Amid the escalating war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, the region is bracing itself for a broader conflict. It will take concerted diplomacy – and considerable luck – to prevent this. The war, which threatens a destructive confrontation between Israel and the Lebanese Hezbollah group – and, by extension, Iran – may prove decisive in shaping the future of the regional order.
An escalation in the conflict would upturn a fragile period of regional calm which witnessed a détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and Israel’s increasing normalisation with key Arab states. For now, regional players are keen to avoid a destabilising conflict which would threaten their own delicately balanced interests. Europeans should urgently join forces with them to support preventive diplomacy before it is too late.
Mounting regional tensions
Allegations that Israel had bombed a hospital in Gaza on 17 October – initially estimated to have killed over 400 Palestinian civilians – highlight the intensely febrile environment. While Israel rejected the accusation and blamed a failed missile launch by Palestinian Islamic Jihad for the attack, the incident enflamed Arab public opinion, prompting mass protests across Arab countries and a refusal by the leaders of Jordan, Egypt, and Palestine to meet with US president Joe Biden after his visit to Israel. Whoever was behind the incident, it has cemented the popular Arab perception that Israel is conducting a brutal campaign of annihilation against the Palestinians, forcing Arab leaders already concerned by rising violence to harden their own positions. These sentiments are being exacerbated by fears that Israel is now trying to push Palestinians out of Gaza and into Egypt in a bid to ensure that they can never return. Cairo is refusing to open its border to refugees for this reason, and Jordan says it will view any attempt to displace Palestinians as a “declaration of war”. As a result, this week’s post-prayer protests are likely to be very volatile across the region.
Despite the mounting popular unrest, international attention has been largely focused on the threat to Israel’s northern border. There, the Israeli military and Iranian-backed Hezbollah forces are engaged in intensifying ‘tit for tat’ exchanges as the Lebanese group tries to maintain pressure on Israel while showcasing its solidarity with Hamas. The fighting between Israel and Hezbollah is the heaviest since the 2006 Lebanon war, with an increasing number of Lebanese cross border attacks and Israeli reprisals. But this is still – just about – playing out according to established and containable rules of the game, with neither side crossing the other’s core red lines. For now, this suggests both want to avoid further escalation.
But Hezbollah has warned that it will join the battle if Israel launches a ground operation in Gaza. While this may be a bluster aimed at deterring an Israeli military advance, the group may have little choice but to eventually follow through. Equally, Hezbollah could fall into escalation by launching an errant missile, provoking a more emphatic Israeli response.
Although relations between Iran and Hamas have not always been close – they were on opposing sides of the Syrian civil war – Tehran now plays a critical political, financial, and military role supporting Hamas. As part of Iran’s strategy of ‘unifying the fronts’ – which ties together Iranian-backed resistance groups across the region – an attack on one group could provoke a wider response. This could include not just retaliation by Hezbollah but also potentially by Iranian-allied armed groups in Syria. This is already a deeply volatile arena given regular Israeli air strikes against Iranian-linked targets in the civil war-ravaged country.
More pertinently, Hezbollah and Iran may feel compelled to escalate in response to growing pressure from their base and the broader Arab public in order to maintain their image as the vanguard of regional resistance to Israel. The impending Israeli land incursion into Gaza, further air strikes that push Palestinian casualties above the current 3,500 figure, and an escalating humanitarian crisis could all be tipping points that lead Hezbollah to increase its strikes against Israel.
The United States has now positioned two naval strike groups in the eastern Mediterranean, seeking to deter Hezbollah from opening this new front on Israel’s northern border. Europeans are also strongly warning Iran against initiating any further regional escalation. This reflects Western support for Israel to concentrate its efforts on fighting Hamas in Gaza rather than facing a multi-front conflict, but also deep concern over the devastating consequences of a broader conflict.
