While the instant decision by the Biden administration, pressed by Ukraine and domestic pre-election challenges, to stand by Israel after the shock and awe of October 7 may still be deemed as unavoidable, the costs of the decision in various ways and internationally as well as domestically have proved to be formidable, as have the resulting challenges for US diplomacy emerging in response to unfolding developments in the region. In particular, the challenge for the US now is to combine support for Israel’s right to self-defense (against South African accusations of genocide in ICJ in the Hague, et. al.) and Israel’s need to postpone ceasefires – although badly needed in view of the humanitarian disaster in Gaza) – until a military breakthrough has been achieved, with credible efforts to negotiate creative thinking on the “day after”. However, difficulties in addressing political core issues, notably the “two-state solution”, are mind-blowing. And now there are problematic trends of conflict proliferation at play, adding to the strategic deterrence dilemma of the US and its allies. Especially worrying now is the situation in the Red Sea, a reminder that conflicts in the region may not be containable there. Quo vadis, Middle East? And quo vadis, Israel? No going back to status quo ante October 7. But beware: things move fast.
After October 7 detonated, some three dramatic war months ago, the Biden administration has chosen a multi-throng line of action, controversial action, as we have seen: a) proclaiming “iron-clad” support (including significant re-armaments) for Netanyahu-led Israel in its existential war of retaliation against the Hamas aggressor, b) using the resulting leverage in Tel Aviv to seek to persuade the Israeli war cabinet to make every effort to reduce the level of civilian Palestinian suffering from the Israeli retaliatory strikes and supporting international efforts to render Gazans humanitarian relief, c) assisting the Israeli side by various means in the efforts to have the remaining hostages released or rescued (or exchanged), d) mobilizing and deploying a massive US force of deterrence in the region to help prevent spread of the crisis beyond Gaza, including deterring/reassuring Israel from launching massive preemptive strikes against Hezbollah in the north, and e) launching a flurry of diplomatic activities with a view to addressing the difficult issue of “the day after”, i.e., a framework for negotiations on what kind of political and diplomatic settlement to the ever-lasting Israel-Palestine conflict that could be deemed necessary and achievable – a “two-state” solution of sorts – once the shooting war is over.
This complex and (domestically as well as internationally) controversial policy combination is being developed in the context – over and above the competition for attention and focus from the simultaneous severe crisis over Ukraine (el.al.) and the emerging election turbulence at home in the US – of the state (and people) of Israel being seriously shaken by the October 7 events and having similar but not identical goals compared to the US: to permanently crush, or neutralize, Hamas as a threat to Israel (goal descriptions here have varied over time), to realize the release of all hostages (currently, after the earlier episode of Qatar-sponsored exchanges, some 136, of mixed origin) and to militarily deter any neighboring actor, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, from any temptation to exploit the acute situation.
US support – but significant policy differences
The big difference between the US – or rather the Biden administration – and the currently Netanyahu-led Israeli government is and remains on the one hand the latter’s inclination to ignore the humanitarian consequences in Gaza of an all-out warfare in the densely populated strip, causing unprecedented international humanitarian outrage and serious damage to pre-existing efforts at normalization and stabilization in the MENA region, on the other hand team Netanyahu’s utter, long displayed lack of interest in seriously looking for a lasting political solution, now as before. And then there are the ongoing controversies regarding a ceasefire’s, long or short, to-be-or-not-to-be, whether in view of the calls for desperately needed humanitarian assistance and/or as necessary facilitation for hostage releases/exchanges. Defending Israel’s resistance, on military grounds, to an immediate and humanly desperately needed ceasefire, and having largely failed to convince team Netanyahu on the need to observe reasonable proportionality in implementing its right to self-defense, stand out as particularly costly for the White House.
While repeating the mantra concerning Israel’s right to self-defense and hence its basic support for Israel in its war aim to permanently liquidate the Hamas threat – lest it simply reoccurs after some years if left surviving to some degree – the Biden administration also keeps warning its Israeli partners of the security consequences of going too far in its Gaza warfare and thereby suffer serious losses in international support; doing away, somehow, with the Hamas threat but at the cost of serious international isolation may not in the end be a clear security net gain.
A measurement of this, with or without US warnings, is the ongoing International Court of Justice (ICJ) proceedings in the Hague in which South Africa indicts Israel, with internationally convincing moral arguments and even going as far as accusing Israel of genocide, as against Israel’s more juridical arguments, focusing on any country’s right under international law to self-defense and on the absence in this case of genocidal intent. A clash of civilizations, of sorts.
