9th Dec 2023


Did Hamas time attack to torpedo Israel-Saudi deal?

  • Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu with the US secretary of state Anthony Blinker in Jerusalem on Thursday - Israel and Saudia Arabia were about to sign a US-brokered normalisation deal (Photo: Haim Zach/Israeli government)
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What was the actual reason for Hamas' horrific attack on Israel? It is a question that lingers, almost a week later.

It was not the same sort of sudden burst of violence like we are used to from Hamas. Usually Hamas fires rockets at Israel in response to what happens in Jerusalem or in the West Bank. Moreover, those rockets were rarely aimed accurately, which also meant they caused little damage.

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So last Saturday, everything was different.

The search for motives immediately turned to Iran. It is estimated that Iran gives some €70m annually to Hamas, as well as sending weapons to Gaza via smuggling routes for years. According to the Wall Street Journal, top Iranian officials and members of its Revolutionary Guards were allegedly involved in the planning and preparation of the attack.

Moreover, Iran is said to have given it the greenlight without therefore necessarily knowing the concrete timing. That Iran and Hamas share the same hatred for Israel is no secret.

Yet this analysis does not answer the specific question of timing. Why did this attack happen now? It is certainly true that prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new far-right government is in the mix. More than ever, this Israeli government supports colonisation politics in the West Bank.

More symbolic but no less important were the several stormings of the Temple Mount and Al-Aqsa mosque by Jewish Orthodox groups. It is no coincidence that Hamas called its operation "Al Aqsa Flood".

Yet all these reasons seem to be minor details compared to the political landslide that was imminent in the Middle East, especially a peace agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia. US president Joe Biden, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman all hinted over the past few months that serious talks were under way and — moreover — progress was being made.

Camp David — the sequel

Such an agreement would have even more impact than the 1978 Camp David agreement between Israel and Egypt.

A possible agreement would therefore be a major political victory for each of the three. For Biden, such a peace would be a major feather in his cap as president and that in the run-up to elections. It would also allow Biden to appease Netanyahu and the conservative opposition in the United States regarding new negotiations with Iran on a nuclear deal. With potentially two agreements in his pocket, Biden would face the next year's presidential election with confidence.

It goes without saying that an agreement with Saudi Arabia would be very good news for Netanyahu.

Although he already concluded so-called Abraham Agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, a normalisation of relations with Saudi Arabia would be the biggest of them all.

Given its political and economic power in the region, it would probably lead to agreements with many other countries in the region.

That leaves the question why such an agreement could also be beneficial for Saudi Arabia? Does the kingdom not have enough financial resources?

True, but the country has other concerns. Bin Salman has not forgotten that the US did not respond when Yemeni rebels used Iranian drones to blow up one of Saudi Arabia's oil refineries. Saudi Arabia seeks security guarantees and can only get them from the US. Moreover, the country is watching Iran slowly but surely develop nuclear weapons.

For the Saudis, there is only one way to ensure that Iran will never again threaten the country and that is a security deal with Israel and thus the US, where the Americans promise to protect the Gulf state, as well as give it nuclear technology.

The fact that three of Iran's enemies — the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia —would form an alliance will have set off alarm bells in Tehran. For Hamas, too, such an agreement goes against everything it stands for.

The best way to torpedo this new Camp David agreement was to trap Israel in a new war, with as many civilian casualties as possible. Only that will wake up Arab public opinion, bring it to the streets, and make this deal unmarketable. As things stand, Hamas and Iran can say: mission accomplished.

Yet the renegotiation of a new peace agreement is no reason to lose all hope.

After all, the current war and the far too many innocent victims are once again bringing to the fore the unliveable situation of the Palestinians.

There are more and more voices, including in Israel, that only a political solution can ensure long-term security for Israelis and Palestinians. Perhaps that can motivate Saudi Arabia, unlike Egypt in 1978, to use its levers and co-negotiate a future for the Palestinians.

Author bio

Koert Debeuf is professor of the Middle East at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) and chair of the board of EUobserver.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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