Arab nations’ bold post-war Gaza proposal: Israeli scepticism and political challenges

In a bold diplomatic move, five Arab nations, backed by the US, are proposing a postwar settlement for Gaza, contingent on Israeli support. However, Israel, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, remains skeptical, complicating what was considered the most plausible solution for regional security. The Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar, offer aid for Gaza’s reconstruction, hinging on Israeli commitment to Palestinian statehood. The complex negotiations involve mediation from the US, with the fate of the proposal resting on Netanyahu’s political future. The region faces heightened tensions amid ongoing conflicts and shifting geopolitical dynamics.

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By Henry Meyer, Ethan Bronner and Fiona MacDonald

Five Arab nations are quietly touting a settlement for postwar Gaza for which they’ve secured the backing of the US. The problem is that the Israelis on whom the agreement depends aren’t buying it. 

That means the proposal, which its authors are calling the most plausible solution for long-term security in the region, is out of reach for now. Two of the many officials who spoke with Bloomberg are privately asserting that progress toward it won’t be possible so long as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition stays in power.

The framework being mooted by the Gulf states of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar together with Israel’s neighbors Egypt and Jordan offers aid on condition the Israeli government works toward Palestinian statehood. In that respect, and because the deal entails Saudi Arabian recognition of Israel, it echoes the historic pact that Israel and the US had been on the cusp of signing with Riyadh before Oct. 7.

However everything that’s happened since — the death, the destruction, the recriminations, not to mention the vehemence of anti-Israel feeling that the country’s bombing of Gaza has awakened in those countries’ populations — mean there’s no turning back the clock to Oct. 6. A plan that was poised to succeed against the odds has to defy even greater obstacles now.

And yet what else has changed is the stakes. The regional powers’ efforts to contain the war between Israel and Hamas had seemed to be paying off toward the end of last year. At the start of this one, violence is a daily reality along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. Iran-backed militias are firing missiles at Red Sea ships and US bases in Syria and Iraq. The US has started bombing Houthi sites in Yemen. 

All this steels Arab officials’ determination to forge a resolution with their Jewish neighbor by building on a shared enmity for Iran and its regional proxies. Saudi Arabia has said it’s “incredibly concerned” about Middle East security — and it’s not alone

The five Arab countries’ gambit forms the most concrete and ambitious push regional players have made to halt more than three months of devastating conflict since Hamas militants staged their deadly incursion into Israel on Oct. 7. Officials describe it as the most advanced of several ideas under discussion. 

Although the US has previously spoken in broad terms about a possible postwar settlement involving aid from Arab powers, it’s tended to portray this as its own initiative.

In this case, the eight senior officials who spoke to Bloomberg on condition of anonymity say the Arab overtures were relayed to Israeli counterparts by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his Mideast trip earlier this month, after he first liaised with them.

“No one I talked to thinks any of this will be easy,” said Blinken on the tarmac in Saudi Arabia. “But we agreed to work together.”

What Will Happen in Gaza After Israel Stops Its War on Hamas? 

While the US plays a mediating role, there is constant negotiation between these countries’ governments and their Israeli counterparts directly, the officials said. 

Reconstruction Money

Israel’s Arab neighbors are now dangling the promise of generous reconstruction money for Gaza. But Arab officials told Bloomberg — as they are telling Israel itself — they don’t want to make big financial commitments without guarantees the buildings they pay for will stay standing. In mid-December the World Bank estimated Israeli bombardment had damaged or destroyed over 60% of Gaza’s infrastructure. 

“Our contribution to any reconstruction effort in Gaza will be conditional on the existence of an unambiguous commitment, backed by tangible steps, to launch a concrete plan to achieve the two-state solution with a viable, independent and sovereign Palestinian state,” a UAE official said in an emailed statement.

Gulf leaders look at how Netanyahu is conducting his campaign to obliterate Hamas, which is designated a terrorist group by the US, with some skepticism. The months-long Israeli air offensive and ground invasion have displaced most of Gaza’s 2 million population and killed more than 24,000, according to the Hamas-run health authorities.

“There are many ideas floating about the future of Gaza, including reconstruction,” said Ahmed Abu Zeid, spokesperson for Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“Egypt believes that it’s premature to address any detailed plans while the Israeli aggression on the Palestinians is still ongoing,” he said. Efforts must first be focused on reaching a complete ceasefire and addressing the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza, he added.

Control of Gaza

Discussions between Israel and its neighbors can get fractious. Tensions simmered when Netanyahu asked the ruler of the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, in a phone call a few weeks ago to pay the salaries of Palestinian workers barred from entering Israel since Oct. 7, Axios reported last week. The UAE president, known as MBZ, rebuffed the request and told the Israeli leader to ask Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy instead, it said. A person familiar with the discussions confirmed the report as accurate.

Some of Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition partners have called for Palestinians to “leave” Gaza to make way for Jewish settlement in the enclave. That runs counter to official Israeli policy, which would allow civilians to return once fighting ends. Netanyahu has said Israel’s military plans to continue imposing full security control in Gaza as in the West Bank, meaning it will have leeway to come and go as it pleases.

Israel Vows to Control Security in the Gaza Strip After the War

As part of their proposal, the Arab states are offering security training so that Palestinian forces can control the coastal strip. The US is likewise insistent that Israel should allow Palestinians to control Gaza after the war. 

“They know the Israelis are probably not going to sign up to something like this without significant pressure on them,” said Dina Esfandiary, a senior adviser for the Middle East at the International Crisis Group. 

The US State Department, Saudi, Qatari, Jordanian and Israeli governments didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The Gulf nations themselves are divided on whom to support as a successor to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, 88. Muhammad Mustafa, a former Palestinian economy minister and World Bank executive, has been touted as a possible replacement for prime minister within Palestinian political circles.

Despite the deadlock over Palestinian autonomy, there have been glimmers of consensus. The Arab nations have endorsed Israeli and US-led demands for an overhaul of the PA, which administers the West Bank. It’s perceived as corrupt and ineffective by many living there and by international organizations. It’s been criticized by Israel for its failure to condemn the Oct. 7 attacks. Israel and the US want a technocratic administration which they say would improve transparency and governance.

All sides are devoting consideration to what comes next in Israel, too. When Blinken came by he met with the war cabinet both together and individually. Netanyahu’s observers suspect he won’t go so long as the war continues. 

For now, those touting the postwar deal believe their best hopes depend on Netanyahu leaving office.

“For the current Netanyahu government, this is a total non-starter, but if the government falls, there may be a possibility — though that would depend on public opinion, which does not seem to support Palestinian statehood,” said Joshua Krasna, a former Israeli diplomat and intelligence analyst. By contrast with a decade ago, Israelis are predominantly unfavorable toward a two-state solution

UAE-based political analyst Abdulkhaleq Abdulla puts the chance of the Arab states’ plan succeeding in some form as high as 50%. But he said the window will narrow as November’s US presidential approaches. 

Right now, “you have the Arabs on board, you have the Americans on board, you have the Palestinians on board,” he said. “What is holding it up is the need for the Israelis to be on board.”

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