Biggest casualty of Israel-Hamas war is the new Middle East

Backing down will not be an easy choice for Netanyahu

ISRAEL-US-PALESTINIAN-CONFLICT Mission impossible: Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets US President Joe Biden upon his arrival at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport on October 18 | AFP

THE ROAD TO hell is paved with good intentions. This was never truer for US President Joe Biden than it is now. Preparing for a re-election bid, he is watching the new Middle East turning into ashes. And he has a task that only Agent Ethan Hunt in a Mission Impossible movie could pull off―find a solution for the messiest problem since the 1940s, the Israel-Palestine conflict. And on a deadline.

“The situation is dire,” said Kabir Taneja, fellow at Observer Research Foundation. “This has pushed the question of Palestine, for long on the back burner, now to the front and centre.”

Hamas’s attack on Israel on October 7 put an end to the dreams of a new Middle East. The subsequent bombing of Gaza by Israel has ensured that the humanitarian crisis in the region will only become worse, and the pressure to find a fix will only mount. From both sides.

Backing down now will not be an easy choice for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, especially because he is facing corruption charges. For the rest of the Middle East, which was determined to find a better economic situation by sweeping the Palestine question under the carpet, the killing of the civilians in Gaza needs a response to satisfy the domestic audience.

Any American attempt to douse the fire has been met with resistance. Even Biden’s quick visit did not change the situation. Earlier, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had a tough time lobbying for a stronger position on Hamas by Arab nations. Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, reportedly kept him waiting for hours, setting the tone for what followed.

The redrawing of the Middle East―using economics to gloss over the problems―with the Abraham accords and the normalisation of Israel-Saudi Arabia relations is now back to square one. The civil nuclear deal and the weapons that Saudi Arabia wanted from the US will no longer be an incentive good enough. “Saudi Arabia cannot even think of flirting with Israel,” said Talmiz Ahmad, former ambassador of India to Saudi Arabia.

If October 7 was a turning point for Israel, the attack on the al-Ahli hospital in Gaza City on October 17 could well be another one for the conflict. It has added another level of complexity to the mix, forcing Jordan―the second Arab country to sign a peace deal with Israel in 1994―to cancel a summit with Biden. The summit was a desperate attempt to keep the balance in the region that is a powder keg. That Jordan cancelled it at a time when it could have helped the country become a leader in the region and kept it in the good books of the US shows how emotive the issue is. About three million people of Palestinian origin are there in Jordan.

Diplomacy apart, the bigger challenge will be dealing with the fallout of the crisis. Gaza has been demolished, and rebuilding it will be a herculean task. The Arab nations that are offering solidarity have refused to take in any refugees. So far the border with Egypt remains closed. Jordan, too, is unable to cope with more refugees. “That is a red line, because I think that is the plan by certain of the usual suspects to try and create de facto issues on the ground. No refugees in Jordan, no refugees in Egypt,” said King Abdullah of Jordan at a news conference after a meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin. The Palestinians, too, do not want to leave Gaza, because that will amount to ceding their land to Israel. How this will play out in the near future remains to be seen.

What makes it more tricky for the US is that China has already made inroads in the region. President Xi Jinping may not have the answers―certainly not the right ones―for the problems, but he has already taken a pro-Arab position. For now, the problem is very much Biden’s. And he won’t be the first American president to fail at it.