Only America can save Israel and Gaza from greater catastrophe
Iran, Russia and China are profiting from the mayhem
How rapidly things fall apart. The deadly blast in Gaza at Ahli Arab hospital on the evening of October 17th killed many Palestinians who were taking shelter. Despite strong evidence that their deaths were caused by the failure of a Palestinian rocket laden with fuel, Arab countries rushed to condemn Israel. Hizbullah, a heavily armed Lebanese militia, is lurching closer to outright war with Israel. Bridges built painstakingly between Israel and its Arab neighbours lie in ruins.
How fragile are the forces trying to hold things together. Fifteen hours after the blast, President Joe Biden landed in Israel, an old man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Mr Biden’s diplomacy is a geopolitical moment. As well as signalling grief and support for Israel, it brings into focus how much this crisis matters to the Middle East and to America .
For the past half-century the United States has been the only country willing and able to bring any kind of order to the region. Regardless of the many failures of American policy there, including in Iraq and Syria, Mr Biden and his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, have once again taken up that burden. Death and disease hang over Gaza. The poison is spreading across the Arab world. They do not have long.
The imminent danger is on that second front in the north of Israel. The death toll at Ahli Arab means that Hizbullah and its Iranian sponsors risk losing face if they fail to avenge lost Palestinian lives. Hizbullah will now also have strong backing in the Arab world if it attacks. If Israel concludes war is inevitable, it may strike first. America has tasked two aircraft-carriers with deterring Hizbullah and Iran from opening a second front. If they defy it, it should use them for a show of force.
A second danger is of Arab-Israeli relations being put back decades. Amid Israel’s unprecedented bombing, Arabs remember previous wars in which Israel hit schools and hospitals. Israel has imposed a total siege of Gaza; its president has said all Gazans share responsibility. Despite Israel’s excesses, Arab leaders could have called for calm and for an independent investigation of the hospital blast. What looks like the mass killing of Palestinians by Palestinians ought to have redoubled their efforts to safeguard Gaza’s civilians and spurred them on to create a regional plan for a better Palestinian future.
Instead, the blast has deepened hatred and grievances. In words that cannot easily be taken back, Israel’s Arab partners heaped blame upon the Jewish state. Jordan immediately cancelled a summit between Mr Biden and Arab leaders that had been the best hope for regional diplomacy. Egypt is more resolved than ever to keep temporary refugees out of the Sinai, partly for fear of being seen to abet Israel in what Palestinians worry is a plan to empty Gaza permanently.
This is a lamentable failure of leadership, with profound regional and global implications. Most Arab governments loathe Hamas and its backer, Iran. Countries like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia need stability and benefit from good relations with Israel. However, they are so wary of testing their citizens’ anger with the truth about the rocket’s origin that they have chosen to sabotage their people’s long-term interests.
For Iran, that looks like victory. For years it has had a strategy of financing, arming and training proxies like Hamas and Hizbullah. It calculates that violence and mayhem weaken Israel and discredit Arab governments. If the sight of America fighting Hizbullah alongside Israel leads to a rupture of Mr Biden’s relations with the Arab world, an exultant Iran will have built the foundations for its own regional dominance.
Russia and China are winning, too. There is a perception in the global south that this complex story is actually a simple one of oppressed Palestinians and Israeli colonisers. China and Russia will exploit this caricature to argue that America is revealing its true contempt for brown-skinned people in Gaza and its hypocrisy over human rights and war crimes—just as they claim it did by supposedly provoking a war in Ukraine.
What can Mr Biden do? His analysis must start with the need for peace between the Palestinians and Israelis and a recognition that there can be none for as long as Hamas governs Gaza—not after it has demonstrated that it puts Jew-hatred before any other goal. Gaza City is honeycombed by tunnels. Destroying Hamas’s ability to wage war therefore requires a ground offensive.
Everything follows from the prosecution of that ground war. The tragedy of Ahli Arab validates the cynical calculation that Palestinian casualties help Hamas by undermining support for Israel. The Israeli army needs to be seen to spare civilians, not least because it needs time to destroy Hamas’s tunnels. Gaza is on the brink. Poor sanitation threatens epidemic disease. Israel has at last agreed that some aid can cross into Gaza. Much more will be needed. If Egypt continues to bar refugees, Israel should go further by creating havens on its own territory in the Negev, supervised by UN agencies.
It is also vital to spell out what comes after the invasion. Israel needs to show that its fight is with the terrorists, not the people of Gaza. It should pledge a new beginning after the war, with a programme of rebuilding and the promise that it will not strangle Gaza’s economy. It should support a new Palestinian constitution and new elected leaders. All this would be easier under a new Israeli government voted in when the war is done.
Even if Mr Biden can persuade Israel to take these steps, that leaves the hardest question of all. How to provide security in post-Hamas Gaza? Israel cannot occupy the enclave permanently. That idea was rightly abandoned in 2005. An international commitment is therefore needed. Because it is not clear who would join this, Mr Biden should start building a coalition now. The more Israel shows the Arab world that it is serious about protecting civilians and planning for the day after, the more likely Arab leaders are to play their part.
This is a tall order. Much can and will go wrong. Ordinary Arabs’ ingrained anti-Zionism will gnaw at their leaders’ willingness to help. But the alternative is the decay that feeds scavenger states like Iran and Russia. Mr Biden is the only leader who can pull things back together. If he fails, and the security of the Middle East crumbles, it will be a catastrophe for America, too. ■
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This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline "Where will this end?"
From the October 21st 2023 edition
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