Eau Claire, Wisconsin (Special to Informed Comment) – The Hamas brazen, surprised incursion into Israel on Saturday, the 7th of October 2023, has already been condemned and praised by competing protagonists as one of the deadliest, most brutal, and surprising attacks in Israeli history. There is no doubt that Hamas tactics in indiscriminately targeting, killing, and kidnapping Israeli civilians are against international law and human decency. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) retaliation to avenge Hamas fighters’ deeds has hitherto led to massive and indiscriminate bombardment of Gaza and its infrastructure and must also be condemned. The plight of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from northern Gaza is a form collective punishment and it certainly can be construed as war crimes, crimes against humanity, or even genocide under international law.
Regardless of whether Hamas fighters or the Israeli leaders ever put on trial before international tribunals, all indications are that the IDF is poised to enter Gaza after its heavy bombardment and the destruction of its remaining buildings and infrastructure. The death of hundreds of innocent Palestinians, a number that will be in the thousands, should IDF proceed with its planned invasion.
The Lebanese Hezbollah’s exchange of fire with Israeli forces along the border has raised the prospect of a wider regional war. Prospects for a Syrian entry into the war increase, should LH enter the war to protect Hamas and the Gazans from an Israeli onslaught. The United States has ordered two aircraft carrier fleets in the Eastern Mediterranean. The White House claims its beefed-up naval presence in the region is a deterrence to Iran and the LH to avert an expanded war, as Iran has warned of the possibility of such a wider regional warfare.
Subsequently, how the Iranian government will act in either instigating anti-Israeli operations by a host of trained militias in the region or directly injecting itself into the conflict remains a matter of speculation. In such a scenario, the United States forces in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere in the region can become a target of opportunity and the political life for Arab allies of the United States will become exceedingly difficult, with real threats of political instability in the conservative Arab monarchies.
A key to avoiding further escalation and the expansion of the conflict may rest in the hands of Saudi Arabia and OPEC+. Today, Saudi Arabia is the undisputed oil producer and exporter of OPEC and has already, in conjunction with Russia, cut back on oil production to boost global oil prices, collecting more revenues and effectively helping with Russia’s war efforts. As The Wall Street Journal reported, the OPEC+ (Saudi Arabia and Russia) raked in billions of dollars in extra oil revenues in recent months (October 2022-23), despite pumping fewer barrels, after their production cuts sent crude prices soaring. The 1973 October or Yom Kippur War witnessed the first such successful Arab states’ use of oil as a weapon to convince the United States and its European supporters of Israel to stop and give diplomacy a chance.
A combination of assertive Arab leaders, a tight global oil market, and limited but respectable military performance by the Arab armies led to the disengagement of Egyptian and Israeli armies, the exchange of prisoners, and, with the U.S. leadership, the Camp David Accord in 1979. However, in the following months and years, the Arab states failed to secure the creation of a Palestinian State and pursued a policy of ‘cold peace’ with Israel. The United States also failed to implement UNSC resolution 338 which reiterated the 1967 UNSC resolution 242, calling for an exchange of occupied territories for peace. Subsequently, all efforts since the 1980s, including OSLO I, OSLO II, and the creation of a self-governing Palestinian entity in the occupied West Bank have led to no permanent peace.
The American-Israeli efforts in the past forty-three years have boiled down to nothing but efforts to ‘manage’ and not ‘resolve’ the conflict. Not only the creation of an independent Palestinian state has not been realized, but the Arab states have also not regained their lost territories—the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Golan Heights, and Gaza! A more assertive Arab state’s leadership can prove instrumental to avert an inevitable avenge killing of innocent Palestinian people if the United States allows the Israeli army to enter Gaza.
The United States need not repeat its mistakes in responding to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The avenge killing and unnecessary, baseless wars have not made the United States any stronger or legitimate in the international community. Conversely, popular opinion of the United States in the Middle East today remains critical and is seen as a culprit in the miseries inflicted upon peoples in the region. Thus, the 2022 Arab Public Opinion survey in 14 countries (Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Tunisia) based on 33,300 face-to-face interviews indicates that 84.3% of Arab population oppose the recognition of the state of Israel, and 59% considers Israel (38%) and the United States (21%) as the greatest threat to Arab countries. Similarly, people interviewed consider Israel (74%), and the US (62%) as international players whose policies threaten security and stability in the Middle East.
Muhammad Bin Salman has already made a cold peace with the Islamic Republic of Iran and tacitly expressed an interest in a deal to recognize Israel in return for a U.S. security guarantee and a close nuclear cooperation with the United States. Saudi Arabia’s recent closer cooperation and exchanges with China also shows its pragmatic foreign policy engagement that recognizes the rise of China and an increasingly multipolar world, with complex and overlapping policy issue areas. A stronger, balanced, and assertive Saudi foreign policy can best serve its people and regional political stability and prosperity.
The ill-fated intervention in Yemen’s internal war and years of hostility at containing the supposed ‘Iranian threat’ has only led to more wasteful arms purchases and political conflict with its traditional allies (the United Arab Emirates and Qatar). The political competition among Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, and Iran only deprives these countries of great economic and investment opportunities in the service of development and regional cooperation.
The Saudi leadership can succeed in pressuring the United States and Israel to avert a Gaza onslaught, given the tight energy market, Russia’s prowess in the oil market and the ongoing war in Ukraine, China’s inroads into the Middle East, the quiet down situation in Yemen, a rapprochement with Iran, and the opportunity to lift itself as a leading Arab country helping the Palestinian cause. Time is of the essence if the MBS wishes to turn the tragedy of war and human suffering into an opportunity. It can go far in rehabilitating his image and acceptability as a leader. Let us see if the region and the world can avoid another human calamity before it is too late.