When I woke up with news that Israel was infiltrated by Hamas militants, two questions immediately raced to my mind. First, is my family safe? After discovering that they were, thankfully, my thoughts strangely drifted to how Saudi Arabia will respond to these attacks and the inevitable IDF counterstrikes.
Scrolling through news updates on the Times of Israel app reinforced my questioning. Below the reports on the attacks, one headline read that Saudi Arabia was considering boosting its oil output to pave the way towards an American brokered normalization deal with Israel. Usually during these outbreaks of violence, Israel’s right to defend itself has been supported by the United States and other European countries. But recently, that list has come to include Arab countries that have forged peace with the Jewish state, including the UAE and Bahrain.
With talks seemingly on the verge of securing a historic deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, Hamas has made a surprise move, forcing the most powerful Sunni Arab country to show its hand. Will Saudi Arabia condemn Hamas or will it stand by its potential new ally in the region?
So far, Saudi Arabia’s response has been strategic so as not to upset both warring parties. Its first response, several hours after Hamas terrorists invaded southern Israel, called for an “immediate halt to escalations between the two sides, the protection of civilians, and restraint.” While Riyadh did later mention the Palestinians by name, recognizing the legitimacy of ‘both sides’ was meant to demonstrate Saudi Arabia’s even handedness in this war.
Later in the day, Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan spoke with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Both agreed on the need for “all sides” to reject the targeting of civilians and the necessity of working towards an “immediate halt to the escalation.” Here, Riyadh did not mention the names of each party. Interestingly however, Prince Faisal referred to only one escalation, and if that was intentional, the joint statement with America’s top diplomat would certainly be referring to the unprecedented rocket launches, gunmen attacks and hostage taking by Hamas. Though thinly veiled, Saudi Arabia might be directly calling for Hamas to stop its operation.
It is clear that Hamas’s attack on Israel is a message to the Arab world, especially Saudi Arabia, that the Palestinians will never stop resisting Israel, no matter how many countries normalize relations with the Jewish state. Since 2002, the two-state solution was meant to predicate an Arab peace with Israel. With the Abraham Accords of 2020, that policy has been swept under the rug and Saudi Arabia, the leader of the Arab Peace Initiative, seems destined to hop on the normalization train sans two states as well. However, Saudi Arabia’s potential normalization would have to include face saving measures for the Palestinians to prove its commitment to the Arab cause.
This last cry for Arab solidarity by Hamas is a stark contrast from the meeting it had in April earlier this year, when a senior delegation met with Saudi officials in Riyadh. At the time, it seemed like relations between the terrorist organization and the Saudis, which had been frosty since the Palestinian Civil War of 2007, were beginning to thaw. Today, with public statements from both Israeli and Saudi officials on the closeness of peace, we see how the mend was an illusion and Hamas is terrified of being hung out to dry. No wonder Mohammad Deif, Hamas’s military commander, is also calling on Israeli Arabs “to set fire under the feet of the occupiers” and neighboring countries to “start marching towards Palestine now.”
Saudi Arabia stands as the great potential mediator of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For the Saudis, this war presents an opportunity to show not only the Arab world, but the entire world, that it is capable of building a more durable and secure peace in the Middle East. So far, they have been careful not to offend the Israelis or the Palestinians. But as Hamas intended from this operation, the Saudis’ response to Israel’s almost certain counterattack will finally reveal what cards they have up their sleeves.