US Secretary of State Antony Blinken began a visit to the region amid bloody escalations in the occupied Palestinian territories. He stopped first in Cairo before going to Tel Aviv and Ramallah. His purpose was explore what Washington might do to keep the tense situation under control, though analysts are not expecting much.
American pressure on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to reign in young Palestinians responding to provocative practices from the radical government in Tel Aviv may not yield much, nor is Egyptian intervention sought by Blinken likely to make a difference. The Israelis are committed to escalation, especially in the occupied West Bank, and Palestinian officials quoted in the Western media have suggested that matters are now out of hand. The leadership in Ramallah seems incapable of quieting down its people as the death count rises.
There is a growing fear that a more militant Palestinian Intifada is on the horizon, instigated by the ultra-aggressive policies of the new Israeli government. The most recent spike in violence has put the development of Gulf relations with Israel on hold, at least politically.
A previously planned visit by Netanyahu to Abu Dhabi earlier in January was postponed after his extremist Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir stormed Al-Aqsa Mosque, generating widespread condemnation from the Abraham Accord states in the Gulf. The visit has not been rescheduled. A steering committee of the Naqab Forum was hosted by Abu Dhabi to prepare for next forum meeting in Morocco, but no date was set for the meeting, and there were doubts it would even materialise in early spring as planned.
The forum was launched under US patronage, in March last year, in a meeting in Al-Naqab hosted by former Israeli foreign minister Yair Labid, Blinken that brought together the foreign ministers of Egypt, UAE, Bahrain and Morocco. Jordan, which has its own peace agreement with Israel, did not take part. At the time, the Jordanian King visited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, and the Israeli media saw the significance of the meeting in gathering Arab countries who signed the Abraham accords (UAE, Bahrain and Morocco), along with long-standing peace partner Egypt in Israel to meet the US Secretary of State.
Washington and the Gulf countries are eager for the spring meeting in Morocco to go ahead despite tensions in Israel and Palestine. Morocco might be the main venue for the progress of Arab-Israeli relations. The main aim of the forum is “to implement the principles enshrined in the Abraham Accords in joint initiatives and projects in areas as diverse as regional security, energy, tourism, education and water security”, according to statements after its first meeting.
Though the Israelis and Americans say “there’s an empty empty” for Jordan, it is not clear if the Jordanian foreign minister will attend the next forum. In fact, Amman did not send a delegation to the Abu Dhabi steering committee meeting earlier in January. This, despite Jordan’s economic problems and its need for Gulf and American support.
The Gulf countries, especially the UAE, were supposed to use their new relationship with Israel to help relieve tension, but it seems the focus is shifting towards traditional facilitators of rapprochement such as Egypt. The Saudis have maintained a distance from the accords that included the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan. A few weeks ago, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, said that an agreement to create a Palestinian state would be a precondition for establishing formal diplomatic ties with Israel. He told Bloomberg TV in Davos, Switzerland: “We have said consistently that we believe normalisation with Israel is something that is very much in the interest of the region …However, true normalisation and true stability will only come through giving the Palestinians hope, through giving the Palestinians dignity... That requires giving the Palestinians a state, and that’s the priority.”
The Saudi position on recent developments seems stronger than the tone of statements from Abu Dhabi and the rest of Abraham Accords countries suggests. But Saudi commentator Abdul-Aziz Alkhames told Al- Ahram Weekly that the position of the Gulf countries is “integrated”, accusing others of “exploiting the Palestinian cause for opportunistic reasons” and not helping to “end the suffering of Palestinians”. He was referring to campaigns on social media, attributed to the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliates, claiming there is a “rift” in the position of the Gulf on many regional issues, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These campaigns made a big issue out of the fact that Saudi Arabia did not attend the “consultative summit” hosted by Abu Dhabi which brought together the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman. Emirati officials insisted that this was an “informal gathering” between the leaders, and not a “summit” as such.
Yet, AlKhames admitted that there is competition especially on the economic front. All the Gulf states are seeking to accelerate the diversification of their economies away from heavy reliance on energy revenue. But on the latest developments in Jenin and Jerusalem, he repeated, “look at the statements by those countries that try to pacify and de-escalate.”
In fact, looking at official statements, there is a slight difference in tone. Saudi Arabia warned that the situation between Palestinians and Israel may slip into “dangerous escalation” and called for reviving the peace process, according to a Foreign Affairs Ministry statement. It said: “The Kingdom condemns all that target civilians and confirms the importance of ending escalation, reviving the peace process, and ending the occupation.”
The UAE called for a UN Security Council meeting after the Israeli raid on Jenin. But after the Jerusalem shooting, its Foreign Ministry statement said: “The UAE expresses its strong condemnation of these criminal acts, and its permanent rejection of all forms of violence and terrorism aimed at undermining security and stability in contravention of human values and principles.” Then it offered its condolences “to the government of Israel and its people, and to the families of the victims of this heinous crime”.
Some observers read between the lines of the two positions, and conclude that the Saudis are more content with their position not to join Abraham Accords. The latest developments give them leverage to pursue a bilateral approach to peace with Israel based on conditions that give Riyadh a better position in defending the Palestinian cause.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly