The United States has subtly shifted its stand towards the Israel-Gaza war - Hindustan Times
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Eye on the Middle East | The United States has subtly shifted its stand towards the Israel-Gaza war

Feb 14, 2024 05:27 PM IST

From outright support to characterising Israel's offensive on the Palestinians as "over the top", the US needs to protect its interests in West Asia's crises

Addressing a press conference on February 12, 2024, US President Joe Biden warned Israel against a planned offensive into Gaza’s Rafah city where fleeing Palestinians have taken refuge. He stated that the US would not support any operation that failed to account for the safety of the Palestinians who fled there on Israel’s orders. Biden’s remarks came during Jordan’s King Abdullah II’s visit to Washington. King Abdullah is the first Arab leader to visit the White House since the conflict in the Middle East began in October 2023, as part of his efforts to mobilise international support for a ceasefire in Gaza. Domestic criticism of Israel has been steadily growing within Jordan, further incentivising Amman to add to the efforts of Arab leaders to secure a ceasefire.

Neighbors inspect the rubble of the Hasouna family house, which was struck by an Israeli airstrike during an operation to rescue two hostages in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024. Ibrahim Hasouna, who was away at the time of the airstrike, says his entire family was killed, including his parents, two brothers, his sister-in-law and three nieces and nephews. AP/PTI(AP02_14_2024_000001B)(AP) PREMIUM
Neighbors inspect the rubble of the Hasouna family house, which was struck by an Israeli airstrike during an operation to rescue two hostages in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024. Ibrahim Hasouna, who was away at the time of the airstrike, says his entire family was killed, including his parents, two brothers, his sister-in-law and three nieces and nephews. AP/PTI(AP02_14_2024_000001B)(AP)

As Israel proceeds with ground operations in Rafah amidst loud international criticism, the uptick in the US' criticism of Israel reflects the limits of Washington’s (still formidable) influence in shaping the current conflict.

Indeed, its role in the region has evolved since October 7, when Hamas launched an attack on Israel, leaving several people dead and injured and taking over 253 people hostage. Israel’s military response in Gaza has continued ever since and progressively intensified.

Phase 1: Support to Israel

 

Over January and February, US secretary of state Antony Blinken visited many Middle Eastern countries to aid Qatari and Egyptian negotiators who were intent on brokering a potential ceasefire in Gaza, as we explained in the last column. Israel, however, rejected the deal a few hours after receipt; Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu asserted that he believed a deal was possible only after “absolute victory” over Hamas which would come “in a matter of months”. Evidently, Israel still believes in its ability to force a military solution to the hostage crisis and its larger dispute with Hamas, no matter the geopolitical cost.

Despite the grotesque rise in civilian casualties and a consolidation of the Global South’s opinion in favour of a ceasefire, the United States voted at least four times against a ceasefire — twice each in the United Nations Security Council and the General Assembly Special Emergency Session. But by early November, though Biden stuck to his initial refusal to criticise Israel and called Hamas “pure evil”, Washington began to pair its overt and vocal support for Israel with private and quieter attempts to have Israel tone down its war (which had killed over 5,000 in Gaza by October end).

The United States maintained this dual approach until December end — it denounced South Africa’s genocide charge at the ICJ as “meritless”, even as it increased its calls for Israel to limit civilian casualties. Across December and January 2024 however, these calls became increasingly public, as Benjamin Netanyahu refused successive mediated attempts at a prolonged ceasefire. By early February, there were more reports of Biden privately rebuking Netanyahu, even as he publicly characterised Israel’s war as being “over the top”. A key variable that added to Washington’s stakes in the region was the conflict’s controlled spillover and the engagement of the US military.

Phase 2: Supporting a peace deal

 

Meanwhile, over December and January, there was a step-up in the United States’ engagement on two other fronts, Iraq and Yemen, increasing its own stake in the Israel-Gaza war. On the one hand, the Iran-backed Islamic Resistance of Iraq (IRI) conducted over 150 attacks against US bases in Iraq (and Syria), eventually killing at least three US military personnel at the Jordan-Iraq border in the Tower-22 attack in January (the first significant loss of American military life in the region in recent years). On the other hand, the Houthis of Yemen disrupted international shipping in the Red Sea by attacking Israel-linked shipping (and other vessels) and by firing rockets directly at Israel.

The United States struck multiple Houthi bases in Yemen in January, as well as bases of the IRI in Iraq and Syria. Even as the limited deterrence value of these strikes has been acknowledged by Washington, the latter’s options are limited — it cannot risk a more conventional regional war and upset all gains made in the aftermath of the Abraham Accords. Moreover, Netanyahu’s repeated public denouncement of the two-state solution flies directly in the face of long-standing US policy on Israel and Palestine. Arguably, these factors have cumulatively pushed the White House more towards a peace deal and triggered Blinken’s increased involvement with negotiations.

How has US policy fared?

 

Between October and February, the US policy made calibrated shifts (while maintaining its largely pro-Israel character). However, its broader position in the Middle East has become more strained than it was before October 7, 2023. An earlier column had explained the deterioration in US-Iraq ties, given Iraq’s condemnation of US strikes on its soil as a response to the Tower-22 attack. Since then, as other Arab states like Egypt have expressed solidarity with Iraq, Washington itself has sought to re-engage Iraq on the future of the US military in the country; Iraq, unlike the US, has characterised these talks as discussions on a 'drawdown' on American military presence (a drawdown might or might not lead to the eventual withdrawal of US forces in Iraq, contingent on future agreements). On the other hand, while most Arab states have refused to join Washington’s limited anti-Houthi coalition in the Red Sea, recent surveys of Arab public opinion on the Gaza war reflect a steep increase in anti-Americanism.

The winner

 

Notwithstanding the limited effects of these developments, it is evident that the state which has been able to exploit the crisis more to its advantage is Iran. While it cinched a series of normalisation agreements with old rivals (Saudi Arabia on March 10, 2023, and then Sudan on October 9, 2023), its proxies have acted completely in line with Iranian interests, even as these groups enjoy some degree of autonomy from Tehran. On January 17, Iran’s foreign minister categorically stated that “if the genocide in Gaza stops, then it will lead to the end of other crises and attacks in the region”.

The language is the same as used by leaders of the non-state groups involved — Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah made a similar assertion a few days prior. Hence, even as the United States itself is being increasingly forced to add qualifications to its support for Israel (with the death toll in Gaza closing in on 30,000), Iran’s space to increase its regional heft has only risen. As Giorgio Cafiero of Gulf State Analytics recently put it, “This is not the chaos that the Iranians necessarily create (in the Middle East), but Tehran is skilled at taking advantage of it”.

Bashir Ali Abbas is a research associate at the Council for Strategic and Defense Research, New Delhi, and a South Asia Visiting Fellow at the Stimson Center, Washington DC. The views expressed are personal.

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