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Will the Arab Street blow up Biden’s Middle East aspirations?

A huge rally in support of Palestinians in Yemen's capital Sanaa.

Arabs stand in solidarity with Palestinians after shocking Hamas attacks on Israeli cities and subsequent reprisals by the Israeli forces. While Arab governments are cautious, Arab streets are echoing with delirious support to Palestinians, reminiscing scenes witnessed in 70’s and 80’s.

Arab states like United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain had formalised relations with Israel in 2020 as part of the Abraham Accords. Saudi Arabia was in talks with Tel Aviv for the same. Moreover, it was a dream project of US President Joe Biden to link Israel with neighbouring Arabs and enhance this reach beyond the peninsula.

But the escalating crisis may have torched all these aspirations, seriously jeopardising commercial and security alignments in the Middle East.

Arab govt reactions

Saudi Arabia, the leading Arab player in the West Asia, immediately reacted to eruption of Hamas-Israel violence. Riyadh appealed for an immediate halt to war, calling upon the international community to “activate a credible peace process” leading to a two-state solution. “The Kingdom renews the call of the international community to assume its responsibilities and activate a credible peace process that leads to the two-state solution to achieve security and peace in the region and protect civilians,” Saudi Arabia said in a statement.

Kuwait foreign ministry in a statement called on the international community to “stop the provocative practices by the occupation” and the “policy of expanding settlements”.

Egypt, which normalised ties with Israel in 1980 under a peace treaty, warned of “grave consequences” if tensions between Israel and the Palestinians escalate.

Oman and Morocco were also subdued in their reactions and called on Israel and the Palestinians to exercise maximum self-restraint.

The UAE expressed “deep concern” over the escalation in a statement that stressed the need “to stop the escalation and preserve the lives of civilians”. The statement offered “sincere condolences” to all the victims of the recent fighting.

Both the Syrian foreign ministry and Houthi rebels in Yemen hailed the Hamas operation an “honourable achievement that proves the only way for Palestinians to obtain their legitimate rights is resistance in all its forms”.

If the escalation continues and killings of Gazans mount, as is highly likely, the stance of Arab states will expectedly turn more strident.

Meanwhile, Iran, the chief backer of Hamas, has called for all Muslim countries to unite against Israel and hold an emergency meeting of Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

Echo on Arab streets

On Saturday, when Palestinian gunmen from the blockaded territory of Gaza surged into Israel, carrying out the boldest attack in the country in decades, it set off an outpouring of support for the Palestinians across the region. In some quarters, there were celebrations — even as hundreds of Israelis and Palestinians were killed and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel threatened a “long and difficult war” ahead.

“This is the first time that we rejoice in this way for our Palestinian brothers,” said Abdul Majeed Abdullah Hassan, 70, who joined a rally with hundreds of people in the island kingdom of Bahrain. In the context of the Israeli occupation and blockade, the Hamas operation “warmed our hearts,” he said, calling his government’s deal to recognize Israel “shameful.”

Massive protests have been organised in Qatar, Bahrain, Egypt, Oman and some part of Saudi Arabia to show solidarity with Palestinians.

In Lebanon, Hashem Safieddine, head of the executive council for the Iran-backed militia Hezbollah, delivered a fiery speech lauding “the era of armed resistance.”

The ripples spreading from Gaza underscored what many scholars and citizens in the region have been saying for years: The Palestinian cause is still a deeply felt rallying cry that shapes the contours of the Middle East, and Israel’s position in the region will remain unstable as long as its conflict with the Palestinians continues.

Biden’s Middle East Plan will be challenged

In recent months, the Biden administration has been pursuing an ambitious diplomatic project to design a new Middle East. But his plans seem to have been torched by sudden spurt of “war” in the oldest flashpoint of the region.

American officials said it was too early to say whether the Hamas attack was explicitly motivated by a desire by Hamas or its patron Iran to disrupt President Biden’s effort to broker a landmark deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia that would profoundly reorient the Middle East. But they acknowledged that it could complicate the already delicate negotiations and make it that much harder to reach an agreement akin to the Abraham Accords between Israel and smaller Arab nations.

“This will slow considerably if not kill the Saudi Abraham Accords deal,” said Mara Rudman, a former Middle East peace diplomat under President Barack Obama. “It strikes at the heart of key elements for Saudi entry, a pathway forward for Palestinians in West Bank and Gaza,” she added. “And on the Israeli side, there will be zero appetite across a wide political spectrum for helping Palestinians, despite the fact that so doing could actually enhance, not detract from, Israeli security.”

Biden’s sweeping aspirations will have to take a back seat to managing the clash now consuming Israel and Gaza, one unlikely to be resolved as quickly as the bursts of violence that have periodically erupted over the years.

The tenuous cease-fire between Israelis and Palestinians now stands rubbished, the spirals of hate and misery are churning again and the pressure is on the Saudis and others to sympathise with their fellow Arabs will pause any further warming with Israel.