Any serious escalation by Hezbollah would be sure to unleash a significant military response from Israel against Lebanon – potentially with direct US military backing. This would place Hezbollah, the jewel in Iran’s regional crown, under severe pressure at a time when it already faces significant domestic challenges given Lebanon’s dire economic and political situation. Confronted with the threat to these two key strategic assets – Hamas and Hezbollah – Iran could enlist armed militias in Iraq and Syria to attack US interests, such as regional military bases, in a cycle that would fuel unchecked escalation across the Middle East. There are already reports of new drone attacks by Iranian-linked groups on US bases in Iraq and Syria, and the US reported on Thursday that it had intercepted missiles launched by the Iranian-allied Houthi movement in Yemen.
The role of the Gulf monarchies
Against this immensely volatile backdrop, Arab states, and the Gulf monarchies in particular, face a precarious dilemma. None have any sympathy for Hamas – most would actually welcome the group’s demise. But Arab leaders must tread carefully. The war in Gaza has unequivocally unified Arab public opinion behind the Palestinians. A full Israeli land incursion, and the violence that would then engulf Gazans, would dramatically intensify this anger, which is also being directed at the US and Europe given their strong alignment with Israel.
In this climate, the key priority for Saudi Arabia, as well as other Gulf monarchies, is to prevent any escalation that would impact their political stability, as well as their economic and security interests. Not only have they been vocal proponents of an immediate ceasefire, they are also attempting to use their own diplomatic channels to prevent a broader conflict.
Qatar has been especially involved, given its funding of international stabilisation efforts in Gaza, hosting of Hamas political leaders, and its longstanding desire to make itself useful to the US as a regional mediator. Together with Egypt, it has been seeking to broker a release of civilian hostages held by Hamas in exchange for humanitarian inflows to Gaza. However, Qatar’s efforts are hampered by its recently diminished leverage over Hamas’s military wing, and US pressure to expel Hamas’s political leadership from its territory. The United Arab Emirates has also been active, engaging with Israel, Syria, and Iran to call for restraint. Finally, Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman spoke to Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi for the first timesince restoring ties in March. Riyadh is treading carefully to prevent this rapprochement from unravelling, while trying to keep Tehran from initiating a broader escalation in the conflict.
Riyadh is also focused on ensuring that other regional players such as Iran and Turkey are unable to claim political leadership of the Palestinian issue at its expense. In this context, it has become politically impossible for Saudi Arabia to continue the long-mooted normalisation process with Israel, which has now been frozen (as has the prospect of the associated US security commitments to the Kingdom). Riyadh believes that this was one of the intended outcomes of the Hamas operation given the way Israeli-Arab normalisation risked fatally marginalising the Palestinian issue and weakening Iran.
A fraught road ahead
This re-centring of the Palestinian issue has fundamentally undermined the idea of a newly emerging regional order shaped by the Abraham Accords. Israel’s partnerships with Arab states have counted for little amidst the re-eruption of the conflict. While Riyadh may come back to these talks once the war ends, it seems clear that it will not be able to circumnavigate the Palestinian issue. Post-war cooperation over the future of Gaza could emerge as an area for dialogue, but this means that Israel, too, will no longer be able to look to Arab partners as a vehicle to actively avoid addressing the fate of Palestine.
The eruption of such horrendous violence is a tragedy not just for Israelis and Palestinians, but also for the wider region. At a moment when regional de-escalation and re-engagement offered an opportunity for constructive new cooperation, the Middle East is being dragged back towards a defensive and destructive course. Europeans need to now be much more actively involved, in partnership with regional allies – but also via ongoing European channels of communication with both Iran and Hezbollah – to ensure that the region avoids this wider unravelling.
About the authors:
- Julien Barnes-Dacey @jbdacey on Twitter. Director, Middle East and North Africa programme
- Cinzia Bianco @Cinzia_Bianco on Twitter, Visiting Fellow
- Hugh Lovatt @h_lovatt on Twitter, Senior Policy Fellow
Source: This article was published by ECFR
 Author’s conversations with regional diplomats, over phone, 17 October 2023.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.