The Hague proceedings, while further exposing Israel to coordinated international criticisms, may in the end not lead to binding measures limiting Israel’s military freedom of movement, but they are likely to further enhance Israel’s dependence on US support, while at the same time enhancing the dilemma of the Biden administration in further sticking with Netanyahu’s Israel, in view, inter alia, of staggering numbers of civilian casualties in Gaza – and in the West Bank. Reactions within the US itself, indeed even with the administration, to the incredible suffering of the Gazans indicate rising political costs for the Biden administration in sticking to its immediate October 7 decision to side with Israel, costs that are domestic as well as international, the domestics costs now even measurable in terms of real risks, in one scenario, of Biden losing key swing states and hence the presidency.
US in a hurry – time running (out) fast
No wonder, therefore, that Biden and the tireless shuttler Anthony Blinken are in a hurry to seek, frantically, to negotiate, with or without team Netanyahu, a package that squares the circle: that ends the war in Gaza (somehow), achieves the release of all hostages, that prevents a regional spread of the conflict by means of effective deterrence, that restores Palestinian hopes for an own state and persuades Israel to re-engage in that project, that creates acceptance that Gaza must remain in Palestinian (PA?) hands and the massive costs of reconstruction of which must find joint financing, regardless of the outcome of the war, that convinces Saudi Arabia to re-engage as a partner in these endeavors, etc., etc., before things spiral out of control and before foreign policy concerns risk drowning in probably unprecedented presidential election turbulence. And time is running out, fast.
And the problems to be handled are formidable, both near-term and long-term.
What Hamas did on October 7 was shocking and unforgivable. Still, at the same time, what the Israeli war of retaliation has caused in Gaza to the civilian Palestinians is incredible and unprecedented; the current casualty figures at an estimated almost 24 000 dead, including a high ratio of women and children, and almost 60 000 wounded, with very few remaining hospitals able to provide only basic or less care. And in addition there is the suffering caused by forced population movements to the south and the effects of lacking or non-existing provisions of humanitarian assistance. It is, in short, going to be very, very difficult to bring the war to some kind of tolerable end and to make life livable in Gaza for 2,2 million Gazans. And the Israeli-Hamas war in its acute phase is still far from over. Vibrations from the Gaza disaster will be felt, not only in the region, for a very long time to come.
A ”two-state solution” – never so distant, yet never so indispensable: a paradox
Then there is the situation in Israel itself, shaken by instability already long before the October 7 disaster as a result of the clash between the ultra rightist Netanyahu government and the Supreme Court over the nature of Israeli democracy. Extraordinary, exceptional political unity was created under the impact of the October 7 horrors, and with it much reduced interest in fighting out domestic issues in war time conditions and with a “war cabinet” running the war, but opinion polls indicate very low confidence in the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu, and it seems clear that an end to the war will immediately re-open old and new political wounds. There is also the fact that at war’s end there has to be a thorough investigation into “Israel’s greatest intelligence failure”, on October 7, perhaps reducing the urge on the part of the PM and others to end the war in the first place. In addition, Israelis also suffer from a demanding war economy, as well as the fact that large numbers have been evacuated from exposed areas in the north and south of the country. And then there is the situation of increased violence and instability on the West Bank, very much linked to the issue and goal of a rejuvenated “two state solution”.
What all this will mean, before and after the end of the Gaza war, in terms of the nature and role of Israel and Israeli-US relations is impossible to tell, for now. It depends, to a significant degree, on how the issue of regional spread will evolve. But the hard question, for the US and others, remains whether any conceivable government in Israel, today and tomorrow, will be willing and politically able to accept the creation of a Palestinian state, alongside with a, or the, Jewish state, in view of prevailing demographic trends – and the power of the settler movement. It appears as a paradox that a “two state solution” has never before seemed so distant and yet so indispensable, in light of the Gaza – and October 7 – disasters.
The problematic trend to crisis proliferation
And then there is the question of crisis proliferation in or into the broader region, and perhaps beyond, with reverbations potentially reaching the neighboring scene of acute international security concern, the Russia-Ukraine war, e.g., with Iran playing a part in both arenas.
