Observations of an ex pat: Worst and much, much worse

Too often the choice facing international decision makers is not between good and bad but between bad and worst. In the Middle East, at the moment, it appears to be between worst and much, much worse.

The possible consequences of the likely Israeli reaction to the attack by Hamas are terrifying and potentially global in their impact.

Let’s start with Israel itself. The overwhelming majority of Israelis are calling for massive retribution for a terrorist assault which left 1,300 dead, 3,300 injured and 150 held hostage in underground Hamas dungeons. It would be difficult for any Israeli government to ignore the public demands. For arch-conservative Benjamin Netanyahu it is nigh impossible.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has formed an emergency government of national unity. He has also called up Israel’s 350,000 reservists who will be added to the 150,000 Israeli troops on active service. The bulk of this force are already massing on the Gaza border waiting for the whistle to launch a ground offensive.

There will also be major deployments on the borders with Lebanon and Syria to prevent Hezbollah from joining the fray. And in the West Bank to control Palestinians there.

Massive and painful retribution appears inevitable. But what detailed form will it take and how will the world react? Gaza has been subjected to Israeli ground offensives and occupations in the past. These have resulted in a temporary reprieve. But each has been costly in military lives and cash expended. Neither has solved the long-term problem. Successive Israeli governments have failed to grasp the fact that oppression is not a long-term security solution.

This Israeli offensive is likely to be different. Already they have imposed a total blockade of Gaza. No food, water, energy, medicine or any goods of any kind are allowed into one of the most densely populated and impoverished strips of land in the world. A million residents in the northern half have been warned to immediately move to the southern part of Gaza, and all Gazans have been advised to leave their homes.

But they have nowhere to go. Their only other land border is with Egypt which has refused them asylum and has worked with Israel to enforce a long-term blockade. The possibility of a heavy handed response is very real. How the world reacts could result in fearful consequences.

For a start, there are the Arab countries. Until this past weekend Saudi Arabia was on the cusp of signing up to the Abraham Accords which so far includes the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco. That has been shelved. A Saudi foreign ministry statement following the Hamas attack basically said, what do you expect? If you treat people like animals, and remove all hope, they will act like animals.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken is currently touring the Middle East in a desperate attempt to shore up the Abraham Accords. The problem with the accords is that they are one of the main catalysts for the Hamas invasion. By normalising Israeli-Arab relations without addressing the Palestinian cause they effectively abandoned the two-state solution agreed in the 1993 Oslo Accords and ignored the plight of the Palestinians.

Hamas has shouted to the world that they refuse to be forgotten. There many in the Arab world and beyond who agree with them. The governments see economic and political advantages in normalising relations with Israel, but the wider Islamic public is very much behind the Palestinian cause and the government’s failure to recognise this could de-stabilise important Arab countries.

Iran, of course, is four-square behind Hamas. It may not have pushed the button that launched the attack on Israel, but it trained and equipped the forces. Netanyahu has for years been calling for a pre-emptive strike to destroy Iran’s nuclear capability. Any attempt to “solve” the Hamas problem must by association involve eliminating Iranian support for the Palestinians.

On the other side of the diplomatic equation, President Joe Biden made it clear in an emotional speech that the United States stands four-square behind Israel. This position has the full support of the opposition Republican Party, but there are some cracks in the president’s Democratic Party. The latest opinion polls show that a clear majority of Democratic voters support Palestinian rights. Pro-Palestinian demonstrations have broken out on American university campuses. Their views are strongly represented in Congress by Democrats Ilhan Omer and Palestinian-American Rashida Tlaib.

Does American full support extend to anything Israel might do in Gaza? If so, what effect would that have on the Democratic Party, the Abraham Accords and America’s wider role in the world? Israel is an untamed American Middle East proxy. Without the $3.8 billion a year that Washington gives Israel the Jewish state would cease to exist. It is American weapons that will be used by Israeli troops deployed in Gaza. Israel’s actions reflect back on Washington and will affect how the rest of the world acts towards America.

Europe will also be shaken. Brussels and London usually follow the American lead on the Middle East. And, true to form, the two capitals quickly issued statements supporting Israel’s right to defend itself. Britain, Spain, Italy and France have also increased weapons supplies to Israel.

But there are serious cracks within Europe on how far its support extends. The EU is the Palestinians biggest source of humanitarian aid. Oliver Varhelyi, the pro-Israeli Hungarian commissioner responsible for that aid, announced after the attack that the EU was stopping all relief to Palestinians. This resulted in howls of protest from European capitals and the European parliament. Varhelyi was forced to rescind the announcement. The EU will support Israel—up to a point.

