Hamas’s horrific attacks last weekend and the subsequent Israeli bombings of Gaza have put the entire world on edge.
Beyond concerns for the fate of the 2.2 million Palestinians trapped in Gaza with nowhere to flee, there is also a palpable fear that the conflict will escalate into a region-wide war. None of the main actors — with the possible exception of Hamas — want or benefit from such a war, yet all sides are acting in a manner that increases its risk by the day.
There is little to suggest that Israel or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seek to widen the war. The chaos in Israel and his government’s failure to not only prevent the attack but also manage its aftermath defies the idea that he was preparing or yearning for a larger war. Israel would indeed find itself in a precarious situation if it ends up in a two-front war with Hezbollah attacking Israel from the north.
Similarly, there is no evidence that Tehran would benefit from a larger war. As a European diplomat put it to me, “Iran prefers a low-intensity conflict with Israel, not open warfare.” The regime in Tehran has just survived one of the greatest challenges to its rule and appears relieved that the anniversary of the killing of Mahsa Amini did not reignite these protests on a large scale.
Its economy is also in dire straits, and its focus has mainly been on reaching a de-escalation understanding with Washington that would secure the release of Iranian funds and the softening of the enforcement of US sanctions on Iranian oil sales. Rather than coordinating the attack with Hamas, Tehran was taken by surprise, according to US intelligence.
If there is any rationality in the Biden administration’s Middle East policy, it too will oppose further escalation of the fighting. Between the war in Ukraine and a potential crisis with China over Taiwan, the Biden administration simply cannot afford a broader war in the region. The administration’s focus — however misguided —has instead been on securing a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The White House has been so obsessed with this idea that they have even begun considering offering the Saudi rulers a security pact as well as nuclear enrichment technology. War in the Middle East has not been on Biden’s agenda.
Finally, the Arab states in the region, from Egypt to Syria to Saudi Arabia, have nothing to gain and much to lose from a larger war. Egypt fears a massive influx of Gazans into the Sinai that, in the words of David Hearst, has the “potential to tip Egypt over the edge after a decade of economic decline.” Syria’s Bashar al-Assad has been focused on normalizing relations with Sunni Arab states and re-entering the Arab League — critical both for his political rehabilitation and Syria’s economic rebuilding.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — who was on the verge of normalizing relations with Israel and throwing the Palestinians under the bus — felt compelled to revive Saudi Arabia’s traditionally pro-Palestinian profile given the wider Arab world's immense anger over Israel's bombing of Gaza. His call this week with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi — the first time the two ever spoke — was at least partly motivated by a desire not to cede leadership on this issue to Tehran.
Despite clear interests on almost all sides against a regional war, all sides are acting in a manner that makes such a war increasingly likely. If Israel's invasion of Gaza proves successful in terms of decimating Hamas, Hezbollah may feel compelled to intervene — not necessarily to save Hamas, but to save itself.
A successful Israeli campaign against Hamas will tilt the balance in the region, with Israel having freer hands to go after Hezbollah. An attack from the north by Hezbollah may not save Hamas as much as it will make it too costly for the Netanyahu government to extend the war into Lebanon after Hamas has been defeated. Hezbollah may not be able to prevent an Israeli victory, but it will have a compelling interest to turn it pyrrhic.
Hezbollah’s involvement, in turn, will bring Iran much more directly into the conflict. While declaring its opposition to a wider war, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has warned that unless Israel stops its attacks, the war will be widened and that Israel will suffer “a huge earthquake.”
With Iran and Hezbollah drawn into the conflict, the Biden administration will be under tremendous pressure to intervene militarily despite clear U.S. interest in staying out. There is little in Biden’s conduct thus far that suggests that, in this scenario, he will prioritize America’s long-term strategic interest over what is politically expedient for him in the immediate term.
Direct American military intervention in Gaza, or against Hezbollah and Iran, is all but certain to generate major attacks against U.S. troops and interests throughout the Middle East by armed groups supported by Tehran. Militias in Iraq and Yemen have already issued stern warnings of a multi-front response to any American intervention.
The White House is well aware of these escalation risks. At a meeting earlier this year between two senior American officials and a high-level representative of the Iranian government, one of the Americans warned Tehran that if it enriched uranium to 90% purity, the U.S. would strike Iran militarily. Without skipping a beat, the Iranian official responded that Iran would respond immediately by destroying fourteen American bases in the region by raining thousands of rockets on them within 24 hours.
It is in this context that the Biden administration’s refusal to call for de-escalation and a ceasefire — or to practically pressure Israel to exercise its right to defend itself within the confines of international law — is so problematic.
