RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Facing growing anger from their own people, Arab countries are intensifying their appeals to the United States to pressure Israel to implement an immediate cease-fire in the Gaza Strip or risk sabotaging the security of the entire Middle East.
Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt have all implored U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, to get Israel to halt its military assault.
“The whole region is sinking in a sea of hatred that will define generations to come,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi warned at a news conference this weekend.
As unrest spills into the streets and fear spreads that Iran-backed militias in the region will enter more directly into the conflict, some Arab leaders are worrying for their own security, said Elham Fakhro, an associate fellow at Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Program.
“Long-term resentment among the Arab public is fuel for extremist groups,” she said. “The region is already walking a delicate balance,” she added. “This is what drives Arab governments to use their available leverage to call for a cease-fire.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has so far rejected calls for even a temporary cease-fire until hostages are released by Hamas, the armed Palestinian group that broke through the Israeli fence surrounding Gaza on Oct. 7 and launched a brazen attack, killing roughly 1,400 people, according to Israeli authorities. The attackers also took about 240 people hostage.
Israeli officials have insisted that their military campaign must destroy Hamas, which rules Gaza and is estimated to have tens of thousands of fighters inside the territory. But Arab officials and scholars who study the Iran-backed militia argue that goal is not only impossible, but counterproductive in that it would likely generate even more violence.
This weekend, Arab countries will gather in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, for a summit where the conflict – and their response to it – will top the agenda.
Saudi Arabia will also host an extraordinary meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation that President Ebrahim Raisi of Iran is expected to attend – his first trip to the kingdom since Saudi Arabia and Iran restored diplomatic ties this year. His visit would be another sign of how the war has united disparate voices across the Muslim world in solidarity with Palestinians.
Even officials in the United Arab Emirates – which led a push for Arab countries to build ties with Israel in 2020 – have condemned Israel’s conduct in the war.
“As we continue working to stop this war, we cannot ignore the wider context, and the necessity to turn down the regional temperature that is approaching a boiling point,” Noura al-Kaabi, an Emirati minister of state for foreign affairs, said recently.
One month into the war, the predominant emotions in the Middle East are despair and rage, which have pushed tens of thousands of people to join protests denouncing Israel across the region.
In interviews over the past few weeks, many people in the Middle East said they had passed through a dizzying whiplash of emotions since Oct. 7.
Some initially expressed joy, viewing the Hamas attacks as a form of Palestinian armed resistance against decades of Israeli oppression. For many, however, that soon turned to horror as news spread of the attackers’ brutality, including the killings of women, children and Thai migrant workers.
Then came dread, as Israel began to bombard Gaza with airstrikes and cut off electricity, water and fuel for more than 2 million Palestinians living in the enclave. The campaign has since killed more than 10,000 people in Gaza – including thousands of children – according to Gaza’s Ministry of Health, leveling entire blocks, leaving families to scrounge for scarce food and water and forcing doctors to perform some surgeries without anesthesia.
Blinken has so far rejected the entreaties for a cease-fire, saying this “would simply leave Hamas in place and able to regroup and repeat what it did on Oct. 7.”
Instead, he has called for “humanitarian pauses” in Israel’s bombing campaign – so far rebuffed by Israel – to allow the delivery of aid and movement of civilians. That concept has fallen flat in Arab nations, where many view it as a weak proposal that shows the U.S. is either unwilling or unable to hold Israel back.
“Everyone who supported Israel in this bloody war is its partner – especially those who practice contradiction by calling for a humanitarian truce while at the same time rejecting a cease-fire,” Khalid al-Suleiman, a columnist, wrote in the Saudi newspaper Okaz.
Jordan and Turkey have recalled their ambassadors to Israel in protest over the war, while United Nations officials have implored Israel not to impose “collective punishment” on Palestinians in Gaza for atrocities committed by Hamas.
On Monday, Netanyahu warned that Israel will need to oversee “overall security” in Gaza once the fighting is over to prevent future attacks. He provided few details of what his country’s role there might look like – but he made clear that it would be significant.
Some Western officials have tried to discuss with Arab governments the future of Gaza after the war – including whether Arab countries might be involved in peacekeeping or reconstruction if Hamas is routed – but the idea has met with resistance.
“How can we even entertain what will happen in Gaza when we do not know what kind of Gaza will be left after this war is done?” Safadi, the Jordanian foreign minister, said at the news conference.
A senior Saudi official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that it would be basically impossible for Arab countries to consider the topic until there is a cease-fire.
Participating in discussions about Gaza’s future would make it look like Arab states are “giving Israel a way out,” said Abdulaziz Alghashian, a Saudi scholar who studies his country’s foreign policy toward Israel. “That is something they want to avoid at all costs.”
Despite that, the standoff is a far cry from 50 years ago, when resource-rich Arab countries imposed an oil embargo on the United States in part to pressure it over its support for Israel.
“We are seeing civilian deaths on an alarming scale,” said Kristin Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “Yet no Arab state has issued a public ultimatum or cut ties with Israel.”
She attributed that to an unwillingness to jeopardize their relations with Israel or the United States.
Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries are pushing for a return to an Israeli-Palestinian peace process once the war is over – and the creation of a Palestinian state.
The senior Saudi official said that every government he talks to has the same focus now – finding a way to change the status quo.