Oct 18, 2023

The Israel-Hamas War and the New World Order

Like Russia's attack on Ukraine, the escalation in the Middle East is part of a global geopolitical transformation for which there is not yet a term. It certainly reveals the Western failure in the region.

US President Joe Biden attends a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as he visits Israel amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel, October 18, 2023.
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October 7 and its consequences cannot solely be grasped within the context of the Middle East conflict. The century-long Israeli-Palestinian struggle over national self-determination is not enough in itself to understand the current escalation. The excess of violence used and its obscene presentation by the perpetrators indicate that this is not merely another skirmish in an age-old battle. The genocidal cruelty of the attacks—reminiscent of the murderous actions of German SS Einsatzgruppen in eastern Europe in the Second World War—has a political intention, or more precisely an anti-political one. It takes aim at the foundation of any form of politics in which agreements are possible between opponents, and even between enemies.

Worldwide shock at Hamas’ barbaric attacks resulted from the brutality unleashed by the terrorists, but also from fears of a larger war that could encompass the entire region.

At the time of writing, it remained unclear if diplomacy and deterrence could prevent the war from turning into a “conflagration,” in what would fulfil a persistent Middle East cliché. However, the massacre carried out by Hamas terrorists has made one thing inescapably obvious: the West’s Middle East policy lies in ruins. This is equally true for the United States, the European Union, and Germany.

Israeli’s overall policy of ignoring the Palestinians and managing the conflict—through deterrence, building settlements, and rapprochement with neighboring Arab countries—has also proven a dangerous illusion.

This war, like Russia’s attack on Ukraine, is part of a global geopolitical shift for which we still have no adequate term. There is much talk of a “multipolar world,” in which there are no more blocs, no Western dominance, and no American “world policeman.” In this new world order, many powers feel encouraged to assert their interests in a way previously open to large powers only. In itself, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Many countries in what is known as the Global South hope that this multipolarity could lead to a fairer global distribution of power.

Emboldened Radical Actors

However, it is now clear that the situation has emboldened the most radical actors and their supporters to take greater risks across the world. Since last year, Russia’s war on Ukraine has pushed the envelope of what is conceivable in foreign policy. Azerbaijan views a weakened Russia as an opportunity to put pressure on Armenia, Moscow’s former client state, and for a de facto ethnic cleansing of the Armenian Nargony-Karabach enclave. China feels emboldened to pressure Taiwan with increasingly aggressive maneuvers. And the Islamic Republic of Iran—Hamas’ main backer for many years—apparently now feels that an opportunity has come.

The US government says it is still not clear if Iran had specific involvement in preparing the Hamas terror attack. However, what is certain is that meetings were held in advance between Hamas leaders and high-ranking Iranian politicians and military officials.

The Iranian regime has openly expressed its joy at the attack. Fireworks were set off in Tehran’s Palestine Square, while the Iranian parliament echoed to cries of “Death to Israel!” An advisor to Iran’s leader offered congratulations on a “successful operation.” Michael Young, a well-known Lebanese expert on Iranian foreign policy, believes it would have been impossible for Hamas to undertake the attack without first getting the OK from its Iranian backers.

What does Iran stand to gain from this war? The Iranian regime’s genocidal intentions toward the Jewish state are no mere folklore. Israel is in a position of weakness unequalled since the foundation of the state. In southern Lebanon, the Shiite militia Hezbollah has stockpiled hundreds of thousands of rockets, giving them the capacity to bombard the entire state of Israel. Were the Israeli military to suffer heavy losses in an invasion of Gaza, Iran might choose to open a second front in the north. The danger to Israel is existential.

This is why the US aircraft carriers USS Gerald R. Ford and USS Dwight D. Eisenhower have been sent to the eastern Mediterranean, on orders given by US President Joe Biden in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attack. The United States wants to deter Hezbollah from any attack on Israel; in doing so, it is also indirectly threatening Tehran with retaliation.

