The Hamas attack on Israel and the subsequent Israeli retaliation on the tiny Gaza Strip has had regionwide repercussions, revealing the complex nature of Middle East geopolitics.
On Saturday, Hamas militants crossed Israel’s well-protected borders through land, air, and sea, killing and kidnapping military and civilians in an unprecedented and sophisticated attack that prompted a swift military reaction – war declaration – from the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu. “We are in a state of war,” the prime minister said, vowing an immense price for the militant group.
True to its word, the Netanyahu government launched a massive air campaign that pulverized residential buildings, mosques, and the U.N.-run schools that served as refugee shelters. In the Hamas attacks that drew international condemnation, at least 1,200 Israelis were killed, and thousands were wounded, while 150 people, including civilians, were taken to the enclave as hostages. In Israeli retaliation, more than 1,100 Palestinians, including 326 children, died, and thousands were wounded.
As the death toll steadily rises in Gaza amid an impending Israeli ground offensive, the Hamas-Israeli war has upended the shaky regional geopolitics on several fronts, placing the current Ukraine-Russia War on the margins of the international radar. In this sketchy memo, we set out to analyze the key pillars of the conflict and its profound impact on Middle East geopolitics and beyond.
1. Russia-Ukraine War Overshadowed by the Conflict in Gaza
The Russia-Ukraine war has lost its top spot in the list of international conflicts that have consumed statesmen’s energy, time, and diplomatic activity worldwide for quite some time. As the US is poised to dispatch its second aircraft carrier and strike group to the Eastern Mediterranean to deter Hezbollah and Iran from opening a possible second front against Israel, the US leadership suddenly found itself distracted by the Hamas-Israel conflict.
Washington’s unflinching support for Israel is also no good at this delicate moment when American diplomats set swaying the Global South’s nonchalant approach toward the Russian aggression in Ukraine as their paramount objective.
The US efforts to win the Global South in its mission to counter-balance the Russian war machine would take a hit, given the impression that it employs double standards regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict. Russian President Vladimir Putin, by all signs, seems to savor the moment, publicly voicing support for the Palestinian side. This would put the US in an awkward spot and may hamper its quest to corral more support in the Islamic world for Ukraine.
2. Normalization Between Saudi Arabia and Israel On Hold
The first major casualty of the Hamas attacks is considered to be the normalization talks between Israel and Saudi Arabia. After Bahrain and the U.A.E. signed the Abraham Accords that set the stage for recognizing the Jewish state in 2020, Saudi Arabia was set to join the fray by engaging in discreet diplomatic talks. So far, Bahrain, the U.A.E., Morocco, and Sudan have joined the Accords, gradually lifting Israel’s pariah status in the region.
The momentum that gave Israel broader diplomatic recognition across the region, however, may likely suffer a setback after the outbreak of the war as populations registered their disapproval of the ongoing normalization with Israel. Mass protests in Bahrain, Morocco, the current chair of the Arab League, which called for an emergency session for the League meeting of foreign ministers to discuss Gaza, and in other countries revealed widespread public resentment not just against Israel but against their own governments and regimes as well.
US officials believe the normalization efforts should proceed despite the current war. “We think it would be in both countries’ interests to continue to pursue this possibility,” US Deputy National Security Adviser Jon Finer said during an interview on Fox News. According to The New York Times, President Joe Biden’s aides showed renewed commitment to the process despite the war against Hamas in Gaza entering a bloody, protracted phase with no end in sight. But Saudi leadership could not risk making that fateful move to recognize the Jewish state without alienating its public as things currently stand.
Public opinion does not usually matter in the kingdom of the all-powerful new sovereign, Prince Mohammad bin Salman. But as long as the war continues, even he can ill afford to ignore what the public feels and thinks.
3. Iran Enjoys Disruption to Saudi-Israel Normalization
This spring, under China’s mediation, Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to establish diplomatic representation after decades of estrangement and animosity. Recently, Iran clinched a diplomatic coup when it signed a deal with the US to unfreeze Iran’s billions of dollars in return for releasing American prisoners in custody in the Islamic Republic. The developments seemed to ease Iran’s international isolation and strengthen its regional posture. But a Saudi-Israel normalization runs counter to Tehran’s regional orientation and interests.
In the end, the outbreak of another round of war in Gaza only serves Tehran’s agenda against Israel, and the disruption in the normalization talks with Saudi Arabia is definitely welcomed on Tehran’s front.
4. Palestine Issue Back on the Agenda
As Arab countries scrambled to normalize ties with Israel and were preoccupied with domestic problems, the predicament of Palestinians was largely forgotten. No longer does the Arab world push for an independent Palestine or undertake any diplomatic initiative to break the deadlock in the eight-decade conflict between Palestinians and Israelis.
The conundrum in Gaza is largely seen as a local matter that hardly gets any news coverage. Such a sense of abandonment was only amplified by the Abraham Accords and US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s now-aborted regional trip to facilitate the Saudi-Israel process.
“Hamas’ actions send a clear reminder to the Saudis that the Palestinian issue should not be treated as just another subtopic in normalization negotiations,” Richard LeBaron, a fellow at the US-based Atlantic Council, recently wrote.
