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Hamas vs. Israel: Regional Geopolitical Maze
But deadly for the Palestinians
By: Salman Rafi Sheikh
With at least 1,100 deaths so far, the conflict between Hamas and Israel has sparked fears of a wider regional conflagration. Hamas’ attacks are the deadliest and most sophisticated since the Yom Kippur War 50 years ago, and Israeli authorities are vowing to nip the evil of Hamas in bud once and for all, shaking the entire Middle East.
It is also causing an earthquake for the Biden administration’s plans to thwart recent Chinese and Russian forays into Middle Eastern diplomacy, an area that the United States has dominated for generations. This will create a situation that is good for Iran, bad for Saudi Arabia, ugly for Washington, and inevitably deadly for the Palestinians.
While the assault looks like a surprise, it has been in the making for a long time, possibly with Iranian advice if not active help, making Tehran a major beneficiary of the chaos unfolding along as US diplomatic aspirations are set back. For decades, Washington has been Israel’s key supporter while making tut-tut comments about the erosion of Palestinian rights and sporadic and wholly ineffectual attempts to rein in the Israeli religious militants intent on homesteading traditional Palestinian lands.
With annual aid of US$3.3 billion, Israel is the largest recipient of US aid since World War II, a key mechanism allowing Israel to build its defense against – and kill – a weak enemy. Unsurprisingly, fresh military aid, as one US official put it, is already “making its way” to Israel to be used explicitly on the Gazans, who are hapless collateral damage in the Israeli campaign to obliterate Hamas, certain to cause condemnation of both Washington and Jerusalem in Middle Eastern capitals.
Where Washington’s aid has been a key source ensuring Israel’s existence, the reason for providing this aid is the larger benefits it brings for Washington to have a dominant presence in the Middle East, a region that Washington continues to seek to shape proactively. This imperative has acquired added significance in the wake of the recent diplomatic forays of China – and Russia – into the region, especially in these states’ successes in ‘normalizing’ Iran-Saudi and Saudi-Syria ties, respectively.
In many ways, Chinese and Russian forays were a response to the Trump administration’s geopolitics of reshaping Arab-Israel ties via the Abraham Accords that established diplomatic ties between the UAE and Israel (and Israel and Bahrain) in 2020. Ever since, Washington – the Biden administration – has been trying to capitalize on those normalizations by convincing the Saudis to join the accords, although without pushing Israel to offer any concessions to the Palestinians. But the Saudis have been difficult to bargain with – not only because Saudi Arabia, as the religious epicenter of Islam, faces additional pressure against Israel.
The Saudis have been trying to extract a favorable deal based on Washington’s need for normalization in the Middle East. A secure Middle East allows Washington to not only control the global economy by stabilizing the production and price of oil but also enables planners to focus more generally on China and Russia in other theatres i.e., the Indo-Pacific and Eastern Europe.
The China-brokered Iran-Saudi normalization delivered a major setback to Washington. If Riyadh and Tehran were to reach some accommodation, the former wouldn’t need a military alliance with Washington. China would become the new balancer.
Therefore, to prevent this from happening, Washington and Saudi were already very close to a deal before Hamas began its assault. As recent reports indicate, Washington was already preparing to offer Riyadh a NATO-like security pact – although it would still need Congressional approval – in exchange for Riyadh putting the Palestinian question aside. Hamas began its war and complicated the whole scenario. Now that Israel is killing Gazans using US-made weapons, can Saudis risk ‘normalization’ and make a deal with Washington at the expense of the Palestinians?
In a parallel universe, the Saudis and Washington would have benefitted immensely from the peace deal. An immediate advantage for Washington would have been its ability to influence oil production and prices – something it has consistently failed to achieve since the establishment of the OPEC cartel in 1971, but which has become far more acute since the invasion of Ukraine by Russia in February 2021. The Saudis would have got Washington permanently on its side, with the benefit of forcing the Biden administration to withdraw from its allegations on the alleged role of the Saudi Prince Muhammad Bin Salman in the killing of journalist and regime critic Jamal Khashoggi.
Saudi-Israel normalization obviously would have significantly weakened Iran’s position in the Middle East. A Washington-supported alliance between the Middle East’s best military power and the largest economy would be a deadly alliance for Iran to tackle or match. Therefore, preventing this deal suits Iran. As Hamas and Hezbollah officials recently told The Wall Street Journal, Iranian officials met and coordinated with Hamas officials before the assault, which took several weeks of preparation.
While US officials say they have not seen any “evidence” of Iran’s direct involvement, there is little denying that Iran has long supported Hamas against Israel. Tehran is already congratulating Hamas on its successful attacks, with a news agency affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards reporting Tehran’s pledge to continue to support Hamas. There are already concerns that the Iran-backed and Lebanon-based Hezbollah may get involved (Hezbollah is already reported to have fired shots across the border after Israeli shelling killed three of its members).
For Iran, the key objective is not to defeat Israel, an impossibility at this stage. Its main objective is to push Saudi away from normalization. The Saudis are already on the back foot. Far from putting the Palestinian question aside, Riyadh is being forced by circumstances to target Israel. In a statement, it not only called for “an immediate end to the escalation between the two sides [and] the protection of civilians and self-restraint,” but also jibed at Israel to avoid getting associated with Jerusalem, clearly warning that “matters could explode due to the continuation of the occupation and deprivation of Palestinians’ legitimate rights and repeated provocations against its holy sites.”
Saudi Arabia’s position will become a lot more precarious if the war lasts longer and yields heavy casualties among the Palestinians, a seeming inevitability. It will shelve the Saudi-Israel deal for a very long time, affecting Washington’s plans to reshape the Middle East in ways that China and Russia cannot manipulate to their advantage. With a Saudi-Israel peace deal becoming an impossibility, Riyadh will be more inclined to pursue even more seriously its BRICS+ ambitions, i.e., closer ties with Beijing and Moscow and further normalization with Tehran.
Washington’s options for normalization are also going to become limited because of the ways this war will, or is already, strengthening the right wing in Israel, which has historically opposed normalization with Saudi Arabia, especially if it involves giving any concessions for Palestine. In fact, the right wing was already undermining the deal. The war is going to embolden it even further.
Dr. Salman Rafi Sheikh is a Pakistani academic and a longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel