Fri 08 Dec 2023 7:19 pm - Jerusalem Time
The war in Gaza is a strategic threat to neighboring countries, and a humanitarian event for Gulf countries
By Zvi Barel
Vladimir Putin knows well how to style his entrance. Four Russian SU-35 fighter planes accompanied his presidential plane, the day before yesterday, Wednesday, all the way from Moscow to Riyadh, then to Abu Dhabi, in addition to 21 welcome shots fired by Emirati cannons and the honor guard that stood at the entrance to the Emirati palace, shaking hands with the Crown Prince. The Saudi era, Mohammed bin Salman, and also Mohammed bin Zayed, the ruler of the Emirates - all of this appeared in the Gulf media, and successfully competed with the news coming from the war in the Gaza Strip.
It is true that Gaza still occupies most of the headlines, analyzes and videos, but it is not everything. Even the Palestinians themselves stopped asking, “Where are the Arab leaders, and where is the world regarding the catastrophe we are experiencing,” and not for the first time. The central contribution of Arab and Islamic countries is sending convoys of food and medical aid to field hospitals in the Strip. They even held two summits to discuss what was going on there. Jordan and Turkey also recalled their ambassadors from Israel. But no country has severed its relations with Israel. Once again, Arab countries are discovering that their ability to influence what happens is limited during regional conflicts, even those related to their national security and stability.
The approach of the countries of the region to the war in the Gaza Strip is divided into two basic visions: the first is that the war is a strategic threat to their security; the second is that Gaza is a “humanitarian event,” and based on this assumption, it formulates its policies.
For example, Egypt believes that it is one of the most threatened Arab countries, due to the inherent danger that hundreds of thousands of Gazans will storm its borders. Its decisive position is that it did not allow any Palestinian refugee to cross the borders, with the exception of some humanitarian cases who can reach hospitals with a special permit, and thus it defines its responsibility in a way that leaves no room for doubt.
This week, a special mission headed by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the West Bank, Ghassan Alyan, and a representative of the Mossad arrived in Egypt, with the aim of calming Cairo regarding Israel’s intention to push the Palestinians into its areas, and that there is no basis for what is published regarding Israel’s plans to implement a process of transferring the Palestinians to Egypt. . Egypt may have been convinced by the Israeli explanations, but it was not convinced that Israel could, or wanted to prevent the spontaneous rush of Gazans to Sinai. To avoid this, it strengthened the defense system on its borders along the Strip.
Egypt controls the Rafah crossing, which is the only gate, after closing the border with Israel, through which aid convoys pass to the Strip. In practice, you can open the crossing as you wish, allow an unlimited number of trucks to enter, and present Israel with a difficult dilemma. However, such a step could push Egypt into a confrontation, not only with Israel, but also with the United States, and thus it could harm other vital strategic interests that are more important, in its view, than the poor condition of the residents of the Gaza Strip.
On Sunday, polling stations will open for Egypt's three-day presidential election. There is no need to check opinion polls or analyze possible scenarios. Sisi will be president until at least 2030. The three competing candidates could receive very small percentages of votes, which Sisi will use as a cover for the democratic elections.
However, the president's main problem is not his election, but rather how he can settle the $29 billion debt during this year. It is true that the International Monetary Fund announced that it is not ready to increase the loans requested by Egypt - from 3 billion to 5 billion dollars - but Egypt will have to endure difficult circumstances, such as moving the exchange rate of the Egyptian pound and privatizing government companies.
Currently, Egyptian residents are forced to stand for long hours to buy a kilo or two of sugar, due to a severe shortage in local production and failed import management. The Egyptian Minister of Supply asked citizens to be patient and not buy sugar until the end of the crisis, which will be “in two weeks,” according to his words. Egypt, which contributed greatly to the negotiations to free the hostages, and in return received many public compliments from US President Joe Biden, will not be able to be content with a certificate of thanks. It must enlist American support in order to obtain additional loans from international institutions. This support is not given for free, without a political return that stipulates full coordination of Israeli military steps in Gaza, and commitment to the size of the agreed-upon aid convoys. Egypt cannot allow the “humanitarian crisis” to harm its strategic interests.
