Hamas attack complicates talks on Israeli-Saudi relations, experts say

What now for the historic deal as Prime Minister Netanyahu warns of a long fight ahead

Israel has launched air strikes on Gaza after an attack on the country by Hamas militants. EPA
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The unprecedented attack Hamas launched against Israel on Saturday prompted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to tell Israelis to prepare for a “long war” and raised tensions across the region.

The assault caught Israeli intelligence services completely off guard, with the US also seeming to have had no inkling that an attack was imminent.

The US shares intelligence with Israel and the consensus in Washington had been that the security situation in the country was better than it had been of late.

That had helped to set the scene for the US to hold talks to establish formal ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel under a continuation of the Abraham Accords.

The accords were signed in 2020 by Israel and the UAE and Bahrain. Agreements were later signed between Israel and Morocco and Sudan.

About a week ago, White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the “Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades” and sounded rosy about prospects for a Saudi-Israeli deal that reportedly would include US security guarantees and a civilian nuclear programme for Riyadh.

On Saturday, Hamas militants killed more than 100 Israeli soldiers and civilians, took dozens of Israelis hostage and launched more than 3,000 rockets.

Israel vowed to launch a major response and struck targets in Gaza, killing at least 198 people.

In a televised address on Saturday night, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who earlier declared Israel to be at war, said the military will use all of its strength to destroy Hamas’ capabilities and “take revenge for this black day.”

“This war take time. It will be difficult,” he said.

Hani El Masri, a political analyst in Ramallah, said the Hamas attack will complicate and delay efforts to normalise ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

“It will also reinforce the voices that say that without a Palestinian solution, there is no solution,” he told The National.

Three decades of on-again, off-again US-brokered negotiations have failed to produce a peace agreement and the creation of an independent Palestinian state, which has long been regarded as the key to ending the violence.

That failure has fuelled discontent, especially among Palestinians, as Israel continues to maintain its military occupation of the West Bank.

The situation had long affected efforts to establish ties between Israel and its Arab neighbours.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in an interview last month that an agreement between the kingdom and Israel should include “easing the lives of Palestinians”, without elaborating.

Prince Mohammed denied reports that Riyadh was putting talks on hold because Israel’s right-wing government was unwilling to offer concessions to the Palestinians.

Thomas Warrick, former deputy assistant secretary for counter-terrorism policy at the US Department of Homeland Security, said the latest violence would not change the “underlying strategic dynamic” of a future agreement.

“The normalisation process is being driven by factors in the relationships between and among the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the other countries that are involved,” Mr Warrick, now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Coucil, told The National.

“Certainly this is going to put a pause on things, but in actuality it does not change the underlying strategic dynamic.”

Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the Hamas assault would not change the “underlying dynamic” under way between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

“It doesn't strike me that this episode will necessarily bring it to a grinding halt. After all, the Saudis have indicated their ongoing frustration with the Palestinians in the Palestinian arena,” he said on a press call.

“Whether this comes to an absolute halt will really depend very much on how the Israelis respond in the Gaza Strip.”

Previous conflicts between Israel and Hamas led to widespread destruction in Gaza and high death tolls.

With a far-right government in Israel, the situation is now even more volatile. Experts have said a pause in the expansion of Israeli settlements is among the minimum requirements to appease the Palestinians.

But the current make-up of the Israeli government will make such a demand a tough sell. Ministers in Mr Netanyahu's government have openly said they want to pursue the full annexation of the West Bank.

“If it was difficult before, it makes it almost impossible now because any compromise, any gesture, anything that you offer the Palestinians right now will be looked at by the mainstream, let alone the zealots, as rewarding terrorists, as rewarding Hamas who kill people,” Akiva Eldar, a political analyst in Israel, told The National.

“Even the minimum requirements that the Saudis are expecting, such as putting on hold expansion of settlements, is impossible.”

Mr El Masri says a lot rests on how Israel responds to this latest escalation.

“Israel could launch a massive operation on Gaza aimed at destroying Hamas. This will be difficult, but it's a possibility,” he said.

“Or, because of the hostages, which could be used as human shields, we could see American and Arab intervention leading to an agreement.”

A senior Biden administration official said Centcom commander Gen Michael Kurilla had been in contact with Israeli partners for "regular co-ordination about some of the needs that Israel anticipates".

Israel has launched four full-scale wars, and scores of military strikes on the Gaza Strip since Hamas took over the territory in a coup in 2007.

Brokered ceasefires have ended the fighting, but proven short-lived.

The most recent example was in 2021. Following weeks of tensions around Israeli actions in and around Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque compound during Ramadan, Hamas began firing rockets into Israel.

Israel responded with air strikes. Nearly 250 people were killed in Gaza and 13 in Israel in 11 days of fighting.

Gaza launches rockets into Israel – in pictures

Updated: October 07, 2023, 9:56 PM