As the Gaza conflict progresses, the US is in danger of shooting itself in the foot (hopefully not literally).
The important underlying ‘realpolitik’ of this conflict is the future complexion of the Middle East.
There is an important battle for the allegiance of the so-called “moderate Middle East states” – Jordan, Egypt, Saudi, UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Morocco. (To a lesser extent, perhaps Turkey, Qatar and Oman as well). For the ‘moderates’, security is deeply dependent on the US but there are alternatives, namely China, Russia and Iran.
These ‘moderates’ see the Israel-Hamas conflict as a template. In the case of Saudi and UAE, it bears many similarities to the conflict they already faced in Yemen.
If Israel succeeds in defeating Hamas, it will reinforce the ‘moderates’ alliance with the US, also pushing them closer to Israel as the source of the strategies, technologies and techniques they will rely on for their own survival, in turn creating a progressively stronger regional security framework that will ease pressure on US resources and thus provide conditions for the long-anticipated US strategic ‘pivot to (East) Asia’.
And vice versa, if Israel, G-d forbid, does not succeed.
In this respect, the US has acted in a self-defeating manner by pushing Israel to take two actions that will make it harder to defeat Hamas.
Firstly, the US pushed hard for Israel to prioritise hostage release over the fight against Hamas, contrary to Israel’s view that the best way to secure the hostages was to go hard against Hamas. Reports in this newspaper are showing that the resultant release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners into the West Bank has led to a tripling of popularity for Hamas (according to the leading Palestinian pollster, Khaled Shikaki). US Defence Secretary, Lloyd Austin’s recent comments about the risk of Israel boosting Hamas’ popularity by, erm, destroying them, are thus particularly ironic in light of the US’ influence that led to the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.
Secondly, contra to media portrayals, Israel’s airstrikes in Gaza, after close vetting by a team of lawyers specialised in international law, are carefully targeted – to eliminate Hamas senior military leaders, command and control centers, tunnel nodes and munition stores. Hamas has taken significant steps to ensure high civilian presence around all these sites and thus drive the tragically high casualty rates, which Hamas then further exaggerates. The US is now demanding that Israel substitute its tried and tested methods for ones less likely to succeed, with more emphasis on incursions by ground forces at higher cost in terms of soldiers’ lives, while – as US National Security Council Coordinator, John Kirby, admitted yesterday – telegraphing Israel’s moves ahead of time, reducing the lethality for Hamas.
Both of these actions will raise questions among the ‘moderates’ – why would we need an ally that ties our hands behind our back while we fight for our very lives?
And if the US does this with the Israelis, which have traditionally had huge political support in DC, and on October 7th have suffered a really extreme atrocity, and after seeing how US support rapidly fell away for Saudi Arabia in Yemen, what kind of confidence does that give to the US’ other allies?
Of course, the Biden Administration is looking not only at international relations but also domestic politics where it wants to show responsiveness to the Democrat Party’s progressive wing.
It can do this in the same way it has with respect to the Al-Ahli tragedy, the Hamas misuse of Al-Shifa Hospital, and Hamas’ breaking of the recent ceasefire – by taking a leadership position strongly backing up Israel’s position.
In this case, the US should come out assertively to place sole responsibility for the tragic civilian casualties at the door of Hamas, condemning in the strongest possible terms the Hamas tactics of forcibly surrounding its military installations with Palestinian civilians, while testifying to the care and attention Israel takes with the targeting of its air strikes.
This line should be repeated ad nauseum over and over again by every media-facing member of the Administration.
In full knowledge of the unprecedented range of measures Israel takes to minimise civilian harm, this unequivocal condemnation of Hamas, and defence of Israel’s conduct of the war should replace the condescending lectures by US officials as they virtue signal in the domestic and international media, giving the mistaken impression that only the US and not also Israel cares about civilian lives.
This will then remedy the cognitive dissonance that the Biden Administration has allowed to develop between fundamental US national security interests on the one hand and US values on the other so that further upgrading US support for Israel to destroy Hamas will be demonstrable manifestations of both.