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- Resurgence of the Israeli-Palestine conflict: implications and consequences in a regional balance more precarious than ever - October 27, 2023
- The new axis of power: four MENA countries join the BRICS group - September 29, 2023
The offensive by the Palestinian militia, planned in the ‘Al-Aqsa flood’ operation, took place on three simultaneous fronts: thousands of rockets were fired from Gaza, while militants invaded Jewish communities around the Strip and attempted landings by sea. About 200 people were supposedly taken hostage; the latest sources report that two hostages of US nationality, a mother and daughter, have been freed.
In these first two weeks of the conflict, there have been numerous episodes of violence on both sides, which have attracted enormous media attention around the world. Brutal raids by Hamas, such as the one at the music festival that claimed 260 lives, triggered a reaction from Israel, which began a bombing on an already completely besieged Gaza and until recently prevented the entry of humanitarian aid for the civilian population. After two weeks of increasingly intense clashes, with bloody attacks on both sides, 4,200 Palestinians were killed and about 13,200 wounded. According to UN sources on statements by Israeli authorities, at least 1,400 people in Israel have been killed and around 5000 injured since the Hamas attack on October 7.
As a response, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has declared state of war. The attack by Palestinian militiamen had probably been prepared and premeditated for months, if not years. Many theories have been put forward on why the Israeli intelligence, that is believed to be the most prepared of all the Middle East, could have overlooked an offensive of such magnitude: could be a technology mismatch that prevented it in tracking their communications, or the help from regional allies such Hezbollah, the Shia cell in Lebanon.
One thing is clear: it was a catastrophic intelligence failure on Israel’s part, which struck a severe blow to the State of Israel’s image of invincibility and is forcing it to re-establish regional deterrence with an iron fist.
This is exactly what Israel’s foreign policy is based on: an enormous military deterrence to impose itself on a precarious regional balance.
The regional sphere is crucial to the evolution of the conflict. The Israeli-Palestinian war has always been an ideological clash in the region, lining up two sharply opposing factions.
After three wars that had seen it take sides against coalitions of Arab states, Israel had begun to flank its military defence strategy with a diplomatic policy, normalising relations with Egypt in 1979 and signing a peace treaty with Jordan in 1994. The crowning achievement of Israel’s strategy of progressive de-escalation of relations with its neighborhood were the Abraham Accords of 2020, which normalized diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and renewed ties with Morocco.
Missing from Israel’s regional diplomatic plot, however, was the crown jewel: Saudi Arabia.
Lately, it seemed that a normalization deal between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the State of Israel was closer than ever. The key of the relation lies in a geometry of different yet complementary interests. The Saudi Crown, represented by the ambitious heir Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, is aiming towards a nuclear programme and thus wants both security assurances and a nuclear cooperation from the US, minus the rigorous non-proliferation constraints that often accompanies such agreements. Additionally, a great deal for the Crown would also comprehend security guarantees and access to technologies from USA, as Mohammed Bin Salman aspires to transform Saudi Arabia in a hyper-modern country, open to global financial circuits and energetically advanced while also remaining faithful to the vocation of religious leader in the region. If a deal was reached, Saudi Arabia would be keen on establishing diplomatic ties with Israel.
On the other hand, normalization with the Saudis would bring Israel to a whole new level of regional security: that would model a new strategic bipolar front with the common goal of containment of Iranian influence in the region.
Regarding the Iranian dossier, Riyadh has an ambiguous stance. Saudi Arabia and Iran are far from being allies, but they have recently restablished relations, bringing together two sides of a seemingly irremediable divide. Rather, it seems that Riyadh aims at playing at multiple tables, setting the relation with Washington on non-exclusive grounds while approaching Iran and China for strategic and economic purposes. The recent entry of both Saudi Arabia and Iran in the BRICS bloc further underlines Riyadh’s intention to keep a courtly but safe distance from Washington.
So while the normalization with Riyadh would be a great diplomatic victory that could grant Israel a new privileged position in the region, there is still one pressing matter.
If not managed properly, the Palestinian issue could be a dealbreaker for this process. Lately there had also been meetings and talks between the Saudi Crown Prince and US President Biden. Last year, the two sides underscored their enduring commitment to a two-state solution, deemed essential to reach a comprehensive peace in the region; but this is a solution that Israel does not seem to accept.
