Katzenellenbogen on the Israel-Hamas conflict: A powder keg for regional unrest

Jonathan Katzenellenbogen discusses the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, highlighting the potential risks and consequences of the conflict’s continuation. He explores the geopolitical dynamics, involvement of major powers like the United States, Iran, and regional actors, and the challenges of finding a lasting solution to the conflict, including a proposal by Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari.

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What will emerge from the Israel-Hamas War?

By Jonathan Katzenellenbogen

The war between Israel and Hamas could become one of the most intense and prolonged that has yet been fought in the Middle East in the modern era. With that, it carries enormous risks of becoming a wider and longer conflict.

The Hamas terror attack and the subsequent Israeli attempts to destroy Hamas by bombing Gaza have not yet spread the conflict in a major way to the region. There have been artillery duels between Hezbollah and Israeli forces across the Lebanon border, and an upsurge in violence in the West Bank. But Hamas’s potential allies, Iran and Syria, have not yet rushed to its aid.

Things could change as the conflict wears on. Things are certain to change if or when Israel launches its ground offensive into Gaza.

Two US aircraft carrier task forces are sailing to the eastern Mediterranean to deter anyone who might see fit to intervene in the fighting. This war will certainly mean the US will have a larger presence for a lot longer in the region. The view that the US is disengaging from the Middle East because of its greatly reduced reliance on oil from the region might no longer hold.

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US President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel and the presence of air carrier task forces are all about demonstrating that Washington stands behind its ally and is committed to thwarting Iran, Russia and China. This is even as Washington is making it plain to Israel that it is against a ground invasion of Gaza.

Hamas’s and its allies’ hope that its terror attack and Israel’s retaliatory bombing of Gaza would ignite an insurrection in the West Bank and violent demonstrations in more Arab countries has not been fulfilled.

What is significant is that Hamas has not so far been able to push the countries which have normalised relations with Israel by signing the Abraham Accords into militarily supporting its cause. Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have already signed, and Saudi Arabia was reportedly on the brink of doing so when the present drama exploded. Hamas’s wish for a united Muslim front against Israel is a dream.

The conflict might delay normalisation of relations between Israel and the Saudis, but it will probably not derail the process set off by the Accords. Iran has also been trying to ease relations with its rival Saudi Arabia. That is one reason Iran might have given Hamas a green light to launch its attacks. But deep suspicions remain between the two regional powers.

There is no sign that there will be a rush to support Hamas militarily throughout the Arab world. Much of the Arab world is probably terrified of Hamas’s willingness to use terror, its radical politics, and its alliance with Iran.

It is unlikely that Iran, which is faced with a faltering economy, growing internal dissent and western sanctions, would want to directly take on Israel. The Mullahs in Tehran will probably stick to their strategy of using Hamas and Hezbollah as proxies to fight Israel. And Russia and China would not want to support Iran in a full-scale war in the region, at least for the moment.

 But at times of heightened tension, there is always a risk of miscalculation.

The real threat of a global war would come about if Iran were to enter the conflict with Russian and even Chinese backing. Strong US support for Ukraine provides Russia with a motive for such a stance, while China might believe that a US distracted by the Middle East would be unable to thwart its long-stated intention to invade Taiwan.

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Iran’s membership of the Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, BRICS grouping might be designed to irritate the US, but it also shows an intention to align its stance on some of the big questions of the day. In the present circumstances, this could encourage Iran to seek support for its policies and extend its involvement in the Middle East.

 For Iran, its support for Hamas and Hezbollah is ideological, but also perhaps a bargaining chip in its negotiations with the US and Europe on sanctions. Tehran might see this more as an opportunity to put Israel and its rivals in the Arab world off-balance, rather than a chance to make big strategic gains. 

With the war in Ukraine, Russia’s capacity to project power globally is restricted, so it is wary about overextending its reach. Israel and Russia might not be close but there is a mutual self-interest in not testing and threatening each other in Syria.

 Israel has been careful to give Ukraine only non-lethal help, as it is reliant on Russian security co-operation in restraining the Syrian government. Neither Israel nor Russia wants to upset this arrangement, but things could change if Iran continues to massively support Hamas. Russia would be blamed if Iran does in fact substantially ramp up its support for proxies on Israel’s border.

One reason the war might become a wider conflict is that Israel’s aim is the destruction of Hamas.

The destruction of radical Islamist groups has proved long and very difficult. For the most part, Al Qaeda has probably been destroyed or dispersed, and ISIS is a lot weaker than it was, certainly a decade ago. But there are other groups that have taken up the mantle from these organisations, and that might be the case with Hamas.

Even if Israel does hunt down the leadership of Hamas, there will be a group that will step into the political vacuum. One beneficiary is likely to be Islamic Jihad, which has also been supported by Iran. But others are bound to arise, which might be more radical with a strengthened following.

Palestinian leadership is unlikely to become more moderate after a long brutal war. And Israel, although disillusioned with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the right, is also unlikely to seek out a settlement any time soon. There is a strong chance that Israeli, Palestinian, and wider Arab politics will become more extreme. The war has united left and right, and whether Netanyahu survives as Prime Minister, the country will remain sceptical of the peace process. That is also the case with the Palestinians and their supporters in the Arab world.

Israel seems headed into permanent war with the Palestinians, much like the status quo between various groups in Lebanon and the Syrian State and its opponents. Such conflicts are bound to feed on each other, opening up a range of horrific consequences.

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So there will be a big think about solutions. In such circumstances all solutions are a stretch.

The Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari has proposed that a coalition of the willing – the US and the European Union, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority – should take responsibility for the Gaza Strip away from Hamas, rebuild Gaza and simultaneously completely disarm Hamas and demilitarise the Gaza Strip.

Harari says there are slim chances of this being realised, but most Israelis cannot live with anything less than such an arrangement. And while difficult to enforce, it is likely to be far better than the status quo.

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This article was first published by Daily Friend and is republished with permission

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