Even if the United States manages to contain the conflict, Iran will have achieved a lot, above all in hijacking the Palestinian cause for itself. The Iranian message goes something like this: We are the supporters of the “axis of resistance,” unlike Arab regimes which come to terms with Israel and accept the fate of the Palestinians.

Tehran calls the shots on war and peace in the Arab world via its proxy militias in Gaza, Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. Iran depicts Arab states as powerless, humiliated onlookers in their own region, including in the eyes of their populations, which tend to sympathize with the Palestinians.

Three Presuppositions

As a final benefit to Iran, the war will torpedo Washington’s current Middle East strategy, which had led to the 2020 Abraham Accords, agreements made between Israel and some Arab states. Agreements were concluded on peace and economic cooperation between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and later Sudan and Morocco, a process brought about through American mediation.

This strategy—begun by former President Donald Trump and continued by Biden—rested on three presuppositions. First, it is impossible to negotiate a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. Second, the key problem in the region is not Palestinian autonomy, but Iran's desire for power, including its nuclear program. Third, the Palestinian question will be resolved when Arab-Israeli tensions are resolved, not the other way round, as had been thought previously.

Where previous strategies proposed finding a two-state solution, and thus arriving at peace, the new US strategy first sought peace and then (hopefully, at some future point) a two-state solution. Sabotaging this approach to peace is in both Iran's interest and the interest of Hamas, its Islamist proxy. Neither of these parties wants an Israeli-Arab alliance. Neither has any interest in improving the plight of the Palestinians. Neither wants a two-state solution or any mitigation of the Israeli occupation. The solution they propose is the destruction of the “Zionist entity,” whose right to exist they deny: For this reason, they continue to refuse to use the name “Israel.”

This logic explains Iran’s and Hamas’ interest in preventing Saudi-Israel rapprochement, one of Biden’s key foreign policy projects. Discussions on this rapproachment had been making good progress. But the war, and the Palestinian victims that may be expected from it, makes further Saudi-Israeli détente unthinkable for the foreseeable future.

But some victories can look very much like defeats. Tehran’s achievement comes with a catch: It dramatically confirms that the containment of the Iranian regime is the most urgent problem facing the region. Some day, common interests may again bring Israel and Saudi Arabia together, but only as long as Israel’s actions in Gaza do not make this impossible.

Serious doubts remain about the judgment of the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, which was blindsided and exposed by events. The Israeli government may give into the temptation to compensate for its own failures by acting with maximum severity, regardless of the victims this will create among the Palestinian population. This course of action would suit the regime in Tehran very well.

A Major Setback for US

For the United States, the war is a major setback in both diplomatic and military terms. Not long before the attack, Jake Sullivan, the US president’s national security advisor, noted that the Middle East was calmer than in quite some time, allowing him to devote more time to the US rivalry with China. There is little chance of that in the near future, as observers in Beijing will have noted with satisfaction.

After its failures in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria, it had been US policy to extricate itself from the Middle East as much as possible. This was also the goal of Washington’s Iran policy: to order the region in such a way as to render risky interventions unnecessary in future.

Sullivan is living through what Michael Corleone famously summed up in The Godfather Part III: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”

The Biden administration’s Iran policy is looking into the abyss, and so is Germany’s diplomacy on the issue, which follows the American lead. Just four weeks ago, Secretary of State Antony Blinken ordered the transfer of $6 billion to Iran. The money had been held in accounts in South Korea, frozen because of financial sanctions against the Tehran regime.

This goodwill gesture enabled a US-Iran prisoner exchange, with five people transferred in either direction. It was hoped it might also facilitate the resumption of nuclear negotiations with Tehran. Any such talks are now unthinkable. After the Hamas attacks, the Biden administration stopped any further release of funds to Iran, no doubt fearing accusations of appeasing terror regimes, just as the US election campaign gets into gear.

