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President Donald Trump, center, with from left, Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Normalization at What Cost? The Risk of Pushing Amid the Gaza War

As Israel’s war on Gaza approaches its ninth month and its aggressive tactics have come under global scrutiny, the United States continues its mission to pressure Saudi Arabia and other Arab states to normalize relations with Israel. This approach not only seems increasingly irrational but also risks inflaming tensions between Arab leaders and their people, jeopardizing relations between the United States and the Arab world. Outrage over the subservience of Arab leaders to American demands and President Biden’s near-unconditional support for Israel has reached a boiling point. Daily footage of the death and destruction wrought in Gaza exacerbates this anger, turning living rooms across the Middle East into fertile ground for hostility and even extremism.

By pushing for normalization under such direly abnormal circumstances, Washington risks fostering deep-seated animosity among Arabs across the region and prolonging the collective suffering of millions. The Biden administration should thus reconsider its intensive normalization efforts and take a step back to evaluate the long-term consequences of its broader regional approach. Otherwise, besides complicated diplomatic and strategic initiatives, the prospects of Palestinian self-determination in the future may be further marginalized, creating severe antagonism towards the US and its institutions throughout the Arab world. Hence, for the sake of securing peace and stability, a more balanced and empathetic approach to the region is imperative.

Cracking Down on the Traumatized

It is difficult to overestimate the psychological toll that the jarring images of the war have had on Arab audiences for the last eight months. Coverage of the Gaza war has dominated Arab news since October 7, and social media has given global audiences a brutally unfiltered view of the suffering and devastation it has caused. Some psychologists have warned about the impacts of constant exposure to these images on mental health, noting they can trigger the body’s flight-or-fight response and bring about depression. According to U.S. Army Col. Steven Sugden, MD, “Civilians, soldiers, and those consuming the war through social media can develop the typical psychological profile of trauma. Consumers of a war via television, social media, or other forms of media can be just as impacted as the actual individuals within the conflict.”

This widespread psychological impact is compounded by state repression across the Arab world in response to protests in support of the Palestinian cause. Various countries have responded to public demonstrations against the war with varying levels of severity including arrest. In Jordan, protesters have been dispersed by police forces and hundreds have been detained. In Egypt, during a demonstration criticizing President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s collaboration in the ongoing blockade of Gaza, several young men were arrested and later charged with terrorism and disseminating misinformation. While the use of violent tactics to suppress and deter mass protests is not surprising, the intensity of the uproar and anger expressed in these demonstrations reveal the profound disdain at the grassroots level for their governments’ response—or lack thereof—to the bombardment of Gaza.

A Festering Wound

Arab resentment towards Israeli policies was not born in the aftermath of October 7. These tensions have deep historical and intergenerational roots, and Arab animus against Israeli policies invariably intensifies when Palestinian civilians suffer at the hands of the Israel Defense Forces. Though many Arab governments fanned anti-Israel sentiment in the past in order to bolster domestic support and distract from problems at home, they may have come to regret these policies. Indeed, the Palestinian cause has often created a deep rift between the people and their governments across the Arab world, highlighting how the popular support for the Palestinian cause has clashed with leaders’ prioritization of their national and foreign policy interests.

Unsurprisingly, due to U.S. ironclad support of Israel, pro-Palestine demonstrations in the Arab world have usually included anti-American elements. For example, while the 1977 bread riots in Egypt were primarily driven by economic grievances, the rioters also expressed a collective dissatisfaction with then-President Anwar Sadat’s decision to align Egypt with the United States. His signing of the U.S.-brokered Camp David Accords in 1978 was similarly controversial, and later led to his assassination. In the 2008-09 Gaza War, American embassies across the Middle East were inundated with demonstrations protesting Washington’s unwavering support of Israel and its role in the Gaza humanitarian crisis. The same influence may be seen in today’s protests.

Many Arab citizens have long held the view that their leaders prioritize good relations with the United States over the Palestinian issue, and these governments have given their people little reason to change this view over the past months. Across the region, populations who feel that their voices have been ignored are expressing their profound distaste for government policy toward Israel and the United States. In a recent survey conducted in 16 Arab countries, more than three-quarters of the respondents reported that their attitude toward the United States had become more negative since the Gaza conflict began. Additionally, more than half reported a view that U.S. foreign policy posed the gravest threat to the region—followed by Israel at 26 percent. The numbers underscore how U.S. diplomacy designed to appeal to the Arab masses lacks a solid foundation.

Of course, Washington’s overtures are easily undermined by its policies regarding Israel. Given that the vast majority of the Arab population is staunchly pro-Palestine, a prolonged military campaign that kills over 34,000 Palestinians—mainly civilians, women and children—is naturally perceived as an attack on the entire Arab world. This perspective, too, is substantiated by survey results. 92 percent of respondents in the same survey said they viewed the Palestinian cause as an Arab one, inseparable from the broader Israel-Arab context and reflective of the Middle East’s colonial past. This represents a significant increase from just two years ago, when only 76 percent of respondents saw the conflict in the same light. Despite overwhelming support for Palestine and the Palestinians among ordinary Arabs, the region’s U.S.-friendly governments have generally not broken ties with Tel Aviv, and none of the nations that extended recognition to the Jewish state in the 2020 “Abraham Accords”—ironically claiming at the time that doing so would help them to act in the Palestinians’ best interests—have rescinded it.

This disconnect has generated a collective sense of injustice among disgruntled Arabs, raising concerns about potential radicalization. However, these concerns are not limited to mobilization by pre-existing extremist groups. Grassroots youth mobilization has emerged even in staunchly pro-U.S. states, revealing the precarity of the Abraham Accords. In the Gulf, Dr. Mira Al Hussein points out that the ongoing war in Gaza could intensify grievances among the youth. “What Gulf regimes ought to pay attention to,” she says, “is the mass appeal of the Palestinian resistance that is delivered through a familiar religious lexicon… The young Gulf citizen, hyped-up by state discourse about masculinity and military prowess, is hypnotized by videos of Hamas combatants dealing heavy blows against Israeli forces.” For all the efforts of Gulf diplomats and ruling families, Dr. Hussein argues, the Abraham Accords are doomed to fail in the long run if the next generation cannot be persuaded of the benefits of closer relations with Israel.

For this reason, it is crucial to take a step back and evaluate the consequences of rushing normalization when the vast majority of the population opposes it. The tensions between regional governments and their citizens largely stem from a clash of perceptions about Israel. While political elites may see normalization as a pathway to improving their national interests—boosting regional security, deterring Iran, facilitating technology transfers, and promoting economic diversification—the people will only view Israel as an aggressor against the Palestinians’ right to self-determination and a threat to regional stability as long as Palestinian aspirations for a free and independent state remain unanswered. Therefore, pursuing a more balanced approach that seriously considers the reality on the ground, as well as the alleviation of the Palestinian plight, is essential. Prudence and patience, even if it postpones diplomatic normalization by several years, will prove a more sustainable strategy—and it will better serve the interests of the United States, Israel, and the Arab world in the long run.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: U.S. – Gulf Policy
Country: GCC

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Dr. Hind Al Ansari is a Fellow at Gulf International Forum. She is a development and global education researcher based in Washington and recently completed a one-year fellowship at the Wilson Center. Dr. Al-Ansari has published multiple articles and has been recognized for her work as a recipient of the Middle East Policy Council 40 Under 40 Award. She holds a PhD in Education from Cambridge University and a Master in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard.


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