Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

Ad Pacem: How the Saudi Path is a Knockout Blow against Perpetual War

| Nov. 10, 2023

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s speech on November 3 was a defining moment for the conflict that has engulfed the Middle East for the past month. Since October 7, when Hamas crossed the Gaza border and slaughtered Israeli civilians, to the eve of Nasrallah’s speech, the region has been haunted by the specter of uncontrolled escalation that could lead into the abyss of regional war. Whether Nasrallah chose to enter the fray would likely determine whether Israel would remain content with devastating Gaza, or whether we would see an all-out conflict pitting Iran and its proxies against the IDF and, presumably, the Americans.

Nasrallah’s declaration of de-escalation was not lost in the din of his ideological saber-rattling. The Hezbollah leader declared that the October 7 attack was 100% Palestinian while endorsing it fully – effectively declaring that the Israel-Palestinian conflict inside Gaza did not involve Hezbollah or its Iranian sponsor. He responded to the question of whether Hezbollah would “join the war” by defensively declaring that the Iranian-backed militia group had already done its part by firing artillery shells at Israeli positions in the disputed Shebaa Farms region, adding that the significance of these relatively minor border clashes should not be underestimated. By undertaking to do nothing beyond what Hezbollah had already done, Nasrallah effectively exited the stage, proclaiming the war in Gaza to be a purely local affair that did not directly concern him or his patron.

Nasrallah’s words indeed appear to correlate with increased calm on the ground. While the frequency of Iran-backed attacks from Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen had intensified in the days leading up to Nasrallah’s speech, the frequency of the attacks from Iran and Hezbollah dropped in the days after  – suggesting that the Hezbollah leader had indeed spoken both for his own organization and for his sponsor in Iran. 

Nasrallah’s de-escalation messaging suggests that the result of the October 7th Hamas attacks on Israel and Israel’s retaliatory attacks on Gaza is a strategic stalemate, in which each side sees at least a temporary benefit to pocketing its winnings while accepting its losses. The October 7th attacks and their aftermath have allowed Iran and its proxies to successfully reinforce their escalation dominance throughout the region – in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and indeed in Iran proper. The sacrifice on their side is Hamas, a large, expensively equipped, Iranian-backed proxy army, which will likely be uprooted or seriously degraded in Gaza without having gained any major strategic objective. In effect, Nasrallah publicly displayed Hamas’s death warrant that bore his signature and an Iranian stamp.

Israel’s vaunted deterrent power has been badly dented, though – first by the horrors of October 7th, and again through the country’s seeming inability to hit back at Iran, which has been repeatedly advertised in respected news outlets as the funder, supplier and trainer of the forces that carried out the attack. The bright side for the Israelis, strategically speaking, is that they can finally “eliminate” Hamas, now that the regional costs of destroying the Iranian-backed terror army have plummeted – depriving the Iranians at one blow of a serious weapon that they could well have used against Israel in a future conflict. 

US deterrence has been dented significantly, too – as the Iranians have used a proxy to draw blood from a leading US ally while directly attacking multiple US bases, injuring dozens of US soldiers, without any meaningful military response. However, deft diplomatic handling of regional actors, and control over the Israeli response, appears to have allowed the US to avoid being drawn into a regional war and an uncontrollable escalation cycle. In the short term, at least, the US has shown itself to be capable of exercising responsible statecraft that successfully accomplished the super-power’s stated aims.

These are the contours of the second stage of this conflict as Israel proceeds with its offensive on Gaza. How Israel deals with the civilian costs of its campaign is only one aspect that will decide what third stage will look like, and who will ultimately be able to convert their temporary wins and losses into longer-term strategic success.

As I wrote in the Washington Post on October 9, the Israeli-Hamas war has presented the region with two clear paths forward. The Iranian path favors eventually wiping Israel off the map through the cultivation of a network of revolutionary terror proxies that work to undermine and destroy the regional order and existing states. The Saudi path prefers leveraging the Kingdom’s diplomatic clout and convening power to build a lasting peace that can propel the region into the future rather than condemn it to the hatreds and failures of the past.

There is nothing necessary about either the Iranian path or Saudi path. The success of either will depend on how other regional actors – and the United States – choose to play their cards, and whether they play them well or badly. 

