This time, Netanyahu had a different image as a prop — a map titled “The New Middle East,” depicting a section of the region shaded in green. That included all of Israel from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, with no delineations showing occupied Palestinian territory, as well as countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. These were Arab states that either had already normalized ties with Israel or, as in the Saudi case, were locked in talks to establish formal relations with the Jewish state.
Netanyahu took out his red marker and drew a diagonal line from Dubai along the Persian Gulf, through Israel and toward the ports of southern Europe. He hailed the supposed advent of a “corridor” of prosperity that threaded together these Arab countries and Israel at the heart of a new axis of global trade connecting Asia to Europe.
“A few years ago, I stood here with a red marker to show the curse, a great curse, the curse of a nuclear Iran,” Netanyahu said. “But today, I bring this marker to show a great blessing. The blessing of a new Middle East, between Israel, Saudi Arabia and our other neighbors.”
While perhaps unique in his capacity for posturing on the world stage, Netanyahu was hardly alone in voicing this vision of a “new” Middle East. Before the explosion of war this past week between Israel and Palestinian militant group Hamas, based in Gaza, many analysts had noted how the geopolitical tectonic plates of the region were steadily shifting.
The Abraham Accords — the U.S.-backed deals forged between Israel and a clutch of mostly Arab monarchies — signaled a political desire to move out of old paradigms that had defined the Middle East’s febrile status quo. Saudi Arabia and Iran’s tentative rapprochement pointed to a welcome lowering of temperatures within the region’s most heated rivalry. The fact that it was brokered, in part, by China highlighted another reality: As the United States explicitly tried to disentangle itself from the quagmires and conflicts of the region, other powers in an increasingly “multipolar” world were shouldering their way in.
U.S. retrenchment was only one factor in the realignment underway. Others included the exhaustion of the so-called Arab Spring, with Islamist and pro-democracy political movements petering out after a decade of strife, instability and counterrevolution. The reactionary Arab states that had worked to undermine them — especially, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia — were pivoting away from ideological battles to a more pragmatic agenda. That was spurred by the growing need for the region’s petrostates to diversify their own economies as the world fitfully attempts to decarbonize. Saudi Arabia’s crown prince looked starry-eyed at the dynamism of Israel’s tech sector; Dubai became a magnet for Israeli tourists.
In the preceding months, the Biden administration has placed a lot of its regional eggs in the basket of Saudi-Israel normalization. A deal was not close, but the White House was convinced of its strategic immensity: If Israel had the Arab world’s most geopolitically potent state formally on its side, underwritten by significant U.S. security guarantees, it would mark a turning of the page in the Middle East. Close Israeli ties with the Saudis could create a deterrent axis against Iran that would allow Washington to better focus on its competition with China and the historic challenge of the war in Ukraine.
But it turns out the “old” Middle East was impossible to bury. Hamas’s brutal, deadly Oct. 7 rampage in southern Israel has been followed by a relentless, ongoing Israeli offensive that has killed at least 2,670 Palestinians in Gaza and displaced more than 600,000 people in a matter of days. It has seen an outpouring of support for the Palestinian cause across the Arab world, as well as in majority-Muslim countries further afield. It has frozen any talk of imminent Saudi-Israeli rapprochement.
“The starting point for the new Middle East will be an Israeli reoccupation of the Gaza Strip, not an Israeli Embassy in Riyadh,” wrote Steven Cook in Foreign Policy.
Netanyahu’s apparent hope that the Palestinians could be sidelined in a broader regional tableau looks more naive than ever, especially as Israel’s neighbors see in the mounting violence evidence of the root cause — the absence of a process to give Palestinians their own state or equal political rights. “The events of Oct. 7 may temporarily close the door to the New Middle East, and its reopening may depend on the path Israel chooses regarding the Palestinian issue,” concluded Murat Yesiltas in Daily Sabah, a Turkish pro-government publication.
“Hamas declared in the most clear, painful, and murderous way possible,” wrote Meron Rappaport in the left-leaning, Hebrew-language publication Local Call, “that the conflict that threatens Israelis’ lives is the conflict with the Palestinians, and the idea that they can be bypassed via Riyadh or Abu Dhabi, or that the 2 million Palestinians imprisoned in Gaza will disappear if Israel builds a sufficiently elaborate fence, is an illusion that is now being shattered at a terrible human cost.”
The United States is also now being pulled back into the Middle East. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will return to Israel on Monday after a whirlwind tour through regional capitals. Though it’s unclear what Iran — Hamas’s chief international sponsor — knew of the specifics surrounding the Oct. 7 attack, tensions with Tehran are rising once more. The prospect of Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese proxy, fully entering the fray looks more likely by the day.
“If the U.S. gets more directly involved in the fighting, it could reverse what had been seen as the desire by the Trump and Biden administrations to retrench from the region in favor of greater focus on China and, with the Ukraine war, Russia,” wrote Mathew Burrows and Robert Manning of the Stimson Center, in a memo that highlighted the arrival of a “new, ‘new’ Middle East.”
In their analysis, the post-Oct. 7 region will not just be defined by the state-to-state competition and conciliation that seemed to be reshaping the Middle East in recent months, but a web of non-state rogue actors that won’t go away — even if “our focus shifted.”
More pressingly, the current moment also highlights the vast inequities that carve through the Middle East. Whatever the bottomless wealth of the Saudi or Emirati royals, there’s the destitution of Yemen and the enduring misery of Syria’s refugees. Whatever the confidence and prowess of Israeli’s private sector, there’s the dysfunction of neighboring Lebanon and the despair of millions of Palestinians living under more than half-a-century of occupation.
“The new Middle East’s winners embody a transactional mindset that may yet make them richer,” explained the Economist last month. “Its losers are a reminder that in a world with fewer rules and principles, no one is coming to the rescue.”
And for Netanyahu — herald of the “new” Middle East — the new, “new” Middle East may be an unforgiving place. Polls of the Israeli public show a majority pins blame on his government for failing to protect Israelis from the bloodiest day in their nation’s history. His political career may be hard to revive once this round of hostilities ceases.
“It is almost certain that once the ground operation is over, after some months, Prime Minister Netanyahu will stop serving as prime minister,” Solon Solomon, a former Knesset lawyer and an international law professor at Brunel University London, told my colleagues.