27 Oct The Geopolitical Consequences of the Israel-Hamas War
Over the last few weeks, the world’s attention has been on the grave developments in the Middle East. In a very short space of time, the conflict has rewired key geopolitical relationships and with growing concern that the conflict may spread across the Middle East, the consequences are fast reverberating. The situation remains volatile and fast-moving and it is difficult to predict precisely how it will unfold. Nevertheless, there are a number of key geopolitical trends beginning to take shape. Below we explore what they are, their potential implications, and what it means for the UK and its allies.
Suspension of Normalisation in the Middle East
The last few years have been characterised by attempts to ‘de-escalate’ tensions in the Middle East and normalise relations between Israel and a number of Arab nations. The Abraham Accords in particular, which normalised relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, were genuinely groundbreaking. However, recent events have quickly undermined that progress, threatened domestic stability in many states in the Middle East, and exposed the deep-rooted challenges that remain in normalising relations.
Particular strain has been placed on Israel’s relations with Egypt and Jordan. While both nations have had normalised relations with Israel for decades, relations have long been cold and have only worsened in recent weeks. Jordan’s King Abdullah II has condemned Israel’s military campaign as a ‘war crime’, while Egypt has criticised it as ‘collective punishment’. This comes even as Egyptian President El-Sisi holds his own concerns about Hamas, who are one of the last remaining embodiments of the Muslim Brotherhood, whom El-Sisi took power from in a military coup a decade ago. Both nations have particular concerns about an influx of refugees and the potential wider security consequences for their nations. But at the heart of their concerns is the swelling of Palestinian support among their own populations, many of whom empathise with the Palestinian cause, which they believe mirrors their frustrations with their own autocratic governments. At a time of economic crisis and domestic instability, both nations are cautious of awakening the underlying discontent within their own populace by failing to support Palestine.
However, while many Gulf states are vocally critical of Israel’s attacks on Gaza, their language has been much softer than it would have been even a few years ago. That’s because much of the rationale for the rapprochement in recent years remains true. With the world attempting to move away from oil and gas, many Middle Eastern nations are looking to diversify their economies, for which they require economic and political stability. They also remain deeply concerned about the threat posed by Iran and by Iran-backed groups in their own countries.
It’s a careful balance for nations to strike. Each nation will adopt its own narrative and there were particularly notable divides in approaches in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas’ attack. The UAE and Bahrain, for example, condemned the October 7th attack by Hamas but many others in the region have not. However, as the situation evolves, there is a growing sense of consensus among Arab nations. In a joint statement earlier this week, Foreign Ministers from nine Arab nations condemned the targeting of civilians and what they regard as violations of international law in Gaza.
Their positioning will no doubt continue to be impacted by how events unfold in the coming days and weeks. The United States has intercepted cruise missiles fired by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen towards Israel, meanwhile Israeli missiles have hit Damascus and Aleppo international airports. The greatest concern at this stage, though, is the prospect of Hezbollah joining the war. The Iran-backed militant group based in Lebanon has declared that they are ready to join the conflict, with exchanges between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon already escalating. The danger is that as more and more parties get involved in the conflict, the potential for the conflict to spread across the Middle East increases, even as many nations call for peace.
A US/Iran Proxy War?
While the frontline of this conflict is between Israel and Hamas, it is quickly becoming as much about the larger military powers who support the two sides. Iran, which supports both Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, has already begun to refer to the ‘US and its proxy Israel’ in its messaging around the conflict, blaming the United States for the escalation of violence.
The United States has long been Israel’s biggest and most powerful supporter. Acting as a guarantor for Israel and providing the country with US$3.8bn of defence aid a year, the United States’ ties with Israel, which is the largest recipient of US foreign aid, are longstanding. They are based on a sense of shared ambition for the Middle East, historical links and domestic public opinion. Unsurprisingly then, since Hamas’ attack on October 7th, the United States has been forthright in its support for Israel. This has included sending two aircraft carriers to the region to deter other actors from attack, gather intelligence and provide air defence. The United States also used its veto to block a Brazilian-drafted UN Security Council resolution on the conflict because the resolution did not mention Israel’s right to self-defence.
Meanwhile, and while there is nothing to suggest it was directly involved in planning the October 7th attack, Iran has long supported Hamas, financially, militarily and economically. Indeed Iran was training Hamas fighters as recently as September and Iranian officials have vocally congratulated Hamas for the surprise attack on October 7th. The United States also claims that Iran is monitoring and even facilitating attacks on US troops and military bases in the Middle East.
