MENA countries should lead the way de-escalating the Israel–Hamas war

Regional players have spent the last five years finding pragmatic solutions to end conflict and forge connections. Now they must address the issue they have sought to avoid.

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The tremors from Hamas’ attack on Israel and Israel’s military response are being felt far beyond their borders, where the fighting is currently concentrated.

There are clear fears across the Middle East that the region will become mired in a broader war that could draw in Palestinians in the West Bank and Jordan, Egypt (which shares a border with Gaza), Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and their patron Iran. Gulf Arab countries also fear their domestic security will be affected by cascading violence.

Map of Israel including the Golan Heights on the Syrian border, the West Bank in the East, and Gaza in the South West, bordering Egypt

But the war has erupted following a prolonged period of regional-led de-escalation and reconciliation efforts. Since 2019 countries including Israel have been increasingly willing to find pragmatic, workable compromises based on shared interests – a phenomenon sometimes referred to as building a ‘new Middle East’.

Progress has not been complete or perfect, but the regional context for the Israel–Hamas war is very different from that of even ten years ago.

Now is the moment for regional players to collaborate on an effort to find new solutions to de-escalate the war

The new war will provide the severest possible test of this regional cooperation. But Middle Eastern countries must not shrink from the challenge. Now is the moment for regional players to collaborate on an effort to find new solutions to de-escalate the war.

An old problem in a ‘new’ region

Since 2019 Middle Eastern states have embarked on a prolonged period of realist regional diplomacy, driven by decreasing US engagement, geopolitical shifts stemming from the war in Ukraine, and a broader regional re-prioritization of domestic economic needs.   

This has seen the normalization of relations between Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates in the 2020 Abraham Accords, the end of the Qatar blockade in 2021, a reset of Gulf–Turkish relations in 2023, and the restoration of Iranian–Saudi ties brokered by China. 

Yemeni negotiations are also underway, as is the rehabilitation of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad after a decade of civil and externally sponsored war.    

Qatar and Oman, meanwhile, played an important role managing indirect dialogue between Washington and Tehran, helping to secure the release of American hostages. Recent negotiations between Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US were intended to bring about another round of normalization – though with the outbreak of armed conflict, that is now almost certainly off the table.

This period of de-escalation has been celebrated by US and European partners. Less than two weeks ago, US National Security advisor Jake Sullivan, while acknowledging that challenges remain, stated that ‘the amount of time I have to spend on crisis and conflict in the Middle East today, compared to any of my predecessors going back to 9/11, is significantly reduced.’

A fragile reset

But as the Hamas war has shown, this regional reset, while noteworthy, remains inherently fragile.

Competition has not yet disappeared: Gulf states, especially Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, have distinct visions for Yemen.

Iraq and Kuwait are experiencing renewed tensions over their maritime boundary. Mistrust lingers between Saudi Arabia and Iran despite recent normalization. The role of the US is diminished, the influence of external powers in question.

Crucially, two issues – the Israeli–Palestinian issue and Iran’s destabilizing support for actors like Hamas and Hezbollah – have been left simmering and unresolved as regional players have sought normalization agreements and new economic opportunities.   

The region’s reaction

In the immediate aftermath of the conflict, divisions in regional perceptions have clearly emerged. The UAE and Bahrain criticized Hamas, mourned the loss of life on both sides and encouraged support for dialogue.

Egypt, which has already experienced instability on its border with Gaza, has expressed support for a just peace and a Palestinian state

Saudi Arabia highlighted the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, but also encouraged de-escalation and the protection of civilian life. Qatar, Kuwait and Oman criticized Israel for violations of international law and Palestinian rights. Egypt, which has already experienced instability on its border with Gaza, has expressed support for a just peace and a Palestinian state.   

But there are also encouraging signs: Qatar is reported to be mediating the release of hostages. Egypt is working to prevent further escalation. Turkey has offered to arbitrate.  

A real opportunity

Regional countries have a real opportunity today to build on their recent achievements and create a united, credible effort to de-escalate the conflict.

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The last five years has shown their real desire to normalize relations with Israel and settle conflicts in the pursuit of mutual interest.

The Hamas attacks, in turn, show that such efforts cannot move forward without addressing the festering unresolved disputes that previous normalization efforts sought to paper over.

The Hamas attacks, in turn, illustrate that such efforts cannot move forward without addressing the festering unresolved disputes that previous normalization efforts sought to paper over.

Key to any de-escalation efforts and broader conflict management will be the Gulf states, who have the ability to appeal to both Israel and Palestinians but also to engage with Iran on its regionally destabilizing role. 

The part played by the US, China and other international actors may well still be significant. But MENA countries should lead on the creation of a realistic, achievable pathway to peace – built on local knowledge and abilities.