The Saudis, the UAE and a golden post-Gaza-war opportunity

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These Gulf powerhouses could partner with the US to carry out a sweeping reconstruction in the Strip and transform the region

 

Four months after Hamas’s cruel attack on Israel, the Gaza Strip lies in ruins. Its 2.2 million inhabitants are jobless, most of them homeless. Reconstruction of Gaza is essential for preventing a huge humanitarian crisis and is one of the elements of a plan for “long-term peace between Israel and Palestinians” that the Biden administration and a “small group of Middle East partners” are developing. Gaza’s reconstruction, properly done and supervised, combined with political arrangements and without any terrorist organization involvement, can bring about a positive change in the turbulent region.

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman and the UAE ruler Mohammed Bin Zayed, whose countries are among these “Middle East partners,” are the two people who can lead this rebuilding operation. Both rulers, who compete for regional influence, have the financial and the operational capacity to lead the mega project of Gaza reconstruction. No other international power has both the interest and ability to do it. The United States can help financially by allocating at least part of the frozen $120 billion of Iranian money to this enterprise.

MBS and MBZ share the belief that the future of the Middle East is not secured by religious and political violent conflict, but rather by progress and development of a knowledge-based economy, which will replace the oil-based economy. In both countries, there are giant governmental and semi-governmental companies that can easily build projects for housing, transportation, tourism, energy, and industry.

In 2005, I introduced the CEO of the largest construction company in the Middle East, Emaar Properties, to Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s prime minister. Sharon’s government intended to evacuate and destroy the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip as part of the Disengagement Plan. The Emirati company offered Israel $56 million if, instead of destroying the settlements, the Israeli government would hand them over, as-is, to the company. It wanted to use them as a basis and infrastructure for its housing and tourism projects in the no-longer occupied Gaza. The meeting with Sharon was friendly, but the Israeli cabinet decided to destroy the settlements.

This story illustrates that rebuilding the Gaza Strip is not an act of charity. The two countries involved and their companies would benefit handsomely. For example, if the Emirati company DP World were to be in charge of building the deep-water port in Gaza, it would not lose money. On the contrary, a Gaza seaport, like the ones in Haifa and Ashdod, can be the Mediterranean end of the India-Middle East-Europe Corridor (IMEC).

And in 2008, I co-authored with Samer Khoury, the Palestinian owner of CCC, the Greece-located conglomerate, a “Marshall Plan” for Gaza. It included projects for tourism, agriculture, transportation, industry, and energy. Each project could provide employment for Gazans, a dramatic improvement in the quality of life in Gaza, and income for the entrepreneurs.

Hamas, on the other hand, spent its billions of dollars on building the largest terror base on earth, but not on one single economic project. The people of Gaza are hard-working and diligent. I saw many lining up at 2 a.m. at the Erez crossing point, waiting hours to cross the Israeli border for their hard work in Israel, eager to feed their children. At dark they made their way back home for a few hours’ sleep, returning to Erez the next morning. Their lives would be significantly enhanced by a sweeping economic recovery plan for Gaza.

But the chief incentive for the United States, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in such an endeavor would not be humanitarian or economic, but geopolitical. Biden, Bin Salman and Bin Zayed hold the key to resolving the main issues in the Middle East.

Regrettably, the current Israeli prime minister has already rejected out of hand a project of this kind, calling the Biden-initiated plan still being worked on an “international diktat.” But a sane government in Israel – which I believe will be formed in 2024 — cannot refuse such an offer from the US and Gulf states to rebuild Gaza, even if it includes negotiations with the Palestinians on a two-state solution.

Just three weeks ago, MBS repeated his “desire and determination to pursue normalization” with Israel, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, but that step required calm in Gaza and “a clear and credible pathway to a Palestinian state.” More recently, UAE’s ambassador to the United Nations said there must be an “irreversible progression” towards a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict for a regional commitment to the reconstruction of Gaza. And a few days later reports surfaced about the Biden plan that would offer Israel “normalization with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states” as part of a package leading to the “establishment of a Palestinian state.”

To be clear: Hamas must not govern Gaza again. Israel must not either, but its current government seems headed in this direction. If it does, it would not be exempt from the civilian responsibility for the 2.2 million Palestinians living there. Israel does not have the resources for both military control and civilian administration of the Strip. And no one will share this huge burden with Israel.

Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza without the return of Hamas is feasible only if the military and administrative control of this territory is handed to a joint administration – a partnership between the reconstructing states and the Palestinian Authority. There are enough Palestinians with civilian experience and various professional skills who can do this perfectly well.

Neither we the Israelis nor any international player has the right to say whom the Palestinian leadership would include, but it cannot be Hamas or Islamic Jihad figures. Whoever leads the Palestinian Authority will not be able to reject such a political-economic package offered by the US, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Thus, the opportunity exists for a historic package combining a diplomatic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, eradication of Hamas’s military capabilities, reconstruction of Gaza and Saudi-Israeli normalization. It would generate significant geopolitical and financial benefits for all involved. Seizing this opportunity is primarily up to MBS and MBZ, with the active support of Biden. It could well be their finest hour on the world stage.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Ephraim Sneh, a retired IDF General, former minister and deputy minister of defense in Israeli governments, is a member of the executive board of the Commanders for Israel Security.
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