Arab states have limited options to take action at summit on Israel-Gaza war

Leaders are expected to show a united front at talks called by Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority

An Israeli artillery unit takes part in a military drill in the annexed Golan Heights, near Israel's border with Lebanon. AFP
Powered by automated translation

Live updates: Follow the latest news on Israel-Gaza

With few exceptions, Arab summits have been criticised for delivering strong rhetoric but a lack of action.

The meeting on November 11, called by Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority to discuss "continuing Israeli aggression" in Gaza, could be one of the few in history to make a marked difference.

But it's a complex mission.

Millions of Arabs angered by the destruction and high death toll in Gaza have called for western powers, including the US, to face punitive measures from countries in the Middle East, but their governments appear to have limited options.

"I am not at all sure that convening an Arab summit now is wise," a senior Egyptian diplomat told The National.

"The idea of a summit now raises unrealistic expectations among ordinary Arabs, when the options available to Arab leaders are quite limited."

Some Arab leaders will be under pressure when they meet in Riyadh to take strong action to help bring an end to the Israeli bombardment of Gaza that has killed more than 9,000 Palestinians since October 7. The air strikes have been launched in retaliation for the Hamas attack that killed about 1,400 Israelis.

Israel 's bombardment has displaced about half of the enclave's population of 2.3 million and destroyed homes and infrastructure. The US and many of its European allies have resisted international pressure to call for a ceasefire.

"What could make things even more difficult for them [Arab leaders] is the possibility that the situation on the ground in Gaza could well be much grimmer by the time the summit convenes," the diplomat said.

In reality, Arab leaders are likely to focus on appearing united in response to the Israel-Gaza war, calling for a ceasefire and denouncing any attempt to damage the Palestinian cause by engineering a mass movement of Gazans into neighbouring Egypt.

They are also expected to renew their commitment to an Arab peace plan proposed by Saudi Arabia and adopted 21 years ago in a Beirut summit. The plan would involve Israel establishing relations with all Arab states in return for the creation of an independent Palestinian state in Gaza and the occupied West Bank.

There are some expectations the Riyadh summit could offer more than simply a unified Arab stance.

"It will not be just a summit to co-ordinate efforts," said Prof Hasan Al Momani, director of the international relations and regional studies department at the University of Jordan.

"In the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, some of these summits were successful. The direction will be pressure, especially towards the West."

The Arab summit is likely to include a show of support for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after Hamas assumed a leadership role in the Palestinian-Israeli crisis.

That position, the senior Egyptian diplomat says, could also be a reflection of the opposition to the radical brand of Islam espoused by Hamas and its militant allies in Gaza.

"Several Arab nations are adamant that the Palestinian Authority, not Hamas, continues to be the sole representative of the Palestinians. They will want to prop up it up to save it from disappearing altogether. No one wants a militant movement that's so close to Iran represent the Palestinians," he said.

While concrete Arab action in the face of crises has been a rarity in previous years, Bahrain and Jordan may have given an indication of what could be achieved at the summit.

Bahrain on Thursday recalled its ambassador from Israel and suspended economic ties. On Wednesday, Jordan withdrew its ambassador from Israel and told the country's ambassador not to return to the kingdom.

Riyadh is not going to be just another summit. The backdrop this time round is somewhat unprecedented and the level of Arab cohesion, while not perfect, is higher than usual
Michael Hanna, director of the US programme in the International Crisis Group

But Egypt, which in 1979 became the first Arab nation to sign a peace treaty with Israel, has not taken similar action. The most populous Arab nation has close security and energy ties with Israel. Egypt is also a key mediator in US-led efforts to secure a humanitarian pause and an exchange of prisoners between Hamas and Israel.

"Riyadh is not going to be just another summit. The backdrop this time round is somewhat unprecedented and the level of Arab cohesion, while not perfect, is higher than usual," said Michael Hanna, director of the US programme in the International Crisis Group.

But he said "it's not going to be Khartoum 1967 either". That was a reference to an Arab summit hosted by Sudan soon after Israel seized Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights in the Arab-Israeli war that year.

The resolution of that summit defined the conflict for years, with Arab leaders rejecting peace or negotiations with Israel and refusing to recognise it, in what has become known as Khartoum’s “three nos.”

A source at the Saudi Foreign Ministry said efforts were already under way to secure an agreement on a final communique at the coming Arab summit that "will unify the Arab voice. But things are very fluid in this regard at the moment", he told The National.

The National's gulf affairs editor Ismaeel Naar in Abu Dhabi and Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman contributed to this report

Updated: November 04, 2023, 4:19 AM