Take for example the reports coming out that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is considering a temporary “humanitarian pause,” presumably as a result of American pressure, in response to recent Iranian attacks on US bases, and the US desire to free Americans being held hostage in Gaza. A ceasefire may therefore be a wise – or at least a necessary – move by the Israeli leader. But framing that ceasefire as a climb-down in the face of Iranian escalation, rather than as a gesture towards the Saudi path of peace, seems maladroit – by strengthening one’s enemy instead of supporting a potential friend, the Israelis turn a necessary action from a potential win into a defeat. 

As the Gaza War enters its endgame on the ground, Israel, the US, and other regional actors, including Saudi Arabia, must frame their actions with an eye towards the future if they hope to maintain the strategic benefits they have accrued, and justify the price that they – and the peoples of the region – have already paid. 

Saudi Arabia has already declared its position. It is for peace, and for the establishment of a sustainable security order in the region that protects the peoples of the region and serves as a foundation for sustained economic development and prosperity. By torpedoing the Saudi-Israeli-American peace talks through their actions on October 7, the war camp has also declared its position.

Regional decision-makers can therefore now benefit by making their common interests explicit, by framing and coordinating their actions within the context of the two distinct and opposing coalitions that have emerged from the October 7th wars: A pro-peace “no WW3,” coalition led by states that believe in the rules-based international order, and “team WW3” made up of those opponents of peace who appear willing to fight tooth and nail to protect the ugliest elements of the past. 

Needless to say, however, the reality of a regional pro-peace coalition requires a meaningful peace process to give it credibility. In practice, that would require Israeli leaders to acknowledge the Saudi Initiative, known also as the Arab Peace Initiative (API), as a credible reference point for negotiations. While the API is 20 years old and must be understood in part as a product of its time, it is also the only peace document that has been signed by all the Arab states and is therefore a unique and indispensable starting point for any wider regional arrangements. 

The API proves that it is indeed possible to align both the Arab states and the Arab street behind a regional coalition that is pro-peace and pro-development – as long as there is a credible framework and process for negotiations on the Palestinian issue, which the pro-war anti-western camp deliberately obfuscates by suggesting that theirs is a fight between champions of the Palestinian cause and the defenders of Israeli colonialism. Those classifications have never been less relevant. Europe, the United States, and many Middle Eastern nations no longer fit into those rigid camps. 

The reality is the region is currently split between a pro-war “team World War 3” camp and a pro-peace “no World War 3” camp. By choosing to engage with the API, Israel can choose to build on its recent diplomatic progress with the Gulf States and fundamentally reshape the defining conflict of the region and of its own existence.

America has a crucial choice to make in the region as well. By enriching Iran through the release of billions in previously-frozen funds, and cutting a deal that, by some accounts, legally facilitates an Iranian path to a nuclear bomb, the US has unsettled not just the Israelis, but countries from Yemen to Iraq, Lebanon, and even the Gulf. After the events of October 7th, it seems unlikely to expect that the region will be able to tolerate similar attacks from Iranian proxies, whether on Israel or on other states that the Iranians see as enemies or rivals. Attacks conducted with the additional impunity conferred by the backing of a nuclear-armed power seem even less likely to assist regional security or process.

However wise the regional strategy of “balance” proclaimed by Barack Obama turned out to be, it seems clear that strategy has reached its sell-by date. The US temptation to “balance” the needs of its allies against the desires of its foes must be abandoned, in the interests of avoiding regional Armageddon. If the peace camp fails, it is only a matter of time before next episode of bloody escalation brings us back to the brink of regional or even world war.

Towards the end of his speech, Nasrallah declared “Our battle has not reached the stage of victory with a knockout blow, we still need time. We are still realistic. But we win with points. We win and prevail with points.”

While Team World War 3 may or may not have won this round with “points,” the Israelis and the Americans must now decide if they want to continue playing into the hands of the enemies of peace, or whether they will embrace the Saudi path and deliver a knockout blow on behalf of progress for the entire region.

 

Statements and views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not imply endorsement by Harvard University, the Harvard Kennedy School, or the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Alyahya, Mohammed.“Ad Pacem: How the Saudi Path is a Knockout Blow against Perpetual War.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, November 10, 2023.