The Gaza conflict extends to the broader Middle East: can diplomacy prevail over military force?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

Last Friday night, Iran sent a salvo of 330 projectiles against Israel in what it described as retaliation for an Israeli strike at the beginning of April against an Iranian diplomatic compound in Damascus. The Israeli strike reportedly killed two senior Iranian commanders belonging to the elite Revolutionary Guards Al Quds force, plus a number of other Iranian military personnel. Although Israel has not publicly claimed responsibility for this strike, it has done little to hide or deny its involvement, and it is difficult to think of another actor who might have had an interest in targeting Iranian officials stationed in neighbouring countries friendly to Tehran, such as Syria, Iraq or Lebanon. Moreover, Israel has long had a practice of selectively targeting Iranian officials in covert operations. Seven scientists working on the Iranian nuclear programme have been killed by assassination squads allegedly organised by Mossad since 2010. Israel has also gone after Iran’s proxies, particularly Hezbollah commanders in Lebanon and Hamas leaders in Gaza – all well before the current outbreak of violence since 7 October last year. These assassinations have given Israel propaganda victories and helped to momentarily disrupt Israel’s adversaries. But new people have quickly emerged to take the place of those killed by the Israeli Defence Force or the Mossad intelligence agency, bringing no lasting relief for Israel’s strategic security dilemmas. Consequently, new rounds of strikes and targeted assassinations have inevitably followed before too long in what has become, over the years, an almost routine titfortat exercise.

Yet simultaneously, Tel Aviv and Tehran were careful to avoid escalation. The implicit understanding was “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. Or a show of force rather than the use of force. The Israeli strikes were more against Iran’s proxies than against Iran itself. Neither side openly acknowledged responsibility and, after one round of retaliation, signalled discreetly to the other capital that they were satisfied and would not escalate further. Given their military power, urbanised populations and industrial infrastructure, neither Israel nor Tehran were prepared to take the risk of an all-out conflict. Iran, with its large army and massive stockpiles of ballistic and cruise missiles and drones, would be a much more formidable challenge for the Israeli Defence Force than the poorly trained and equipped Egyptian and Jordanian armies that attacked it in the Six -Day War of June 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of October 1973. The same goes for the Iran-backed para-military groups in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria or Iraq. For its part, Tehran was wary of Israel’s arsenal of nuclear weapons and its high tech US-supplied air force. The long-standing US support for Israel and visceral opposition to Iran’s nuclear programme also gave Tehran pause as it suggested that the US would join in a war on Tel Aviv’s side. Iran was also aware of its weak economy with inflation at 40% for the last three years and the ever present prospect of anti-regime protests. So, in this way, mutual deterrence was maintained. It allowed Israel to push back against its non-state adversaries one at a time without fear of being plunged into a wider regional conflict that would over-stretch its impressive but still limited resources.

It would be a mistake for Israel to believe that it is invulnerable to Iranian capabilities short of nuclear weapons

Yet this cosy arrangement, with its guardrails and implicit understandings, has now broken down. Covert war has become overt war, limiting the room for manoeuvre of political leaders. Israel was ill-advised to attack an Iranian diplomatic mission which Tehran was bound to consider as an attack on its own territory. Also, context matters. At a time when the Israeli retaliation against Hamas in Gaza has led to over 30,000 Palestinian deaths and thousands on the brink of famine, it would be especially difficult for Iran to take the strike in Damascus on the chin. The ayatollahs in Tehran were already being criticised by the anti-Israeli groups throughout the Middle East for not intervening to stop Tel Aviv’s Gaza operations or to open a second front. Strong anti-Israel rhetoric and large anti-Israel demonstrations in Tehran took some of the pressure off the Ayatollah Khameini and his government, but they could not hide the regime’s caution and lack of action. Simply providing weapons and training to Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen or the proxy groups in Syria and Iraq was no longer considered enough. So Israel must have reckoned with a much stronger Iranian reaction than usual after the Damascus strike, as Iran needed something big in order to re-establish deterrence. Hence the first ever direct Iranian attack on Israel itself with all the risks that the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has built his entire political career on dramatising the Iranian threat and is under pressure from the extreme right figures in his cabinet, would order counter strikes against Tehran. This would then make a significant Middle Eastern war, pulling in Hezbollah, Syria and the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces, almost inevitable. Given that Israel still has much military work to do in Gaza to root out Hamas from Rafah, and has had to call up two reserve army divisions for this purpose, we have to wonder what interest Israel can have to widen the conflict not only to Iran but to four or five other countries in the region as well. Precisely to underscore this risk, Iranian projectiles were also fired against Israel from Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq in a carefully planned and coordinated action.

Israel has made much of the fact that, in sheer military terms, the Iranian strikes were a failure. Used to dealing with missile attacks from Hamas and Hezbollah, Tel Aviv has invested heavily in a three-tier missile defence system. The Arrow can intercept incoming missiles at ranges over 1000km and high altitudes; the David’s Sling has a medium range around 500km and Iron Dome is used for the shorter range rockets fired into Israel from Gaza and Lebanon. It has also acquired Patriots from the US, which are particularly useful against ballistic missiles. Given the frequency of these rocket attacks against towns in northern Israel and along the border with Gaza (and occasionally Ben Gurion airport as well), Israel has had time and operational experience to perfect this missile defence system. Consequently, it claimed that it successfully intercepted 99% of the Iranian projectiles with particular success against the drones and cruise missiles but some of the faster flying ballistic missiles got through, hitting an airbase in the Negev desert in southern Israel although not causing significant damage. Almost no civilian casualties resulted, allowing Israel to claim a major political win. Yet, it would be a mistake for Israel to believe that it is invulnerable to Iranian capabilities short of nuclear weapons. Tehran fired only 110 or so ballistic missiles out of thousands in its inventory. By firing more, it could have tried to overwhelm Israel’s defences and inflicted significantly more casualties and destruction. By its action, Iran seemed to be trying to convey a double message: on the one hand that it would not hesitate to strike back if Israel crossed the red line of attacking vital Iranian interests; but that it was avoiding the massive strikes that would have provoked in turn a massive Israeli response and the inevitability of all-out war. Iranian military spokesmen have since confirmed that they see the incident as closed and are not seeking escalation. For Tehran, its deterrence vis-a-vis Tel Aviv has now been restored.

The current problem is that Netanyahu and his generals may not see it that way. Already, the Chief of the Israeli Defence Force has confirmed that Israel will respond – at a time and in a manner of its own choosing. Because of the precedent of a direct Iranian strike against Israel, Tel Aviv believes that its deterrence capacity vis-a-vis Tehran has failed. It will, therefore, draw the conclusion that it has no choice but to escalate and hit back hard against Tehran. Some hawks in the Israeli government, especially hardliners such as Finance Minister, Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister, Itamar Ben Gvir. have even suggested attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities. Israel has tried to sabotage them in the past (notably the Natanz uranium enrichment plant that suffered a damaging explosion in 2020), but it has not so far attacked them directly. Since Donald Trump took the US out of the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018 and re-imposed draconian oil and banking sanctions on Iran, Tehran has accelerated its fuel enrichment activities going well beyond the 3% limit enshrined in the nuclear deal and rapidly approaching the 90% threshold to build a nuclear weapon. As the window to act before Iran has a functioning nuclear weapon capability is closing fast, Netanyahu and the hawks around him may well believe that the Iranian missile strike against Israel has given it the perfect casus belli to launch a pre-emptive attack to destroy or at least significantly degrade Iran’s nuclear programme, setting back that programme by a number of years and buying Tel Aviv more time. Yet security experts have long believed that a truly devastating strike would require US participation and US stealth, precision strike and bunker busting capabilities. Hawks in the US, including right-wing Republicans long critical of the Iran nuclear deal agreed to by the Obama administration, may also see an opportunity here. Yet it is virtually certain that US President Biden will neither countenance an Israeli retaliatory strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities nor agree to US participation. The US would suffer gravely in the court of global public opinion and no doubt be accused of instrumentalising the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza and Israel’s military operations there for its own strategic goals to weaken Iran. It is one thing for Biden to say, along with other G7 leaders, that he stands firmly behind Israel’s ability to defend itself. But that consensus will break down quickly if the US is seen as covering reckless Israeli actions or supplying it with weapons that go beyond strictly territorial defence purposes, all the more so at a time when Iran seems to prefer de-escalation.