Annalena Baerbock, the German foreign minister, is also on the defensive, along with Germany’s entire Middle East diplomacy. Berlin has refused to classify Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization, despite its brutal suppression of women's protests in Iran. Baerbock has argued that such a step would present legal difficulties. Underlying this, however, was German diplomats’ desire not to displease Iran, in the hope that nuclear negotiations might some day be reopened. This hope now looks very naive indeed, given the current situation.

Slogans and Micropolicies

In the wake of October 7, German Middle East policy seems to be at an all-time low. However, to say this implies that Germany has actually had some kind of Middle East policy in recent years. In fact, it is hard to identify anything of the sort: Instead, in the last few years, Berlin has presented a random assortment of noble slogans and unambitious micropolicies.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’ statement that Israel’s security was “part of Germany's raison d'état” has been widely quoted, but this remained a strangely nebulous utterance. There were strong regular affirmations from Berlin that the “two-state solution” was the only way to go, along with recurrent warnings against ongoing settlement construction. This was occasionally punctuated by polemical outbursts invoking the supposed “apartheid regime” in the West Bank, a term used in 2018 by former Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel.

In reality, until the October 7 attacks took place, German politicians had lost interest in the Middle East. Every year, substantial aid has been funnelled to the Palestinian population, via development projects, NGOs, and UN aid organizations. Since 2008, regular consultations have taken place between the German and Israeli governments, but these meetings have focused on issues like equality, technology, economic cooperation, and renewable energy.

What was ignored in all this was the political core of the conflict, along with the deteriorating reality on both sides. On the Palestinian side, the autonomous Palestinian Authority was weak, corrupt, and lacking any democratic legitimacy. The strongest Palestinian forces, Hamas and other radical groups like Palestinian Islamic Jihad, were aggressively opposed to a two-state solution. On the Israeli side, nationalist-religious settlers—shielded and sponsored by successive Likud governments—have worked to make such a solution virtually impossible.

Trends on either side have been mutually reinforcing for many years. Nonetheless, German politicians have stubbornly repeated the formula that the only conceivable solution was two states for two peoples.

The tacit policy here was to support the status quo: Substantial humanitarian aid and development projects were intended to help sufficiently stabilize the situation in the West Bank and Gaza so that those in power (the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, respectively) would act as responsible stakeholders. Palestinian leadership would be incentivized to distinguish itself through improvements for the general population, insteand of clinging to maximalist ideas of Palestinian sovereignty.

This policy failed in the West Bank as well as Gaza. The policy discredited the Palestinian Authority, which was regarded as an accomplice of the Israeli occupiers. In Gaza, Hamas was able to coolly prepare for its big strike against Israel, while pretending—for tactical reasons—to care about questions of governance. Both the Israeli and the German governments labored under the illusion that Hamas could be contained by a combination of high-tech surveillance, blockade, punitive actions, and incentives (most recently, an increased number of Israeli work visas).

Fatal Misjudgment

The constant stream of hate speech directed at Israel—justified by the Hamas charter, which declares Israel’s extinction to be a sacred goal—was dismissed as folklore, or as radical branding in the competition between Palestinian factions.

This fatal misjudgment in German policy was repeated with respect to another regional actor. Especially during former US President Barack Obama’s second term, German diplomacy in the Middle East had shifted focus toward the Iranian regime, prompted by revelations about the progress made by Iran’s nuclear program. The election of the moderate President Hassan Rouhani in 2013 seemed to open space for negotiation. Two years later saw the signing of the nuclear agreement (known as the JCPOA), which offered sanctions relief to Iran in return for temporary limits on enrichment as well as inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

These talks did not include Iran’s destructive regional foreign policy, its global support for terrorism, or its genocidal rhetoric against Israel. The key guiding principle of diplomacy  on Iran was to separate the nuclear program from other issues. The hope was that the Islamic Republic could be persuaded, through a mix of sanctions and incentives, to gradually abandon its disruptive role and integrate into the region. But Iran was not at all ready to give up its influence in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen.

