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The May 2021 Israel-Hamas war was a stress test for normalization

Jonathan Schanzer

Published: Updated:

With the signing of the Abraham Accords last year, a rare sense of optimism washed over the Middle East. Many in Israel believed that these agreements signaled that the Arab world had given up on the Palestinian cause. Perhaps that was too optimistic. The decision to normalize relations with Israel meant that these countries would prioritize developing a working relationship with a nearby Middle Eastern country. It did not mean that they would renounce Palestinian nationalism. The Gaza war of May 2021 made that abundantly clear.

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During those 11 days of war, the new diplomatic relations between Arab states and Israel faced a significant test. Nevertheless, as one senior Emirati official stated during a July briefing I attended, “they did not fail.”

At the onset of the crisis, all four countries – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan – criticized Israel. Khartoum rebuked Israeli responses to Hamas rocket attacks as “coercive action.” Abu Dhabi called on Israel to “take responsibility for de-escalation” at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, where violence had flared. Morocco’s King Mohammed VI noted that Israeli “violations” could “fuel tensions.” Bahrain punched the hardest, calling upon the Israeli government “to stop these rejected provocations against the people of Jerusalem.”

Gulf states that were widely believed to be considering diplomatic ties with Israel also weighed in. Saudi Arabia condemned Israel’s “flagrant violations” during the war and called on Israel to end its “dangerous escalation.” Oman, which had recently hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2018, also rebuked Israel, stating that the sultanate “salutes the resilience of the Palestinian people and their legitimate struggle and calls for achieving peace based on international legitimacy and a two-state solution.”

Smoke rises following Israeli airstrikes on a building in Gaza City, Friday, May 14, 2021. (AP)
Smoke rises following Israeli airstrikes on a building in Gaza City, Friday, May 14, 2021. (AP)

The visuals of Israeli airstrikes in Gaza certainly elicited a visceral reaction from many Arab observers. Some Gulf Arab contacts of mine from the Gulf expressed anger over some of Israel’s social media messaging during the war. In particular, they found one tweet objectionable because it cited the Quran to justify Israel’s military response against Hamas.

All of this served to underscore that change does not happen rapidly in the Middle East. Official change may have come quickly with the signing of the Abraham Accords. However, attitudes about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict itself were not going to change overnight.

Still, a particularly positive message came out of the United Arab Emirates. Ali al-Nuaimi, the chairman of the defense affairs, interior, and foreign relations committee of the UAE federal national council, published an article in Newsweek after the war. In the piece, he asserted that the “Palestinian people’s rights and hopes have been hijacked by Hamas to serve an Iranian agenda.” He called upon the rest of the region to work together to sideline Iran and its proxies.

Bahrain’s foreign minister also had a positive message, which he shared with the American Jewish Committee in June. “Hopefully, the people of the region can see the benefits, and, in particular, the Israelis and Palestinians can see the benefit of the peace,” he said. For Bahrainis, he said, “the most important benefit is that the values of the Bahrainis are being really recognized. We are sending the message from a small nation, saying that peace is the way forward.” He concluded, “We need the international community to convince Iran that it cannot prosper by trying to subvert and undermine other countries.”

In one troubling sign from Morocco, however, the country’s Islamist prime minister hosted Hamas leader Ismael Haniyeh in Rabat in mid-June. But even there, one could discern some positive signs. When the prime minister sent a letter of support to Hamas, the kingdom would not permit him to do so on official letterhead. Instead, he was forced to use the Islamist Justice and Development Party’s letterhead. A few short months later, Yair Lapid, Israel’s new Israeli foreign minister visited the country, where he signed three separate agreements, and opened full diplomatic ties between the two countries.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid inaugurates Israel's diplomatic mission, in the presence of Minister Delegate to the Moroccan Foreign Ministry Mohcine Jazouli, in Rabat, Morocco August 12, 2021. (Reuters)
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid inaugurates Israel's diplomatic mission, in the presence of Minister Delegate to the Moroccan Foreign Ministry Mohcine Jazouli, in Rabat, Morocco August 12, 2021. (Reuters)

For its part, the Sudanese government officially welcomed the end of the war. During the conflict, the president of Sudan’s transitional Sovereignty Council asserted that “normalization has nothing to do with Palestinians’ right to create their own state,” stressing that the Israel-Sudan normalization agreement represented “a reconciliation with the international community which includes Israel.” After the war, he also boldly declared that Sudan had ruled out resuming ties with Iran, noting that his country viewed the Islamic Republic as a “security threat.”

The war demonstrated that the Palestinian issue is still an emotional one. The Arab world has decidedly not given up on Palestinian nationalism. At the same time, the new diplomatic relations between Israel and four Arab states weathered the storm.

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Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, DC. He is the author of the new book Gaza Conflict 2021: Hamas, Israel and Eleven Days of War (FDD Press). Follow him on Twitter @JSchanzer.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.