Israel-Hamas war offers no easy answers, only difficult questions

Normalisation implies reconciliation after conflict. But that will now be impossible in the form identified in the 2020 Abraham accords between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain

Normalisation is the term coined to describe growing political, diplomatic and economic relations between Israel and Arab or Muslim majority states. Binyamin Netanyahu and Joe Biden say it is one main reason for the Hamas attacks on Israel because its success would justify transactional links with the Jewish state and marginalise demands for Palestinian statehood.

Any such intention is scuppered after the Hamas atrocities and Israel’s retaliatory destruction of Gaza. Instead intense US, European, Middle East and world diplomacy aims to stop a regional war, create a pause or ceasefire in the fighting, insist on humanitarian relief and reopen Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Traumatised Israeli leadership and citizens mourn their dead and debate how or whether to destroy Hamas in revenge. Some struggle to identify what the endgame would be were that to happen alongside catastrophic civilian and military casualties. They blame Netanyahu for the security failure but have yet to agree on how the far-right government he led contributed to this disaster. They also need to consider whether the huge civil society protest movement against its judicial reforms diverted public attention away from the need for a Palestinian settlement if an ethnic Israel is to retain its liberal credentials.

Agenda-setting and selective framing of issues highlight and mask interpretations to communicate a message

Normalisation helps explain Israeli ill-preparedness for the October 7th attacks. According to Netanyahu’s agenda-setting, significant parts of the Arab world were willing to recognise and interact with Israel in their mutual interest. In recent weeks he displayed maps of a “New Middle East” without Palestinian representation at the United Nations and encouraged President Biden’s interest in its potential. Saudi crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman remarked that each day relations were getting closer, as he sought US nuclear and military aid in return. He has now suspended the process.


Israel-Hamas war: two weeks that shook the Middle East

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Agenda-setting and selective framing of issues highlight and mask interpretations to communicate a message. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain joined Morocco, Sudan and Egypt in normalising relations with Israel. Netanyahu saw Arab convergence as the major factor masking Palestinian statehood. He wanted to isolate Iran from the Saudis despite their recent rapprochement with Chinese mediation.

Israeli security authorities framed Hamas rule in Gaza as normalising processes of economic engagement and employment within Israel. Technology was foregrounded in its counterterrorist surveillance; troops were deployed in the occupied West Bank to protect Israeli settlers against Palestinian protests. Hamas encouraged the fiction to disguise their military preparations.

Most of the Arab autocracies pursuing normalisation did so for economic and political advantage to insulate their regimes against Muslim or secular movements. Sudan wanted release from US terrorist classification, while the Moroccans were gratified by US support of their claim to the Spanish Sahara.

The regular Arab barometer survey of public opinion in 10 states shows very low levels of support for the normalisation policy, except in Morocco and Sudan. Popular Arab support for Palestinian statehood resonates powerfully once more as a result of this asymmetric and disproportionate battle between Hamas terrorism and Israel’s all-out assault on Gaza.

In what form can a Palestinian settlement be conceived after this war and who can be party to negotiating it?

The Arab regimes are, in turn, strongly reminded of the civil uprisings associated with the 2011-2012 wave of protests across the region misnamed the Arab Spring. Any suggestion that relations with Israel can be developed without addressing the Palestinian question directly will put a strain on their stability.

Normalisation implies reconciliation after conflict. It will now be impossible to resurrect as defined in the 2020 Abraham accords between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain. We are left with a series of excruciatingly difficult and complex questions.

In what form can a Palestinian settlement be conceived after this war and who can be party to negotiating it?

For Israelis, the questions include whether — after Netanyahu disappears as a leader — they will trust his far-right coalition anymore. Would an alternative coalition be able to resurrect the two-state approach or be still too shocked and resentful to do that? Have the West Bank settlements and land seizures pursued by successive Netanyahu governments put paid to that approach? Can these colonial acts be reversed or compensated? How would an alternative one-state approach be organised without abandoning Zionism’s Jewish state?

For Palestinians, they include the question of who would provide the leadership they need — Hamas or the discredited Palestinian Authority parties. What political space is available to allow alternative leaderships emerge? Can Palestinians rely on Arab solidarity and international support as their preferred approach instead of armed resistance?

Europeans, too, face a resurrection of anti-Semitic and Islamophobic racism as they decide who to support and what a just outcome would be. They must resist framing political attitudes towards the conflict as racist. They must be aware, too, that the rest of the world will be very alert to double standards if they fail to say Russian collective punishments in eastern Ukraine are like Israeli ones in Gaza.