The deadly and unprecedented Hamas terrorist attack on Israel on Oct. 7 came as a surprise not only to Israel but also to its neighbors. A strong Israeli retaliation came next, causing much damage to Palestinians in Gaza and putting Israel’s relations in the broader Middle East to the test.
Regional leaders, most of whom are no fans of Hamas, had to carefully calculate their response, safeguarding their national interests while addressing anti-Israeli public opinion. Israel has gone through previous rounds of warfare with actors like Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad during which it received both tacit support and public criticism from regional leaders. But this time, the confrontation and its potential regional implications are more significant in scope.
Nearly a month into the fighting, it is possible to initially assess the resilience of Israel’s regional ties in light of the Israel-Hamas war. Events are still unfolding, changing by the day, and likely to continue for months. Nevertheless, some key developments are already notable in Israel’s relations with regional states with which it maintains formal ties, especially Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates.
Israel and Egypt already have a de facto playbook for escalations in Gaza, which have occurred multiple times over the past two decades. Egypt’s role usually follows the predictable pattern of involvement in international mediation toward ceasefires, engagement with both sides, calls to restore calm, and humanitarian support. This time, however, Egypt is not simply a concerned third party. Because of the intensity of the conflict and resulting severity of the humanitarian crisis, some of its national interests are at stake. This has sparked new tensions with Israel, despite the seemingly shared desire of both countries to see Hamas out of power in Gaza.
Those bilateral tensions emerged quickly and in a multi-faceted manner. On Oct. 8, two Israeli tourists were killed by an Egyptian police officer in Alexandria. A day later, reports emerged that Egypt gave Israel early warning of a possible attack from Gaza, which Israel ignored (a report labeled by Israel’s National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi as “utterly fake”). Education Minister Yoav Kisch urged Palestinians to depart Gaza for Egypt (sparking anger in Egypt). And Egypt was confronted by mounting criticism (which it thought Israel was igniting) for not opening the Rafah border crossing.
These sources of friction, and especially the Egyptian concern that Israel is planning a forced relocation of Palestinians to the Sinai Peninsula, led to harsh rhetoric by President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi toward Israel, also spelling out a scenario that could lead to an Israeli-Egyptian war. These were words that Israelis have not heard from Egypt for years. To somewhat lessen Egyptian concerns, and following encouragement from the United States, Israel gradually enabled more humanitarian aid to enter Gaza.
Egypt has also heavily criticized the intensity of Israeli attacks in Gaza and refrained from public engagement with Israeli officials (including not inviting Israel to the Cairo Summit for Peace, held on Oct. 21). Nevertheless, the level of bilateral diplomatic ties remain unchanged, to date. Unlike during some previous instances, Egypt has not recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv for consultations, and no announcements were made about walking back from existing cooperative endeavors.
In practice, Israel’s export of natural gas to Egypt has stopped, but this was due to a shutdown of the Tamar gas field for security reasons, unrelated to Egypt. At the same time, Israel and Egypt have continued to showcase effective coordination in containing ad hoc security incidents along their border, mediating the release of Israeli hostages (for which Israel thanked Egypt), and implementing humanitarian aid deliveries via the Rafah border crossing. Israel sees Egypt as vital for any future international initiatives and arrangements related to Gaza, and Egypt seems determined to maintain a leading position in mediation support and in shaping the reality that will emerge after the war.
Israel’s relations with Jordan have suffered under Netanyahu’s current, far-right government. Jordan was alarmed by increased violence in the West Bank as well as tensions around the al-Aqsa Mosque throughout 2023. The Israel-Hamas war plays into the same Jordanian concerns — of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict spilling over to Jordan and creating public unrest that might threaten political stability there. Jordan’s concern regarding possible negative repercussions of the war on its national interests was also evident in its reported message to the Houthis and Hezbollah, calling on them to refrain from actions that might impact the kingdom.
