Instability in the Middle East brought on by the Israel-Gaza war is a test for America

It could destroy US strategic interests and the balance of power in the region

People march near the US Capitol during a pro-Palestinian march calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, on October 21, in Washington. AP
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The American response to the Israel-Gaza war is being shaped by serious anxieties that it could devolve into an all-out assault on the American-dominated order in the Middle East and even international stability writ large. Everything is in place for a potential outcome that represents the victory of revisionist powers over Washington and its partners in the Middle East. Progressive Middle East countries could also be facing a near-term future in which they confront a gravely destabilised regional and, by extension, global order, if the worst-case scenarios are met.

Egypt is most directly threatened by the Gaza-Israel war. Ever since the Camp David peace treaty with Israel in 1979, Cairo has been determined, as a matter of core national security and foreign policy, not to get sucked back into a leadership role in Gaza, under any circumstances.

Egypt knew that Israel was hoping to displace the Palestinians of Gaza into the Sinai Peninsula, and Egypt said absolutely not. So, Egypt has also made it clear that as a core national security and domestic policy it would not allow the problems facing the Palestinians in Gaza to be exported to Egypt. In short, there is no way that Egypt is going to open its borders to allow a flood of Palestinian refugees from Gaza into Egyptian territory and bail the Israelis, and Hamas, out. In fact, no Arab country is willing to help Israel, and Hamas, out of this incredible crisis that both have created for themselves, especially Israel, in Gaza.

Jordan will definitely not allow Palestinians who become displaced from the West Bank, under whatever circumstances, by Israel, under the cover of conflict, to enter into Jordanian territory yet again. Jordan has taken the largest group of Palestinian refugees twice: in 1948 and in 1967. This cannot be repeated, from a Jordanian point of view, because as a consequence of those earlier displacements, and Israel's adamant refusal to allow any of the Palestinian refugees to ever go home without being gunned down in the process, Jordan has developed a plurality or even a majority of Palestinian citizens.

But annexation-minded and racist Israeli leaders have long insisted that "Jordan is Palestine," meaning that they ultimately intend to displace the Palestinians in the West Bank and, possibly, Gaza as well, into Jordan, or possibly into Egypt, in order to alleviate Israel from this intolerable burden of non-Jewish indigenous persons living on their own land and in their own homes.

But none of that will do anything significant to alter the fundamental strategic, demographic and political landscape between the two peoples in the area in which they fight for land and power: British Mandatory Palestine.

Instead, such calculations reflect the most visceral and potent aspects of the conflict, the narratives that allowed Hamas to massacre hundreds of Israelis and Israel to so brutally attack the innocent Palestinian population of Gaza.

Hamas sought to provoke an emotional overreaction from Israel, and there is every indication that not only have they succeeded, but they will also succeed beyond their wildest imaginations. Israel appears to be preparing to invade the interior of Gaza with 300,000 conscripts, mostly untrained and unprepared for the requisite house-to-house urban combat, which so greatly favours guerrilla groups over regular militaries. Moreover, Israel is talking about a long-term conflict, with some military leaders using the framework of no less than 10 years, which must be music to the ears of everyone involved in the Hamas leadership and their Iranian sponsors.

Washington is confronting a situation that could spiral out of control and severely damage, if not destroy, the enduring but battered Pax Americana in the Middle East and, above all, the strategically imperative Gulf region. Already there is significant unrest in the West Bank and occupied East Jerusalem. If that spreads to holy places, above all the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, then it will be much more difficult for Hezbollah and other Iranian clients to sit by and do nothing, and their hesitant calculations may well change.

Both Hezbollah and Iran want Hezbollah to stay out of the fray, and instead remain a crucial deterrent against Israeli strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities, but if smaller groups in Lebanon keep attacking Israel and raising the stakes, a vicious cycle could spiral out of control, forcing either Israel or Hezbollah to act against each other when both would prefer to avoid a widening conflict.

There are also the Houthis in Yemen, capable of hitting the Israeli port city of Eilat, plus a range of pro-Iranian Shiite militia groups in Iraq who are already operating inside Syria and near the border with Israel, ready to strike. Other groups may be gathering around the occupied Golan Heights and elsewhere, prepared to fire at Israel as well.

If Israel finds itself bogged down in a debilitating multi-front conflict, there is every reason to suspect that it will not be satisfied leaving Iran, which it will correctly insist is effectively the ringmaster, unscathed. If that happens, you can expect direct Israeli strikes on Iran, especially its nuclear facilities. That could unleash a Middle Eastern Pandora's box.

Washington has deployed two major aircraft carrier groups, a vast amount of additional naval and air force power beyond huge numbers already stationed in the Gulf. That's because the Americans know they are being tested with the possibility of an all-out war that will destroy their strategic interests and balance of power in the region once and for all.

The good news is that Tehran appears strongly inclined to restrain its regional proxies from going too far and, especially, preventing Hezbollah from being dragged into this conflict. Iran is not going to want to waste its ultimate deterrent against Israel on Gaza, which it regards as strategically, culturally and even religiously of marginal interest. The even better news is that the Biden administration is not going to stand by and let a regional disaster unfold.

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Published: October 24, 2023, 4:00 AM