Israel Cannot Ignore the Palestinians

As the dust settles in the wake of Israel’s much-anticipated attack on Iran on Friday, the two countries seem to have pulled back from the brink of full-scale war. This strike on an Iranian military base near Isfahan—a response to Iran’s unprecedented April 13 missile and drone attack on Israel—caused minimal damage and was met with muted reactions from Iranian officials.

The limited scale of Israel’s retaliation reflects several considerations, including a genuine desire to prevent a regional war, U.S. pressure to avoid escalation, and the minimal damage inflicted by Iran’s attack (itself a response to Israel’s escalatory strike on an Iranian consular facility in Damascus) thanks to missile and drone interceptions. But one of the most significant factors is the region, as war cabinet minister Benny Gantz affirmed several days ago: Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates reportedly all played a role in cooperating with Israel, the U.S., and European partners to thwart the Iranian assault.

Israel and the U.S. cannot take this regional defense cooperation for granted, however. Israel needs to adopt a new approach in Gaza—and on the Palestinian issue more broadly—if it ever hopes to capitalize on the shared strategic interests with its neighbors and prevent Iran from continuing to make ideological and military inroads throughout the region.

The quiet cooperation in the face of Iran’s April 13 attack was striking. After months of growing diplomatic isolation amid the devastating war in Gaza, Israel now seemed to have the region in its corner.

But this realignment will prove illusory if not actively fostered. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the UAE, and Bahrain may share Israel’s opposition to Iran’s malign activity, but that does not negate their discomfort with being seen as Israeli partners or erase months of condemnation related to the war in Gaza. Arab states have downplayed their role in countering Iran’s attack given Israel’s deep unpopularity and are facing domestic pushback for doing so.

Changing course vis-à-vis the Palestinians is the only way for Israel to shift this paradigm. The overwhelmingly dominant narrative in the Arab world is that Israel is carrying out genocide against Palestinians. The war in Gaza and the Palestinian issue more broadly pose the biggest barrier to expanding Israel’s regional ties and creating a more cohesive pro-U.S., anti-Iranian regional alliance. Israel’s poor reputation—for reasons legitimate and illegitimate—serves as a glass ceiling on deepening cooperation with Arab regimes, which are sensitive to public opinion despite being autocratic. In the current geopolitical environment, a formal Middle East Air Defense alliance remains a pipe dream, yet would be an invaluable security asset for Israel and the U.S. and would realign the region against Iranian aggression.

Jordan is particularly sensitive to this dynamic. Ties with Israel are deeply unpopular among Jordanians (over 50% of whom are of Palestinian descent). Efforts by Israel’s far-right government to advance West Bank annexation and thwart the possibility of Palestinian statehood could pose an existential threat to the Hashemite regime, as Iran reportedly seeks to expand its network of proxies to Jordan and capitalize on growing anti-Israel sentiment. Such an outcome would be disastrous for Israel.

Arab public sentiment should not dictate Israeli policy. To a certain extent, Israel’s unpopularity reflects endemic antisemitism and a rejection of Jewish national rights more than a response to Israeli behavior. But greater sensitivity to optics in the Arab world could meaningfully improve Israel’s regional standing while also benefiting other strategic priorities.

This challenge begins in Gaza. It was not inevitable for Israel that this war would result in this degree of diplomatic ostracization; its Sunni Arab partners have no love for Hamas and would happily see its regime in Gaza uprooted. Israel needs to immediately take concrete steps to alleviate Gaza’s humanitarian crisis and give greater priority to preventing further civilian deaths. So long as Arab publics consume images and videos of death and destruction in Gaza on a daily basis, normalization with Israel will feel like a betrayal of the Palestinian people. Addressing humanitarian concerns in Gaza also provides the necessary groundwork for finishing the fight against Hamas and preventing its resurgence.

In the medium term, if Israel hopes to rely on its Arab partners in Gaza to provide security, coordinate and fund reconstruction, and equip a new generation of Palestinian leaders with the skills needed to govern, Israel must tangibly commit to Palestinian self-rule and eventual statehood. In parallel, sidelining Palestinian terror groups and preventing a wider uprising in the West Bank requires strengthening the Palestinian Authority, curbing illegal settler activity, and combating extremist Jewish violence and Palestinian terrorism alike. Reversing Israeli policies that drive violence and inflame tensions in the Palestinian arena will undermine efforts by Iran and its proxies to stoke local and regional resentment against Israel.

Hamas’ October 7 attack was prompted by reports of tangible progress toward Israel-Saudi normalization. Iran and its allies see the expansion and deepening of Israel’s regional ties as a threat to their long-term aspirations of destroying Israel. October 7 and Israel’s brutal counterattack did succeed in stoking regional resentment against Israel and fostering support for the Palestinian “resistance.” But last week’s events and signals from Arab leaders have shown that the door has not yet closed on Israel gaining greater acceptance among its neighbors—along with more overt and formalized security cooperation against the Iranian threat. To capitalize on this opportunity, Israel must opt for regional de-escalation, minimize and mitigate the humanitarian repercussions of the war in Gaza, and create conditions for Arab states to be able to credibly claim that cooperating with Israel does not undermine Palestinians’ wellbeing and national interests.

No Israeli policy can be a quick fix for Iranian behavior or the deep-seated anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment in the wider Middle East that fuels the Iranian regime’s malign activity. Israel cannot be afraid to use military force when needed and must remain vigilant in protecting its citizens—particularly after it failed to do so on October 7. A day could very well come when Israel has no choice but to go to war against Iran, just as it had no choice but to go to war against Hamas. But “speaking Middle Eastern” is about more than projecting military strength. It is well within Israel’s power to invest in repairing its reputation in order to take away the fodder from Iran’s quest to destroy it, and there are ways to do so that are clearly in its national interest.

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