How The West Is Leaning On The Gulf States For A Way Out In The Middle East
Can Europe play a role in the current conflict in the Middle East? During the recent visit to the region by German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, it appeared clear that Gulf States are in a much better position to negotiate a possible solution.
BERLIN — German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock's recent flight from Saudi Arabia to Israel hit a patch of modest turbulence. The seatbelt signs light up. The Arab peninsula, whose countries have only just moved closer to the Jewish state, is literally shaking.
The Gaza crisis is putting the West's relations with the Arab world to the test. And it ultimately makes it clearer than ever: the West needs the Gulf states.
Baerbock's lightning trip to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the West Bank also raises the question of what comes after the war. At the moment, the German government is pushing for the release of the Hamas hostages and humanitarian aid for the Palestinians. In the medium term, the focus is on a model that will bring lasting peace to the Middle East.
Washington and Berlin want to make the Arab countries themselves more responsible for forging and keeping the peace.
Central role as negotiators
The Israeli military operation in Gaza could last weeks, months or even longer.
Behind the scenes, however, diplomats are already working on a new security architecture for the troubled strip of land. The U.S. and the European Union are largely in agreement on the conditions: no occupation or reduction in size, no expulsion of Palestinians, no ongoing blockade or siege. At the same time, Gaza must no longer be a safe haven for terrorists and must be governed without Hamas.
A bridge between different worlds.
The West cannot solve this crisis alone; it needs actors who can influence radical Palestinian forces. The countries of the Arabian Peninsula play "the central role", said Baerbock as she stepped up to the lectern after her meeting with Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Abu Dhabi was the first destination on her two-day trip earlier this month.
Baerbock praised the UAE, which had already increased its support for the Palestinian relief organization UNRWA and also wanted to get involved in caring for the wounded from Gaza. So far, the aid organization has been "two-thirds financed by Western funds," she says.
The United Arab Emirates has maintained diplomatic relations with Israel since 2020 and continues to do so despite the war in Gaza. Baerbock calls the country a "bridge between the different worlds."
How far can Gulf States go?
Saudi Arabia was also negotiating bilateral relations with Israel until recently, but broke off talks due to the escalation in Gaza. In the medium term, the Saudis are likely to remain interested in normalizing relations, as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman depends on stability in the region and the U.S. as a close partner to fulfill his ambitious economic goals.
Still, it is not clear how far the Gulf states are prepared to go. Financial aid and medical care are one thing, political responsibility for a peace solution — possibly even participation in the presence of international troops — is another.
Hussein Ibish from the Institute of Arab Gulf States in Washington sees little willingness to get involved in a post-war order. "In the event of a long-term Israeli presence in the Gaza Strip, the Hamas uprising could grow and turn against the present troops," he told the French newspaper Le Monde.
Many governments in Arab countries are also under pressure, as sympathy for the Palestinians and anti-Israeli attitudes are widespread among their populations, but some of them maintain direct contacts with Israel's leadership themselves. The longer the war lasts, the more difficult this balancing act is likely to become.
At a protest in Sana'a, Yemen, on Nov. 10
What will Israel do?
Another obstacle to a peace solution is the position of the Israeli government. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently indicated Israel could re-occupy Gaza, even if he had previously stated that Israel would not attempt to conquer, govern or occupy Gaza.
The West Bank is escalating too.
But Palestinians could very well consider any type of Israeli security presence as an occupation. From this perspective, an Israeli buffer zone that takes land away from Gaza would also be problematic.
Baerbock's first stop after landing in Tel Aviv was the West Bank, before meeting her Israeli counterpart Eli Cohen.
Checkpoint, barbed wire, armed soldiers. Following Hamas' brutal attack on Israel, the situation is gradually escalating in the West Bank too, as radical Israeli settlers attack Palestinians. "Settler violence is also damaging Israel's security," says Baerbock.
Palestinian Authority weakness
In Ramallah, when Baerbock met the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Mohammed Shtajjeh, someone pointed out a sign reading "State of Palestine" — this publicly declared fact has of course been a matter of dispute for decades.
After the meeting, Baerbock emphasized that the PA must be strengthened for the realization of a Palestinian state —comments aligned with what U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at the end of October.
The problem: the authority lacks trust and democratic legitimacy. President Mahmoud Abbas' term of office expired in 2009 and no elections have been held since then. The PA is also underfunded, and without reforms and a change at the top, it is unlikely to be able to administer the Gaza Strip.
The West knows that a stable political deal should be reached at the end. But the path to this remains unclear. More and more experts in the region are returning to making calls for a two-state solution, as the only way to pacify the region in the long term.
"A military solution alone will not be enough to defeat the terrorist ideology of Hamas," according to one diplomat in the region.
Shifting interests, waning influence
In theory, Germany's special relationship with Israel and its good relations with many Arab countries would not put it in a bad position to mediate. But it is questionable how much the German government can actually achieve. Europe hardly carries any weight in the Middle East, and Washington is too closely allied with Israel.
In addition, adversaries of the West such as Iran, China and Russia are fighting for influence; the terrorist militia Hezbollah is threatening to attack from Lebanon.
If a political solution fails again, the Middle East conflict could escalate again and again. With consequences far beyond Israel and the Palestinian territories. And that begins in the Gulf.
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