Expert on Arab affairs Marianna Belenkaya analyses the results of the summit of the League of Arab States, Egypt's threats to downgrade diplomatic relations with Israel, and the future of the Gaza Strip after the war

This week's news demonstrated that Israel and Arab countries continue to hope to shift responsibility to each other and third parties for the future of the Gaza Strip. However, they all envision this future differently, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not even want to discuss it. Meanwhile, the idea of deploying international forces in the Gaza Strip is increasingly being voiced. The question is not only when this might happen but also who would want to participate. The US hopes for Arab countries, which in turn have proposed deploying UN peacekeepers in the Strip. This did not please Washington. Nevertheless, the topic of international presence in the Gaza Strip has moved from behind-the-scenes negotiations and was even recorded in the final declaration of the Arab League summit.

What was discussed in Manama

The 33rd summit of the League of Arab States (LAS) was one of the week's main events in the Middle East. This event is routine in itself but serves as a litmus test for the sentiments of Arab leaders. The summit took place amid the ongoing war between Israel and the Palestinian movement Hamas, against the backdrop of pro-Palestinian demonstrations in the USA and Europe, and the sharply increased pressure from Western countries on the Israeli government to recognize the state of Palestine and enter into a permanent peace agreement. It was expected that Arab leaders would traditionally condemn Israel, but there was anticipation for concrete actions, not just words.

What was the outcome?

The most striking point in the final declaration of the Bahrain Arab League summit was the call for the deployment of UN peacekeeping forces "in the occupied Palestinian territory" until a two-state solution—Palestine and Israel—is implemented. Concurrently, Arab leaders emphasized the responsibility of the UN Security Council to take "clear measures" to implement this decision, including setting time frames for the peace process, which should result in a viable Palestinian state within the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital. According to the final declaration, one step towards this should be convening a peace conference, which Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), has been advocating for many years. Additionally, Arab foreign ministers were tasked with contacting their international counterparts to expedite the recognition of Palestinian independence by as many countries as possible and to achieve full UN membership for Palestine. This is effectively the only specific mission that Arab countries were willing to undertake regarding Palestine, apart from general statements about humanitarian aid and the provision of medical and educational services to those affected by the conflict.

Photo: AP Photo/Abdel Kareem Hana

Meanwhile, Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), persistently urged his Arab friends and brothers to reconsider their relations with Israel. Abbas also lamented that his government had not received the expected financial support from international and regional partners. However, his words had no impact. The declaration of the Bahrain summit contains no hint that any Arab country might reconsider its relations with Israel if the latter does not change its policy towards the Palestinians. Although there is a potential threat, especially from Cairo, which, according to sources, is considering downgrading relations with Israel, no one is rushing to make any commitments on this matter. In fact, they are so unhurried that Arab media suggest some Arab leaders are eagerly awaiting a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip to continue the process of normalizing relations with Israel.

At the same time, the final declaration contains all the usual phrases—about the "need for an immediate cessation of Israeli aggression in the Gaza Strip" and the lifting of the blockade. Overall, it emphasized that the Palestinian issue remains central to achieving peace and stability in the Middle East. However, Arab leaders did not take responsibility for resolving the Palestinian issue.

The term "responsibility" referred to the efforts of the international community, primarily the UN, and Israel, which must answer for "the destruction of cities and civilian objects in the Gaza Strip." In their declaration, Arab leaders also expressed their wishes to the Palestinian factions: "to unite under the auspices of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, and to coordinate a comprehensive national project and a unified strategic vision." This refers, in very soft terms, to the reconciliation of Hamas and Fatah and the centralization of power in the hands of the PNA. Behind the scenes, the situation was more tense.  

According to Al-Araby al-Jadeed, the UAE once again criticized the PA during the preparations for the LAS, demanding that the resolutions on financial support for the Palestinian authorities include commitments by Ramallah to create a "government of competent, independent experts" whose activities would be transparent. This demand comes despite the fact that the Palestinian government was renewed just a month ago as part of the reforms required by the West and Arab countries from Ramallah. However, the UAE voices in closed meetings what others do not say—over the years, the PA has not achieved any significant success, and the new government has not changed the situation.

The UAE's stance offended the Palestinians, who perceived it as an encroachment on their internal affairs. No compromise was reached. Consequently, the documents of the Bahrain summit do not provide any serious specificity regarding the funding of the Palestinian government. Each Arab country will decide on this matter independently, especially since the Palestinians are currently unable even to meet the minimal requests made to them regarding unity.

The situation at the LAS summit demonstrated this once again. During his speech, Mahmoud Abbas not only criticized Israel but also Hamas. He reminded that the decision to attack Israel on October 7 was made by the leadership of Hamas, which provoked the occupation of Gaza. Abbas emphasized that the Israeli government was working "to cement the separation of Gaza from the West Bank and Jerusalem, to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state, and to weaken the National Administration and the Palestine Liberation Organization." He stressed that "Hamas's position, which includes refusing to end the division and return to the protection of Palestinian legitimacy, has served the Israeli plan." These points have been made by Abbas and other representatives from Ramallah before, but at least two reconciliation attempts between Fatah and Hamas (in Moscow and Beijing) have been made in recent months, all to no avail. From the podium of the Arab League, Abbas continues to find reasons why Ramallah is struggling: they are hindered by everyone—Israel, Hamas, plus a lack of external support. In turn, Hamas criticized Abbas's words, hinting that their actions have brought the Palestinian issue back to the center of the international agenda, which Ramallah could not achieve for years. Meanwhile, Arab leaders deliberately avoided any public mention of Hamas at the summit in Bahrain to avoid sowing further discord within their ranks. 

