Expert on Arab affairs Marianna Belenkaya talks about Israel's strikes in Iran, Qatar's dissatisfaction with its mediator role, Israeli plan for an operation in Rafah, and US veto of Palestine’s UN membership bid.

World media reported early Friday morning that Israel attacked Iran. However, Tehran refrained from blaming Israel and generally pretended to downplay the incident. It was stated that the attack involved only a few small drones that caused no damage. The news emerged amid expectations of an Israeli response to an Iranian strike on Israeli territory. Throughout the week, there were conflicting reports about the intentions of the Israeli leadership. There was talk of pressure on them from the USA, which was not interested in escalating tensions in the Middle East. 

Meanwhile, there is active discussion in the region about whether Israel traded a forceful response to Iran for the opportunity to conduct a military operation in Rafah. Against this backdrop, the administration of US President Joe Biden may see an opportunity to influence Israel, but the region doubts their effectiveness. Here, the measure is not Iran, but the Palestinian issue.

Drones Over Isfahan

 Friday began with reports of Iran closing its airspace and explosions in the areas of Isfahan and Tabriz. Later, Iranian authorities announced that their air defense had shot down small drones over Isfahan, with no damage reported and the overall situation remaining calm. Airport operations resumed shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, Tehran did not rush to blame Israel and took a pause. There could be many reasons for this – perhaps a desire not to escalate tensions in the region further, or genuine doubts about who was responsible. It seems the Iranians could hardly believe that the Israelis would respond to a hundred rockets and drones with just a few small drones, which were easily intercepted by air defenses, and that would be the end of it. Moreover, the Iranian authorities have plenty of enemies, including within their own country.

Photo: AP Photo/Jin-Man Lee

At the same time, American media, citing Israeli sources from early Friday morning, asserted that Israel was behind the attack. It was emphasized that the objective was to demonstrate to Tehran the capability of the Israeli military to strike deep inside Iranian territory. According to experts, the target was Iran's 8th Tactical Air Base near Isfahan. This appeared to be a proportionate response to an Iranian attack on Israel a week earlier, which caused minor damage to an Israeli airbase in the Negev in the southern part of the country. Officially, Israel did not claim responsibility for the incident.

Alongside the drone attack on Isfahan, regional media and Telegram channels reported Israeli strikes on territories in Syria and Iraq. Syrian official media confirmed that around three in the morning, there were attacks on the southern regions of the country and that there was material damage. No official operational comments were received from Iraq, although local media reported that explosions were heard in various parts of the country.

According to expert operational assessments, the limited response by Israel, if indeed it was behind the attack, should not provoke an aggressive reaction from Iran, and the risk of a major war may be off the table for the near future. However, the situation in the region remains unpredictable. Additionally, the psychological effect is significant.

Time will tell how seriously Tehran takes the possibility of Israel causing damage to Iranian military targets. But for now, Iranian propaganda clearly has the upper hand over Israel. 

Almost immediately after the news of the drones being shot down over Isfahan, pro-Iranian social networks were filled with mockery towards Israel. There, comparisons were made between the scale of Iran's strike on Israeli territory and the response. Images juxtaposed dozens of ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as drones, against just three small drones "suitable for filming events and weddings." 

In any case, no one in the region is relaxing, especially since this week has seen a clear intensification of the confrontation between Israel and Lebanon's Hezbollah.

However, the USA can count it as a positive that they were able to convince Israel to refrain from large-scale actions. Still, the question remains in the region— at what cost?

Rafah and/or Iran

Drones appeared in the skies over Iran several hours after the conclusion of a virtual meeting between senior American and Israeli officials. The Israeli delegation was led by the Minister for Strategic Affairs, Ron Dermer, and the head of the National Security Council, Tzachi Hanegbi, while the American side was represented by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. 

The agenda included two main topics. The first was the Iranian strikes on Israel and collective efforts to further strengthen the defense of the Jewish state, including considerations of a broad coalition of military partners. The second topic was the situation around Rafah. It should be noted that this area in the south of the Gaza Strip has not been cleared by the Israeli army and Hamas battalions are still active there. According to a White House statement, "The two sides agreed on the shared objective to see Hamas defeated in Rafah." At the same time, the American side expressed concerns "with various courses of action in Rafah," and the Israeli side agreed to take the US concerns into consideration.