Jordanian pressure is increasing
Jordan is the second threatened country that fears an Israeli transfer that would push West Bank residents into its areas. The auxiliary war taking place in the West Bank, and primarily the increase in settler attacks on the Palestinian population - and the Netanyahu government's ignoring of Washington's warnings - increases the intensity of Jordanian pressure. However, Amman also cannot do much, neither in the West Bank nor in Gaza. This is in addition to the fact that Jordan was pushed aside during American consultations regarding the debate on the day after the war in Gaza, or during the discussion of any political solution pushed by President Biden.
Receiving the residents of Gaza in its areas, after the presence of about a million Syrian refugees in Jordan and the remains of refugees from the Iraq war, is a topic that cannot be talked about. What is worse is that every addition of Palestinian refugees will upset the already sensitive demographic balance and strengthen the Israeli vision that Jordan is the alternative homeland for the Palestinians. It is true that Jordan has increased the intensity of its aggressive statements against Israel, and the regime is ignoring the demonstrations against Israel as well, but the Kingdom is still wary of taking any irreversible steps, thus losing the American safety belt.
It is true that Jordan and Egypt stand as spearheads in opposing the displacement of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip, but they are not the only ones. There is no Arab country that agreed to receive refugees from Gaza, even those that agreed to receive Syrian refugees. The stated justification is ideological - receiving Palestinian refugees means “killing the Palestinian cause,” according to Arab leaders and journalists. But the main reason is the fear that the large numbers of Palestinian refugees from Gaza will lead to the emergence of a new and hostile hotspot, and even to a security threat within the Arab countries. This is because, unlike Syrian and Iraqi refugees, Palestinian refugees do not have a country to return to after the end of the war.
These fears can be heard in Lebanon as well, after Hamas announced the establishment of a new organization called “Vanguards of the Al-Aqsa Flood,” aiming to fight Israel from Lebanese territory. This led to protests that crossed the country's parties, and leaders from all sides of the political system demanded refraining from Hamas' military action in Lebanon.
The Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are far from the Gaza border, and until now, they treat the situation in Gaza as a humanitarian disaster. Saudi Arabia leads a group of foreign ministers who met with the leaders of China, Russia, France, and other countries, with the aim of pushing for a humanitarian ceasefire, but not to talk about future political steps.
Limitations of Arab cooperation
Currently, there is a new threat to the Gulf countries, which is the Houthi threat to shipping traffic in the Red Sea. Reuters published news this week, stating that Saudi Arabia turned to the United States for “restraint” regarding its response to the Houthi strikes from Yemen. This is because Riyadh fears that the sharp American response will harm the prospects for the success of the negotiations taking place between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis to end the war, or even return Saudi Arabia to the list of Houthi targets.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia have urgent matters to attend to, such as coordinating the international oil price, for example, which was at the heart of the Russian President’s visit this week. Putin, who has hardly left the house since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, can feel safe in Saudi Arabia and the UAE - and not only because of the fighter squadrons that have accompanied him. The two countries did not sign the International Criminal Court, which issued an international arrest warrant against the Russian president.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE also do not adopt the sanctions imposed on Russia, and trade exchange between them and Russia is increasing. Putin even stated this week that "the UAE is Russia's most important trading partner in the Middle East." This statement is true despite the war on Gaza, to describe Israel's relations with Abu Dhabi as well.
The gaps in the positions of Arab countries and their reading of the threat resulting from the war in Gaza should not be surprising. In 2011, the Arab League took an exceptional decision that froze Syria’s membership in the Arab League. The boycott of Syria continued for 12 years, before it returned to the Arab League, without Syria changing its policy towards its citizens. In 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt imposed an economic blockade on Qatar due to what was defined as its support for “terrorism,” namely its close ties to Iran, and the Al Jazeera network’s work as a tool for incitement against Arab regimes.
The siege continued for 4 years until reconciliation was reached, and the Arab coalition did not achieve any real results. Qatar is still strengthening its relations with Iran, Al Jazeera has not been closed, and Doha is still funding Hamas. The war in Gaza seems to be added to the Arab conclusions, according to which there are restrictions on the ability to organize collective action against military or political steps in the region.
The only axis that can guarantee the success of these steps is the same axis that links the Arab countries and Washington. But it seems that this axis, so far, is not greatly affected by Arab pressure, and President Joe Biden’s decisions - including the restrictions he imposes on Israel - stem mainly from internal political pressure in the United States, mainly because of the difficult humanitarian price that the Gazans are paying, more than the fear of a crisis with Arab countries.
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