By Abdaljawad Omar / Mondoweiss
Irrespective of the war’s result, the series of events in Gaza has completely disrupted the foundations of the U.S.-Israeli strategic relationship. Whereas the United States and Israel were on the verge of consolidating their vision for the region through the Abraham Accords, Hamas’s October 7 attack dealt it a serious blow. Now, instead of having finalized that project, it is making the U.S. appear foolish in the eyes of the region, where its continued support for Israel has sparked renewed tensions in the Arab world and strained its systems of alliance in the region. Whereas the U.S. once appeared free — despite its attempts to promote its regional alliance through normalization without solving the Palestinian issue while enhancing its soft power and shifting its strategic and military focus to Asia — the U.S. now runs the risk of getting bogged down in a quagmire that can reshape U.S. relations throughout the region. And this includes Israel.
Cultural, electoral, and various other factors have historically shaped the debate within America’s foreign policy establishment concerning Israel’s value as a strategic asset. Among the various arguments, the most salient is Israel’s military and political prowess as a counterbalance to any emerging regional powerhouse or potential regional government. The nation’s consistent military successes in conflicts with multiple Arab states in its early days further bolstered its reputation as a formidable strategic actor, underscoring the benefits of its partnership with America in the region. In the Cold War, Israel’s alignment with the U.S. and its counterweight to Soviet influence reinforced this view. It is important here to point out that Israel’s military performance was central to the growing support it garnered from the American foreign policy establishment and to the prevailing view that it provides American power with a stable ally that enjoys strong military and deterrent capacities.
The events of October 7 have thrown this view into disarray.
Other than shattering the image of Israeli military invincibility, the fallout from October 7 and Israel’s subsequent genocidal war on Gaza has enabled players like Russia and China to point out the moral and political double standards in America’s posture in the region and to present their political and moral position as more amenable to both sides of the conflict.
More importantly, Israel’s military and intelligence apparatus has gradually grown weaker and more dependent on American power and is highly volatile and unpredictable in terms of defining clear strategic objectives in its current military campaign — occupying Gaza, ethnic cleansing, or bringing in a new security arrangement through the support of regional powers, or a limited military operation that would end up with renewed negotiations with Hamas. The myriad Israeli voices currently calling for a variety of forms of retribution — such as the use of weapons of mass destruction, proposals for an ethnic cleansing campaign, and the deliberate targeting of civilians, including children — is alienating some of America’s allies in the region. Those include actors like Jordan and Egypt, and they are adding to the increasing rise of a broad pro-ceasefire campaign that has globally embarrassed the U.S.
These events have already highlighted the extent to which Israel is increasingly becoming reliant on U.S. power. It summons U.S. military reinforcements, stretches an already overburdened American military-industrial complex, threatens a regional war that could have implications for the American system of alliances in the region, and places American soldiers in the line of fire. This is all happening while Israel maintains a “rejectionist” position toward the possibility of a political resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians.
Some individuals, like Dennis Ross in his recent NY Times article, strongly argue for giving Israel the necessary time and space to conduct its military operations in Gaza. There is a prevailing belief among some that Israel has the power to alter the situation in Gaza while also deterring Hezbollah and Iran with minimal or no retaliation, all while remaining committed to fighting and sacrificing its own soldiers in a war that could draw Israel and the U.S. into an even bigger quagmire.
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Yet the complexity of the interests at stake says otherwise. Now that Israel’s deterrence has been fatally called into question, Israel’s posture, strength, and utility are also being increasingly called into question across the region. Even Ross’s argument that his friends in the Arab world want Israel to destroy Hamas is an attempt to argue that alliances in the region will not be impacted — which indicates concern that they will be. True, some in the region want Israel to “finish the job,” but they also don’t want Israel’s conduct to weaken or threaten their vital interests.
Unless America wants to deepen its involvement in the region, it will find itself in a regional storm that harms its economic recovery, lessens Biden’s chances to win the upcoming elections, and serves yet another American war in the Middle East.
The lobby’s naivety and American dissensus
October 7 not only revealed the faults in the U.S. grand strategy in the Middle East but also exposed the intellectual architecture that underlies it. This architecture was almost exclusively established, maintained, and propagated by the Israeli lobby.
The prevailing narrative frequently championed by the Israel lobby in Washington, with a few exceptions like J Street, asserts that the Palestinian issue is no longer as central as it once was. They maintain that the geopolitical dynamics of the region have shifted beyond the centrality of the Palestinian cause. This perspective seemed to gain traction, especially when one considers the rising concerns among Arab capitals regarding Iran’s influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Yemen. These capitals were eager for geopolitical and military powers that could serve as deterrents to Iran amidst American signaling that it has shifted its priority to the two most fundamental challenges to its hegemonic position: Russia and China.
The perceived weakness and lack of legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority, along with the region’s rising vulnerability to Iranian influence, compounded by Arab states’ apprehension about pan-Arab and Islamist movements, served as the backdrop for the Abraham Accords. Arab countries were also looking to leverage the lobby’s power in American domestic politics to acquire weapons and deepen their strategic alliances with the U.S. or Israel.
The Abraham Accords marked an important milestone in the effort to encourage regional American allies to publicly establish relations with Israel. Those in the region who had previously maintained secret connections now saw an opportunity to establish open diplomatic, economic, and military cooperation. The Abraham Accords took place following the civil wars of the Arab Spring, which had weakened opposition to normalization. Numerous Arab societies experienced severe setbacks — with their economies crumbling and a significant portion of their society displaced, Palestine was thrown by the wayside.
The lobby and its policies looked triumphant. The combined impact of Israel’s supporters convinced American elites and foreign policy experts that Palestine does not hinder U.S. interests in the region. This implies that the Arab world has moved past this issue or that it was never significant to begin with. It is worth noting that President Biden, who has shown strong support for Israel, has had limited to no involvement in the Israel-Palestine issue, and Palestinian interests have consistently been overlooked and considered to be manageable. October 7 is making everyone look foolish and even reckless, and Israel’s disproportionate and messianic discourse of vengeance is simply adding insult to injury.
At a time when Israel seeks the activation of the U.S.’s military protection as well as its political and diplomatic influence, the U.S. finds itself in a position to demonstrate globally that it stands by its allies. However, as the conflict persists, Israel and its domestic U.S. lobby face mounting pressure. As the underlying rationale and arguments used to justify the “special relationship” fade away, Israel will begin to reveal itself as a burden, and a costly one at that — because it chose to reject any political solution and instead chose military solutions that it couldn’t see through on its own.