Peace in the Middle East is the Holy Grail of foreign policy. The Arab-Israeli conflict, as an extension of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is a long-standing issue heavily influenced by the involvement of other global powers.
Recently, demonstrations of solidarity with Palestinians have erupted across the Arab world, following Israel's disproportionate response to Hamas's attack through the continuous bombardment of Gaza. Moroccans, Jordanians, and Egyptians have joined both large and small protests, despite their respective governments maintaining varying degrees of diplomatic ties with Israel.
In 1948, when Zionist forces established the state of Israel and initiated the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, the cry of the Palestinians shook the Arab world. They had also been through their own anti-colonial battle and lifted up the liberation of Palestine to the status of a pan-Arab cause.
Throughout history, these Arab countries have played a role in the conflict, influencing its course in various ways. Some Arab countries supported Palestine immediately after Israel's establishment, while others waited for the right music to tune in. This raises the question of how much neighbouring countries have genuinely backed Palestinians and to what extent they may have exploited the situation.
As a leading Arab country, Saudi Arabia's involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict has evolved over the years. In the early stages, Saudi Arabia, like most Arab nations, supported the Palestinian cause and opposed the establishment of the state of Israel. This support took various forms, ranging from military involvement to financial aid to Palestinian refugees as well as diplomatic efforts to garner international support for the Palestinian cause.
In the Arab-Israeli war in 1948, Saudi Arabia sent a small contingent of troops that fought under the Egyptian command as part of the Arab Liberation Army, which was a coalition of volunteers from various Arab countries.
However, Saudi Arabia's stance has gradually shifted, especially in the face of changing regional dynamics and evolving priorities. The Kingdom's primary concern, for the last few decades, has been countering the influence of Iran in the region. This has led to a degree of tacit cooperation with Israel, as both countries viewed Iran as a common regional adversary. While Saudi Arabia has not officially recognised Israel, it has engaged in backchannel diplomacy and shared intelligence with the Israeli government.
However, Saudi Arabia and Iran reached a China-brokered renormalisation deal on 10 March this year. Recently, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman exchanged a phone conversation about the war between Israel and Hamas. And both seemed to support palestinian cause as they discussed "the need to end war crimes against Palestine".
It's not that no effort was made to resolve the Palestine-Israel issue. Over the years, Arab countries have been involved in various peace initiatives and negotiations aimed at resolving the Palestine conflict. The Arab Peace Initiative, first proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002 and later endorsed by the Arab League, offered to normalise relations with Israel in exchange for Israel's withdrawal from the occupied territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Even prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, Arab leaders expressed opposition to the Zionist movement and Jewish immigration to Palestine under British Mandate. Arab leaders, both within Palestine and in neighbouring countries, protested the United Nations Partition Plan of 1947, which recommended the division of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, and they rejected the establishment of Israel.
After the declaration of the State of Israel in May 1948, neighbouring Arab states, including Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq, intervened militarily in support of the Palestinian Arabs. Eventually, the 1948 Arab-Israeli War resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs, creating a refugee crisis that continues to this day.
Iran's involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict, on the other hand, is marked by its consistent support for Palestinian groups, particularly Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Iran sees itself as a champion of the Palestinian cause and provides both financial and military support to these groups. Its motivation is not only ideological but also strategic, as it seeks to expand its clout in the region and counter Israel and its allies.
Another oil-loaded middle eastern powerhouse, Qatar has provided significant financial support to the Palestinian Authority and humanitarian assistance to Gaza. Qatar's involvement is often framed as genuine support for the Palestinian cause and a desire to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinian people.
In 2012, Qatar pledged $400 million to support development projects in the Gaza Strip, including infrastructure and housing projects. Over the years, Qatar has provided significant humanitarian assistance to Gaza including financial aid, food, medical supplies, and support for reconstruction efforts in Gaza after military conflicts with Israel.
Additionally, Qatar brokered a 2014 reconciliation agreement between Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas, aiming to unite Palestinian leadership, though it was not fully implemented.
However, Qatar's actions have also been seen as opportunistic. The country has used its financial resources and diplomatic initiatives to gain influence in the region and project itself as a mediator. In some cases, it has aligned with stakeholders - like Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas – that other Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, oppose.
The 1967 Six-Day War saw Israel's occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula. This resulted in Israel gaining control over additional territory, including areas with Palestinian populations. Arab countries continued to support the Palestinian cause and called for the return of these territories to Palestinian control.
However, as time passed, the attraction and practical value of the Palestinian cause for Arab leaders gradually waned. Some Arab countries have pursued their own bilateral agreements with Israel. Notably, Egypt and Jordan signed peace treaties with Israel.
Being the bordering countries of Palestine, their involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict has been driven by a desire for stability and security, as well as the need to address their own national interests.
Also, Egypt's 1979 Camp David Accords with Israel and Jordan's 1994 peace treaty were historic steps which led to the normalisation of diplomatic and economic relations with Israel. Egypt's involvement has allowed it to regain control of the Sinai Peninsula and secure financial and military aid from the United States, while Jordan has benefited from economic cooperation and aid.
However, these treaties have also faced criticism from some quarters in these countries, particularly in Jordan, as they have not resulted in a comprehensive resolution of the Palestinian issue.
Finally, in September 2020, Israel signed a historic peace agreement known as the Abraham Accords, with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain on the steps of the White House which were almost immediately followed by Sudan.
The Abraham Accords with signatories: Israel, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Sudan, Morocco, set the stage to overturn the traditional Arab stance of refusing normalisation with Israel until the Palestinian issue was resolved.
Surprisingly, Abraham Accords were negotiated without the direct involvement of the Palestinian leadership. Critics argue that this undermined the Palestinian Authority's position and its ability to negotiate for a two-state solution. The Accords bypassed a longstanding precondition of a comprehensive peace agreement in the region, making it more challenging for the Palestinian leadership to have a seat at the table.
For the Arab countries that signed the Accords, there were several perceived benefits. These included access to advanced Israeli technology, potential economic opportunities, and enhanced security cooperation. In the pursuit of these advantages, some critics argue that these countries may have deprioritised the Palestinian cause in favour of their national interests.
The Abraham Accords were, in part, a reflection of evolving dynamics in the Middle East. Some Arab nations saw Israel as a potential ally against common regional threats, such as Iran. This shift in perception can be seen as a pragmatic response to the changing geopolitical landscape in the region. While it may not have been the primary intention of these countries to "exploit" Palestine, it did change the calculus of their priorities.
It is important to acknowledge that the Accords did not address the core issues of the Israel-Palestine conflict, such as the status of Jerusalem, borders, refugees, and the future of the Palestinian state. However, proponents of the Accords argue that they could indirectly contribute to regional stability and potentially create a more favourable environment for future peace negotiations.
The role of Arab countries in the Isralei-Palestinian conflict has evolved over time, influenced by changing regional dynamics and international developments. While there have been shifts in positions and alliances, the Palestinian issue remains a central concern for many Arab states.