The Middle East conflict is back

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah seen on a screen addressing a crowd of supporters
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah addressed his supporters in a video and described Hamas' attack on Israel as "purely Palestinian" (image: Mohamed Azakir/REUTERS)

In recent years the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had gradually become uncoupled from the other lines of conflict in the Middle East. This "encapsulation of the Middle East conflict" may be off the table for now, but it does nothing to change the parameters of the larger regional struggle for dominance

Commentary by Thomas Demmelhuber

For decades, Arab policymakers have made a show of standing up for the Palestinian people, thereby mobilising their societies emotionally with pan-Arab stimuli. This phenomenon had however lost ground in the face of normalisation efforts within the framework of the Abraham Accords, as well as regional policy shifts since the beginning of the Arab upheavals in 2010. 

Hamas' terrorist attack on Israel brought this atmosphere of de facto disinterest to an abrupt end. This is clearly demonstrated by the pro-Palestinian demonstrations taking place in the capitals of many neighbouring states and far beyond the region. So does this spell a shift in the regional order? Are efforts at normalising relations between Israel and further Arab states now off the table? The core message of this commentary is "no": after all, nothing has really changed in the basic structure of the regional order.

The Abraham Accords, driven by an erratic U.S. foreign policy, left a footprint in the region that has influenced the current Gaza war and, by marginalising the Palestinians in the negotiation rounds, also facilitated it. Nevertheless, normalisation efforts in some countries were more than mere "diplomatic window dressing". 

Iranian demonstrators in Tehran burn an Israeli flag
Demonstrators in Tehran burn an Israeli flag to mark the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in February 2023: Iran needs Israel as a "flexibly deployable bogeyman for the purpose of securing its own rule" (image: Sobhan Farajvan/Pacific Press/picture alliance)

Tempted by a deal

They led to a lasting consolidation of Israel's relations with Arab states. Bilateral relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in particular have experienced a significant boost in numerous areas, with a massive intensification of exchanges on trade, finance and technology issues. In other agreements, for example between Morocco and Israel, one aspect in particular stands out.

Morocco managed to elicit from the USA recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, as well as the promise that a solution to the conflict would only be sought through Moroccan autonomy projects. It became clear early on that the success or failure of the normalisation policies would be determined by whether Saudi Arabia would likewise be prepared to normalise its relations with Israel. 

A number of confidence-building measures in previous years, including the opening of Saudi airspace for flights to and from Israel and cooperation between the intelligence services, seemed to indicate that the two countries' paths were interdependent. Furthermore, a strategic deal appeared to be within reach for the Saudi leadership during the most recent rounds of negotiations. 

Saudi Arabia: normalisation with Israel unpopular

The royal family insisted on concessions in order to gain access to nuclear technology for civilian use as part of Saudi-Israeli normalisation. At the same time, such normalisation efforts are extremely unpopular in Saudi society. The current war is not likely to allay this lack of public approval, but this circumstance is only of secondary importance when viewed through the lens of autocratic rule

Statements from Saudi government officials indicate that efforts are being made to prevent the conflict from escalating. The Saudis do not want the war to destroy everything achieved thus far, so much must be done to ensure it is possible to build further on these gains, according to numerous statements posted on the social media platform X during the Future Investment Initiative (FII) held in Saudi Arabia in late October 2023.

Jared Kushner, son-in-law of former President Trump and one of the co-initiators of the Abraham Accords, who was also in attendance, spoke on X of finding a decisive solution for a stable regional order as key to ending the current spiral of violence – a highly controversial assessment, judging by the lively responses on X, including opinions offered by many established stakeholders from the region.

Visions of leadership power and domestic stress factors

The Middle East conflict has once again become an epicentre of political and social conflict in the region. But it also reflects a broader line of conflict in the competition for regional leadership that has gained momentum since 2003 (U.S. intervention in Iraq), and particularly since the Arab upheavals of 2010. 

Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran, but also smaller states such as the UAE, are vying for power in the region, even for a hegemonic role, but they do not have the material and immaterial capacities to assert this claim. And it is precisely this view of affairs that is receiving too little attention in evaluations of the current war in Gaza.

The attack on Israel – from the perspective of the self-proclaimed "axis of resistance" formed by Iran, Hezbollah and other militant groups – was an attempt to push the conflict back up to the top of the political agenda in order to torpedo any further rapprochement between the Arab Gulf States and Israel. The real and highly explosive scenario of the conflict escalating beyond Israel is justifiably provoking anxiety, but from the point of view of the players involved this is hardly a desirable goal.

First of all, because a conflict smouldering within controllable corridors offers more options for exploitation for domestic political goals. The Iranian regime is an object lesson in foreign policy playing out on two levels, dedicated not only to actual foreign policy interests, but also to fulfilling a domestic political function. In Iran, the Middle East conflict has always served as a mobilisation tool for the purpose of legitimating domestic policy.

Egypt's President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi sits in a golden chair
Under pressure: Egypt's President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi is struggling domestically with spiralling inflation and national debt (image: Michael Kappeler/AFP/Getty Images)

Iran needs a flexibly deployable bogeyman

This mobilising effect has meanwhile reached its limits, and questions are increasingly being asked about whether large transfer payments to Hezbollah still make any sense given the catastrophic economic situation in Iran itself. Further escalation is therefore not in the best interests of the Iranian regime. But Iran continues to need a flexibly deployable bogeyman for the purpose of securing its own rule, as its political order is still reeling one year after the start of mass protests in the wake of Mahsa Amini's death

Too many trouble spots in the region are tying up massive material capacities. This perspective explains why Iran recently resumed diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia through Chinese mediation. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia saw an opportunity here to find a face-saving way out of the Yemen war, which has been fought as a proxy war for years. 

Secondly, Saudi Arabia and the neighbouring Gulf monarchies are facing the challenge of guiding their political orders into the post-oil age. Numerous possible fields of diversification are being entertained, from the narrative of climate policy pioneer to organiser of major sporting events. The latter requires a minimum level of regional stability. Large-scale urban development projects such as Neom/The Line on the Red Sea would be profoundly threatened by a further escalation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

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Debt-ridden Egypt

And the Gulf States are not the only ones with an interest in de-escalation: Egypt, too is currently dealing with domestic stress factors. Soaring inflation and a massive debt crisis demand attention. Although Egypt is playing its traditional role as a mediator and administrator of humanitarian access via the Rafah border crossing.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrations are also tolerated in Egypt, but for Abdul Fattah al-Sisi's regime these serve primarily as an outlet to avoid becoming a target of protests itself. The presidential elections have been pushed up to December 2023, with incumbent Sisi running for another term, an indication of the pressure under which the regime finds itself. These domestic political constraints and motives require a more active foreign policy in the current conflict.

Both the terrorist attack by Hamas and the war that has been raging since then cannot be adequately explained from a limited perspective that looks only at such factors as the failed prospects for a two-state solution, internal political conflicts in Israel and a lack of agency on the part of the Palestinians. 

Instead, it is the juggling for pre-eminency among the various power players in the region, a struggle with its own lines of conflict, that will lastingly determine the outcome. Paying more attention to how the regional hegemonic rivalry influences and sometimes steers the current war also reveals possible solution scenarios. All regional stakeholders are united by their interest in ensuring that the escalation does not get out of hand. 

The central brokers on the Arabian Peninsula, such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, therefore have a direct responsibility to contribute to a diplomatic solution to the war and to look for paths forward. This also entails a stronger involvement on the part of the Palestinian Authority (PA), which should quickly be democratically legitimated, allowing it to step forward as a domestic protagonist. 

At the international level, there are blueprints available for managing the Gaza Strip as a future territory. The EUBAUM border mission, established in 2005 after lengthy negotiations, provides options for a border regime between Egypt and Gaza. One thing is for certain: a two-state solution that guarantees the right to self-determination and security remains in the medium term the most sensible way to achieve lasting peace.

Thomas Demmelhuber

© 2023

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

Thomas Demmelhuber is professor of Politics and Society of the Middle East at Friedrich-Alexander University in Erlangen-Nuremberg.