On either side of 1900 was the Age of Political Assassination. Even in the age of unregulated industry, one of the most dangerous jobs in the world was to be a member of a royal family: among the assassinated were Czar Alexander III of Russia, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, George III of Greece, Umberto I of Italy, Grand Duke Sergei Romanov of Russia, and of course, Czar Nicholas and his family. There were attempts made on the longtime Emperor Franz-Josef of Austria, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, Czar Alexander II, Queen Victoria alone survived seven assassination attempts, and there were further attempts on her husband and both her successors. Not to mention all the political assassinations of Presidents in the US and France. So of all these assassinations, why did the assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand cause World War I?
It’s because he was killed in Serbia. The Balkans were the most volatile faultline in Europe where key interests between Austria and Russia were competed over. Austria could not let the assassination of the Emperor’s heir go unanswered, so they went to war with Serbia, but Russia had vital interests in Serbia, so they declared war on Austria. This caused Germany, who had vital interests in keeping Austria strong, to declare war on Russia too, which caused France and England to declare war on the German speaking empires because they had vital interests in protecting Russia.
Whatever else happens in Israel, the most important thing, by far, is to prevent this war from spreading. The very heat and consistency of people yelling about Israel, the absolute differences in perception, should tell you just how volatile this faultline is.
Israel exists right on the faultline between East and West, and earthquakes on faultlines cause tectonic shifts in the power of the world, and power shifts in the world cause violence. It probably won’t be WWIII, but do not underestimate how possible it is.
Whatever your opinion is about Israel’s actions in Gaza, whatever your opinion of the Palestinian people’s continued support of Hamas, whatever your opinion of Hamas or Likud, if the war spreads far enough, none of that matters.
Russia and China, previously cozy with Israel, have already spoken out against Israel’s actions and for the plight of Palestinians. It should be obvious, neither Putin nor Xi give a shit about the Palestinians, any more than they do their own people, but they want to advance their interests: China wants cheap oil and Putin wants to prop up fellow dictators: if any of them fall, it could inspire the Russian people to coup against him. Putin doesn’t care about Palestine, which isn’t even truly a state yet, but he very much cares about Iran, whose dictatorship is sometimes as threatened as his.
Iran has already warned that if Israel launches a ground invasion of Gaza, it will strike Israel preemptively. Just as Russia’s government saw Serbia as fellow Slavs under threat from overly militarized Germans, Iran’s government sees the Palestinians as fellow Muslims under threat from overly militarized Jews.
The US wants to be uninvolved in military commitments after Iraq, but they don’t have a choice. If they want to stop Russia from retaking what was the Soviet sphere of influence (an empire in all but name), they have to help Zelenskyy take a stand in Ukraine (and should be doing more). If they want to stop the Middle East from going nuclear, they have to be involved in the Israel/Palestine conflict. But if China uses the US’s overcommitment to take Taiwan, thinking the US won’t be involved, the US will have to interfere because Taiwan could well be a prelude to China creating an empire in all but name around East Asia.
We can deal with two strikes, we cannot deal with three. Between Ukraine, Palestine, and Taiwan, the easiest to deal with is Palestine because Israel is the one world power on which we have influence. Israel can deescalate, but if Israel launches a ground invasion, the question is: does Iran mean what it says?
Here’s a further question that’s troubled the world for more than forty years: is Iran rational? Does Iran’s religious government care more about surviving than they do about holy war?
Iran has, until now, never launched a preemptive war. The war between Iran and Iraq cost as many as 2 million lives. Iran was reckless to the point of insanity in that war (look up the term ‘human wave attack’), but the war was launched by Saddam Hussein. To this day, for all Iran’s appearances of irrationality, for all Iran’s chaos in having a government whose policies can be overruled by their religious leaders, Iran has never done anything so irrational as launch a preemptive attack on Israel, because they know that anything which could destroy Israel could destroy them.
Does Iran care? Clearly Hamas doesn’t care. Hamas launched this attack on Israel knowing that many Hamas leaders would be killed in the actions that follow. They seemed perfectly satisfied to die for their cause and to throw thousands of Palestinians into bomb’s way with them. So make no mistake, it’s entirely possible Iran’s government feels the same way.
And here’s a further complication: contrary to left opinion, when dealing with an irrational actor, the most important thing is not to back down. A rational actor can be convinced by diplomacy and coordination, but an irrational actor only responds to force because if a country does not respond to a challenge with a fight, they will pick more fights until they get the fight they want, and they’ll have used the intervening time to prepare that much better for war.
So why has Netanyahu not ordered a ground invasion yet? He announced he would days ago, the world thought it would happen days ago, and we’re all just waiting. Don’t be fooled by Netanyahu’s bluster, he’s very much a rational actor and could have launched a full-scale ground invasion of Gaza in a number of conflicts before now. He realizes that last week’s attack is already the epitaph on his career, and does not want to be the Prime Minister who risked Israel getting nuked (this is the moment to briefly mention that Obama/Biden’s Iran deals are looking very suspect right now…). It’s possible that Iran has the bomb now, but even if they don’t, ignoring the Iran threat runs the risk that they will use the intervening time to finish building it.
My sense is that Iran is ultimately rational, but there is no good resolution to this conflict, and whatever the resolution, so much more than this conflict depends on Israel making the right call. Can Netanyahu be trusted to make the right call? Well, he certainly didn’t make the right call in preventing this attack….