Control over Rafah and Cairo's grievances

The focus of the final declaration of the Arab League Summit was on the situation around Rafah in southern Gaza, where Israel, after months of hesitation, finally began a military operation. Predictably, Israel was condemned for taking control of the Rafah border crossing, which, according to Arab leaders, led to the suspension of the flow of humanitarian aid to Gaza. It should be noted that the latter statement is incorrect, as humanitarian shipments continue through other crossings. The issue here is one of principle – none of the Arab players want to openly cooperate with Israel while it continues its military operation in Gaza and refuses to discuss the resolution of the Palestinian issue in the future. The situation around Rafah is just a vivid example.

The media recently reported that Egypt rejected Israel's proposal for joint management of the Rafah crossing. This proposal was made at the beginning of this week during a visit to Cairo by a delegation from the Shin Bet. In response, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry stated that responsibility should not be shifted onto his country, as Israel alone is to blame for the current humanitarian disaster in Gaza. "Israel must fulfill its obligations as the occupying power and allow aid delivery through the ground crossings it controls," he emphasized. Overall, the Egyptians would like the management of the crossing and the Gaza sector to be transferred to the Palestinian Authority. Until then, the responsibility lies with Israel.

However, Israel has not given up hope. According to Israeli media, Cairo was offered a new plan: to transfer control of the crossing to local Palestinians from the Gaza Strip in cooperation with the UN, under Israeli oversight. It's proposed that the crossing will function as an entry and exit point for people to and from the Gaza Strip and be used to transfer fuel from Egypt. At the same time, all cargo transit would be fully transferred to the Kerem Shalom border crossing between Israel and the Gaza Strip. Israel is willing to discuss with Cairo the list of Palestinians who would manage the crossing. If an agreement is reached, the Israeli army would withdraw from the crossing but remain nearby to prevent its capture by Hamas and to block militants from exiting or returning to the sector.

Photo: AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov

The proposal is somewhat dubious, as few Palestinians would dare to cooperate with Israel on security matters while Hamas remains strong in the Gaza Strip. However, the Shin Bet still harbors some hope, evidently based on recent experiences when some Palestinians did agree to work with Israel in distributing aid within the sector.

As for Egypt, it is crucial for them to save face and also to avoid responsibility for the dire situation in the Gaza Strip. Arab media regularly remind that Cairo coordinates security matters with Israel. If the operation in Rafah expands, Egypt will have to address complex issues related to the protection of Palestinians. Cairo's worst nightmare is having to hold back crowds that might decide to storm the fence separating Gaza from Egypt.

Therefore, Egypt is trying various levers of pressure on Israel, including hinting at the possibility of downgrading diplomatic relations and revising the 1979 peace treaty. But so far, these are just leaks to the media; officially, Cairo continues to emphasize that it maintains contact with Israel and hopes to achieve an agreement on a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip with its mediation. The only way the Egyptians have chosen to express their dissatisfaction is by joining South Africa's lawsuit against Israel at the International Court of Justice, which addresses the genocide of Palestinians. However, Cairo's patience is not limitless. Israel understands this and, therefore, tries to find compromises.

Who needs peacekeepers?

After the Arab League Summit, it's clear that compromises are being sought not just around Rafah. There has been a shift in Arab consciousness regarding the presence of international forces in the Gaza Strip. 

This idea has been discussed for several months. In the US and Israel, there are hopes that Arab countries will take responsibility for managing the Gaza Strip after the end of hostilities there, including possibly deploying their troops. Most recently, Israel's Defense Minister Yoav Gallant voiced that after the hostilities, the Strip should be managed by Palestinian structures friendly to Israel with the support of the international community. He was countered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who stated that as long as the war is not declared over, there can be no talk of the future of the sector, but in any case, there will be neither Hamas nor Fatah structures there. Meanwhile, Israeli media earlier reported that the government is considering scenarios where Arab countries would provide financial and possibly military support to Palestinian structures in Gaza loyal to Israel. Among such countries, the UAE was specifically mentioned. However, following such publications, they were quick to declare: "Abu Dhabi refuses to participate in any plan aimed at covering Israeli presence in the Gaza Strip."

At the same time, the British newspaper Financial Times reported on Wednesday that Washington still hopes to push Arab states to participate in multinational forces in the Gaza Strip to avoid a permanent Israeli military presence there. According to the publication, the US is discussing these plans with Egypt, the UAE, and Morocco. It is claimed that these Arab countries are willing to consider various options, but on the condition that Western countries, including the US, recognize the State of Palestine and, moreover, that the Americans themselves should lead the multinational forces. The US does not want to station its troops in the Gaza Strip. However, the Arabs themselves are not keen on this either. For instance, Saudi Arabia has completely rejected this idea. However, according to the Qatari newspaper The Middle East Eye, Bahrain is ready to participate in such forces. Bahrain is the only Arab country that took part in the US and UK military operation against the Ansar Allah Houthi movement that began at the end of last year. A high-ranking Western official familiar with the attempts to create multinational forces told the publication that Manama could serve as the "spearhead," giving momentum to a broader push of multinational forces. It is important to understand that Bahrain is unlikely to do anything without the approval of Saudi Arabia and possibly the UAE.

The fate of the multinational forces remains uncertain. There are too many currently unfeasible conditions set by the Arabs. Moreover, Hamas still remains in the Gaza Strip, and it is not ready to allow any decisions to be made there without its participation. Israel's position is also unclear.

But ultimately, the Arabs have moved from behind-the-scenes negotiations to official statements, enshrining the idea of peacekeeping forces in the Bahrain declaration. However, this was not what Washington and Israel had intended. The US State Department perceived the statement of Arab leaders as an attempt to use peacekeepers as a buffer between Israel and Hamas. "Frankly, adding security forces could potentially compromise Israel's mission against Hamas," the State Department declared. No one wants to fight Hamas in place of Israel.