Jordan expressed fear that Israel will try to transfer Palestinians from the West Bank, in the wake of its war in Gaza. King Abdullah II used harsh rhetoric to criticize Israel throughout the first month of the war and canceled a planned summit in Amman with the American, Egyptian, and Palestinian presidents, following the blast at the al-Ahli Arab Hospital. Queen Rania also voiced unequivocal criticism of Israel and of the Western responses. In turn, the Jordanian public took to the streets, protesting near the Israeli embassy and marching toward the border.
No public official engagement between Israel and Jordan took place during the first month of the war. Moreover, Jordan became the first (and only one, to date) regional country to recall its ambassador from Tel Aviv for consultations; and it has notified Israel that the latter’s ambassador to Amman will only be welcome to return once the war ends. Nevertheless, no official downgrade of ties was announced, no joint initiatives were officially halted, and bilateral coordination apparently continued behind the scenes, leading Jordan’s air force to drop urgent medical aid into Gaza, with Israel’s consent.
As in previous instances of Jordanian opposition to Israeli actions, Amman took steps in the international arena to advance its interests. It initiated a United Nations General Assembly resolution calling for a ceasefire, protection of civilians, and release of captives, which enjoyed a majority of votes in favor but was opposed by the U.S. and some European countries because it failed to condemn Hamas and acknowledge Israel’s right to self-defense. King Abdullah also urged French President Emmanuel Macron to push to end the war.
The U.S. clearly acknowledges Jordan’s diplomatic importance on the Israel-Palestine issue. King Abdullah was supposed to have been the one to host a regional summit during President Joe Biden’s arrival to the Middle East less than two weeks after the war started. Amman also became a recurring stop in Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visits to the region. While there most recently, on Nov. 4, he held a joint meeting with Egyptian, Jordanian, Saudi, Qatari, Emirati, and Palestinians diplomats and officials.
Throughout the 20-year tenure in power of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, crises between Israel and Turkey have mostly stemmed from tensions over Jerusalem or Gaza. During previous rounds of fighting, Turkey had a limited ability to help diplomatic efforts, despite its interest in playing such a role. Bilateral tensions with Israel and Turkey’s close relations with Hamas disqualified it in Israel’s eyes from carrying out any mediating role. Meanwhile, the crisis in Turkish-Egyptian relations also disqualified Ankara as far as Cairo was concerned.
The current war, however, initially found Turkey in a different situation — relations with Israel had been restored, including a meeting in mid-September between the two countries’ leaders, and Turkey’s tensions with Egypt were similarly resolved. Conditions were thus ripe for Turkey to play a more central role in addressing the Israel-Hamas war. Shortly after hostilities broke, Turkey expressed a desire to help solve the Israeli hostage crisis and suggested some ideas on how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It also coordinated with Egypt on the humanitarian issue and supplied aid to Gaza via the El Arish International Airport in the Sinai Peninsula.
But as the Israeli attack on Hamas intensified and the extent of the damage in the Gaza Strip increased, Erdoğan — who initiated a call with President Isaac Herzog two days after the Oct. 7 attack — adopted a harsher tone. The Turkish president has since said that Israel “must be stopped” and declared that Hamas is not a terror organization. Many in Turkey responded accordingly and held mass rallies in support of the Palestinians or tried to storm Israel’s diplomatic missions. While pro-Palestinian attitudes prevail across the Turkish political spectrum, they have not necessarily always reflected Erdoğan’s particular views on Hamas itself.
In 2018, when tensions broke out in Gaza, Erdoğan expelled the Israeli ambassador from Ankara, and relations were de facto downgraded. It took some four years for ties at the ambassadorial level to be restored. This time, Erdoğan initially canceled planned visits to Israel by him and the minister of energy. Israel’s Foreign Minister Cohen responded by announcing a reassessment of bilateral ties, given Erdoğan’s statements and conduct. As fighting in Gaza continued, Erdoğan recalled Turkey’s ambassador to Israel for consultations and said Netanyahu is no longer a partner for engagement. Nevertheless, the Turkish president also made clear that bilateral ties cannot be cut and that Turkey's intelligence chief is holding talks with both Israelis and Palestinians.
