The Realpolitik of the Middle East War

R.W. JOHNSON  /  During the Algerian War, General De Gaulle harshly criticized his generals. You are wasting your time, he said, raiding Arab villages in the mountains and the desert whom you suspect of offering sanctuary to the FLN rebels. This is essentially medieval warfare. You’ve got to see the big picture. I want to end this war and modernize France. Instead of playing Beau Geste in the desert we will test our nuclear weapons in the Sahara, we will have jet fighters and nuclear submarines. We will be a Great Power and part of the modern age. He was as good as his word.

Something of the same spirit is needed now to understand the current Middle Eastern war. Attention is fastened on the hundreds of hostages kidnapped by Hamas. But this too is medieval stuff: indeed, mass hostage taking was part of the world of the Romans and Genghis Khan. It belongs to the barbarian world. Once the immediate drama is over larger questions will remain. The immediate question is, what will Israel do with Gaza? Doubtless it will root Hamas out if it can, but this is unlikely to be a 100% job. Hamas is embedded in Gaza, and has Iranian military and financial support. That will keep it going.

Israel could, of course, behave as it did after the 1972 Olympic massacre of Israeli athletes in Munich and systematically hunt down and assassinate the culprits. That would mean systematically eliminating each new Hamas leader as he puts his head above the parapet. Probably this would never fully succeed, but Hamas could be kept in a weakened state such that it could never again launch an October 7 operation. That might be enough for Israel, but it’s no solution.

Even Mossad’s post-Olympic assassination programme was wound up before it was completed. Vengeance is not a solution. But solutions are in short supply. Everyone talks of a two-state solution, but the formula is empty. In current circumstances, any Palestinian state set up on the West Bank or elsewhere would doubtless immediately become a base for firing rockets into Israel. No government in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem can be expected to settle for that.

In effect, Israeli governments for several decades now have decided that the problem is insoluble, and that the only thing to do is for Israel to become richer, stronger, and hold an insoluble situation at bay. This they have successfully done. Meanwhile, Israeli immigrants have flooded into the West Bank, turning the gains of 1967 into a permanent part of Israel, and Israel has concentrated on making peace with its neighbours – with (thus far) Egypt, the UAE, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan and Bahrain.

The first question to ask is why Hamas acted now. We now know that they were rehearsing the possibility of an October 7 for three years before the event. (The fact that Netanyahu missed this and disregarded an explicit intelligence report warning of the coming October 7 operation will surely end his career, just as being taken by surprise by the Yom Kippur War ended Golda Meir’s reign.)

October 7 was a desperate, kamikaze operation: all the young militants who invaded Israel and committed atrocities were wiped out within a few days. In addition, it seems clear that Hamas has taken heavy casualties since then, and Israel has suffered fewer losses than expected. Moreover, this seems likely to be the continuing pattern, though doubtless much of the Hamas leadership is now safely outside Gaza.

So the big question is why Hamas was willing to pay such a prohibitive price – and why now? Moreover, Hamas must have desperately wanted to bring in Iran and Hezbollah on its side, and failed in both respects. Acting without that back-up doomed its assault to kamikaze status. So why?

The answer seems to be that Hamas felt the whole international situation was drifting away from it, condemning it to a loser position. The key was the negotiations going on between Israel and Saudi Arabia over possible Saudi recognition and entry into the Abraham accords. The UAE’s recognition of Israel and the subsequent boom in UAE-Israeli trade was a huge blow to Hamas, but if the Saudis followed this example, an irreversible shift would have taken place. Hamas knew that an open war with Israel would at least put those negotiations in the deep freeze, and that seems to have been its key motive.

However, this was only part of a far larger picture. On the sidelines of the G20 in New Delhi on 8 September, Joe Biden (who made a point of attending, although both Putin and Xi Jinping stayed away) got together with Ursula van der Leyen of the EU, the Indian president, Narendra Modi, and Prince Mohamed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia to jointly announce the Partnership for Global Infrastructure Investment, otherwise known as the India-Middle East Economic Corridor (IMEC). As Biden said, ‘This is a big deal. This is a real big deal.’

He wasn’t kidding. In effect, the US has decided that the decisive play to counter China’s challenge will be to bring India in on the Western side. Martin Wolf of the Financial Times estimates that by 2050 India’s purchasing power will be 30% larger than that of the US, and Goldman Sachs predicts that by 2075 India will be the world’s second largest economy. (Note that many now think China’s economy is stuck, that it shrank sharply last year – it went from being 18.4% of the world economy to just 17% – and may never catch up with America.)

Hence IMEC – a $20 billion plan to build rail and shipping infrastructure to create an economic corridor linking India via Jordan and Israel to the Gulf states and then Europe, speeding up India-European trade by 40%. The corridor would concentrate on trade, energy and improved digital connectivity. It is a vast scheme, calculated to offset China’s Belt and Road initiative. As may be seen, Israel sits at the heart of it alongside the Saudis. Indeed, quite clearly an Israeli-Saudi accord sits at its centre. Moreover, Biden got the leaders of the UAE, Germany, France and Italy to publicly bless the scheme. A really big deal indeed.

This seems to have panicked Hamas into action. For IMEC opens the way to a future in which Israel is ever more securely ensconced both with the EU and the vast banking centres of the Gulf, as well as with the rising economic and hi-tech power of India. It is increasingly difficult to see how a small terrorist movement like Hamas, relying on medieval tactics like kidnapping and atrocity, can prevent itself from being steamrollered by the mobilisation of these hugely greater resources. And even after the horrors of October 7 and all the dramas since, this remains the case.

It is important to understand this larger context. In a second article I will return to these themes and try to understand the further realpolitik behind the Middle East war.

FEATURED IMAGE: Palestinians inspect the damage following an Israeli air strike on the El-Remal area in Gaza City on October 9, 2023. Wikimedia Commons.

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