By Irina Tsukerman
The Palestinian issue retains its potency and rhetorical power among Arab and Muslim populations who conceive of the cause as a highly personalized quest. The recent gathering of Arab leaders in Riyadh did not fail to describe the Palestinian cause as “central” to Arab concerns, as it has been for decades due to the fixation of leaders, media, and educational systems, who privilege the Palestinians above all else. As a result, even in Abraham Accords signatory countries, majorities of citizens are not fully embracing the new spirit; they are not traveling to Israel. Although the barriers are starting to break down thanks to social media, small targeted entrepreneurial endeavors, and interfaith and intercultural engagement, the Arab street is still very keen on the polarizing dynamic around the Palestinian identity. One exception to this rule, which helped advance the Abraham Accords, has been in the realm of security, an area where the Palestinians have long been displaced by other concerns.
The looming threats of Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, and their regional proxies drove countries to reconsider Israel. In contrast to the propaganda, Israel showed no interest in attacking anyone and instead demonstrated its willingness to build a new relationship with its neighbors based on security, facilitating intelligence and defense gathering, and joint action against threats.
One of the goals of the Abraham Accords was to pave the way for a full regional integration and a new security framework, one in which the US would play a supporting, rather than a central, role, whereas Israel, with its superior cybersecurity and defense capabilities, would be working with a growing number of participants to make the region a safer, more peaceful, stable, and prosperous place.
Three developments have upended this possibility, ending the brief halcyon period with hopes for a brighter future.
The Al Ula Agreement generated conflicts of interest and laid the foundation for the return of Islamists
First, the same group of US officials that masterminded and implemented the Abraham Accords also fatally undermined them by pushing Saudi Arabia and the rest of the countries in the formerly known “Anti-Terrorism Quartet” into the Al Ula Agreement. Sold as a necessary step to creating a cohesive GCC and regional front against Iran, as well as helpful in bringing outliers closer to normalization with Israel, not a single condition—from calling on Qatar to distance itself from Iran, stop funding the Muslim Brotherhood and various terrorist organizations, refrain from using Al Jazeera and other media as instruments of foreign policy, and cease interfering in the internal affairs of other countries—of the Quartet’s reasonable list of conditions for restored relations was met in exchange for the hasty reconciliation with Qatar.
Qatar and Oman, and to some extent Kuwait, have always had a problematic proximity (in more than the literal sense) to Iran that complicated the work of the GCC. Given that the Al Ula Agreement did not obligate these countries to change their ways but rather put restrictions on their neighbors meant that the anti-Israel position would be strengthened. Moreover, it seems, some of the American champions of Al Ula, were conflicted not by principle but by financial interests, having played all sides of the Gulf conflict. The Al Ula Agreement undermined the Abraham Accords by giving Qatar and other Islamist proponents greater access to Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
China and Russia expanded their footprint in the Middle East, enabling Anti-Israel actors
Second, while the US remained fixated on some version of a nuclear deal with Iran, China and Russia reasserted their diplomatic and economic presence in the Middle East, building good will through the weapons trade, energy agreements, mediation of local conflicts, and offering a non-judgmental approach to their political relations. Saudi Arabia and others were convinced to normalize with Turkey, and eventually with Iran, engaging even in peace negotiations with Iran’s and the Muslim Brotherhood’s revolutionary regional proxies, the Houthi militias in Yemen and Hamas, which is becoming increasingly integrated into Iran’s network. With the Houthis committing to abstain from further attacks on Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, they will be able to focus on their real target, Israel.
Jerusalem thus finds itself encircled by Iran and its proxies and partners, while the GCC states are at best struggling to balance these conflicting relationships, and in some cases drifting into a decidedly unfriendly direction. This also means that concerns about Iran’s malevolent actions and intentions have stopped being the regional unifier that made common cause for the Arab state actors with each other and with Israel. Instead, Iran, with the help of Qatar, is gaining footholds everywhere, pushing countries from uneasy neutrality to increased tensions with Israel. It is unlikely that the GCC states or Egypt will attack Israel anytime soon; none of them trust Iran to that extent. However, they are more likely to pressure Israel and very unlikely to provide real support against increased Iranian aggression. Iran, by normalizing, has transformed the Arab states from obstacles from its path to regional hegemony into its enablers.
Fake “human rights” campaigns and scandals targeting reformists benefited Islamists, not progress
This leads us to the third major point of the new delegitimization campaign against Israel. Although the Muslim Brotherhood was temporarily weakened under the pressure of reformists in several countries, open support from US administrations has enabled the ideology to survive. As the reformists have been weakened by White House pressure, media scandals, and various campaigns, the Islamists are increasingly finding ways to claw back power. One Israel-related threat is being displaced by another. While the possibility of Israeli presence in Saudi Arabia can still incite a religious response, the latest trend is to “de-localize” the Palestinian issue, instead launching a long-term strategic attack through media campaigns, lobbying, and lawsuits against Israel’s cybersecurity industry, such, as for instance, the infamous “Pegasus Project” operation, aimed at delegitimizing Israel’s security and defense relations with various state actors and to universalize the image of Israel as the central enabler of human and digital rights violations such as illicit surveillance of alleged dissidents, opposition, and journalists.
The combined impact of these three developments is that Israel is increasingly isolated from its allies, the integration into the region has slowed down, and the threats that Israel’s cyberskills helped identify and winnow out – such as terrorists, organized crime leaders, and violent opposition – are on the verge of resurgence, emboldened by the faltering regional diplomacy.