analysisIsrael at War

The state of Israeli-Arab normalization amid the war

“The people are mobilized by emotion, the leaders by interests.”

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen meets with UAE President Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Source: X/Twitter/Eli Cohen.
Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen meets with UAE President Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Source: X/Twitter/Eli Cohen.
Troy Osher Fritzhand
Troy Osher Fritzhand
Troy Osher Fritzhand is the Jerusalem correspondent at JNS, covering the capital city, the Prime Minister's Office and the Knesset. He was previously the politics and Knesset reporter at The Jerusalem Post and has written for the Algemeiner Journal and The Media Line. Also an active member of the city's tech scene, he resides in Jerusalem with his wife.
Troy O. Fritzhand

Hamas’s massacre of Israelis on Oct. 7 drew broad condemnation from most of the Western world, including the European Union and the United States.

The reactions from the Arab states, however, particularly those signatory to the 2020 Abraham Accords or potential additions to the normalization agreements, were much more equivocal. A deeper look at their words, however, can provide insight into how they really feel about the war.

At the time, the accords were hailed as a monumental achievement. Negotiated by the United States, they brought peace between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco. With the latter two, trade and normalization have opened up corridors in spheres such as tech, business and culture. Indeed, there was even a warming of feelings from their populations towards Israel and the Jewish people.

The initial statements from the three states on the war were, however, as noted above, equivocal. Bahrain released a statement on the day of the attack, saying it was “closely following the developments taking place between Palestinian groups and Israeli forces, leading to an increase in violence and armed attacks that claimed the lives of a number of people and injured others.”

The island nation did follow up with a stronger statement a few days after, stating that “the attacks launched by Hamas constitute a dangerous escalation that threatens the lives of civilians, expressing its deep regret for the great loss of life and property, its condolences to the families of the victims, and its wishes for a speedy recovery for the injured … [and a] denunciation of [the reported] kidnapping of civilians from their homes as hostages.”

Morocco, which boasts millennia of Jewish history and even has a Jew as the king’s top adviser, expressed “its deep concern over the deteriorating situation and the outbreak of military actions in the Gaza Strip and condemns the targeting of civilians by any party.”

The UAE, which has the highest level of trade with Israel of the group, “expressed great concern regarding the escalation of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, and stressed the importance of halting escalation and preserving the lives of civilians.”

This was also followed up by a more forceful message a few days later, with the statement that “attacks by Hamas against Israeli towns and villages near the Gaza Strip, including the firing of thousands of rockets at population centers, are a serious and grave escalation. The [Foreign] Ministry is appalled by reports that Israeli civilians have been abducted as hostages from their homes.”

Saudi Arabia, which prior to the attack was reportedly on the verge of an agreement with the Jewish state, said, “The Kingdom calls for an immediate halt to the escalation between the two sides, the protection of civilians, and restraint.”

But the Saudis seemed to place the blame for the murders on Israel, writing, “The Kingdom recalls its repeated warnings of the dangers of the explosion of the situation as a result of the continuation of the occupation, the deprivation of the Palestinian people of their legitimate rights, and the repetition of systematic provocations against its sanctities.”

Jordan and Egypt, both of which have peace treaties with Israel, placed the blame on the Jewish state.

As the war has progressed, the remarks by Arab governments have become less and less friendly, presumably because their constituents are more supportive of the Palestinian cause than the Jewish one.

This brings to the fore a concern that many who are skeptical of the Abraham Accords voiced at the time of their signing, namely that the normalization could find itself scrapped amid a serious escalation.

Already we are seeing mass protests against Israel in what were considered friendly states.

The escalation also brings into question what was a growing alliance in the Sunni Arab world—with Israel involved—against Tehran, its proxies and its pressure. Iran has planted itself in most of the conflicts in the region, creating a clash with Saudi Arabia, which is home to Islam’s holiest sites and arguably the center of the Arab world.

Two camps

Hussain Abdul-Hussain, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), said the Arab states fall into two camps and a careful reading of their words reveals their true agendas.

He explained that in cases involving Israel and the Palestinians, Saudi Arabia and the UAE will “always call to protect civilian lives and say Palestinians deserve their rights, but they will never issue a denunciation of Israel, or even mention it by name.”

This is in contrast to Qatar and Iran, which say “war is the solution and Israel must be destroyed.”

In this case, Abdul-Hussain explains, the Saudis and Emiratis are insisting on peace as an alternative to war.

Ronni Shaked of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace sees negative or neutral messaging from Arab states as designed to appease their populations.

“There is a gap between the leadership and the streets, the people,” he said. “The people are mobilized by emotion, the leaders by interests.”

He adds that the people stand with Palestinians, not Hamas. At the same time, though, the statements are “not just words, it is also telling Israel not to make the wrong decisions.”

Both men believe that when the dust of war settles, the pressure against Iran—and the increasing normalization with Israel—will continue.

Hussain-Abdul remarked that in his opinion, the Saudis will “pick up from where things were on October 6, with coalition building against Iran, peace talks, and normalization” with Israel.

“We saw the statement that said the Saudis are freezing normalization talks, but didn’t say the talks ended. That’s a huge tell,” Hussain-Adbul said. “Their thinking is it’s not done.”

This may also include footing some of the bill to rebuild Gaza, assuming Israel does not reapply sovereignty there, and as has been reported allows the Palestinian Authority to take over with Israeli and American support. 

Shaked thinks Iran will be strengthened following the war, which will only increase the need for normalization and building a strong coalition to combat its aggression. He sees the United States playing a role in this.

In both of their opinions, Iran is at the head of the pro-efforts, yet neither believes a northern front will open up against Israel, as Hezbollah would not be able to recover from such a war.

“If there’s war like 2006 [the Second Lebanon War], Hezbollah won’t be able to build back,” said Hussain-Abdul.

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