threat the militia and Iran posed to their own security.

History has borne out their concerns. Hezbollah survived the conflict and has significantly expanded its operation over the past 15 years into Syria, Yemen and Iraq.

Secretary Blinken and the Pentagon are unlikely to seek military support from these leading Arab states. But U.S. officials said the secretary of state will focus on mapping out a post-war Gaza and a potential revival of a Mideast peace process. This will likely include fostering new leadership in the Palestinian Authority, the body that controls the West Bank, and a reconstruction plan for the Palestinian territories that would wrestle them away from Iranian and Hamas’s influence.

“I think we’re going to see major changes in the leadership in Israel as a result of this,” said Hakyel. “And I think you will see a major shift also among the Palestinians, you know, once Hamas has been dealt with.”

Room for Disagreement

The longer the war in Gaza lasts, and the higher the Palestinian civilian death toll rises, the harder it will be for the U.S. to maintain any common cause between Israel and the Arab states. Most view Iran and its allies as antagonists. But they may ultimately see a larger threat emerging from their own domestic political constituencies, as their populations call for support of the Palestinian people against Israel.

Jordan’s leadership has struck out the most aggressively against Israel’s military operations in Gaza. Queen Rania last week upbraided Israel, and its backers in the West, for not agreeing to a cease-fire to protect women and children in the Gaza Strip. And Jordan’s Foreign Ministry, in pulling its ambassador to Israel, said in a statement that the war “carries dangerous possibilities for its expansion, which will threaten the security of the entire region and international security and peace.”

Some Arab officials said it’s not the new Abraham Accords that are at risk but, rather, Israel’s older relationships with Jordan and Egypt. Cairo normalized diplomatic ties with Israel in 1978 as part of the landmark Camp David Accords. “Why aren’t people asking if the Camp David Accords are at risk?” a senior Arab official said to Semafor.