Clyde Kull: Global consequences of the Israel-Hamas war

Clyde Kull.
Clyde Kull.

The Israeli-Hamas conflict is having serious repercussions beyond the Middle East, with Ukraine one of the biggest losers, writes Clyde Kull.

The effects of the Israeli-Hamas war have rippled across the globe, with consequences for the Middle East, Europe, China and the United States. The specific challenges are varied, but no-one is interested in prolonging or escalating the conflict.

Already a month after the Hamas terror group's brutal massacre, Israel is continuing its military retaliation by intensifying its ground offensive in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. At the same time, people around the world are protesting against Israeli air strikes that have killed thousands of Palestinians. This is a geopolitical crisis the global impact of which is perhaps even deeper and more far-reaching than the war in Ukraine.

The most immediate consequences are in the Middle East. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu operated for years under illusions that have now been shattered. The greatest of these was the expectation that Israel could normalize ties with the Arab world without addressing the Palestinian question. It is now impossible to dismiss the issue.

Regardless of the outcome of the Gaza offensive, Israel will have to engage in some serious soul-searching and perhaps completely rethink its strategy towards the Middle East peace process. Saudi Arabia, which was on the verge of normalizing relations with Israel, is now likely to insist on some concessions to the Palestinians before moving forward, so as not to incur the wrath of its own population and the wider Muslim world.

Israel has an undeniable right to self-defense, but there is a risk that Netanyahu, in order to maintain his political position, will prolong the war or encourage a regional escalation. He may once again be attempting to reestablish his preferred geopolitical positioning: Israel and the Sunni Arab states confronting the Iranian "axis of resistance," with the Palestinians again left on the sidelines in a much wider confrontation.

The conflict will have serious repercussions beyond the Middle East, with Ukraine one of the biggest losers. The violence and suffering being endured by the Ukrainian people no longer seem nearly as extraordinary as they once were. The images from Gaza are as heartbreaking as those from Kharkiv or Mariupol. Moreover, in the context of the war in Gaza, Ukraine may appear to many as a "local" European conflict.

Given that Ukraine's survival depends on the continued support of the international community, anything that detracts from this is bad news. Moreover, if the war between Israel and Hamas escalates and Iran comes into play, the impact on oil prices could make sanctions on Russia more costly for the West.

For Europe, the Gaza crisis is creating a number of problems. It has exposed deep social divisions in France, Germany and the U.K. In France, for example, more anti-Semitic incidents have been recorded in the last three weeks than in the whole of the previous year. At the same time, the war between Israel and Hamas has fragmented other EU Member States.

In the year and a half following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, European countries showed tremendous unity, but now the attention of EU leaders is divided between Ukraine, Nagorno-Karabakh and Gaza. In the vote on the UN General Assembly resolution calling for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza the week before last, EU Member States voted in three different ways.

Against the backdrop of the EU's vague response, China's strong reaction to the war between Israel and Hamas is even more remarkable. Contrary to its efforts to remain neutral after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, China was quick to express support for the Palestinians. China's reaction can also be seen as a bow to the Global South. And Chinese diplomats will undoubtedly be keen to highlight the West's double standards in the coming weeks and months: Israel versus Russia, Palestinians versus Ukrainians.

Choosing sides may not go smoothly for China, however. Most of all, the broader regional confrontation could disrupt the fragile peace brokered by China between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The position of the United States is best illustrated by the quote from the third part of the movie "The Godfather": "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in." This is particularly pertinent now, as President Joe Biden's administration has been far more decisive than its predecessors in shifting foreign policy from the Middle East to Asia, but now the region is back in U.S. policymakers' spotlight.

So far, Biden has successfully balanced support for Israel with calls for the Israelis to be more restrained in their response to the Hamas offensive. And his decision to merge aid to Ukraine and support for Israel into a coherent national security package offers an opportunity to overcome Republican lawmakers' opposition to support for Ukraine.

Nonetheless, Biden walks on thin ice. Ukraine already represented a distraction from America's main priority: strategic competition with China. In this sense, greater intervention in the Middle East is the last thing the U.S. needs. Moreover, Biden is losing the support of Arab Democrats.

No one, except Hamas and Netanyahu, is interested in prolonging or expanding the Gaza conflict. One can hope that this will push the countries involved in the region to cooperate. This presupposes a swift end to the conflict without further escalation. It also means that once the Hamas military wing has been dismantled and the Israeli hostages released, a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be sought. There is no other way to ensure Israel's long-term security.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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