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Guy Taylor


NextImg:Biden says Hamas attacked Israel in part to stop a historic agreement with Saudi Arabia

ANALYSIS:

President Biden says a goal of Hamas’ terrorist assault against Israel was to derail a historic normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, an assessment that fits with analysis promoted by many regional experts since the Palestinian militant group’s Oct. 7 attack.

Hamas is an Iran-backed terror outfit that has long operated within the thorny geopolitical space between Iran, the Middle East’s Shiite Muslim powerhouse, and Saudi Arabia, the region’s most powerful Sunni Muslim monarchy.

Mr. Biden made headlines at a campaign fundraising event on Friday by asserting that Hamas was motivated to attack Israel in part by a desire to stop the country’s move toward an alliance with the Saudis, an alliance analysts say would threaten Iran.

“One of the reasons Hamas moved on Israel…they knew that I was about to sit down with the Saudis,” Mr. Biden told an audience at the event in Washington. He went on to indicate that he thinks Hamas militants launched their deadly assault because, “Guess what? The Saudis wanted to recognize Israel” and were near being able to do so formally.

Jerusalem and Riyadh have been steadily inching closer to normalization, with Biden administration officials working behind the scenes in recent months to help bring the two countries together.

It’s a push built from the Abraham Accord normalizations former President Trump fostered between Israel and other Arab nations, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Saudis voiced approval for those normalizations in 2020 but did not join them when they came to fore.

But the prospect of Saudi engagement gained momentum in September when Mr. Biden announced plans at the Group of 20 summit in India to develop a new shipping corridor to grow trade and energy connectivity between Saudi Arabia, Israel, the UAE, Jordan, India and the European Union.

The notion of direct Saudi-Israel normalization was then boosted when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Mr. Biden on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 20, saying publicly that normalization was “within our reach.”

However, the details of Saudi-Israel-U.S. negotiations on normalization are closely guarded. The Saudis are reported to have insisted on protections and expanded rights for Palestinian interests as part of any broader agreement with Israel.

Some analysts say negotiations have been specific, with both sides putting the prospect on the table that Saudi Arabia could take control over the Gaza Strip — the headquarters of Iran-backed Hamas militants — as a condition for normalizing with Israel.

“Part of the conversation within Israel and Saudi Arabia was that the Saudis and possibly the Egyptians and possibly other Sunni-led governments could take over the security and the running of Gaza and other Palestinian areas,” according to Andrew Marr, a prominent British journalist, who is currently the political editor at the New Statesman and formerly held that title at the BBC.

Citing talk among parliamentary sources in the United Kingdom, Mr. Marr suggested in a video circulated online this week that the notion of Saudi control over security in Gaza might find support among a wide audience of Palestinians and is being watched with intense concern by both Iran and Hamas.

“[It] is clearly an existential threat to Hamas, but it would allow there to be a Muslim run authority in those areas, both giving security to Israel, but also giving some kind of financial and moral and military security to the people living there,” Mr. Marr said in the video. “And that was the threat that I think may have explained the timing of this particular attack. And it’s a threat of course to Iran because it opens up this Sunni versus [Shiite] division right across the region.”

The prospect of a Sunni-Shiite clash — and with it a potential war between Saudi Arabia and Iran — has long hung in the backdrop of Mideast geopolitics. So has the prospect of growing normalization between Arab powers and Israel, a process that could bring about wider alignment between those powers and Israel against Iran.

Within that context, Mr. Biden has spent recent years cautiously embracing the Abraham Accords brokered under Mr. Trump, who had shifted U.S. policy away from long-elusive Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives to focus instead on ending a decades-old diplomatic freeze between Israel and four Arab powers.

The accords, named after the prophet recognized by Judaism, Christianity and Islam, resulted in normalization agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan in 2020. It was Arab nations’ first official acknowledgment of Israel’s sovereignty since Egypt and Jordan broke from the rest of the Middle East to establish diplomatic ties in 1979 and 1994, respectively.

Analysts say the idea that oil-rich Saudi Arabia is moving toward joining the accords rankles Iran, which has championed the Palestinian cause while underwriting militant groups hostile to Israel, such as Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement. Iran’s theocracy is an enemy of Israel and has long positioned itself as the primary regional rival of Saudi Arabia. Iranian leaders are widely seen to fear the prospect of an Israeli-Saudi alliance against Tehran.

Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack triggered retaliatory airstrikes by Israel that have left the world on edge with the United States trying to keep the war from widening, as 1,400 Israelis and 4,137 Palestinians have been killed. Hamas also captured more than 200 people as hostages after the initial assault.

Iran has denied knowing about or helping plan the Hamas uprising against Israel, and the U.S. and Israeli governments said they have seen no intelligence that Tehran had a direct role in the surprise attack. Still, many say the gruesome Hamas rampage fits the Iranian goal of derailing Israel’s normalization with the Arab world.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken embraced that narrative during a visit to Israel shortly after the Hamas attack. “Who opposes normalization? Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran,” he told reporters. “I think that speaks volumes.”

Still, Mr. Blinken said he could only speculate about the goals of Hamas. “The simplest explanation may be the most compelling,” he said. “This is pure evil.”

Alex Traiman, Jerusalem bureau chief of the Jewish News Syndicate, said in an interview with The Washington Times following the Hamas attacks that Saudi Arabia and other Arab powers seek normalization with Israel precisely because of Iran’s regional security threat.

“A major impetus for the Abraham Accords is the potential rise of a nuclear Iran,” Mr. Traiman said. “Iran is the head of the terror snake in the Middle East with proxies in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, and of course its main proxies Hezbollah and Hamas.

“Arab countries are looking to Israel to be the only power that can deter or protect against the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran,” he said. “They don’t trust the United States to protect against that threat. On the contrary, they see the U.S. as actually funding Iran and paving Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon.

“This is now a big test for Israel,” Mr. Traiman said. “Saudi Arabia is looking to see whether Israel can essentially be defeated by Hamas, in which case, why does Saudi Arabia need to normalize with Israel? Or will Israel establish itself as the regional superpower and dismantle Hamas? If Israel does that, I think it brings normalization closer.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.