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US effort to improve Israel-Saudi relations now in doubt

Hamas’s surprise attack on Israel struck a blow to US President Joe Biden’s efforts to secure a grand bargain that normalises relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, as the fighting is set to reshape the dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Unlike many of his predecessors, Biden has made no direct effort to foster peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. Mindful of US failures in this area over many years, his administration has tried to keep a path to a two-state solution open while de-escalating tensions in the region. Formal diplomatic relations between former foes Israel and Saudi Arabia has been the grand prize.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said last month that the US approach to the Middle East had brought historic calm, pointing to American efforts to help broker a truce in Yemen’s eight-year war as one way the US approach had been successful.

“The Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades,” he said, adding: “the amount of time I have to spend on crisis and conflict in the Middle East today, compared to any of my predecessors going back to 9/11, is significantly reduced.”

The brazen Hamas assault — the worst attack inside Israel since 1948 — may reveal this approach to be misguided. As talks to improve relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel gained momentum, particularly over the summer, tensions between Israel and the Palestinian territories quietly soared.

The occupied West Bank has endured the worst cycle of violence since the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, of 2005, with Israel conducting almost daily raids there. US efforts to convene talks among the parties in Egypt and Jordan to calm the tensions have done little to stop the killing.

Biden administration officials on Sunday said it was too soon to say how their normalisation efforts would be affected. They pledged to press ahead with brokering diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which they said remained the best path to improve the lives of those in the region.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken said Sunday that there were still challenging issues to work through, “but the result would be, if we were able to get there, a much different path for the region and for the future.”

“That’s in stark contrast to the path that’s offered by Hamas: a path of violence, killing, horror, terror, a path that offers absolutely nothing to the Palestinian people.” 

Before the surprise attacks US officials were working with Israel and Saudi Arabia to determine Palestinians’ demands and what Israel might be willing to offer. Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza, was not involved in any of the discussions, and all of the parties appear to have underestimated the extent to which the group could play spoiler.

Much will depend on how long the fighting goes on, the scale of Israel’s response, and whether other players get involved in the conflict.

“You have to just be realistic, the Israeli-Saudi piece of this is now a footnote,” said Aaron David Miller, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “As committed as the administration, and the Israelis and Saudis may be, we’re about to enter an extraordinary period between Israelis and Palestinians.”

US officials were on Sunday still trying to determine the motivations behind the attack and how big a role Hamas supporter Iran may have played. Blinken said the militant group may have sought to derail the talks.

“To the extent that this was designed to try to derail the efforts that would be made, that speaks volumes,” Blinken said on ABC. “Right now the focus is on dealing with this attack, dealing with Hamas.” 

The broad contours of the agreement under discussion include a US-Saudi defence pact and US assistance with Saudi Arabia’s civilian nuclear programme in exchange for Israel taking steps to improve conditions for the Palestinians. The defence pact would probably require a vote from Congress, where the ongoing fighting could complicate what already are challenging political dynamics for any such vote. The House of Representatives is without a speaker after the ousting of Republican Kevin McCarthy.

The deal is the centrepiece of an approach Sullivan said intended to “depressurise, de-escalate and ultimately integrate the Middle East region”.

The US has also sought to decrease tensions with Iran. Washington and Tehran swapped prisoners last month in what officials said could be a confidence-building measure towards talks on Iran’s nuclear programme and its destabilising behaviour in the region.

But Iran is Hamas’s main backer and American officials are assessing the extent to which it may have been involved in supporting or directing the weekend attacks. US and Israeli officials are trying to dissuade Iran-backed Hizbollah from joining the fray in Lebanon, which could significantly widen the conflict.

Saudi Arabia reacted swiftly to Hamas’s attacks but did not directly condemn them. Riyadh urged “an immediate end to the escalation between the two sides, the protection of civilians and self-restraint”. It has warned that “matters could explode due to the continuation of the occupation and deprivation of Palestinians’ legitimate rights and repeated provocations against its holy sites”.

The statement indicates Riyadh’s frustration with Israel, analysts said.

“The Gulf states have been more supportive of the Palestinians than I had anticipated, but there’s definitely a sense that the Israelis have allowed the situation to drag, that this particular government in Israel has made the systemic problems of the Israeli Palestinian conflict worse,” said Michael Stephens, senior fellow at Foreign Policy Research Institute.

He added that the Saudis have felt “let down” by Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the most rightwing government in Israel’s history.

Both Israel and Saudi Arabia are less likely to have room to manoeuvre on the question of the Palestinians, analysts said. Israel will be unable to grant too many concessions to them, especially given the mounting death toll, currently more than 600 Israelis and 300 Palestinians in Gaza, as well as the unresolved question of at least 100 Israeli hostages, which includes Americans.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, must also be sensitive to the reaction of the Arab street. Saudi Arabia hosts millions of Muslim pilgrims each year at Islam’s two holiest sites and its stance on Palestinian statehood is of particular importance.

“If Saudi Arabia had concerns about popular reactions to such a deal, it must be extremely worried now about any pressure from the US to move ahead, as popular sentiment is strongly pro-Palestinian in the kingdom and much of the Middle East,” said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East Programme director for International Crisis Group 

Countries like the United Arab Emirates and Morocco that normalised relations with Israel under the Trump administration “are beginning to find themselves in the type of cold peace that has prevailed between Israel and Egypt and Israel in Jordan for the past decades,” he said. 

Even before Saturday’s attack, the UAE was increasingly wary of how it engaged with Netanyahu’s far-right government and concerned about the violence in the West Bank.

Hiltermann said that while trade, technology sharing and diplomatic discussions are possible, there were “clear limits on anything one would associate with a real peace”.

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