Finally, there is Ukraine. Volodomyr Zelensky this week made a surprise visit to NATO to appeal for more weaponry. His counter offensive has failed to breakthrough Russia’s three-line defense and Putin’s men have now launched their counter to the counter-offensive. Republican right-wingers are holding up American aid to Ukraine on financial grounds while—ironically- calling for increased aid to Israel. The fact is that America and Europe will find it difficult to supply weapons for two wars.

The decisions made by the Israeli government in the next few days will affect the Gazans and the Palestinian cause, the future of the state of Israel, the Abraham Accords, relations between the US and the Arab world, internal divisions within the US, relations between the US and the wider world, relations between Europe and the US and Europe and the Middle East and much else which this article has failed to foresee.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and author of “The Encyclopedia of the War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain". He has a weekly podcast, Transatlantic Riff.

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9 Comments

  • Chris Moore 14th Oct '23 - 8:29pm

    Tom, thank you for your wide-ranging article nearly all of which I agree with.

    I’d draw attention to your unlikely claim that without American aid each year of 3.8bn US dollars, the state of Israel would cease to exist. Current Israeli GDP is close to 550bn per year in US dollars.

  • nigel hunter 14th Oct '23 - 10:24pm

    Israel does not need American weapons ,it is a prosperous successful country.UKRAINE DOES NEED WEAPONS.By giving Ukraine assistance in small amounts prolongs the war AND allows Putin to get stronger. which with the defeat of Ukraine (or a poor peace treaty ) will give Putin time to further cause disruption in Europe.By allowing not coming to agreement over Palestine has led to the present problems.

  • Cease to exist may have been an overstatement. But Israel would certainly have difficulty maintaining its military establishment. A big chunk of the American aid is in the form of weaponry, especially the latest kit. If Israel had to increase its military budget to make up the shortfall that would impact on its generous welfare state spending which could create tensions within Israel.

  • Tom – you have reminded us of the appalling death and injury figures from Israel and also the number of Israeli hostages. For the sake of balance it is worth updating the figures on the Palestinian side as well. As of this morning figures from the Gaza health authorities report over 2300 deaths and nearly 10,000 injuries. The UN shows figures of relative deaths of the two communities since 2008, and until the current conflict, of 6407 Palestinians killed and 308 Israelis. Currently there are estimated to be some 5000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. The vast majority have never had a fair trial by international standards and so would be regarded as hostages by most Palestinians.

    The reference to a National Unity Government in Israel should not be taken to assume that the Netanyahu government has been leavened by more reasonable people. The slightly “liberal” party of Yesh Atid has declined to join. Benny Gantz is arguably just as right wing and hostile to Palestinians as Netanyahu. While he was Minister of Defence in 2021 and 2022, 540 Palestinians were killed (mostly in the West Bank), compared with 168 in the two previous years.

  • John, you are right to present the Palestinian side. I would have put in more of your figures into my article but I had already exceeded the normal word limit. With reference back to withdrawal of American support, I should add that political support can be as important as military aid. If the US were to end support for Israel it would send a message to the rest of the world that they can do likewise. That is one of the reasons it ain’t gonna happen.

  • David Franks 15th Oct '23 - 11:18am

    The problem is that both sides are led by politicians who can see no solution but a military one. The will be no peace until they admit there can never be a militaty solution.

  • Peter Martin 15th Oct '23 - 11:25am

    It’s perhaps a good time to take another look at what Amnesty International had to say about the extent of the problem a couple of years ago.

    https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2022/02/israels-apartheid-against-palestinians-a-cruel-system-of-domination-and-a-crime-against-humanity/

  • George Thomas 15th Oct '23 - 12:15pm

    “Around 60% of casualties coming into the hospital are women, children and elderly, he says. The hospital is running out of medical supplies, with fuel powering the generators expected to run out today.” (Dr Muhammad Ghuneim, 28, an emergency doctor at the Al-Shifa medical complex, the largest hospital in the Gaza strip).

    Hamas’ actions last week were obscene and gross and rightly condemned, they are not agents of freedom, but arguably we’re entering a week where same can be said for actions of Israeli defence policy.

    I would agree with Tom when he writes “successive Israeli governments have failed to grasp the fact that oppression is not a long-term security solution.” My fear is that we, as part of the western world, are part of the problem because we don’t seem to talk about the ongoing issue until there are weeks of ugly violence, and when we do talk about it seems only to be about banning local councils from boycotting goods profiting from Israeli defence policy choices.

    If we, living in western Europe, are lucky, then we go back to not talking about this again in a couple of weeks/months. That cannot be part of longer term progress towards two states living with safety and dignity.

  • Peter Hirst 28th Oct '23 - 2:03pm

    Both sides would benefit from greater input from their citizens in their political processes. The human cost is born by ordinary people with little input into actions that shape their lives. Israel might consider more direct democracy in the form of referenda and Palestineans from a true democratic process with more choice during free elections.

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