Analysis: Hamas’s terror attack is aimed at Israel-Saudi normalisation


The scale and complexity of Hamas’s attacks, most analysts in Washington are convinced, could not have happened without Iran’s support

Washington: Hamas’s unprecedented attack on Israel, which has been welcomed and celebrated by Iran, appears to be aimed to complicate the historic process of normalisation between Israel and Saudi Arabia that is underway in the region and has the potential to dramatically alter global geopolitics.

Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (left) (AP Photo)
Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu (right) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (left) (AP Photo)

But initial responses to the terror attacks from Israel’s Arab neighbours indicate that while they will stick to the stated line of support for Palestinians, they don’t wish to let Saturday’s developments completely derail the prospects for normalcy on the table.

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Whether Riyadh can stay the course and whether Tel Aviv can find it within its national psyche to accommodate Palestinian aspirations to enable normalisation with its other neighbours, even as it mounts a war in Palestinian territory, will be critical variables to watch in the weeks and months ahead.

This is not to suggest that the historical roots of the conflict, Israel’s brutality in Gaza, the far-right turn in Tel Aviv, and its adverse implications for Israel’s own security preparedness, Hamas’s search for relevance and power and its terror machine, the disputes around the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the anxieties among Palestinians, and the lack of movement towards a viable two-state solution aren’t the underlying factors at play.

But Hamas’s unacceptable terror attacks against Israel must be located within this particular juncture in West Asian politics.

The context of peacemaking

Over the past five years, the region has changed.

The Americans have actively engineered, facilitated, and supported the Abraham Accords, which saw Israel arrive at a diplomatic modus vivendi with a group of its neighbours, most significantly the UAE. The US is attempting to “lower the temperature” in the region by bringing together its allies in the Sunni world and the world’s only Jewish state on the same page, who are increasingly united by their shared anxieties about Iran, the self-declared leader of the Shia world.

A Saudi-Israel deal, which would have been the most significant symbolic acceptance from the Muslim world of Israel’s right to exist, would have also required Israel to be more accommodating of Palestinian aspirations. This wasn’t done yet, for Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is hostage to far-right extremists who have weakened democracy and have not been in any mood to step back from their belligerence in the West Bank.

Irrespective of what Israel would have finally decided on the Palestinian issue and whether it would have been enough for the Saudi crown prince and PM Mohammed bin Salman to move ahead, the fact that these discussions were happening under American auspices and had assumed such a serious degree of intensity clearly left many in the region unhappy.

The attack and fallout

The scale and complexity of Hamas’s attacks, most analysts in Washington are convinced, could not have happened without Iran’s support. There has been a spike in attacks against Israel from Lebanon. And Hamas, unlike other relatively moderate but weaker and more dysfunctional Palestinian factions, is clearly invested in ensuring that Saudis don’t do a deal with Israel.

An attack on Israel of this nature is based on a simple calculation. Any state, let alone a state that combines a deep sense of insecurity with extraordinary belligerence and is led by a regime that prides itself on strong national security credentials, is bound to react with ferocity to such terror

The fact that this is among the biggest failures of the Israeli intelligence apparatus in its history is sure to rankle and Israel will need to figure out whether, and to what extent, its divisive and all-consuming politics has led to a situation where its security alertness has slipped. But the failure will also have the consequence of leading to greater fury and a more intense response.

The US, which has seen a rare but remarkably open conversation about the worrying trends in Israel’s democracy this year, will rally behind its ally even if it encourages the formation of a national unity government in Israel. Offering political, diplomatic, security, and moral support to Tel Aviv will take priority over all other considerations

As Israel retaliates, and its military response on Saturday is just a precursor to a prolonged onslaught against Gaza, those hostile to normalisation will hope it will make it more difficult for Tel Aviv’s friends-in-the-making such as Riyadh to be able to continue to be seen pursuing the line of normalisation.

But Riyadh’s response shows that it will continue to walk a fine line between its support for Palestine with its hopes for normalcy with Israel. The Saudis have said they are closely following the situation between various Palestinian factions and Israel’s “occupation forces”; called for an immediate halt to the escalation, restraint, and protection of civilians; recalled their warnings of dangers of “explosion” as a result of continued occupation and deprivation of rights for the Palestinian people; and reiterated the call for a two-state solution

All of this is rhetorically targeted at Israel, but the statement leaves enough room for the normalisation process to continue, even if with a delay.

The Indian stakes

All of this has implications for India. As external affairs minister S Jaishankar explained in Washington last week, Delhi and West Asia’s economies are now enmeshed in multiple ways across the energy, migration, food, and trade dimensions.

I2U2, the grouping that includes India, Israel, UAE and the US, is an unprecedented attempt to deepen diplomatic and economic linkages between four countries which have never shared the same platform, even if they have had bilateral ties with each other.

And IMEC, the India-Middle East-Europe economic corridor unveiled on the sidelines of the G20, is both dependent on and meant to contribute to the process of the Saudi-Israel normalisation

PM Narendra Modi has unequivocally backed Israel against the terror attacks. But Delhi will also be invested in ensuring that the region finds relative stability, where the zero-sum security approach that has governed it for decades slowly continues to give way to the dream of connectivity and prosperity between erstwhile rivals. Saturday shows that the road to future normalcy will, however, be littered with terror and violence



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