Photo: AP Photo/Hatem Ali

It should be noted that for several months, the administration of US President Joe Biden has been attempting to persuade Israel not to conduct a full-scale operation in Rafah, where over a million Palestinians currently reside. This includes both local residents and displaced persons from other areas of the Gaza Strip. Various action plans were proposed, but the Israeli side rejected them. Ultimately, the US resigned itself to the inevitability of the operation but continued to insist on minimizing damage to the civilian population.

According to sources in Egypt for the London-based site Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, the USA has approved an Israeli plan for an operation in Rafah "in exchange for not carrying out a large-scale attack against Iran." According to the source, the plan is based on a method of displacement: Rafah will be divided into squares, and operations will be conducted sequentially in each, prompting local residents to move to other areas of the Gaza Strip, such as Khan Yunis. The Egyptian Red Crescent, which is responsible for managing two displacement camps in Khan Yunis, is already preparing to receive a new wave of displaced persons, including opening a third camp. At the same time, according to Israeli journalist Barak Ravid, officials categorically denied reports of a trade-off between Iran and Rafah. 

Previous American-Israeli consultations took place on April 1st, and reportedly, they were quite tense. The positions of the two countries were fundamentally divergent. However, there is now an evident convergence. Meanwhile, the Biden administration is carefully demonstrating to Democratic Party supporters, who sharply criticize their president for supporting the Jewish state amid rising casualties in the Gaza Strip, that Israel is susceptible to pressure. In particular, there are statements about improving the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip as a result of harsh criticism directed at Israel from Washington. The White House might also claim to have limited the scale of the operation in Rafah. However, the situation could spiral out of control at any moment, and then Biden will once again find himself in an awkward position in the eyes of his potential voters. 

Clearly, it is challenging for Biden to balance between Israel and his Arab partners, who are as diverse as Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Doha's Discontent

This week, Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, expressed his intention to reassess Doha's role as a mediator in negotiations between Israel and Hamas. He voiced dissatisfaction with how "Qatar's mediation was used for narrow political purposes" and accused "certain parties" of making "destructive statements" against Qatar. 

This statement followed remarks by Democratic Congressman Steny Hoyer. He suggested that if Qatar cannot exert pressure on Hamas during ceasefire negotiations in the Gaza Strip and the return of hostages, the US should reconsider its relations with Doha. This was articulated against the backdrop of reports that Hamas was dissatisfied with the latest terms of the deal, which Washington was working on with Cairo and Doha.

The remarks made by an American congressman offended the Qataris. Initially, the Qatari Embassy in Washington responded, followed by the Prime Minister himself. In Doha, it was reminded that it was the United States that requested Qatar to mediate between Israel and Hamas in 2012. The essence of Doha's message was, "If you don't need us, we won't be there," directed not only at the Americans but also at the Israelis. Recently, there has been considerable doubt in Israel about Qatar's ability to pressure Hamas. For instance, in early April, Israel's Minister of Economy Nir Barkat told Bloomberg that Qatar "funds terrorism and plays the role of a 'wolf in sheep's clothing'." The Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs reacted very negatively to this.

Doha is making it clear that it will not allow anyone to exert pressure on it, and that if there is a need for its mediation services, it is by Israel and the USA, not the other way around. Without Doha, communicating with Hamas would be very difficult, a gap that Cairo cannot fill.

Photo: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool, File

Additionally, Washington was subtly reminded that a major American military base is located in Qatar. Unlike Saudi Arabia, the Qataris are not afraid of the Iranians and, although defense ties with the USA are important, they are not a matter of life and death right now. Secretary of State Antony Blinken quickly reassured his Qatari counterpart personally that the cooperation between Washington and Doha would continue, including efforts to achieve a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip.