Similarly to Egypt, the UAE deeply opposes the Muslim Brotherhood movement and its affiliates in the region, including Hamas. As such, the UAE, which has cited regional stability considerations as a key motivation for signing the Abraham Accords with Israel back in 2020, was seemingly distressed by the Hamas attack, which shattered all hopes for continued de-escalatory trends in the Middle East, at least in the short and medium term.
The UAE was notably the only Arab country to publicly engage with Israel after Oct. 7. Following a condemnation of the Hamas attack issued by the Emirates’ foreign ministry (a unique act by the UAE, compared to other Arab reactions), Emirati President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu. The UAE also diplomatically engaged with the U.S. administration regarding developments in Gaza. As the war continued, the UAE has also condemned Israel’s ground offensive, provided significant humanitarian aid to the Palestinians (committing $20 million as well as supplying medical aid), and initiated an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting calling for protection to civilians and a humanitarian pause in the fighting.
Despite public sentiments critical of Israel, the UAE has emphasized that the Abraham Accords are here to stay. Four weeks into the Israeli-Hamas war, Ali Rashid al-Nuaimi, who chairs the Defense Affairs, Interior, and Foreign Relations Committee of the Emirati Federal National Council, notably stated that the accords are a platform that “should transform the region where everyone will enjoy security, stability and prosperity.” Accordingly, the UAE has so far not altered the level of its relations with Israel and has not walked back from earlier bilateral and minilateral cooperation platforms with Israel, including the invitations to Herzog and Netanyahu to attend the U.N. Climate Change Conference (28th Conference of the Parties, COP28), which will take place in Dubai later this year.
The Israel-Hamas war is clearly taking a toll on Israel’s regional relations, and this is becoming more evident as the fighting continues. Official public engagement between Israeli and regional leaders has been scarce since Oct. 7, although important behind-the-scenes coordination is continuing.
During the first weeks of the war, none of the regional countries rushed to downgrade their level of ties with Israel, nor did any of them announce the cancelation of existing bilateral or minilateral cooperative endeavors. After Israel initiated its ground offensive, some ambassadors were recalled — though without any official decision to change the level of ties. Regional countries are seeking to balance their interest in sustaining relations with Israel and their need to express criticism over its actions in Gaza.
This trend might continue in the weeks to come, also in light of the emergency Arab League summit scheduled for Nov. 11. Its extent and outcomes will reveal the level of resilience of the new regional architecture the U.S. had been helping to establish in recent years, which has transformationally improved Israel’s regional relations.
The U.S. has been deeply involved in the current war from its onset. It clearly stands by Israel and advises its operations, works to deter Hezbollah and Iran, and promotes humanitarian steps. It should now also work to minimize the damage the ongoing conflict is dealing to Israel’s ties with its Arab and Muslim neighbors. Maintaining official ties between Israel and its neighbors should now become an American priority. Toward this end, it will be important to not only develop and implement an effective exit strategy from the current conflict but also to shape the post-war regional configuration to make a two-state solution more attainable.
Regional countries that seek to play a role in shaping this transformation seem to acknowledge that they will have more of an impact after the war ends if their relations with Israel continue. Moreover, Israel and its neighbors have come to appreciate in recent years the benefits of continued diplomatic engagement, even in the face of deep disagreements, for the sake of advancing broader, long-term regional stability. The U.S. should sustain this understanding, help it overcome the challenges of war, and utilize it to advance peace.
Dr. Nimrod Goren is the Senior Fellow for Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute, President of Mitvim - The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, and Co-Founder of Diplomeds - The Council for Mediterranean Diplomacy.
Photo by GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images
The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.