The Hamas’ brazen attacks put the forgotten Palestinian conflict back in the international spotlight, albeit differently. No matter how the Western world announced unyielding support for Israel against the attacks, the unsustainable status quo in Palestine and the dire humanitarian conditions in the Gaza enclave have become more pronounced by the hour.
As Stephen M. Walt of Harvard University put in an article on Foreign Policy, “Israel could win this Gaza battle and lose the war” as long as the predicament of Palestinians remains in place.
5. Hamas and Regional Backers
It is widely believed that Hamas could not launch the attacks without the blessing of Iran, the main sponsor of the militant groups for decades. The US is now hunting for smoking gun evidence linking the Hamas attacks directly to Iran, which was suspected of providing training and equipment for the group’s large-scale, simultaneous attacks that require months of planning and preparation.
After the attacks, Iranians flocked to the streets to exhibit enthusiastic support for the Palestinian group against a larger and stronger adversary, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).
Apart from Iran, Qatar and Turkey appear as other high-profile backers of Hamas’s exiled political leadership. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Khaled Mashaal in 2015 and 2016 and accepted other figures later. Turkey provides shelter to some of the exiled figures. Erdogan’s government refuses to recognize Hamas as a terrorist organization.
“Hamas is not a terrorist organization and Palestinians are not terrorists,” the Foundation for Defense of Democracies quoted Erdogan as saying in 2018. “It is a resistance movement that defends the Palestinian homeland against an occupying power.”
Critics of the Turkish government claim that Ankara recently turned a blind eye to the supply of some materials used in the manufacturing of makeshift rockets and projectiles in the enclave. Israel Customs and Border Units intercepted some of the imports originated from Turkey. Sinan Ciddi, a Washington-based Turkish expert, argued that the Erdogan government provided passports and other essential documents to high-profile figures of Hamas, who are on the wanted list of the US, to enable their international travel without impediment.
On the other hand, the Turkish president depicted the Israeli retaliation against Gaza as a massacre. The Gaza war threatens to set back the recent rapprochement between Turkey and Israel after Prime Minister Netanyahu and Erdogan met at the sidelines of the annual U.N. General Assembly convention in New York City in late September.
Erdogan urged calm on both sides and offered Israel to mediate a ceasefire with Hamas, something usually brokered by Qatar and Egypt after previous rounds of fighting between the militant group and Israel. Qatar also called for de-escalation.
6. Israeli Ground Offensive in Gaza and Regional Implications
Israel is preparing to send boots and tanks on the ground to decapitate the Hamas leadership once and for all. But such an offensive, as experts believe, may prove too costly for the IDF and may risk the execution of 150 hostages currently held in captivity by Hamas. The militant group already threatened to kill them if Israel did not end its airstrikes. The mounting toll of civilian deaths would likely rob Israel of the legitimacy and right to defend itself against the militants in the case of the invasion of Gaza.
Furthermore, the collective punishment of civilians in Gaza mobilized the masses in MENA against Israel’s brutal methods aimed at crushing Hamas. And Hezbollah signals opening a second front against the Jewish state from south Lebanon.
As the offensive proceeds, the Lebanese militia may feel compelled to take action, however limited in scope.
This would create a new layer of the conflict, even dragging other countries like Iran to support Hezbollah, its regional client. The US has already dispatched warships and a second aircraft carrier to arrest such fears of conflagration and contain the threats against Israel from the north.
The Hamas attack exposed the vulnerability of the Abraham Accords
No conflict remains local in the greater Middle East. The arcane Palestinian-Israeli conflict constitutes one of the enduring geopolitical fault lines that see constant shifts of alliances and alterations in the balance of power. In his seminal book on the Middle East, Carl Brown noted decades ago, “For roughly the last two centuries the Middle East has been more consistently and more thoroughly ensnared in great power politics than any other part of the non-Western world.” That remains unchanged to this day.
The Soviet Union may have disappeared into the dustbin of history after the end of the Cold War, but other regional powers stepped in to fill the power vacuum in the Middle East. Local powers sometimes pay little to no mind to the remaining superpower, the US, which got bogged down in the Second Iraq War (2003-2011) and wants no more direct embroilment in regional conflicts today.
The Arab Spring commenced in Tunisia in 2010 and later engulfed the whole region, except for the Gulf countries, Morocco, and Algeria. Arab Spring then devolved into a long winter for democracy. For all the regional seismic changes, the intractable Palestinian conflict remained there, while the rest of the Arab world gradually moved on and shifted their focus to other matters.
Needless to say, the Hamas attack exposed the vulnerability of the Abraham Accords. It also reminded the world that at some point, Israel and other countries have to deal with the Palestinian conflict in a way that also meets the demands and aspirations of a people who saw nothing other than decades-old blockade, a vicious cycle of wars, suppression by their own leadership, and economic depravity. Israel may win the battle in Gaza by inflicting an unspeakable pain on the tiny enclave’s civilian population of 2.2 million. But without a lasting peace and resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, its victory will not last long before another cycle of attack and retaliation grabs headlines around the world.
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