Netanyahu would be happy to recast the narrative of the conflict not just as one between Israel and Iran, but between the Western democracies plus Israel and the all-pervasive, evil Iran as the instigator of all the troubles and instability of the region

Of course, no love is lost between the Biden administration and the mullahs in Tehran. There is a long history of antagonism between the two countries going back to the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and the seizure of the American diplomatic staff inside the US embassy in Tehran. Biden has been frustrated by the unwillingness of Khamenei to return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and Iran’s closer relationship with Russia, whereby it is supplying its Shaheed drones for Moscow to use against Ukraine and possibly ballistic missiles too in the near future. Iranian proxies have also launched more than 140 attacks against US forces and bases across the Middle East, including US warships patrolling the Red Sea. Recently three US service personnel were killed in a strike in Jordan prompting Biden to order 80 US retaliation strikes against Iranian proxy groups. Yet, as the November Presidential election in the US comes closer, Biden has little to gain and much to lose by involving the US in a full-scale war with Iran. For one, it would lead to many US casualties as Iran organises strikes and terrorist attacks against US forces and interests in the Middle East and beyond. It would also exacerbate the economic disruption and supply chain bottlenecks already impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Higher gasoline prices at the pump and the return of inflation are the last thing that Biden needs at a time when a majority of US voters question his handling of the economy. Moreover, the US is likely to be alone. Those NATO and other US friends and allies that have pitched in billions of dollars to help Ukraine, and this includes a major role of the EU as well, are highly unlikely to become involved in a military confrontation with Iran beyond the defence of Israel’s territory. The US will get the blame for the disruption of energy supplies and to international trade, and Biden’s attempts to woo countries in the Gulf, Africa, Asia and Latin America against the axis of the authoritarians (notably China, Russia, North Korea and Iran) will become nigh impossible.

It is easy to see why Netahanyu is anxious to put Iran centre stage. It helps him to divert attention away from Israel’s highly controversial actions in Gaza and the impending operations of the Israeli Defence Force against the residual Hamas presence in Rafah, which the US and many European allies have roundly condemned due to its catastrophic impact on the already dire humanitarian situation in the strip. Netanyahu would be happy to recast the narrative of the conflict not just as one between Israel and Iran, but between the Western democracies plus Israel and the all-pervasive, evil Iran as the instigator of all the troubles and instability of the region. Such a narrative would also make it harder for the US to criticise Israel or to deny it its full military backing at a moment when public support for Israel, particularly among Democrats, younger Americans and the 3 million strong Arab-American population has been draining away. So far a hallmark of Biden’s foreign policy doctrine – including when he served as Vice President under Obama – has been to avoid entanglement in overseas military operations. He hastily withdrew US forces from Afghanistan in 2021, accepting the chaotic withdrawal conditions and the loss to US prestige that this inevitably entailed. Despite his constant support for Ukraine he has ruled out US troops on Ukrainian territory and delayed deliveries of long-range artillery out of fear that Ukraine might use it against targets inside Russia and escalate the conflict. This self-imposed red line as well as the worry that more overt and uncritical US support for Israel will further haemorrhage Democratic voters in the November election are clearly behind Biden’s call on Netanyahu last weekend to be happy with his political victory over Tehran and desist from further action. The question now is how much leverage does the US, and in particular the Biden Administration, still have on Israel? Thus far Netanyahu has made a great play about Israel’s strategic autonomy and that it alone knows best what it needs to do to guarantee its security. Tel Aviv has given lip service to US, and European, demands that it facilitates the delivery of more humanitarian aid to Gaza, that it draw up credible plans to protect the civilian population before launching its Rafah offensive and that it commit to a ceasefire – as required by a vote of the UN Security Council. Netanyahu may think that he can sit out the end of the Biden Administration in the hope of receiving more sympathetic treatment at the hands of a re-elected Donald Trump and Republican-controlled Congress. In the meantime, Tel Aviv might also interpret the failure of the Iranian missile strike as a sign of Tehran’s weakness and calculate that it can prevail in a multi-round boxing match with its sworn enemy. This would be a serious miscalculation. Tehran has made clear that it will launch a much more significant attack against Israel the next time around. And Israel’s economy will also take a significant hit. Already, many airlines have cancelled flights to Tel Aviv and mobilising more reserve forces will hurt business and industrial production.