Now, after the escalation of the conflict, Saudi Arabia has momentarily put on hold the possibility of an agreement with Israel. The new scenario could reshape the regional balance and bring new priorities to the table. The development of the conflict could make it inconvenient for the parties to continue the negotiations, calling for more neutral declarations in the meantime. While it doesn’t appear that Mohammed Bin Salman is planning a full reverse on the matter, it rather seems like the parts are awaiting more adequate and calmer times to discuss. Moreover, the crisis has been the event that pushed the president of Iran and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia to hold their first-ever talks after their rapprochement in April. Both parties diplomatically declared that the priority was to engage with all international and regional parties to halt the ongoing escalation.
Keep your friend close, but your enemies closer: Riyadh does not want to let go of a proficuous approach with Israel, but Iran’s incumbent presence on Hamas’ attack is enough of a reason to keep the relation steady.
In fact, Teheran is the other great actor of the regional game, if not the true éminence grise operating behind the scenes.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, openly denied Iran’s involvement in Hamas’ attack but just as explicitly expressed satisfaction for the strike inflicted on Israel. The foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran is committed from the roots to the unsparing protection of the world’s poor and oppressed peoples; this translates in military opposition via proxies to the ‘oppressors’, namely Israel, presented as an illegitimate political entity occupying Muslim lands. In this case, support for the Palestinian cause takes the form of extensive ideological, financial and military assistance to Hamas. Since the Khomeinist Revolution, Tehran is relentlessly expanding its ideological sphere of influence in the region, and the use of proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip is a fundamental pillar of its strategy. In the increasingly frequent scenario of asymmetric warfare, proxies are extremely volatile entities but with great political, transnational and military effectiveness, acting as a Trojan horse to destabilize the region’s dominant enemy powers.
Nevertheless, an escalation on a regional level could become a very serious matter and may not be the desired scenario for the involved powers. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned Hezbollah that opening a second war front with Israel would mean destructive consequences for the filo-Iranian Shia militia and for Lebanon. For Iran, openly deploying Hezbollah against Israel would mean bringing upon itself a full-scale regional war that could be too dangerous to handle.
However, there is yet another aspect that should not be overlooked.
The Arab world responded cautiously to the crisis, with governments limiting themselves to mildly condemning the violence and calling for an end to military escalation. However, the Palestinian issue couldn’t be further marginalized and diminished only as a secondary variable in regional dynamics; on the contrary, it is strongly heartfelt by Arab populations and still appeals for pan-islamic solidarity. By looking vertically into the regional aspect of the conflict, the mismatch of intent between the political immobility of the Arab governments and the popular feeling appears to be evident. After the resurgence of the conflict, the roads of many Arab cities have been filled by thousands of people manifesting in favor of the liberation of Palestine: all across the Middle East, protests erupted in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and the West Bank. In Egypt, protestants rallied in Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square, symbolic background of the 2011 Revolutions.
Therefore, the Arab States have to play on two levels. On one hand, political diplomacy prompts them – in most cases – not to take sides too openly against Israel, having realized that the new regional order cannot derogate from Tel Aviv; on the other hand, large and regionally spread protests in the Middle East have already proven to be an aspect to which government should pay particular attention in order to avoid repercussions or delegitimization.
At the international level, the risk of spillover of the conflict was addressed at the Cairo summit on Saturday 21 October. Here, some of the world leaders involved in this crisis met. The purpose of the meeting was to look into ways to halt an escalation of the conflict into a wider regional war. But the absence of Prime Ministers from USA, UK, e the total absence of representatives from Saudi Arabia, Iran and -significantly- the two parties at war, highly impacted on the possibility of bringing tangible results out of the meeting and producing a joint statement to bring the parties to an agreement on a ceasefire.
But overall, the resurgence of this conflict has left the world wondering what is the role and responsibility of the international community.
While international organizations and global fora -the UN, the EU– have righteously condemned both the barbaric attacks from Hamas and the collective punishment of the Palestinian people operated by Israel, this tragic situation points out the undeniable incapacity of international community and world leaders to anticipate and properly deal with crises of this magnitude, which certainly did not develop in a fortnight. The situation in Gaza was not peaceful before October 7. International Organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have been denouncing the criminal acts perpetrated by the State of Israel for years, and the international community was well aware of the dire situation from its very beginning. Yet, they remained silent, did not act on it, or choose to let more cynical interests unfold in the region. Aside from empty declarations of intents, made in international fora stalled by opposing world powers, what we are left to confront with today is a humanitarian tragedy and the failure of international diplomacy.
It seems therefore crucial to rethink the role of the international community as a whole.
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