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Gaza war complicates U.S. efforts to normalize Gulf relations with Israel

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MANAMA, Bahrain — The war in Gaza is testing newly strengthened ties between Arab Gulf countries and Israel, raising questions about an American-backed vision for regional order that emphasizes economic ties over political differences and historical rifts.

While the conflict is unlikely to lead to the severing of diplomatic relations, it has scrambled the calculations of emergent Gulf powers that see in Israel a potential security partner and a counterweight to regional rival Iran. Now, leaders must grapple with an outpouring of public anger over a war that has killed more than 13,300 people and left much of Gaza in ruins.

In speeches, statements and social media posts, Gulf leaders have condemned the death and destruction in Gaza, but they have also been careful to stress the importance of regional stability and lines of communication. Qatar, the country most diplomatically engaged in the crisis, does not have formal diplomatic relations with Israel, but has succeeded in mediating a temporary pause in the fighting — allowing for the release of hostages and Palestinian prisoners.

The United States has championed Arab normalization with Israel across two administrations. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain formalized ties with Israel in 2020 under the U.S.-brokered Abraham Accords, followed by Morocco and Sudan. Washington had hoped that Saudi Arabia — the Gulf’s dominant power — would be next. Now, those plans are on hold.

“I cannot prove what I’m about to say,” President Biden said earlier this month. “But I believe one of the reasons why Hamas struck when they did was they knew that I was working very closely with the Saudis and others in the region to bring peace to the region by having recognition of Israel and Israel’s right to exist.”

White House scrambles to repair relations with Arab, Muslim Americans

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Saudi Arabia has called for a comprehensive cease-fire in Gaza, describing the war as a “dangerous development” and a “humanitarian catastrophe.” At home, the kingdom has taken steps to channel public expressions of solidarity with Palestinians into relief and fundraising efforts.

Speaking on Nov. 18 at the IISS Manama Dialogue in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former ambassador to Washington and senior member of the royal family, said the crisis in Gaza has shown that regional peace efforts that fail to address the occupation of Palestinian land are an “illusion.”

“This war is a turning point in the process of a serious search for a just solution to the Palestinian issue,” he said. Moving forward, any effort must address “the legitimate demand of the Palestinians for self-determination.”

The UAE and Bahrain have defended their ties with Israel, saying it allows them to act as a moderating force in the crisis.

Anwar Gargash, the diplomatic adviser to the president of the UAE, said his country has leverage with Israel that otherwise would not exist. He said they have used their influence so far to push for humanitarian relief, “but this leverage will also grow at some stage.”

When asked if anything would compel the UAE to break ties with Israel, Gargash was circumspect: “What we have found through our diplomatic process is that instant gratification is not the solution in politics. Communication is the solution in politics.”

But on social media, at protests and in dinner table conversations, many Gulf citizens say they want their leaders to do more.

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“We haven’t seen any benefit. We should pressure Israel, that is how you end apartheid, with boycott,” said a 45-year old pharmacist who attended an anti-normalization protest recently with her sister and infant niece in Manama, the capital of Bahrain. She, like others in this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss politically sensitive subjects.

“With normalization what you are saying is that what’s happening to the Palestinians people is normal,” she said. The woman, whose family is Palestinian, doesn’t believe that diplomatic ties with Israel have helped the region.

“If we had stability, you wouldn’t have what’s happening in Gaza. The instability was always there, now it’s just out in the open for everyone to see.”

As public anger grows, Israeli businesses in the Gulf have adopted lower public profiles. They are sitting out trade shows, pulling advertising and downsizing official delegations.

“Beneath the surface, it’s business as usual. We just advertise the relationship less,” said one businessman in the Gulf who works extensively with Israeli companies.

“The business relationship was there before [the Abraham Accords] and it will be there after this blows over,” he said.

Many in Middle East blame United States for devastation in Gaza

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But consumers are speaking with their wallets. A grass-roots boycott movement against Western brands, including Starbucks and McDonalds, has gained support in the Gulf and across the Arab world.

A 30-year old Kuwaiti social media consultant who has spent her whole life in Dubai described the relationship with Israeli businesses in the UAE as “uncomfortable.” She said she used to meet regularly with representatives from Israeli brands, but has taken a step back since the war began. She doubts things will ever return to how they were before Oct. 7, when Hamas militants killed at least 1,200 people across southern Israel.

While, on the surface, life in the UAE appears to go on as normal, the woman said the war was all-consuming. It dominates conversations with friends and family. “Everyone is just feeling numb,” she said. Like thousands of others, she joined a government-organized aid drive in Dubai.

“I wanted to have an outlet to feel like I am making a difference, even if it’s trivial,” she said. “This is the best I can do. Your hands are tied so you’re going to do whatever you can do within your resources.”

However widespread the feelings of helplessness and frustration here, she said they haven’t translated into anti-government sentiment.

“Some people hope the UAE would have a stronger stance, but at the end of the day they trust the government because there is information that we don’t know about,” she said. “We know they prioritize security and stability because look at the track record.”

In Bahrain, the anger feels more raw, and potentially more worrying for authorities.

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A few miles from the five-star hotel hosting the security summit in Manama, hundreds of people marched against normalization, chanting “From Ramallah to Bahrain, We are one nation not two” and “No to displacement, no to normalization, long live Palestine!”

The march was granted a protest permit by Bahrain’s government — an acknowledgment, attendees said, that public discontent is now an undeniable political force.

Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa cautioned against actions that undermine “the rules based order” in his speech marking the opening of the summit. He said countries such as his must work “with all of the parties involved to make sure that our voice,” is heard. The longer the war in Gaza lasts, he cautioned, the more likely it will lead to instability and extremism.

Nearby, in a neighborhood dotted with sleek restaurants and cafes, dozens of people gathered recently outside the office of a Palestinian advocacy group, calling on the government to break ties with Israel.

A 33 year-old Bahraini man, who works as a private art curator and described himself as a government supporter, admitted he was never comfortable with his country’s decision to normalize relations. Now, after seeing the brutality of the war in Gaza, he hopes that authorities will reverse course.

“I don’t think a society’s values are ever perfectly reflected by its leadership, but on this I hope it changes, I hope they cut ties,” he said.

In Shiite parts of this Sunni-ruled kingdom, where resentment has long simmered, the war in Gaza is fueling more overt fury.

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Outside a Shiite mosque in the north, following Friday prayers, dozens of men, women and children gathered, holding signs calling for Israel to be erased and accusing American leaders of genocide.

“We are a small voice, but an important voice,” said a 35-year-old travel agent on the edge of the gathering.

“The people in Saudi Arabia, they can’t protest,” he said, referring to strict controls on public gatherings in Bahrain’s powerful, oil-rich neighbor. “But we are saying out loud what everyone in Saudi, every Arab, every Muslim is thinking in his heart.”

Source: Washington Post

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