Admittedly, Netanyahu has a valid concern about Iran. It has long been implicated in international terrorism and sends out its assassination squads to deal with its political opponents abroad (most recently an Iranian journalist in London who was the victim of a stabbing). Its repression of protesters at home is ruthless and it has long defied UN resolutions and obfuscated and cheated about its nuclear programme. But most egregiously of all, it has long been publicly committed to the destruction of Israel – a policy regularly articulated by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he was Iranian President from 2005 to 2013. Iran has also attempted to encircle Israel with a myriad of proxy groups financed and equipped by Tehran. So even Israeli citizens who oppose Netanyahu and his allies among the Jewish settler groups on the West Bank have good reason to be anxious about Iran. It is an adversary that clearly needs to be contained and weakened by the West as long as the current theocratic regime remains in power. Yet the situation in the Middle East is already bad enough, and its negative impact on global security already sufficiently serious, without Israel now pouring more oil on the flames by engulfing the US, Europe and the rest of the Middle East in a war with Iran. Israel already faces the risk of Hezbollah joining the fight after its assassination of two senior Hezbollah commanders in recent days. Hezbollah possesses around 40,000 Iranian supplied rockets and missiles. A new Intifada on the West Bank could break out as the Palestinian death toll rises following clashes with well-armed Jewish settlers. In Gaza, Hamas is far from being eliminated and its tunnel complex destroyed despite six months of intensive Israeli bombardments and fighting on the ground. The Gaza conflict is provoking tensions between Israel and those Arab countries that, until recently, had been prepared to make peace with it.

The involvement of the Houthis has severely restricted maritime shipping in the Red Sea making ships sail around the Cape of Good Hope instead. Egypt’s loss of Suez Canal revenues is driving the fragile Egyptian economy into a deeper crisis. The conflict has deflected international attention away from Ukraine at a perilous moment, with US financial support stuck in Congress and Kyiv running out of air defence missiles and ammunition. Instead of discussing aid to Ukraine, Republicans are debating an arms package for Israel. The issue of how to deal in the long term with an aggressive Russia has been shelved. The humanitarian situation in Gaza has mobilised the international community and aid agencies to the extent that the famine affecting 5 mn Sudanese people, the worst humanitarian disaster in the world at the present time, is almost ignored. A pledging conference in Paris for Sudan this week received little attention and barely $2 bn in new funds for food and medicines. Meanwhile, after six months of war in Gaza, none of the fundamental issues have been resolved. How will Israel secure the release of the remaining 130 hostages? How will the war end if Israel cannot eradicate Hamas and kill every single fighter? What will happen to the 2 mn civilian inhabitants of Gaza and where will they go? What will be the future government of Gaza and will it be in the hands of Israel, the Palestinian Authority or an international administration? Who will pay for the reconstruction of Gaza, now running into multiples of billions of dollars and coming on top of massive sums to the rebuilding of Ukraine, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria? And how, most importantly, does Israel find a just and durable solution to its relationship with the Palestinians so as to stop the endless cycle of hatred and violence and the regular eruptions into mass slaughter? Six months on, we are none the wiser and Israel doesn’t appear to have any answers either except for the belief that eliminating Hamas, just one of a number of anti-Israel militias, is somehow going to make it secure. What is certain is that drawing Iran further into the conflict will not make any of these issues less complex or easier to resolve.

