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Israel-Palestine war: Is the US stretched too thin?

So far, Washington has managed to avoid a regional conflagration, but the situation could escalate at any moment
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a press conference after participating in G7 ministerial meetings on 8 November, 2023 (Reuters)

Almost three years ago, I issued a humble warning in Middle East Eye that US President Joe Biden’s policy of containing China, Russia and Iran was no longer viable - if it ever was.

Late last month, the Economist published an article entitled “The overstretched superpower”, describing the complex balancing act that faces Washington - today with even more limited resources and rising internal divisions - in an increasingly multipolar and challenging geopolitical landscape, where it feels compelled to send weapons to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan.

Ukraine is out of the spotlight now, as the war of attrition and stalemate seems to favour Russia. Meanwhile, China and the US are timidly relaunching their dialogue, but Beijing remains resentful over the past and suspicious about future relations. 

On Israel, the US is actively engaged with a renewed military deployment to the region to ensure that the conflict in Gaza does not escalate into a broader conflagration. So far, this appears to have worked - but for how long, and at what price?

The Economist noted that Washington “helps Ukraine in the name of the UN charter, the inviolability of sovereign borders and human rights. In defending Israel, America is backing a country that breaches international law by building Jewish settlements in occupied territories, rejects statehood for Palestinians, and stands accused of imposing collective punishments on Palestinians, if not committing war crimes, in its bombardment and siege of Gaza.”

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While the US was able to raise a decent amount of global support to oppose Russia in Ukraine, and to contain China, the Gaza conflict is a different story. Even the flattened Europeans are beginning to have second thoughts, with President Emmanuel Macron of France becoming the most prominent western leader to call for a ceasefire last Friday.  

It took a month of bombardment and the killing of more than 10,000 Palestinians, almost half of them children, to push the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, to say that “while Israel has the right to fight Hamas, it is also essential that it strives to avoid civilian casualties … because every human life matters, be it Israeli or Palestinian”. Better late than never.

Semantic hypocrisy

It is worth asking, however, whether the EU will survive the reputational damage that has already been inflicted on the global credibility of the European project, with its incessantly claimed values disregarded over the past month as Gaza has become a “graveyard for children”.

In just one month of bombarding Gaza, Israel has killed more civilians than Russia has in Ukraine in almost two years of conflict. To put it even more brutally, the number of children killed in Gaza so far exceeds the number of Americans killed on 9/11.

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A recent vote at the UN General Assembly against the anachronistic, decades-old US embargo against Cuba underscores the abysmal isolation of Washington and Tel Aviv from the entire world. A total of 187 countries voted against the embargo, with only the US and Israel voting to maintain it. Ukraine had to desperately devise an exit strategy through an embarrassing abstention.

The UN Security Council has repeatedly discussed a ceasefire, but the US has been adamantly opposed, and it seems unwilling to go beyond a simple request for a “pause”. The semantic hypocrisy implies a short break in the Israeli bombing of Gaza and its ground offensive inside the territory - and it is an easy bet that if a pause is ever granted, the Israeli offensive will resume swiftly thereafter.

The US and Israel are becoming more isolated by the day, while Blinken has struggled to get Arab support in his latest trip to the region

According to Israeli journalist Barak Ravid, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently confirmed his country’s absurd position when he told his Israeli counterparts “that agreeing to a humanitarian pause will help the US fend off growing pressure it is facing over its support of Israel’s operation in Gaza and in turn help Israel buy more time for its ground offensive”. 

In other words, for the Biden administration, the main concern over the 11,000 people already killed in Gaza appears to be a public relations issue, and a dilemma about how to buy more time to accomplish Israel’s aims. It is thus hardly surprising that the US and Israel are becoming more isolated by the day, while Blinken has struggled to get Arab support in his latest trip to the region.

As is usually the case with US Middle East policy, actions speak louder than words. The $14bn proposal for more military aid to Israel, vetoes already cast in the Security Council, and official rejection of a ceasefire, are all factors that leave a negative impression, no matter how many beautiful speeches US officials might give.

Heavy price

The US might succeed in managing its current military overstretch, and in politically shielding Israel yet again amid its brutal actions in Gaza - but the price that Washington risks paying in terms of soft power could be heavy.

This price could rise still further if the intentions attributed to Israel for this war - ie, the forced mass transfer of Palestinian civilians in Gaza to Egypt - are confirmed, and if Washington once again protects Tel Aviv from the fierce global reaction. 

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This plan, which resembles ethnic cleansing and has been outlined in specific Israeli documents, is of course framed as a humanitarian initiative. But considering historical precedents, it is highly unlikely that any Palestinian who leaves Gaza will ever be allowed by Israel to return.

Seventy-five years after the first Nakba, we could see a second one, disguised to a bamboozled “western international community” as a humanitarian effort to save Palestinians - and led, or more precisely misled, by the US.

Even attempts to outline a possible “day after” in Gaza could complicate matters. Odd and unrealistic ideas, such as the re-establishment of a largely unpopular Palestinian Authority in Gaza, or of an ambiguous “international administration”, could be perceived as attempts to serve Israeli interests, or as risky quagmires. Such fancy ideas conceived in western think tanks are detached from reality; no third party will step in to govern Gaza.

Most probably, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has hinted, Israel will maintain security responsibility for Gaza after the conflict ends - and then, its destiny will mirror that of the occupied West Bank, where Palestinians live but security is enforced by the Israeli army. Whether this arrangement would encompass all of Gaza, or only its northern part - and for how long - are still open questions.

Meanwhile, Moscow, Beijing and Tehran are watching. Iran has been a limited nuisance to the US deployment in the region, amid carefully managed tensions. Should they start acting in a coordinated manner, this would be a game-changer - and the US overstretch could become unsustainable.

At such a juncture, 7 October 2023 could come dangerously close to resembling 28 June 1914.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Marco Carnelos is a former Italian diplomat. He has been assigned to Somalia, Australia and the United Nations. He served in the foreign policy staff of three Italian prime ministers between 1995 and 2011. More recently he has been Middle East peace process coordinator special envoy for Syria for the Italian government and, until November 2017, Italy's ambassador to Iraq.
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