With more than 23,000 people, including thousands of children, killed in Gaza and Hamas far from eliminated – which was Israel’s foremost military objective – Jerusalem’s promise of the war continuing in 2024 is a stark acceptance of a failure. This is on top of the fact that it still does not have to plan to prevent civilian casualties. This failure has led Israel to strike in Lebanon. The strike that killed a Hamas leader was a calculated move. The objectives were twofold. First, it would strike a key enemy. Secondly, the plan was to force-activate Hezbollah against Israel and thus expand the war. This would create an excuse for the US to increase its own involvement in the war in support of Israel to compensate for its war effort and ‘ensure’ Jerusalem’s success. The US surely sees a lot of geostrategic potential in an expanded war (as I wrote in my recent piece for NEO). However, the mere fact that Israel (and the US) are making moves to create an alibi for Washington’s more direct involvement in the context of an expanded war that would also include Iran reinforces the Israeli military’s severely undermined capacity to achieve its targets.
This failure is being compounded by the rapidly growing anti-Israel opinion in the world. The Global South’s pre-dominant position is against Israel. South Africa’s case in the International Court of Justice accuses Israel of committing genocide in contravention of the 1948 UN Genocide Convention. The suit also lists the blockade on food and the destruction of essential health services for pregnant women and babies as measures by Jerusalem “intended to bring about their [Palestinians] destruction as a group” i.e., a genocide.
Destruction as a group is what lies at the heart of Israel’s bombing campaigns in Gaza. This is regardless of the fact that, if some recent, pre-October 7 surveys are to be taken as representing facts, support for Hamas amongst the Gazans was not incredibly high. But Israel’s indiscriminate bombing of the Gazans has reinforced Hamas’ message that Israel is the enemy that must be fought against. This has allowed Hamas to not only remain alive but also maintain its own military charge.
The Israeli military, on the other hand and despite the massive bombing campaigns, has suffered heavy casualties, but the Netanyahu regime, which is itself facing an acute popularity and legitimacy crisis, has covered up its losses to avoid a further backlash. According to a report in one of Israel’s leading newspapers, the Israeli military has been underreporting its casualties by half since October 7. (This is one more reason why Israel wants more direct US involvement in the war, i.e., the fact that the loss is unprecedented and the Netanyahu regime wants a quick victory to escape a political defeat.)
According to a recent poll, only 15 percent of Israelis want Netanyahu to stay in office. Although a much higher number of people believe that crushing Hamas is the “best” strategy, Netanyahu’s source of worry is the fact that he is fast losing voters.
At the regional level, i.e., within the Middle East, Israel’s relentless killing of civilians in Gaza and the fact that the Israeli military is seeking a prolonged war has turned most of the Arab world against it. There are some big reasons for Washington and Jerusalem to worry, leading Blinken to recently visit Saudi Arabia.
But the visit, more than anything else, only reinforced the wedge that today defines the triangle of the US, Israel, and the Arab world. The Saudi statement “stressed the importance of stopping military operations, intensifying humanitarian action, and working to create conditions for restoring stability and for a peace process that ensures that the Palestinian people gain their legitimate rights and achieve a just and lasting peace.”
The US statement, on the contrary, was unexpectedly different, making only a passing reference to the question of the two-state solution. Instead of addressing the core issue of Palestinian rights, “the Secretary underscored the need to urgently address the humanitarian situation in Gaza and prevent further spread of the conflict. The Secretary and Crown Prince discussed ongoing efforts to reduce regional tensions, including the deterrence of Houthi attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea. Secretary Blinken emphasised the importance of building a more secure, prosperous, and integrated region, including through the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.”
Obviously, the Biden administration is still interested in salvaging the Abraham Accords, and it needs Saudi support for that to materialise post-war, which is why Biden discussed “the importance of the strategic partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia”. Whether such a partnership will be possible depends more than ever not on the conclusion of this war in favour of Israel (and Washington) but also on how quickly the US can bring this war to a permanent pause and prevent any further damage that Israel stands to inflict on the Gazans in its mindless pursuit of the ghost of Hamas, which is virtually everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
The question for the Biden administration – and the administrations to come – is whether the US can afford to continue to support Israel at the expense of its ties with the rest of the Arab world. If Washington continues to do so, it risks leaving Israel in a hostile region permanently. That would be yet another defeat for Israel and a crucial victory for Hamas.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”