Arab Normalization with Israel and the War on Gaza: Interview with Mahjoob Zweiri

Interview by Malek Lakhal

While the Palestinian question was never central to the Abraham Accords, the Hamas-Israel war and the ongoing onslaught on Gaza have pushed many to question the future of Arab normalization with Israel. In this interview, Mahjoob Zweidi talks about what normalization means in the current climate and whether the conflict will change the dynamics of normalization. Mahjoob Zweiri  is a Professor in Contemporary Politics and History of the Middle East, with a focus on  Iran and the Gulf region, and the Director of the Gulf Studies Center at Qatar University.

  • Where does the current crisis leave the normalization process started by the Trump administration?

Mahjoob ZWEIRI (MZ): The normalization pushed for by the Trump administration has been based on two main theories. One, facing the so-called Iranian threat, creating an alliance to face Iran and weaken Iran in the region. Two, guarantee that the Trump administration grants a moral role to the countries that normalize with Israel, at the top of those, the UAE. It was clear that the context was not a Palestinian issue at all, there was no debate; it was an entirely different conversation. I don’t see this being affected; these countries insist on this kind of normalization. It may make these relations colder, especially as the image of Israel after these massacres, but still, at the political and economic level, it will continue.

  • You have previously underlined the fact that there is a clear difference between the 1979 and 1994 peace agreements signed by Egypt and Jordan and the Abraham Accords, in that the latter did not even consider Palestinians. How can we see that translated today?

MZ: The agreements signed under the Trump administration are different from those of the 20th century, whether the Egyptian and Jordanian peace agreements or even Oslo for that matter. Those were shaped by the Palestinian issue. Both countries have borders with Palestine, they came to their people saying, “At least we will regain some of our land”, regardless of how convincing these arguments are to the people; they at least had that. In addition, Arab governments argued that there were advantages to this kind of peace. This is inaccurate, the benefits were limited, but they had something to sell to their public opinion. However, when it comes to the Abraham Accords, there is nothing of the kind, no border with Palestine, and the Palestinian question is not at the center of diplomacy. Their priority is their security and economic collaboration with the United States, trying to create a regional alliance, bringing Israel to the Gulf. The treaties signed between Arab governments and Israel have not even translated into influence on the Israeli government, it results in more pressure and more embarrassment than influence for Arab governments.

  • Normalization was mostly an economic and geopolitical process for the Gulf, do you think the latest war will force the return of politics and the Palestinian question? Or will Gulf states try to navigate the current crisis to ensure a return to business as usual?

MZ: With the outbreak of the war on Gaza and domestic pressures, Gulf states that normalized with Israel have slowed their bilateral relations, with Bahrain recalling its ambassador from Israel. This war may affect the relations, but not much; as they see that a relationship with Israel can secure some interests for them, especially when it comes to their relationship with the US. The blessing of the US is secured when one has a relationship with Israel. The closer you are to Israel; the more American criticism can be managed. Moreover, these Gulf states are part of a wider regional alliance involving India and supported by the US to tackle Chinese interest in the region. Through this alliance, the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the US, and India try to tackle China. The region is being used to face Chinese interest in the region. So, the relationship will continue, whether at the level of economics, geopolitics, or security, which is a huge part of the collaboration. It will also continue because Israelis have the technologies the Gulf states need. But the image of Israel will be altered after 7 October because it revealed a huge weakness for Israel.

  • Hamas claims one of the objectives of its 7 October attack was to halt normalization with Saudi. How so? And is it working? And will it serve as a deterrent to other GCC countries from future consideration of normalizing relations with Israel?

MZ: Personally, I read the attack in the light of four contexts. First, there is the pressure Hamas has been facing from its base for two or three years. Its base was accusing it of becoming another Palestinian Authority, whose aim was more about government than resistance.  That pressure was crucial, and it can explain the 7 October attack. Second, I think, is the leadership of Yahya Sinwar. Sinwar was in prison for 24 years. He is strong ideologically and believes in resistance more than in politics. I think that has an impact. The third context to read the attack is the crisis of governance in Israel. Hamas, like any movement, follows the situation in Israel. They looked at this crisis as a sign of weakness. Regardless of when they started to think about the 7 October attack, the situation of Israel has contributed to this. The fourth reason is Israel’s policy when it comes to settlements and the Aqsa Mosque and all of this. The messages were very clear: Israel must be stopped. Unfortunately, nobody listened to these warnings.

These four reasons help me contextualize the 7 October attack. I don’t think Hamas expected this level of success and they did not expect therefore this level of reaction. The future will tell us more about this. I am not sure it is about normalization. Even with this kind of attack they cannot influence the normalization agenda, they may weaken it or slow it down, but they may not stop the process. When it comes to the Saudis, they wanted Israel to give concessions to the Palestinians. It’s not the same as the Abraham Accords. The Saudi approach is close to the Egyptian and Jordanian approaches. They insist that the US should push Israel to give some concession to the Palestinians. How much can they do it? So far, I don’t think the Hamas attack will stop the Saudis, what might have more influence is the political landscape in Israel after the conflict.

The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.