While both the United States and Israel have been forthright in their support for their respective sides, it remains unclear how far either side would be willing to go to support their allies. Iran has publicly called for an end to Israel’s attacks on Gaza and threatened to get involved should the conflict spread, but will no doubt be torn between its desire for regional ascendancy and concern about being drawn into a costly conflict at a time of economic crisis and domestic instability. The United States faces a similar quandary – while it will want to protect its interests in the Middle East, and there is strong domestic support for Israel in the United States, the challenges Biden has faced in securing financial support for his military aid package to Ukraine, the United States’ recent experience in the Middle East, and pressure from Arab leaders will no doubt drive some caution about being heavily involved in the longer-term. Indeed, there are growing signs that while the United States is firmly backing Israel, growing international pressure is beginning to shift America’s position as Biden increasingly focuses on the humanitarian situation in Gaza.
A Role for China?
With Iran and the United States’ perspectives on the conflict clear, the question is how other nations will respond, who might look to assume a mediator role and the implications for wider geopolitics. Many have looked to China as a potential mediator due to its relatively strong relationship with Iran and the role it assumed in brokering the rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. However, with the United States sitting across the table, there is a limit to China’s negotiating power, even while it will no doubt wish to be seen as a relevant actor in the debate.
Indeed China’s approach so far has largely mirrored its approach to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – to position itself as a neutral, peace-seeking world power. Of course, China is not neutral in this – it is looking to expand its Belt and Road Initiative in the Middle East and therefore has a clear interest in peace and stability in the region. It also has strong links with Iran and has so far avoided condemning the attack by Hamas. Indeed, only in recent days has China recognised Israel’s right to self-defence, and even then this was strongly caveated by a focus on international law and the protection of civilians. The rhetorical gap between China’s language around the conflict and that of the United States is striking. Nonetheless, as the United States and Iran face-off, China’s approach seems to hinge on the premise that, for now at least, there is little for them to gain by getting directly involved.
While primarily preoccupied with its own conflict with Ukraine, Russia has more actively sought to adopt a mediator role in the conflict, on the basis that, according to Putin, Russia has “good” and “traditional” relations with both sides and therefore “no one could suspect (Russia) of playing up to one party”. However, with Russia welcoming Hamas and Iranian officials to Moscow, it is clear that any claims of neutrality, or potential for playing the role of mediator, are quickly fading away.
Russia’s stance is, in part, rooted in its growing ties with Iran, which have strengthened since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with Russia assisting Iran’s missile and space-launched vehicle programmes in return for Iranian combat drones and military gear. Any Russian support for Hamas will be tempered by concern about further alienating Israel, with whom it has strong connections, not least through the Russian-Israeli diaspora, who make up 15% of the Israeli population. Indeed Israel has, so far, declined to join Western sanctions on Russia or to send arms to Ukraine. However, with Ukraine looking to use Russia’s wavering as an opportunity to warm relations with Israel, and with a leading member of Israel’s governing party threatening to make Russia ‘pay the price’ for supporting Hamas, that may already be a lost cause.
Ultimately though, Russia’s first and foremost priority is still Ukraine. In this sense instability in the Middle East plays into Russia’s favour. A year and a half on from Russia’s invasion and there is clearly a sense that in certain corners, particularly within the United States, appetite for ongoing support for Ukraine is waning. Putin will no doubt hope that the conflict in the Middle East will consume time, energy and resources that would otherwise be channelled towards Ukraine, which remains heavily reliant on support from the West. At the same time, Russia is using the Israel-Hamas war as an opportunity to discredit the United States by blaming the crisis on the failure of American diplomacy. The United States has put significant energy into trying to normalise Israel-Saudi relations and these efforts could well become collateral damage in the conflict, to the benefit of Russia.
This is not to say that Russia would favour full-scale war across the Middle East, not least because of the threat this could pose to its interests, including its air and naval bases, in the region. Indeed, there is a risk that if Russia associates too closely with Hamas, it increases the likelihood of Biden successfully getting a joint Israel/Ukraine support package through the United States House of Representatives. For now at least, for Russia the conflict at least serves as a welcome Western distraction as the conflict with Ukraine rages on – how long that is the case still remains to be seen.
Where to Next?
With a conflict so volatile and fast-moving, it is incredibly hard, and perhaps even counterproductive, to predict what will happen next. One move from one actor can fundamentally alter the course of events. You only have to look at the EU’s sharp U-turn from deciding to withdraw aid from Palestine to calling for the urgent provision of aid to see how quickly things can change. Similarly, we already see pro-Palestinian sentiment growing across the West as the humanitarian situation escalates, creating the potential for a fracturing in the Western alliance and growing divergence in approach between the United States and its allies.
There are then still many unknowns. It is clear though that current events have undermined progress towards stability in the Middle East, pose a growing challenge to the Western alliance and its global relationships, and that the repercussions of the conflict will be felt for decades and generations to come.