David Hearst – Israel is shredding US global influence one bomb at a time

A deep dive into how the United States is being viewed in the global south, the Middle East especially, in light of the Israeli siege on Gaza.

David Hearst is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He is a commentator and speaker on the region and analyst on Saudi Arabia. He was the Guardian’s foreign leader writer, and was correspondent in Russia, Europe, and Belfast. He joined the Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.

Cross-posted from the Middle East Eye

Picture by Viejito

We are into the second month of the war on Gaza, and Israel has no credible exit strategy. 

There will be no “mission accomplished” moment, no equivalent of the speechGeorge W Bush gave on the USS Abraham Lincoln, declaring victory in Iraq on 1 May 2003.

Having resisted calls for a ceasefire, the US has found no means yet of getting Israel to produce a pause in the fighting, even for a few hours, let alone long enough to allow an exchange of hostages and prisoners.

For US President Joe Biden, Israel is a runaway train that has already wrecked his strategic military withdrawal from the region, the Abraham Accords, and much of his authority in the Muslim world and the Global South.

If he is not careful, the destructive power of this war could yet derail his plans for a second term of office. At home, he is running low on political capital.

Should he even think of pulling one of the many levers that could stop the bombardment of Gaza –  by interrupting the resupply of smart bombs and shells – the Republicans would be all over him.

In this war, the US is not even leading from behind – Barack Obama’s little joke about the disastrous unseating of the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. It is being dragged down a rabbit hole.

Bruising encounters

US diplomats and intelligence chiefs are experiencing bruising encounters with their Arab and Turkish counterparts on their regional tours.

They are being told to their faces in meetings that last for hours that Israel is on a genocidal mission of revenge, that the US is supporting this genocide, and that its support for this war is shredding its image in the Muslim world. Forget war crimes. What exactly is US policy?

If the US waged war on the whole world to get rid of al-Qaeda, and both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group (IS) still exist, why would a more disciplined and grounded movement like Hamas be got rid of by the Israelis? And why would you want to push Hamas out of Gaza? In Gaza, Hamas is localised. Has the US forgotten the days when Fatah, the first iteration of Palestinian armed resistance, abducted villagers and hijacked planes? Why make Hamas international?

US diplomats and security chiefs have no answer to these arguments. In private, they agree that Israel has no hope of eradicating Hamas, that Israel has no exit strategy, and that it stopped listening to them even before the war began.

Any hope that Biden could contain Israel by hugging it in the first days of the shock of the Palestinian fighters’ attack on 7 October has backfired spectacularly.

Privately, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken admits how bad relations with Netanyahu were before the war, and how frustrated the US is with him now. 

The penny may at last have dropped that the Middle East policy of an administration that declared that “America is back”, is in deep trouble.

This leaves the question of Arab leadership of how to manage this crisis wide open.

Low expectations

Over the weekend Saudi Arabia will host two summits in Riyadh. A meeting of the Arab League on Saturday will be followed by a summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

Historically, expectations must be low. Neither forum has produced anything of substance, other than rhetoric.

This time I am not expecting anything different.

The strongest reactions to the bombardment have come from Egypt and Jordan, the two states that recognised Israel first. Both in reality are deeply compromised by their dependence on western aid and money.

Take Egypt. The Egyptian army and deep state have made it clear that the ethnic cleansing of Gaza is unacceptable and that they will not surrender a grain of Sinai’s sand to the resettlement of the people of Gaza.

That is one face of Egypt.

Egypt, however, reveals its other face at the Rafah border with Gaza, the only one that remains intermittently open.

I understand that Egypt pushed to replace the officials controlling the border crossing on the Gaza side, manned currently by Palestinian Ministry of Interior officials run by Hamas. It wanted UN officials there but framed this as a US demand. When the US was questioned about this by a third Arab country, the US denied ownership. It turned out to be an Egyptian proposal only.

There are other indications that the Egyptian stance is not as solid as it seems.

Mada Masr reported two days after the Hamas attack that preparations were being coordinated by North Sinai Governor Mohamed Abdel Fadel Shousha for a huge influx of refugees.

Shousha gave instructions to inventory resources at state-run mills, bakeries, markets and fuel stations, “as well as capacity at schools, residential units, vacant lands to be designated as humanitarian shelters if necessary.”

Public demonstrations of support for Gaza are another sign. Cairo saw the biggest demonstration for Palestine in a decade when Tahrir Square was opened up in the first days of the conflict. But quickly realising political activism could get out of hand, the crackdown came swiftly and there have been no demonstrations since. 

Jordan, on the other hand, is sincerely alarmed. The Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said that any expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza would amount to a “declaration of war” for Jordan. Queen Rania of Jordan gave strong interviews to CNN.

However, Jordan stopped its people from going to the border with Israel and can only channel its policy through the international community. It withdrew its ambassador to Israel only after Bolivia cut all ties with Israel.

A weak response

Initially Syria issued a statement expressing support for the Palestinian people. On 26 October, President Bashar al-Assad said: “The core of the US policy is the military escalation and creating chaos.” 

Saudi Arabia is still a work in progress. One of its neighbours, Qatar, which only recently emerged from a siege of its territory and air space, is reluctant to dismiss it as a lost cause, although there is visceral hostility in Doha to the United Arab Emirates.

Officially Saudi Arabia has condemned the killing of Palestinian civilians and its foreign minister has made a series of strong statements. However, no one yet knows what Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman wants. He did not allow any protests – like the ones that took place in Amman, Cairo or Beirut. And the huge Riyadh Festival went ahead as planned as if nothing was happening on Saudi Arabia’s doorstep.

Apart from Qatar, TurkeyIran and Malaysia, none of the regional countries have said that Hamas is a legitimate partner in negotiations.

Turkey is about to flesh out its own proposal for a truce, maintained by guarantor countries. This may be similar to the role of Unifil in south Lebanon.

But if Turkey were to play such a role in Gaza, it would have to be convinced that the peace process it guaranteed would have a finite end. In other words, this push for peace would have to culminate soon in a Palestinian state, unlike the never-never land of Oslo.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also destroyed his personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which was once so close that the Israeli premier got Russia to pull a consignment of S400 missiles off the loader rail stocks in transit to Tehran.

The same has happened with China with whom Israel has been patiently building a strong trade relationship.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China strongly condemns and opposes acts that harm civilians and violate international law, calling for an immediate ceasefire to stop the war, and ensuring basic living conditions of the people in Gaza. This was almost back to the days, as far as this conflict was concerned, of Chairman Mao. 

‘Israel is beatable’

Certainly Hamas is not behaving as if it has surrendered and is facing imminent extinction. It’s exacting far heavier losses in tanks, personnel carriers and Israeli troops by the standards set in previous campaign. It admits to losing around 200 of its own fighters. That is out of a potential army 60,000 strong. 

For Abbas Kamel, the Egyptian security chief, and Qatar alike, Hamas remains the go-to address for stopping this conflict. And it has shown, despite the destruction wreaked by Israel on Gaza, that it can resist for more than one month a much more powerful force.

This will not go unnoticed by future generations of Palestinian fighters. The 7 October attacks and all the fighting since have erected one large neon sign in the sky: “Israel is beatable.”

If the one message that Israel gets from the war is that this conflict can not be ended by force of arms, then progress will have been made, despite the unbearable suffering endured by civilians in this war.

More importantly, this war will have produced a significant shift in the international community, with America – and Europe – again ceding ground to the rest of the world. Its sphere of influence is shrinking, an atrophy speeded on by its own hubris.

When put to the test, the West has proved unable to modify a policy of blind and unthinking support for Israel that has long since passed its sell-by date.

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