How the Gaza war is derailing peace efforts in the wider region

How the Gaza war is derailing peace efforts in the wider region

Smoke billows from Israeli strikes in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. May 07, 2024 (File/AFP)
Smoke billows from Israeli strikes in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. May 07, 2024 (File/AFP)
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In addition to its devastating direct effects, Israel’s war on Gaza has delayed if not derailed several key projects aimed at reshaping the region by restoring peace and security. Many thought that those grand visions of historical reconciliation and cooperation would lead to greater prosperity in this region and beyond.

The first casualty has been the peace process to tackle the Arab-Israeli conflict. Last September, at the opening of the 78th session of the UN General Assembly, Saudi Arabia launched a new effort, in coordination with the Arab League, the EU and others, to rejuvenate the Arab Peace Initiative of March 2002 by offering a grand bargain of normalization with Israel in exchange for its withdrawal from occupied territory.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Iran’s hard-liners did not hide their opposition to the bargain. The former wanted normalization without ceding territory and the latter wanted Israel’s withdrawal without normalization, but almost everyone else agreed with the proposition. Before Oct. 7, the Saudi initiative was gaining momentum as the US and others made considerable efforts in that direction.

The prospect of Arab-Israel reconciliation frightened Iran’s hard-liners for two reasons. First, advocacy for maximalist positions on Palestine is a key element of Iran’s revolutionary foreign policy, which opposes the two-state solution and excludes any reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians. Second, they feared that the US would use the grand bargain to consolidate forces opposed to Iran in the region.

The war, especially the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, gave Netanyahu a pretext to again reject the idea of a Palestinian state

Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

At the same time, Israeli extremists, including Netanyahu, were opposed to any solution that could lead to a Palestinian state, which is the key component of the Arab Peace Initiative and the revived peace efforts.

The Gaza war provided a way out for both. Iran has opportunistically used the war to dust up its revolutionary credentials. Iran’s affiliates — Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen and some Iraqi militias — have engaged in quixotic efforts to show support for Palestinian factions in Gaza in an attempt to exploit the conflict for political gain for Tehran.

At the same time, the war, especially the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, gave Netanyahu a pretext to dig in his heels and again reject the idea of a Palestinian state.

There was also another reconciliation project, between Iran and its neighbors. The March 2022 agreement signed in Beijing between Saudi Arabia and Iran led to some initial positive results, including the reopening of embassies and exchange of ambassadors between Riyadh and Tehran. It was followed by a flurry of high-level meetings and ironing out of some bilateral differences. There were genuine efforts to help de-escalate regional conflicts and extend the reconciliation beyond bilateral issues. Israel did not hide its anxiety regarding any effort to integrate Iran into the region and normalize relations with it. Netanyahu has made a career of portraying Iran as the source of all evil.

The Gaza war has slowed that process too. Much as in 2011, when Iran’s hard-liners exploited the so-called Arab Spring protests to enhance their regional influence, successfully at times, today they appear to be prioritizing attempts to take advantage of the conflict to improve their bargaining position.

Delayed reconciliation with Iran is not only postponing its integration in the Gulf region, but is also casting doubts on other projects. For example, Gulf Cooperation Council-Central Asia integration, which started two years ago, is moving slowly now because of the issues related to Iran, which sits right in the middle between these two regions. Iran could become an integral part of this project if there was genuine reconciliation with its neighbors.

The Houthis have dragged their feet and instead started a war against international shipping in the Red Sea

Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

Peace in Yemen has been another casualty. Before the war in Gaza, Yemeni factions were moving toward a peace process, led by the UN and supported by Saudi Arabia and Oman. Since the war started, the Houthis have dragged their feet in responding to the UN roadmap and instead started a war against international shipping in the Red Sea. There is speculation that they believe the war has raised their stature within Yemen and improved their bargaining position to get a better deal than the one offered by the UN.

Syria is another casualty. Last year, Syria was readmitted to the Arab League under certain conditions as spelled out in the Amman Communique. It was a “step-for-step” formula agreed to by the foreign ministers of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria. Among the conditions were movement in good faith toward reaching a UN-led political solution in Syria, according to UN Security Council Resolution 2254, and combating drug trafficking from Syria. The war in Gaza has clouded the atmosphere and little progress has been made since then. Drug traffickers operating from Syrian territory have become more brazen and violent and the peace process has been on hold.

The India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor, which was announced last year to connect India and Europe, via the Gulf, through marine routes and railroads, has also suffered. The US, Saudi Arabia and others announced during the G20 meeting in New Delhi significant financial pledges to start this ambitious project, which Washington hoped would not only bring economic benefits but would also help integrate these regions politically and would have a positive effect on the Middle East process of peace and reconciliation.

All these grand ideas are now either on hold or moving more slowly than anticipated due to the war in Gaza. The sooner this war is brought to a conclusion, the sooner they can materialize. If not, the extremists will win and drag this region into the abyss.

  • Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the Gulf Cooperation Council assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily represent the GCC. X: @abuhamad1
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