Arab states must act now and plan for ‘the day after’ the war in Gaza

Arab states must act now and plan for ‘the day after’ the war in Gaza

Almost three months into the devastating war in Gaza that has seen over 21,000 Palestinian deaths, no Arab state individually or collectively has yet to articulate any plan or strategy to manage the fallout from the war or to lay out a pathway to support Palestinian statehood.

Under pressure from their public’s strong support for Palestine, careful not to endorse Israel’s military campaign, and wary of divisive diplomatic and regional challenges ahead – including the risk of a broader regional conflict that could involve Hezbollah and Iran – states across the region have instead prioritized calls for a ceasefire and elevated the humanitarian catastrophe as the concern of first order.

Of course, they are right – saving lives and preventing ‘population transfer’, as has been suggested by some of Israel’s far-right ministers, must be the priority, but that should not preclude regional states from working together in support of Palestinians.

Nor should it prevent them from building on the successes of last year’s series of de-escalations: between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the UAE and Turkey, and before that between the ‘gang of four’ – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt – and Qatar. To preserve these successes and to demonstrate regional agency, the time for states to act is now.

Risks of delaying potential peace prospects

Countries in the region had hoped that this ceasefire-focused plan would pressure the Biden administration to impose urgency and restraint on Israel. As part of this strategy, Arab states have refused to discuss ‘day after’ reconstruction nor political or security scenarios and have instead outsourced these discussions to the Biden administration.

Those states have also not wanted to legitimize Israel’s military actions and refuse to bankroll reconstruction efforts without guarantees that Israel will not initiate further bombing cycles. Only with a ceasefire in hand, they say, will they begin considerations of their part in the complex political settlement process.

This strategy, however, is fraught with risks that could delay any potential prospect of peace – including further deferring the broader vision of regional integration that had included Israel.

It is a dangerous mistake to assume that a peace process will naturally emerge from this war, as many, including political leaders, seem to be doing. Without serious regional planning and investment in Gaza, a potential outcome that could materialize is lawlessness and a Palestinian political vacuum alongside the grim reality of famine, disease and death.

Israel on its own will not bear responsibility for this. Arab states will too be seen as liable. To prevent this scenario from emerging, investment in ‘the day after’ must begin today.

Threat of regional escalation

More broadly, regional states were caught off guard by Hamas’s 7 October attacks that have (for now) slowed the broader vision of region-wide de-escalation and the integration efforts of the past few years.

In building these rapprochements, leaders across the region had prioritized pragmatic national interests. The Abraham Accords normalization agreements between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, Syria’s readmittance into the Arab League, reconciliation amongst Gulf Cooperation Council states, and Iran and Saudi Arabia’s détente – all ignored Palestinian statehood.

A historic Israeli–Saudi normalization agreement underpinned by Washington was also meant to build economic and regional integration. The current approach, if not altered, will most certainly jeopardize these gains.

Waiting until a ceasefire is obtained will further delay a time-sensitive and complex political settlement process that can be easily obstructed by regional escalation which is already underway in the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea and Bab el Mandeb, and those sponsored by Hezbollah on the Lebanese border. Moreover, the regional anger about the death toll and destruction in Gaza will not easily be overcome and risks delaying things further.

No certainty of a ceasefire

Gulf states must also consider the situation as it exists: while the Biden administration is gradually pressuring Israel to alter its operations in Gaza, a ceasefire is still not imminent. Hostage negotiations between Israel, Qatar, Hamas and the US continue, but there is no certainty that such a process will bring about a ceasefire.

The recent killing of Hamas leader Salah al Arouri in Beirut showcases the broader regional risks that are only increasing. Waiting on Washington alone or until Israel achieves its impossible goal of uprooting Hamas will also not deliver.

The Biden administration on its own cannot manage ‘day after’ scenarios in a critical US election year that could see Donald Trump return as Biden’s opponent. The US is seen as the only power that can impose a ceasefire and a political resolution on Israel and the Palestinians.

It will take an almighty injection of political will to get the Biden administration to restrain Israel – especially during a presidential election year – and creative and adventurous diplomacy to work with all leaders representing the Palestinians.

In an ideal world, Israelis and Palestinians would work it out among themselves or regional powers would propose and encourage both parties to come together to resolve the crisis – there would be no need for external powers to impose anything on the Middle East region. Western intervention has rarely ended well, so far.

Regional states bear responsibility

Painful lessons can and should be learned from Western-led interventions in Iraq and Libya, where ‘day after’ plans were either lacking or poorly conceived and implemented. If the US is willing to do the diplomatic heavy lifting of imposing a ceasefire, which no other country can do, and set the parameters for negotiations, then regional states also have a responsibility.

They, with their ties to both parties, are in a strong position to not only support what could look like a 1991 Madrid-style peace process, but play an instrumental role in implementing it.

This is the reality even for those states in the region that feel unable to bring an end to the war in the Gaza through diplomatic means – Jordan and Turkey have withdrawn their ambassadors to Tel Aviv and made clear their horror of Israeli policy. They too should therefore begin to plan for the discredited notion of the ’day after.’

The Gulf states have long argued persuasively that they should never have been left out of the Iran nuclear agreement negotiations. In the years before the war in Gaza, they called for and succeeded in acquiring greater agency to manage their own neighbourhood. They are therefore now in a strong position to take on the responsibility of handling their region’s security issues – including supporting Palestinian statehood.

Dr Sanam Vakil, Director, Middle East and North Africa Programme and Dr Neil Quilliam, Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme.

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