It is not just the moral bankruptcy of the Biden White House to stand in the way of efforts to end the crisis (shocking internal emails have revealed that State Department officials have been prohibited from using terms such as de-escalation, ceasefire, ending the bloodshed, and restoring calm). It is not the blatant disregard for human life shown by the White House when its spokesperson blasts Democratic lawmakers advocating for a ceasefire and calls them “repugnant.”
It is also the strategic malpractice of giving Israel a carte blanche to act as it wishes despite knowing and understanding the tremendous risk that Israel’s unrestrained actions in Gaza can drag Washington into a wider regional war that neither serves the interest of the U.S. nor Israel. The combination of issuing warnings to Hezbollah and Iran to show restraint, while demanding no restraint from Israel, may be politically expedient for Biden, but it is likely to produce the very nightmare scenario Biden presumably seeks to avoid.
As Ben Rhodes from the Obama White House put it in his podcast this past week, counseling restraint and calls “to follow the laws of war, are not to show a lack of regard for what Israel has gone through. On the contrary, it’s kind of what I wish someone had done for the United States after 9/11.”
But Biden is not only giving Israel bad advice. He is giving Israel bad advice that risks getting thousands of Americans killed in yet another senseless and preventable war in the Middle East. If he lacks the humanity to call for a ceasefire to prevent the killing of thousands of Palestinians, he should at least not abdicate his responsibility as President of the United States to keep Americans out of the killing zone.
Senator Lindsey Graham had two options walking into the Doha Forum in Qatar this weekend: find a way to triangulate his full-throated support for Netanyahu policies in Israel for the largely Palestinian-supportive Muslim audience Sunday, or wave his own flag without reservation. He went with the latter.
The South Carolina Republican made it clear he was no stranger to the region — he touted a long friendship with his host the Emir of Qatar and lauded the kingdom's role as international mediator and host to America's Fifth Fleet. But he didn't bat an eye to tell this audience — thousands of Muslims assembled from across the Gulf and the broader Middle East, plus attendees from Global South nations and Europe — that the U.S. veto of the ceasefire was one of the few things he thought the Biden Administration got right.
"President Biden ...You have risen to the occasion after October the seventh," he said, addressing the audience Sunday. "I have a world of difference with President Biden on many things. But when he vetoed the ceasefire resolution, he did the right thing and let me tell you why. Every ceasefire Hamas has ever entered has been broken and we're not going to do a ceasefire until hostages begin to be released like promised and would give the Israeli military the time and space they need to make sure that Hamas ceases to be a threat to Israel and the Palestinian people."
"So as a Republican, I am standing behind President Biden's decision, that resolution and the one that comes next."
He also said the only way there will be peace in the Middle East and to get the real culprit — Iran — and to start building a state for Palestine, was for the normalization process between Arab States and Israel to continue, with the Israel-Saudi deal the icing on the cake.
"I pledge in front of the world to help President Biden secure the votes in the United States Senate to make it possible for Saudi Arabia to have a defense agreement with us, which would then make it possible for Saudi Arabia, to recognize Israel," he declared. "Before the world I pledge my support, to help reconstruct a new Palestine but none of this is possible until you have a less corrupt younger Palestinian Authority, replacing the one we have. And a Hamas can no longer wreak havoc on Israel, on their own people.”
That potential U.S.-brokered Israel-Saudi deal have been deemed all but dead after the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel. Graham contended that aside from hating Jews, Hamas launched the attacks to kill any hope for that deal to go forward. Observers have come to similar conclusions — that the so-called Abraham Accords had left the Palestinians on the cutting room floor, inciting anger among the militant elements in Gaza. But unlike Graham, these critics' hold that the agreements are the problem — that regional leaders' shouldn't have allowed Israel to shunt the peace process to the side in the first place.
Not only did Graham ignore this fatal flaw of the agreements, he reveled in his own blind spots, choosing to ignore any culpability of the Netanyahu government over the decades leading to the violence and what appears today, an endless bombardment and on-the-ground military operation in Gaza with chances for further talks between the two sides dwindling by the hour. Instead, he appeared to blame Iran for everything.
"The biggest fear of the Ayatollah is that the Arab world, in conjunction with Israel, marches toward the light away from the darkness. (Iran hates) the idea that everybody in this room can find a way to work with Israel and live with Israel where everybody makes money and can live in peace. Because let me tell you, their agenda is different than yours. So I believe we cannot let Iran win."