So at this time of peril in the Middle East and as we stand on the brink of a wider but also more violent war, can diplomacy still find a way out? The G7, the EU and the UN Security Council have all met in recent days to debate the options and Israel has also stated that it is open, for now, to more diplomacy. What could be done?

The first step is to debunk the Israeli myth that it is autonomous and strong enough to go it alone. The Iranian strikes last weekend failed largely because US ships and aircraft, UK and French aircraft and Jordanian air defence systems shot down a large number of the Iranian projectiles. We do not know how many were shot down by these other countries, but the figure is significant. Moreover, it was US signals intelligence that gave Tel Aviv early warning of an impending Iranian strike, giving Israel time to prepare its defences and disperse assets like fighter aircraft. Israel remains dependent on foreign military supplies, particularly from the US and Germany which together make up more than 80% of its arms purchases abroad. Israel certainly has a high-tech defence sector and has produced its own tanks and artillery systems. It also is strong in electronics and cyber warfare. But Israel still depends on foreign equipment and technology, without which it could not have developed its sophisticated air defence system or precision-guided munitions. Already, Western arms deals with Israel have given rise to claims by NGOs and legal experts in the West that the foreign governments and officials behind these sales could be guilty of war crimes and human rights violations because of the way Israel has used the imported weapons in Gaza. This suggests that the US and European friends of Israel should together agree on a policy that their arms exports can be used by the Israeli Defence Force for territorial defence only. Establishing a set of common red lines would increase Western leverage over Israel’s military planning as Tel Aviv can ill afford mounting political pressure, particularly in Europe, to cut off arms and military technology transfers. The G7, representing the principal arms suppliers to Israel, could usefully work on these guidelines while making clear that they will always uphold the country’s sovereignty and independence against outside aggression.

A democratic Israel would in turn find it easier to work constructively with its Arab neighbours than an authoritarian one practicing discrimination against its Arab citizens

At the same time, a diplomatic track has to start from the realisation that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at the root of all the region’s instabilities. Of course, the ethnic tensions in Iraq or the religious divides in Lebanon would still be there as would the aspirations of Iran or Saudi Arabia to be the region’s hegemonic power. Jihadist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIL would still be causing trouble too. But if the two-state solution could be implemented all these other problems would be less intractable and easier to approach through cooperation rather than competition or rivalry. For instance, Iran would find it harder to mobilise radical followers among the impoverished Shia communities in Lebanon and Iraq. The Gulf monarchies could continue their normalisation with Israel begun by the Abraham Accords (which Saudi Arabia has yet to join). Egypt and Jordan could move from their cold peace with Israel to real peace with cooperation on energy production, water management, agriculture and dealing with the increasing impact of climate change. Israel itself would be a less divided society and better preserve its democracy. The influence of the settlers, extreme right-wingers and ultra-orthodox in Israeli politics would diminish if a Palestinian state can be established on the West Bank and the spectre of Palestinian terrorism led by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad recedes. The alternative is the one-state solution where Israel has to resort to ever more repressive measures to control its majority Arab population. A democratic Israel would in turn find it easier to work constructively with its Arab neighbours than an authoritarian one practicing discrimination against its Arab citizens. So Western diplomacy now has to send a clear message to Israel: its long-term survival depends on its readiness to seriously address the two-state solution. Suppose it continues to refuse to do so, blaming everything on Arab intransigence. In that case, the West’s capacity to support Israel will inevitably change over time as can be seen already in the declining support in the US and the large pro-Palestinian demonstrations across Europe.. But what the Israeli politicians and military commanders have always feared is not justice but security. The perception has taken root that a Palestinian state poses an insurmountable risk to Israel’s security. So the G7 and EU need to work together on a joint plan to guarantee Israel’s borders in a NATO-style Article 5 arrangement for 25 years after an agreement to establish a Palestinian state is signed. This could involve the permanent stationing of joint US-European brigades along the new Israel-Palestine border together with a rotational air presence. Israel and the new Palestinian state should also be encouraged to set up joint intelligence sharing cells and the new Palestinian state should renounce weapons of mass destruction and restrict the size of its military forces and weaponry for 50 years. At least these are the sort of ideas that diplomats need to start to debate and analyse. A transitional plan could be to reconstruct the Palestinian Authority through new elections and the rebuilding of Gaza and give it greater resources and responsibilities to run Gaza and the West Bank together with the dismantling of many of the Israeli settlements.

