The Gaza crisis shakes up the Middle East board | International
At the end of September, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the stage at the UN General Assembly with the intention of delivering another of his unique speeches to attendees in New York. On this occasion, Netanyahu brought with him a poster with two maps of the Middle East, one on each side. The first, titled Israel in 1948showed his country alone and painted blue, occupying the entire territory of historical Palestine. On the other hand, however, the countries in the region with which they have since established relations or were in the process of doing so also appeared in green. This second map was crowned with the succinct title of The new Middle East.
Only a month after that speech, the reality painted by Netanyahu in the region appears much more blurred and fluid. Since the surprising attack by Hamas on Israeli territory on the 7th, and especially as a result of Israel's military campaign and siege on the Gaza Strip, the board has been shaken strongly. And the crisis threatens to have major repercussions throughout the Middle East.
New rules of the game
Although Iranian authorities have adopted particularly belligerent and very forceful rhetoric regarding Israel's offensive on Gaza, in practice they have been more cautious, which many attribute to their crisis of internal political legitimacy, their economic problems and their aversion to a direct confrontation with the United States. In mid-September, in fact, Tehran and Washington agreed to a prisoner exchange and the release of some 6 billion Iranian dollars frozen in South Korea in a rare display of diplomacy, although the second part of the deal is now on hold after what happened in Israel.
Despite this relative caution, Iran and Israel have been involved for years in a shadow war that both believe they can manage without it escaping their control. But the current spiral of violence and the volatility that surrounds it increases the risk of making a miscalculation and misstep, as has happened in Gaza, especially if Tehran chooses to take advantage of Israel's vulnerability to try to redefine the rules. of the game, weaken it even further and continue to erode its image and deterrence capacity.
In this sense, the Israeli army and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah have been testing their respective red lines for several days with a give and take of limited attacks of relatively low intensity that have been increasing in a measured manner on the border between both countries. For now, Hezbollah does not seem to want to openly enter into battle, but Israel's blunder in assessing Hamas's intentions before its unexpected attack on the 7th, which completely surprised them, increases its doubts.
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In recent days, US forces have also been attacked with drones in at least two points in Syria and in two military bases that house US troops and personnel in Iraq. On Thursday, the US Navy said it had intercepted a volley of missiles and drones launched by Yemen's Houthi movement and aimed at Israel. The link between these attacks and the crisis in Gaza, however, is not entirely clear.
“This conflict will only remain contained if all parties have an interest in avoiding a regional war. For now that condition seems to hold. But there are no guarantees that it will do so in the future,” wrote Dalia Dassa, a researcher in international relations at the University of California, in a recent analysis for the magazine Foreign Policy. “The situation on the ground is fluid, and changes in the strategic calculus of Israel, Iran, or both countries may lead their leaders to believe that avoiding a broader conflict poses a greater danger to their survival than engaging in war,” he concluded.
The intense military campaign on Gaza and the increase in regional instability also represent a major setback for the Gulf Arab powers that in recent years have chosen to normalize relations with Israel. The commitment of these countries was to work to reduce tensions in the region, prioritize diplomatic channels and corner the Palestinian cause with the aim of being able to focus on their internal economic development.
The most notable movement on this diplomatic front was carried out by the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco with the normalization of relations with Israel that began in 2020. Despite this, the Abraham Accords were an elitist pact that never had significant popular support. in the Arab signatory countries, which has led their governments to adopt a rather low profile in the current crisis. In Morocco and Bahrain there have also been protests of solidarity with the Palestinian people and denouncing the Israeli offensive in Gaza that have also called for an end to normalization.
“The countries of the Abraham Accords are very worried and disconcerted,” notes Hussein Ibish, a researcher at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, who points out that “they cannot stand Hamas,” but they are also not “especially supporters of the Government of Netanyahu.” “The conflict certainly puts them in a difficult situation; “It’s the kind of thing they were hoping to avoid completely,” he adds.
Ibish believes that if Israel does not commit “truly genocidal crimes or total ethnic cleansing or extreme outrages” and violence spreads to the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, the agreements “can probably survive.” But he warns: “If Israel goes too far, then they could back down, freeze cooperation, close embassies or something like that. "But they don't want to give Hamas, of all groups, a veto over their foreign policy and independent decision-making."
The icing on the cake of this diplomatic offensive by Israel in the Arab world, promoted by the United States, had to be Saudi Arabia, the main power in the region. In the weeks before the Hamas attack on Israel, the Saudi crown prince and strongman of the kingdom, Mohamed bin Salman, even declared that they were “closer every day” to an agreement, but since then the message issued by Riyadh is of that normalization has slowed down. Some consider that the current scenario nevertheless benefits Saudi Arabia, because it places it in a stronger position from which to resume negotiations in the future.
Umer Karim, an expert on Saudi politics at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies, notes that “as long as the regional environment remains in the current phase, the Saudis will maintain their rhetoric, condemn Israel, and insist on the need for a ceasefire. and respect for international laws to be seen on the right side of history.”
“But once this episode is over, they will be willing to restart the process, although their conditions for normalization with Israel will be much stricter and will undoubtedly include more provisions related to the Palestinian issue, because they now understand that an outbreak of this issue in the future it may also put them in the spotlight, like its other Gulf neighbors that are part of the Abraham Accords,” adds Karim, who notes that Riyadh also “does not want to antagonize Iran anymore.”
The conflagration in Gaza is especially worrying, and represents a major political challenge for Egypt and Jordan, neighbors of Palestine and Israel and the states in the region with the longest relations with the Jewish state. From the beginning, both nations have tried to stop the spiral of violence, aware that the offensive on Gaza places them in a compromised position and forces them to maintain an increasingly difficult balance between their relations with Israel and the United States and the social support for Palestine. The deterioration of the situation in their backyards also comes when both countries are going through delicate internal crises, especially economic ones, so there is fear of internal contagion of the collective rage generated by the crisis in Gaza.
In Jordan, where about half the population is of Palestinian origin, large demonstrations for Palestine have taken place, particularly crowded on Fridays after midday prayers. These have forced the country's security forces to intervene to protect sensitive points such as the embassies of the United States and Israel, as well as the border area with the occupied West Bank.
Tuqa Nusairat, a Jordan expert at the Atlantic Council research center, explains: “The widespread protests demand that the Jordanian government adopt a firm stance in support of the Palestinians, which has so far materialized in strong condemnations from the highest levels across of King Abdullah's statements and the cancellation of last week's summit that was going to host the president [Joe] Biden and Egyptian and Palestinian leaders [en Ammán]”. And he adds that "Jordanian authorities will press their American counterparts about the threats to their internal security, and to regional stability in general, if the United States continues to support Israel's attacks on Gaza and avoids addressing the root causes of the conflict."
In Egypt, where demonstrations have been almost banned for a decade, protests have also broken out in the last two weeks. Given this situation, the authorities seem inclined for now to try to channel this popular indignation in a controlled manner, with many protests promoted by pro-government sectors that elevate the figure of the president, Abdel Fattá al Sisi. But it is a risky bet because some of these marches have already escaped their control, and other independent ones have been organized. On Friday, hundreds of protesters managed to reach, despite a heavy police deployment, Cairo's iconic Tahrir Square, the heart of the country's 2011 revolution.
The Egyptian analyst Maged Mandour points out that “[Al Sisi] "He is trying to straighten the course of collective anger to use it to legitimize the regime and present himself as a defender of Egyptian national security and more of the Palestinian cause." But it is, he adds, a “very difficult and delicate balancing act, because he is trying to mobilize the street when he has spent 10 years trying to repress it, so it can easily get out of control.”
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