The significance of Doha for the United States is underscored by Time magazine's decision to include the Prime Minister of Qatar in its list of the 100 most influential people of 2024. His role in the November ceasefire agreement in the Gaza Strip, which resulted in the release of over 100 hostages, including Israelis and foreigners, was highlighted. Time also noted the American air base in Qatar, the Taliban office located in Doha, and Qatar's overall ambition to mediate in various conflicts. Speaking about mediation in Gaza, the Prime Minister mentioned that Doha maintains dialogue with both Washington and Tehran, trying to dissuade Iran from striking Israel and escalating tensions in the region.

It is no secret that Doha's sympathies and its connections with Hamas and other radical forces in the region have always been known. Both Israel and the USA have always tried to maximize their benefits from this relationship, especially when it worked in their favor. Now, the situation is different.

Another important point is that Washington risks losing not only Arab but also Western partners. This was notably evident during the United Nations Security Council session on Friday night.

American Veto and Saudi-Israeli Normalization

On Thursday evening, the UN Security Council voted on a resolution drafted by Algeria that would grant Palestine full membership in the UN. Twelve of the fifteen Council members voted in favor. The United Kingdom and Switzerland abstained. The United States vetoed the resolution.

It's important to note that for a resolution to pass, it needs nine votes, provided that none of the permanent members of the Security Council use their veto power. Until the last moment, Washington had hoped it would not need to exercise its veto, to avoid appearing overtly supportive of Israel. The US exerted pressure on the Palestinian National Authority to abandon their bid for full UN membership. Moreover, Israel and the US did everything possible to ensure the resolution did not receive nine votes, actively engaging with France, Switzerland, Japan, South Korea, and Ecuador. Yet, in the end, all except Switzerland voted in favor, marking a significant blow to Washington.

While Israel can rejoice in the unwavering support from the US, it is a moment for the US to reflect on its influence in the international arena. 

Amidst this, the Biden administration remains hopeful that it can achieve normalization of Saudi-Israeli relations, which would be a significant boon ahead of the US presidential elections in November.

Photo: AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura

This week, The Wall Street Journal reported that there has been progress in the direction of Saudi-Israeli normalization, but so far, it concerns only the part of the deal related to relations between Washington and Riyadh. It is important to note that Saudi Arabia has demanded closer security cooperation with the US and support for developing its civil nuclear program as conditions for signing the agreement with Israel. However, this was not enough. Riyadh wanted guarantees that the US would compel the Israelis to return to the negotiating table with the Palestinians. The outcome of these negotiations was expected to be a final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on the principle of peaceful coexistence between the two states—Israel and Palestine.

Saudi Arabia has been clear from the start. Before the war in the Gaza Strip, there were opinions that Riyadh would be satisfied with symbolic promises from Israel. As recently as September, it seemed that the signing of the Saudi-Israeli agreements was almost a done deal. However, the war that started on October 7 changed the situation. But against the backdrop of Israeli strikes on Gaza, Riyadh could not proceed with normalization. It would have been misunderstood, both within the kingdom and in the Arab world at large. However, the Saudis have not abandoned the idea of a deal with Israel, but have made it clear that a ceasefire in Gaza must come first, and then everything else. In any case, the Palestinian issue remains on the agenda. Meanwhile, if we believe WSJ, Saudi officials have privately conveyed to the US that they could accept verbal assurances from Israel about its readiness to start negotiations on Palestinian statehood. Again, this is contingent on a ceasefire. And there are problems with that. In any case, in Israel, the majority of the population rejects the idea of creating a Palestinian state, especially after October 7. Moreover, there is no support for negotiations with the Palestinian authorities within the Israeli government. There is also no clarity on how the Biden administration will advance its plan. Moreover, the region does not really trust American intentions to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The United States has reassured that they support the idea of Palestinian statehood, but would prefer it to be achieved through negotiations with Israel, rather than unilaterally. They also demand reforms from the Palestinian Authority and an end to Hamas’ rule in the Gaza Strip. However, it seems that everyone else believes the pressure should be on Israel. And Riyadh is unlikely to want to stand out too overtly from the chorus now. Yes, Saudi Arabia greatly values the support of the US and even Israel in defense matters. Despite restoring diplomatic relations with Iran last year, Riyadh harbors deep mistrust towards Tehran, especially given its growing influence in regional affairs. At the same time, Saudi Arabia does not want to be caught between Iran and Israel in case of a regional escalation, like other countries.