On the contrary, the past decade has seen intensified activity by Iranian proxies in these countries. Houthi militias in Yemen have fired drones at Saudi oil facilities. In Iraq, Tehran's militias have suppressed democratic protests. In Syria, Hezbollah units and Iranian Revolutionary Guards helped the Assad regime crush opposition forces. In southern Lebanon, Hezbollah continued to build up its military capability threatening all of Israel.

On several occasions, the Iranian regime has revealed its character by the extreme brutality it has used against internal opposition. Despite the policy of détente on offer, the Islamic Republic has gradually taken a harder line internally and presented an increasingly aggressive posture toward the outside world. The agreement to the nuclear deal was not based on a desire to become a constructive neighbor in the Middle East. Rather they sought to reap a windfall, achieving relief from sanctions without seriously considering a change in policy.

Tehran seems to believe it can brutally enforce its interests both internally and externally, while suffering no consequences. This perspective may owe something to Obama’s blurring of the red line he had drawn for the Assad regime (an Iranian client), when he failed to punish President Bashar al-Assad’s use of poison gas against his own population. Tehran could conclude that the United States had neither the desire nor the determination to maintain its role as a force for order in the region. This calculus did not change with Trump’s changes to Obama's policy in 2018. Trump withdrew from the nuclear agreement with Iran, adopting a policy of "maximum pressure.” By now, Iran had found new diplomatic partners—Russia and China—which could offer support against the West.

Turning Point for Iran Policy

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Tehran has grown beyond this initial role as Russia’s client, with Moscow now turning to Iran for the supply of missiles and drones.

For its part, China is now the most important buyer of Iranian oil. Moreover, Beijing has launched two diplomatic initiatives that have alleviated Tehran’s previous position an as international pariah. In March 2023, China brokered a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia; in August came the announcement that Iran would join the Chinese-dominated BRICS+ grouping.

Hamas’ attacks on Israel mark a turning point for German policy on Iran, and indeed the Iran policy of the whole Western world. The Wall Street Journal claims to have learned from Hamas and Hezbollah sources that the Iranian authorities had direct involvement in planning of the October 7 attacks. While this has not yet been definitively proven, there is no question that the terrorists could not have succeeded without equipment and training from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Any revival of the JCPOA has become unthinkable.

Alongside Iran, Russia is another major beneficiary of the war. If the United States has to support Israel with even more weapons and loans in the coming months, its solidarity with Ukraine—already fragile—could come under further stress. There are material limits to how many artillery shells, missiles, and anti-aircraft systems the United States has available to send overseas.

Moreover, in large parts of the world, any United States involvement in a bloody suppression of Hamas rule could be portrayed as supporting the injustices of “settler colonialism”: For years, this term has been central to a successful delegitimization campaign against Israel. Moreover, the Netanyahu government, which included right-wing extremist, national-religious members, provide substantial material for this criticism.

Russia may hope that Israel’s defensive strike against Hamas will cast its own imperialist attack on Ukraine in a somewhat better light, or even completely overshadow it.

Seen from Beijing, the situation is less clear. China gains leeway since the United States and its allies are preoccupied with another unpopular war. However, interruptions to raw material exports from the Middle East, or even price increases produced by uncertainty, represent a risk for China, not least given its current economic difficulties. (For its part, Russia would welcome either of these developments.) A long, bloody war in Gaza could discredit the United States, Israel, and their supporters in the eyes of the so-called Global South. In that case, Beijing will attempt to portray itself as an “honest broker” in the region, as it already has between Russia and Ukraine.

Despite all their differences, the attack on Israel and the war on Ukraine are intrinsically linked, as if by a network of pipes. They form part of the same struggle: the struggle for a new international order.

Jörg Lau is foreign affairs correspondent for Germany's weekly newspaper DIE ZEIT.

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