Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America, a professor of practice at Arizona State University, and the host of the Audible podcast “In the Room With Peter Bergen,” also on Apple and Spotify. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
The surprise weekend attack by Hamas, involving thousands of missiles fired from Gaza and on-the-ground fighting inside Israel, has the potential to upend an emerging diplomatic deal that could reshape the region.
Hamas is attacking both Israeli civilian and military targets, and it has also taken hostage an unknown number of Israeli soldiers and citizens, presumably to exchange them at some point for Hamas prisoners held in Israeli jails. In the past, Israel has exchanged large numbers of Palestinian prisoners for Israelis held by Hamas.
The Israeli hostages seized by Hamas will also complicate any Israeli military response in Gaza since the hostages will likely be dispersed in such a way as to dissuade Israel from air strikes in Gaza that might put the hostages in harm’s way.
But there appears also to be a larger play going on here: an attempt to end the rapprochement between Israel and the Arab states that began in earnest during the Trump Administration with the Abraham Accords.
Led by President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, the “Abraham Accords” resulted in the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signing deals recognizing the state of Israel for the first time. Morocco and Sudan also normalized ties with Israel.
Those accords were a striking breakthrough because historically, Arab nations cited the treatment of Palestinians by Israel for their refusal to recognize the Jewish state. Fearing their cause would be ignored, Palestinians opposed the agreements.
Indeed the Abraham Accords did not do much of anything for the Palestinians. Kushner said he would help to find $50 billion for Palestinian projects, but that didn’t happen because the Palestinians boycotted an investment conference he hosted in Bahrain in 2019.
The Trump administration also moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which previous US administrations had not done, deeming it provocative to the Palestinians who claim parts of East Jerusalem.
The Biden administration has largely continued the Trump administration’s approach; the US embassy remains in Jerusalem, and the Biden team is seeking to broker a deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel, which, if it happened, would help to reshape the Middle East even more than the Abraham Accords did.
This deal seems to have been moving forward already in small but significant ways; Israeli planes now have overflight rights over the Saudi kingdom, an Israeli cabinet minister visited the kingdom last month, the first time this has ever happened, and an Israel official conducted a Jewish prayer service in Saudi Arabia last week, again a first.
An Israeli normalization deal with Saudi Arabia — the location of the two holiest sites in Islam— would be hugely symbolic and have real security benefits for Israel. After all, almost exactly half a century ago, during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, two Arab states, Egypt and Syria, attacked Israel. Also, both Israel and Saudi Arabia have a strong common interest today, both seeing Iran as their most dangerous enemy.
The details of the Israeli-Saudi deal are still being hammered out, but the Palestinians, who were left out in the cold by the Abraham Accords, may have reason to worry that their interests will not be given their due consideration in any future Israeli-Saudi deal.
Israel’s government today is the most right-wing in its history and the least sympathetic to the Palestinians’ political aims. At the same time, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman known as MBS, is reported to be far less concerned about the Palestinian cause than his father, King Salman, who remains the titular head of the Saudi kingdom but is widely reported to be in ill health. MBS is the de facto ruler.
In a rare interview two weeks ago, MBS told Fox News, “Every day we get closer” to normalizing ties with Israel.
All of that may help explain why Hamas militants launched their surprise attack on Israel now. With the fighting inside Israel and the Israeli strikes in Gaza, a US-brokered Saudi-Israeli deal could be scuttled for the foreseeable future.
A beneficiary of such a development would be Iran which has long had a contentious relationship with Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Iran has also provided support to Hamas, according to the US State Department, in a 2020 report on terrorism.
Top Iranian officials have recently publicly warned against any rapprochement with Israel. Last week the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said, “Countries that make the gamble of normalization with Israel will lose. They are betting on a losing horse.”
And on Saturday, Khamenei’s top military adviser said that Iran supported Hamas attacks in Israel “until the liberation of Palestine and Jerusalem.”