The following is from an International Crisis Group statement of March 21, 2023, titled “Persistent Violence in Israel-Palestine Could Escalate Further”:
“Tensions have been rising for the past few months, fueled by a combination of factors. Among them are deadly Israeli military raids in Palestinian population centers in the West Bank; killings of Israelis by individual Palestinians; mob rampages by Israeli settlers; incendiary statements by members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new far-right government and the Knesset; a restless and militarily potent Hamas in the Gaza Strip; and a Palestinian Authority (PA) that has, in many Palestinians’ eyes, lost legitimacy as its security apparatus starts to break down.”[i]
In brief, some wise observers foresaw that some trouble was coming. Understandably, what they could not foresee was the extent of it.
The Hamas attack of October 7 was a huge intelligence failure for Israel since its preparation must have taken longer than a few months. And the reason for the failure was Israeli overconfidence.
The violence of the attack was condemned by the Israeli government and the West in the strongest language since innocent civilians were among those killed and taken hostage. As usual, Washington took the lead and European leaders as well as the EU trio followed. Western media reporting was no different. After Israel started to bomb Gaza causing civilian casualties and ordered the evacuation of northern Gaza, the Western media continued with its condemnation of Hamas but also started mentioning the worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza. For the last few days, headlines have been mostly about the plight of the Gazans.
A day after the Hamas attack, “Israel’s response to the attack by Palestinian gunmen from the Gaza Strip will change the Middle East,” Prime Minister Netanyahu said. After all, with Iraq and Syria removed from the Arab-Israeli equation, why not make the most of the massacre he might have thought? And as Steven Erlanger of the New York Times recently wrote, “Israel considers itself in a battle for its life, its longtime prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is battling for his reputation and his legacy.”
All of that has made it imperative for Washington to restrain Mr. Netanyahu and urge him not to go beyond the limits of reason as that may increase the risks of a widening conflict and put some Arab governments at odds with their people, making the process of normalization of relations with Arab countries like Saudi Arabia more of a challenge.
It seems that after his visits to Arab capitals, Secretary Blinken will tell Mr. Netanyahu today to move against Hamas but stop short of creating a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza. However, who guides the other in the Middle East is a complex aspect of the Israel-US relationship. The deployment of a second US carrier group to the Mediterranean is a warning not only to Iran but also to Hezbollah. Moreover, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said Sunday that he would not necessarily rule out US troops being deployed on the ground to free hostages caught in the Israel-Hamas war while noting there is currently no plan to do so.
Regardless of the anti-Hamas statements by Western governments, last Saturday, Iranian Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian met with Ismail Haniyeh, the head of the political bureau of Hamas, and several other leaders of the movement in Doha where he said, “If the Israeli regime’s crimes in Gaza continue, any possibility in the region is likely, and the Islamic Republic of Iran will continue its attempts to halt Israeli war crimes.”[ii] Interestingly, the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar is home to the headquarters of the United States Central Command (USCC) and United States Air Force Central Command (USAFCC). There are more than 10,000 US troops in Qatar. Hamas is a terrorist organization for the US and Israel, and yet Mr. Haniyeh was able to meet there with Iran’s Foreign Minister before cameras, both wreathed in smiles.
Last night, “I think it’d be a big mistake,” Mr. Biden told “60 Minutes” of the CBS. “Look, what happened in Gaza, in my view, is Hamas and the extreme elements of Hamas don’t represent all the Palestinian people. And I think that it would be a mistake for Israel to occupy Gaza again.” But “taking out the extremists” there, he added, “is a necessary requirement.” Thus, he made a distinction between Hamas extremists and the rest. This shows that whatever one may call it, channels of communication are open between parties to the conflict.
Initially, Arab countries’ reaction to the Hamas attack and the bombing of the Gaza Strip was essentially limited to calls for restraint and a return to negotiations on a “two-state solution”. The Gaza blockade and the evacuation order have led to some toughening of the language used.
Ankara would be wise not to repeat its inflammatory anti-Israel rhetoric of the past years, continue with a more balanced approach, urge restraint to both sides, and condemn their excesses. So far, Ankara has gone further than others in its condemnation of the Israeli actions. Nonetheless, its present objective appears to be the freeing of some hostages to underline its role as an honest broker. It appears that how the evacuation and the ground invasion of Gaza would unfold would be important in shaping regional reaction to the war.
The Hamas attack on civilians and their being taken hostage and the indiscriminate bombing of the Gaza Strip are deplorable violations of humanitarian law. The sympathy felt toward the Gazans’ plight in Türkiye where they are seen by many as brothers in faith in dire straits is also understandable. Türkiye was among the first countries that recognized the Palestinian State established in exile in 1988. Regardless, Ankara continued to have good relations with Israel. This was fourteen years before the AKP came to power in Türkiye.
However, as a retired diplomat who spent his senior years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs mostly dealing with the Middle East, I cannot but remember that in later years, during the boring negotiations on the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) communiqués to be published at the end of high-level meetings, it was the Palestinian delegation that usually objected to even moderate expressions of support for Ankara on the Cyprus problem. Did this change our balanced policy regarding the Palestinian problem? No. Have Arab countries ever given Ankara any genuine support on the question of Cyprus within or beyond the OIC? No. Did this prevent Ankara from developing relations of mutually beneficial cooperation with Arab countries? Again, “no”. This is one more reason why Ankara should prioritize national interest over Islamist ideology in its foreign policy.
On October 13, Foreign Minister Wang Yi pointed out that if Israel has the right to statehood, so does Palestine and the answer to the question is the two-state solution. He added that China calls for a more authoritative, influential, and broad-based international peace conference to be held under the auspices of the UN to build international consensus for peace and work for a comprehensive, just, and lasting solution to the question of Palestine at an early date.[iii]
On the same day, President Putin underlining Russia’s good relations with both the Arab countries and Israel said that the Palestinians were once promised that a Palestinian state would be established with East Jerusalem as its capital and they have the right to expect the promise to be kept.[iv]
There is no doubt that Beijing and Moscow are both pleased to see Washington, with enough political problems at home, having no other choice now than to focus on its Middle East challenges.
Last week, according to NATO Multimedia, the NATO Defense Ministers met in Brussels together with Sweden and the Defense Minister of Israel, Yoav Gallant who briefed the ministers by video conference on the atrocities by Hamas perpetrated against Israeli civilians and the nationals of several NATO Allies. Secretary General Stoltenberg said that NATO condemned the terrorist attacks in the strongest possible terms, adding: “Israel does not stand alone.”
However, some other developments should worry the Secretary General.
On October 12, President Biden sent a letter to the US Congress on the “Continuation of the National Emergency with Respect to the Situation in and in Relation to Syria”. He said:
“The situation in and in relation to Syria, and in particular the actions by the Government of Turkey to conduct a military offensive into northeast Syria, undermines the campaign to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, endangers civilians, and further threatens to undermine the peace, security, and stability in the region, and continues to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.” Consequently, he determined that it was necessary to continue the national emergency declared concerning the situation in Syria.
Last Friday President Erdoğan responded using the same language. In brief, he said that Ankara also feels that US policy in Syria threatens to undermine the peace, security, and stability in the region, and continues to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of Türkiye. The US had shot down an armed Turkish drone over Syria on October 5.
Supposedly, Türkiye and the US are allies. Who was instrumental in the emergence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria is no longer a question. Unfortunately for NATO, Türkiye has left the democratic path, and Mr. Biden, who was Ankara’s number one adversary in the US Congress from the early days of his political career, is now the US president seeking a second term.