Worryingly, there are currently clear and present signs that the spread of the Gaza conflict into the broader region that US (and Israeli) deterrence policies sought to prevent by various means and at different levels is now rather an established reality, indicating serious uncertainties in front of the next few days, weeks and months. What we are seeing now, or so it seems, is a process of mixed messaging from the two main parties, US/Israel versus the Iran-led “axis of resistance” throughout the region (Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, Hamas in Gaza and elsewhere, the pro-Iran militias in Iraq and Syria), mixing messages of wishing to avoid an all-out war (for now) while not shying away from contributing to a (cautiously) escalatory process of action-reaction.
Thus, in recent weeks, we have seen Israel abstaining from a massive preemptive strike towards Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, while not hesitating to execute targeted assassinations against Hamas and Hezbollah leaders as a combined punishment for October 7 and deterrence against further escalation, and not being able to avoid entanglement in a cross-border duel, with escalatory trends. Hezbollah leader Nasrallah has preached retaliation in various speeches but has limited his concrete military reaction – so far – to the level of enhanced cross-border skirmishing, but, similarly, with an escalatory trend clearly visible. The relative mutual restrictiveness demonstrated so far clearly reflects a mutual, US-supported, wish to avoid an all-out war, Israel wanting to avoid a two-front war, one in which Hezbollah´s arsenal of some 150 000 missiles and rockets of varying lethality would cause a lot of destruction to Israeli cities, in spite of the Iron Dome system, Hezbollah presumably wanting to avoid again having to suffer the more or less total destruction of poor Lebanon, unthinkable as long as Iran signals lack of interest in a major regional war, for now., and hence strategic caution.
Still, at the time of writing, action-reaction trends in this arena appear ominously escalatory, causing a huge dilemma for the US, especially if similar, simultaneous, processes in near-by Syria and Iraq are considered, with pro-Iranian militias repeatedly hammering US military installations, testing the Biden administration’s dilemma of deterrence: refrain from military responses in order to avoid unwanted escalation, but whenever responses are deemed necessary for deterrence credibility, execute these minimalistically! Indeed a critical balancing act in an atmosphere of uncertainty, mirrored by a corresponding balancing act on the part of Iran seeking to promote its offensive and defensive security interests, regionally and globally, while needing to avoid (for now) escalation to an unwinnable major military confrontation, through strategic caution. For Iran there is also the nuclear dimension: not to allow not fully controllable proxies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon force its hand to such an extent that it would jeopardize its ambitions as a prospective nuclear power. Iran also needs to take into account its vulnerability to domestic threats to its regime’s legitimacy and to the strategic requirements in promoting balancing relations with Russia and China. Nonetheless, in the current atmosphere of uncertainty and even if both the US and Iran share a basic strategic interest in military restraint, an escalatory trend in the region, with a not fully controllable process of action-reaction is at play.
As if letting escalation prevailing over the strategic interest in restraint, Iran has since, in a latest twist, taken further escalatory steps in two directions: a ballistic missile strike at target(s) in Erbil in northern Iraq – justified is part as an act of retaliation for the massive bomb attack near Teheran earlier (however claimed by ISIS) – and, even more surprisingly, a missile and drone attack against the Sunni militant group Jaish al-Adl in Pakistan! Both are bound to create added tension between Teheran and Baghdad-Islamabad.
The Red Sea crisis – and beyond
This impression of horizontal escalation is obviously further strengthened by recent developments in the Red Sea area, with Houthis in Yemen – recovering from the years of tragic civil war – reacting to Israel’s war with Hamas by attacking Israel-destined (and other) commercial vessels as they pass through the Red Sea and onwards through the vital Suez Canal. Now that the US, jointly with the UK (and with the support of some other allies) has after some initial reluctance decided to respond militarily, attacking Houthi military installations inside Yemen and receiving in return defiant Houthis pledges to and acts of retaliation, we see the manifestly escalatory process of action-reaction having been further widened in the region, similarly connected to and caused by the Gaza crisis, or disaster. But in this case, the impact is not limited to and containable within the MENA region but has clear global implications as it hurts essential global trade. Hence a reminder that the risks and dangers arising from the core conflict in and over Gaza is already spreading throughout the region and is headed towards unchartered terrain, in the region and beyond.
In any case a huge challenge for US diplomacy as it seeks to re-engage in the region with a comprehensive diplomatic approach, one that some would be tempted to characterize as “mission impossible” in view of objective difficulties and deeply problematic trends – and in view of the competition for political attention from domestic pre-election problems and the formidable challenges posed by Russia’s war in Ukraine.
And for the Biden administration time may be running out fast, while solution to the Israel-Palestine issue and all regional complications linked to it may well take generations to achieve. Meanwhile, many more shuttles for Anthony Blinken.