He said he was committed to a two-state solution, and if there was any moment in his talk where he put any responsibility on Israel it was this: "I'm going to Israel soon and here's what I'm telling Israeli friends — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, none of these Arab countries can help you. Unless you make a commitment for a two state solution. ...To my friends in Israel the best thing you can do to beat Iran is to give the Palestinians a life where they're not dependent upon terrorist organizations that they can live and work and be prosperous."
How Israelis could get there, from here, was not explained by Lindsey Graham, or whether he honestly thought that was possible given the "hell on earth" Gaza is becoming today. But we know he doesn't believe that the civilian crisis on the ground now will reduce the chances for peace tomorrow, because of the way he reacted to U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's remarks earlier this month.
Austin said “the lesson is that you can only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians. In this kind of a fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population. And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”
“Strategic defeat would be inflaming the Palestinians? They’re already inflamed,” Graham continued. “They’re taught from the time they’re born to hate the Jews and to kill them. They’re taught math: If you have 10 Jews and kill six, how many would you have left?”
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In half a century of public life, U.S. President Joe Biden has demonstrated unwavering support for Israel. In this photo Biden is welcomed by Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, as he visits Israel amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel, October 18, 2023. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein/File Photo
Of all the foreign policy challenges President Joe Biden faces, most difficult is the war in Gaza. That is not because of the apparent geopolitical stakes; as Biden often says, China poses the most important long-term challenge and Russia is next. But while important, what happens between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as elsewhere in the Middle East, has not been in the same league.
Yet because of the war in Gaza, with its linkage to overall Israeli-Palestinian relations and risks of escalation to other parts of the region, there may soon be an explosion dwarfing all other concerns facing Biden and his team.
There is also another important reason that the war in Gaza now occupies center stage for the Biden administration: America’s attitudes towards and relations with Israel. Since Israel’s creation in the wake of World War II, most Americans have considered U.S. ties with the Jewish state as special, both because of its founding as a democracy committed to values similar to America’s and a shared perspective of “never again” stemming from the Holocaust. Even when Israel has fallen short, as for many years in its treatment of Palestinians, most Americans have given Israel the benefit of the doubt. Except on a handful of occasions, Washington consistently “has had Israel’s back” in Middle East crises and conflicts.
For both interests and values reasons, therefore, it was natural that immediately following the horrendous October 7 Hamas assault on southern Israel, in which some 1,200 people were killed and 240 more taken hostage, Biden declared total support for Israel’s military retaliation. His position was initially supported by most Americans, largely on a bipartisan basis.
But then the toll of destruction in Gaza mounted — as of this past week, more than 16,000 Palestinians have been killed, at least 40,000 more wounded, and more than 85 percent of the Strip’s population of more than two million has been rendered homeless with no safe place to go. All of this has been vividly displayed on U.S. television and cable media. Thus, the Biden administration began to rethink its hands-off support for Israel’s military campaign — but only with respect to its tactics, not its overall policy of destroying Hamas.
Washington worked through intermediaries, principally Qatar, to obtain a ”pause” in the Gaza fighting in order to get Hamas to release some hostages and increase the flow of humanitarian assistance from Egypt into Gaza. Following the end of the pause, however, U.S. appeals to Israel have been limited to try to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza, or, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it, "taking more effective steps to protect the lives of civilians.” But so long as Israel continues to pursue the extirpation of Hamas, significantly limiting civilian casualties is impossible, as the Biden team must recognize. Notably, the world sees that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has essentially rebuffed Biden, which impacts on U.S. credibility elsewhere, especially since the United States is universally seen as Israel’s sole patron. Certainly, America’s reputation for promoting humanitarian concerns has been severely damaged.
Both factors argue for the president to press Israel immediately to declare a cease-fire, not just a temporary “pause,” but one designed to end the war. Indeed, if we are to believe Israel’s own estimates, Hamas’s military capacities have already been heavily degraded, and the possibility of it again being able to mount a serious attack on Israel is low.
The gravity of risks in the Levant and potentially throughout the region means that the United States (and others) cannot once again return to indifference when this war ends. Biden has shown he is aware of this, and has recommitted himself to pursuing the so-called “two-state solution.” For years, however, it has been largely a mantra; and while it is the best outcome, its prospects are now even more remote given renewed Israeli fears provoked by the October 7 attack and its attendant atrocities, as well as increased Palestinian bitterness over the massive destruction and loss of life in Gaza.
Yet time is not on the side of “orderly diplomacy” that for a half-century has been the usual course. There is already a major risk of a new intifada on the West Bank, as most Palestinians have lost any hope of Israel’s willingness to recognize their basic human rights, much less permit a Palestinian state. They also see that Israel will not stop West Bank settlers from displacing and even murdering Palestinian civilians. The Palestinians also cannot count on support from Arab states. No Arab leader really cares for the Palestinians and none has even called into question their existing treaties with Israel or the so-called Abraham Accords.