A third track is to give Tel Aviv incentives not to attack Iran and to embrace a diplomatic approach instead. A collective diplomatic effort may achieve more over time than a military strike. The Israeli foreign minister has proposed to his country’s partners declaring the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organisation, imposing more sanctions on Iran and taking further measures to restrict its access to missile technology and fuel for its nuclear programme. Iran is already subject to fairly draconian sanctions, but loopholes can always be tightened. A US-European joint maritime force in the Persian Gulf can prevent Iran from seizing commercial shipping. Just last week Iranian commandos landed on a container vessel linked to Israeli investors. At the same time, Netanyahu can undertake strikes on Iranian proxies or Hezbollah supply columns in Syria but not Iran itself. The US and the EU can work closely with Israel to intercept Iran’s weapons shipments to its proxies particularly the Houthis in Yemen, who are attacking Western interests and the international economy more generally rather than principally Israel. Recently for instance the US Navy intercepted a vessel laden with Iranian arms and ammunition destined for the Houthis. The Biden Administration subsequently donated the entire shipment to Ukraine.

Finally, the Middle East has a worrying capacity to tie up US and European diplomats in thousands of working hours and hundreds of thousands of air miles for little result. This is frankly time that needs to be spent more urgently on bigger problems for the West, notably the war in Ukraine. The US Secretary of State along with foreign ministers from the major European powers have travelled half a dozen times in recent weeks to the Middle East for shuttle diplomacy but also to endure endless discussions on ceasefires, humanitarian pauses and hostage releases that either Israel or Hamas have rejected. And this is just short-term, immediate crisis management diplomacy and not to design long-term solutions that will prevent the cycle of violence starting all over again in just a few years time. If the Western democracies are to push Russia back and bring Ukraine and other Eastern European states into NATO and the EU, prevent Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific, stabilise the Balkans and deal with the numerous conflicts in Africa with all their devastating consequences for civilian populations, diplomatic time and resource management have to be better aligned with strategic objectives. To quote Madeleine Albright, America may still be the “indispensable nation” but the Middle East will need to learn to take care of itself. There are some indications this is happening. Qatar, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have all played leading roles in trying to mediate the Gaza crisis and in relieving the humanitarian situation. Before the Hamas attack on Israel, Saudi Arabia had concluded a ceasefire with the Houthis in Yemen and was close to joining the Abraham Accords with Israel. Ankara and Tel Aviv were also gradually improving their relations. Saudi Arabia was attempting also to reduce its long standing tensions with Iran and restore diplomatic relations. In the current stressed and highly charged political atmosphere it will be difficult for Israel to work more closely with its Arab neighbours and some such as Kuwait have ruled out joining the Abraham Accords. But once the crisis abates, Israel will need to conduct some diplomacy of its own to reconcile as much as possible with its more amenable Arab neighbours and to build a new security system for the Middle East. Yes, it is true that every time the Western powers try to escape from the Middle East it drags them back in, in the same way that Michael Corleone in Godfather 2 lamented his inability to escape the Mafia. Yet, the US and the European powers need to finally  escape this syndrome and to make clear to their Middle East partners that they cannot indefinitely instrumentalise the US and Europe to sort out problems that they are unable or unwilling to tackle themselves. The cloud may have a silver lining. After the Iranian strike, the US House of Representatives may at long last take up the supplemental bill on foreign military aid to give $14 bn to Israel. If it includes the long delayed $61 bn in aid to Ukraine as well, some good may yet emerge from this depressing saga in the Middle East.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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