The ground beneath the Palestinian territories and Israel is shifting so rapidly that it is impossible to predict what is going to happen next. As I write this, Israeli forces may have decided to launch a ground invasion of Gaza, having determined that they cannot back down now, as Hamas continues to fire rockets into their territory in response to the violence on the streets of Jerusalem between Palestinians and Israelis.
Such an operation, however, will not only further enrage the residents of Gaza – the Palestinian territory under the control of Hamas – but those Arabs living within Israel as well. Whether the situation has slipped out of the Israeli government’s control or not, there is palpable anger on the streets days after Israeli right-wing extremists engaged in violence with ordinary Palestinians, including worshippers, around Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.
A ground invasion of Gaza could also overturn the balance of power in the country and its immediate neighbourhood, as it potentially entraps Israel on multiple fronts: within Israel itself, in Gaza to its west and in Lebanon to its north. The Iranian regime, which has allies in both Gaza and Lebanon and considers Israel to be a mortal enemy, may even consider firing its own rockets into the country for the first time. That calculation is not yet clear.
For the Israeli leadership, invasion could serve as a means to destroy Hamas by taking down Gaza’s military and civilian infrastructure, while containing its own home front and restoring deterrence. On the other hand, Hamas and its patrons in Tehran may seize the opportunity to defeat Israel through a barrage of missiles from the aforementioned fronts while weaponising Palestinian anger inside Israel.
Hezbollah, Tehran’s proxy group in Lebanon, is no doubt prepared to heat up the Lebanese front, the military logic behind which is that Israel may not be able to withstand attacks on two fronts. In all likelihood, Israel fears the Lebanese front more than it does the one in Gaza, because of the advanced Iranian military supplies delivered to Hezbollah.
In Tehran’s estimation, the international political climate could present it with an opportune moment to engage in confrontation with Israel.
One reason for this is the lack of effectiveness on the part of the members of the so-called Middle East Quartet – the UN, US, EU and Russia – who have historically been involved in mediating the Palestine-Israel peace process.
In the event of a confrontation, Tehran is betting on inaction from the European powers. It is anticipating little more than European sympathy for the Palestinians and its criticism of actions taken by Israel, Hamas and Hezbollah. Britain, France and Germany seem determined to revive the nuclear deal that the global powers had struck with Iran in 2015 before former US president Donald Trump pulled his country out of it. Talks are still under way in Vienna and Tehran is expecting them to maintain their focus on the same.
Russia, meanwhile, has long withdrawn from the role once played by the Soviet Union. It has become pragmatic and is closer to Israel than it was in the past. But for Moscow, the priority right now seems to be the upcoming meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Reykjavik on Thursday. They are expected to discuss a broad range of issues, including the future of Ukraine and the summit between US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, scheduled for next month.
As for the US, Mr Biden will be forced to pay attention to the developments in Israel. This is not just due to America’s strategic relationship with Israel, but also because he will probably view the current crisis through the lens of the nuclear talks in Vienna. The revival of the 2015 deal is a priority for his administration, too.
One of the hurdles for Mr Biden, however, is that he won’t be able to mediate between Iran and Israel with the purpose of deescalating the situation in Gaza, Lebanon or Israel itself – in the unlikely event any of these fronts heat up. At present, there is some sympathy for ordinary Palestinians in the US media but that could change if there is indeed a military confrontation between Israel on the one side and Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran on the other.
Given the inherent bias the US has towards Israel, the Islamic Republic will test the Biden administration and the American media equally on one of the most difficult issues for them. It will put the US president in a spot by trying to force him to choose between his administration's support for Israel and his own determination to revive the nuclear deal with Tehran.
Meanwhile, important though it is to consider the geopolitical ramifications of a potential invasion of Gaza, one must not forget the humanitarian crisis it could engender as well as the possible setbacks for Israel’s neighbouring countries, including Egypt and Lebanon.
With the Biden administration seemingly distracted and with the potential for Israel to make a mistake, Iran could see this as its golden opportunity to achieve its goals.
Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute and a columnist for The National