Nor is it conceivable that, to do the necessary diplomatic work, the U.N. or countries other than the U.S. can lead or have any chance of success. Nothing will be possible unless Washington takes charge and makes clear to Israel that, as the occupying power, it must change its policies and practices toward the Palestinians.
On December 6 , U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres reiterated his “appeal for a humanitarian ceasefire to be declared.” In the U.N. Security Council Friday, the United States vetoed the resolution and was joined only by Britain’s abstention. The Biden administration thus tied itself even more to Israel’s slaughter in Gaza, carried out in major part with U.S.-supplied bombs. The veto further cheapened U.S. political and moral standing and made it harder for Biden to be seen as credible as a diplomatic leader once the war ends.
Until October 7, President Biden and his team gave Israel-Palestinian relations short shrift. So far, everyone has been lucky that the crisis has not spread across the region, with the possibility of wider war. Even so, Israel and Hezbollah have come to blows; Yemen has taken some pot-shots; and while Iran has been careful not to get directly involved, its proxies in Iraq and Syria have been engaged in some incidents.
But luck is not a policy. The president must know that the Israeli-Palestinian crisis can’t again be pushed aside when this war ends. He needs to rebuild trust in the United States for strategic competence and then as an honest broker. He needs to show that the United States will place its own interests first, not anyone else’s. He needs to augment his foreign policy inner circle with outside experts in strategy and regional dynamics, but free from biases. And he needs to be prepared to run risks in American domestic politics.
It's a difficult agenda, but nothing less will enable President Biden to protect and promote U.S. strategic, political, and moral interests.
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Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov speaks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Dec. 10. (Vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — In remarks Sunday at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov seemed to revel in what is becoming a groundswell of international frustration with the United States over its policies in Israel. Despite Russia’s own near-isolated status after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Lavrov glibly characterized the U.S. as on the wrong side of history, the leader of the dying world order, and the purveyor of its own brand of “cancel culture.”
“I think everybody understands that this (Gaza war) did not happen in a vacuum that there were decades of unfulfilled promises that the Palestinians would get their own state,” and years of political and security hostilities that exploded on Oct. 7, he charged. “This is about the cancel culture, whatever you don’t like about events that led to the current situation you cancel. Everything that came before February 2022, including the bloody coup (in Ukraine) and the unconstitutional change of power … all this was canceled. The only thing that remains is that Russia invaded Ukraine.”
Lavrov, beamed in from Russia to the international audience in Doha, went fairly unchallenged, though his interviewer James Bays, diplomatic editor at Al Jazeera, attempted to corner him on accusations stemming from Russia’s own bloody record in Chechnya in the 1990s and and 2000s and its ongoing military campaign in Syria, which Lavrov noted was at the “behest” of the Syrian government.
On the issue of the failed ceasefire vote at the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent veto member, Lavrov said, “we strongly condemn the terrorist attack against Israel. At the same time we do not think it is acceptable to use this (terrorist) event for collective punishment of millions of Palestinian people.” Did he condemn the United States for vetoing the ceasefire measure? “It’s up to the regional countries and the other countries of the world to judge,” he declared.
When asked if there was a “stalemate” in the Russian war in Ukraine, and what the Russians may have gained from their invasion in 2022, he said simply, “it’s up to the Ukrainians to understand how deep a hole they are in and where the Americans have put them.”
On whether a ceasefire may be in the offing in that war Lavrov said, “a year and half ago (Zelensky) signed a decree prohibiting any negotiations with the Putin government. They had the chance in March and April 2022, very soon after the beginning of the special military operation, where in Istanbul the negotiators reached a deal with neutrality for Ukraine, no NATO, and security guarantees…it was canceled,” he added, because the Americans and Brits wanted to “exhaust (Ukrainians) more.”
Lavrov gleefully piggybacked on themes from an earlier forum panel on the Global South. He accused “the United States and its allies” of building “the model of globalization, which they thought would serve them well.” But now, Lavrov contends, the unaligned are using “the principles and instruments of globalization to beat the West on their own terms.” As for Russia, Lavrov deployed a little “cancel culture” of his own, cherry picking the high points of his country's history over the last 200 years to project a nation that he boasts will emerge unscathed by Western assaults today.
“In the beginning of the 19th century Napoleon (rose European armies) against Russia and we defeated him; in the 20th century Hitler did the same. We defeated him and became stronger after that as well,” he said. With the Ukraine war, the West will find “that Russia has already become much stronger than it was before this.”