Wednesday, November 01, 2023
History will likely record that Hamas provoked the Gaza war with one eye on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and one on Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman (MBS).
This is not a war that Hamas could ever win on the battlefield. The horrifying daily death toll is witness to that. No, this is a war that has in its crosshairs the nascent agreement between Israel and the Gulf states – the so-called Abraham Accords.
Many years ago, I spoke with a Palestinian who helped plan the “Black September” kidnapping of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. “Before Munich, we were a forgotten people; afterwards, everyone knew our plight,” he told me with a mixture of sadness and pride. Two years after Munich, PLO leader Yasser Arafat was invited to address the UN general assembly.
Munich was the template for what experts came to call “terrorism theater.” Violence for the TV cameras. And it worked; the Palestinians finally had a seat at the table.
But in the half century since, between 10,000 and 20,000 Palestinians had been killed by Israel. The independent Palestinian state promised in the 1993 Oslo Accords never materialised. And most recently, MBS and his allies were making peace with Israel and sidelining the Palestinians.
From the perspective of Hamas, it was time to force the Palestinian cause back to center stage. Call it the Munich Calculus: Violence gets the world’s attention. The slaughter of 1,400 Israelis and inevitable massive military response by Israel – which has now claimed more Palestinian lives than decades of conflict combined – is “terrorism theater” on an unprecedented global stage.
“The Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades,” President Biden’s national security adviser said one week before the current crisis broke out. US battlegroups are now steaming to the region, American jets have struck Iranian proxies in Syria, and thousands of anti-American protestors have taken to the streets around the world.
The White House plan to “pivot” to Asia and away from the Middle East is in shambles, a slow-moving American rapprochement with Iran is effectively dead, and there is a very real prospect of a new era of anti-American terrorism. The normalisation of relations between Iran and the Saudi bloc of Gulf states after years of proxy war in Yemen and elsewhere is also under threat.
Meanwhile, Arab leaders are walking a fine line; condemning Israel’s assault on Gaza while issuing what historically have proven to be empty expressions of support for the Palestinians.
However, a cynical read of the situation — and after four decades of reporting on the Middle East, I bring a large measure of cynicism to the table — is that MBS and his allies may actually be satisfied to quietly sit back and watch as Hamas is erased from the landscape of the Middle East.
That would open the way for the Saudi crown prince to step forward as the savior of the Palestinians, offering to supplant the Abraham Accords with something like a return to the Arab Peace Initiative, proposed in 2002 by the late Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdelaziz, which included the creation of a Palestinian state.
Look at the language used last week by the finance minister of Bahrain, a country rarely out of step with Saudi policy: "It's extremely important for the future of this region that we continue to build bridges,” he told an investment summit in Riyadh as Gaza was being pummeled by Israeli bombs. Though the Bahraini minister never specifically mentioned Hamas, it is noteworthy that he said those in the Middle East who are “looking to destroy” are “not part of the writing of that future.”
The challenge for Arab leaders is to maintain the balance between placating angry publics and playing the long game of regional “normalisation.” Polls earlier this year found a significant decline in support for Hamas across the Arab world. Arab governments are likely to try to leverage that through media and other proxies, such as the comments by Saudi elder statesman Prince Turki al-Faisal, who recently told an American audience that Hamas’s slaughter of Israeli civilians violated Islamic law. In the Gaza conflict, he said, there are no heroes, only victims.
Still, public opinion has never been the prime driver of the policy decisions of Arab governments. Limited protests and online comment are tolerated as safety valves, but dissent will continue to be carefully managed, as demonstrated by Egypt’s decision this week to shutter Mada Masr, the last major independent media outlet in that country.
Make no mistake, Arab and Muslim anger at perceived American complicity in the slaughter in Gaza has the potential to inspire a new generation of jihadis, sending the world back down a broader spiral of violence. However, protests outside US embassies in places like Islamabad and Jakarta have no impact on the Middle East policy equation.
The real factors that could enhance or upset the Gulf balancing act:
And then there is Iran. Tehran will be instrumental in avoiding a larger regional conflict, if it deems that in its best interests. Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies wouldn’t dare act without Tehran’s blessing. MBS was on the phone with Iran’s president within days of crisis erupting, and backchannel communications between Washington, Jerusalem, and Tehran are underway via Riyadh, Doha, and other Arab capitals as officials work to avoid an expansion of the war.
But even if cooler heads in the corridors of power prevail, that doesn’t rule out the danger that isolated extremists of one type or another might act without state sanction and set off a cascade of violence that no one can control.
Lawrence Pintak is the author of America & Islam and five other books at the intersection of Islam, media, and US policy. He was the founding dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. He posts @Lpintak on Instagram and X.
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