Introduction - The Struggle for Stability: Arab Reactions to the Hamas-Israel War

This article, written by Dr. Joshua Krasna, is the introduction to "The Struggle for Stability: Arab Reactions to the Hamas-Israel War", a joint MDC/KAS publication surveys conservative Arab reactions to the war, focusing on emerging trends and preliminary reactions to the war's first 3-4 months (October 2023-January 2024).

KAS-MDC publication - ilustration for cover
[IIustration Credit: Yitz Woolf Design]

In early autumn 2023, there seemed to be much reason for optimism about the future of the Middle East. Of the two dominant geopolitical vectors in the region – that of regional integration and conflict reduction, encompassing the Arab monarchies, Egypt and Israel, and that of the violent "Resistance", comprising Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Houthis and the pro-Iranian Shi’i Iraqi militias – the first seemed to have the upper hand. Plans and projects for regional integration and "mini-lateralism" were progressing. A broader process of conflict resolution and management – encompassing détentes between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Iran, Qatar, and Turkey; as well as between Turkey and Egypt and even Israel - was moving forward in the region. Saudi – Israeli normalization seemed to be in the cards.

The surprise attack and outrages of October 7th, and the war in Gaza in its aftermath, have derailed these trends; disrupting them may in fact have been part of Hamas’ aims. While it seems that Hamas acted mostly alone in the timing of its invasion, it has embroiled its allies in escalated conflict. Some Resistance partners, the Houthis most successfully, have also sought to internationalize the Gaza conflict (perhaps in an effort to further isolate Israel and force the international community to press it to end its campaign with Hamas intact), by extending it to the Red Sea and Iraq, as well as to use it to further degrade U.S. prestige and position in the region.

None of the countries which have signed peace treaties and other agreements with Israel – Egypt, Jordan, UAE, Bahrain, Morocco – have broken relations with Jerusalem (neither has Turkey), though most Israeli diplomatic offices in the region (with the notable exception of UAE) have been evacuated for security reasons. Jordan has loudly suspended a planned trilateral energy and water deal with Israel and UAE. The Arab partners strive to balance between condemnation of Israel’s actions, and aversion to its incumbent government, and the continued importance of their broader interests that relations with Israel serve; Saudi Arabia’s position is similar.

While none of these states is a supporter of Hamas (or of the Muslim Brotherhood), they all support – and, despite their lack of democracy, feel pressured by their publics and by the greater Muslim public to support – the population of Gaza (providing humanitarian aid, including through highly publicized use of military assets), Palestinian statehood, and, in the absence of a better alternative, the Palestinian Authority. The crisis has ignited long-lasting fears in Jordan and Egypt that Israel might use such a crisis to permanently expel Palestinians into their territories; some Israeli statements, including by government ministers, fan the flames of these concerns. All these Arab states are striving to lower the profile of relations with Israel so as not to draw more domestic and Muslim condemnation. On the other hand, some of them are trying to use their relations (in cooperation with the U.S.) as diplomatic leverage with Israel to use the current crisis as a springboard towards Palestinian statehood, dangling the prospect of expansion of normalization as a lure.

The Palestinian issue, largely quiescent in the past two decades and therefore largely absent in the dynamics which drove the Abraham Accords (though always less so than Israel and Israelis presumed), is now firmly back in the center of the regional agenda. Israeli involvement in further normalization and regional integration will be dependent on how this war ends and, and least in the short to medium term, on the nature of Israel’s future commitment to a political settlement with the Palestinians. The re-assertion of the Palestinian issue in the center of the regional and international agenda has hardened the anti-Israeli trends in the Arab publics. This will have an impact on future economic relations, on Israel’s integration into upcoming long-term regional infrastructure and connectivity projects—which could “bake in” limitations on Israel’s place in the region in the future — and on the prospects for “people-to-people” relations.

What does the war mean for the conservative actors in the Arab World? How do they, and their publics, view the current crisis, and how does this effect their views and policies on regional dynamics, and especially regarding Israel? This collection of papers seeks to shed light on these questions. It examines trends in actors who maintain relations with Israel – Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Morocco, and Israel’s Arab citizens, and in Qatar, a close U.S. ally and indispensable interlocutor in the current crisis – as well as the discourse in the Arabic media.

*This article is part of The Struggle for Stability: Arab Reactions to the Hamas-Israel War.

**For a full version of this article that includes source citations, please see the original publication file.

***The articles in this collection were written in January 2024 and prepared for publication in early March, before the most recent developments regarding Iran and Israel.