The assault carried out by Hamas on October 7 and the retaliatory operation launched by Israel caused major damage to Israeli and American interests in the Middle East.
The image of strength, even invulnerability, of the Israeli army has been shattered, and the rapprochement of the country with Saudi Arabia, which had accelerated in recent months, now seems to be ancient history; the United States, for its part, finds itself in a very delicate position, its desire to disengage from the Middle East coming into direct contradiction with its military support for Israel – support which, here too, implies a clear rise in tensions with the countries of the region.
Israel's image permanently weakened
First, the attack of October 7 completes the destruction of the reputation of invincibility of the Israeli army, a reputation which had already been eroded following the Lebanese war of 2006. The publication of Winograd report in 2008 had highlighted the psychological vulnerabilities of an army equipped with a powerful and technologically advanced military tool but which, in its clashes with Hezbollah during the 2006 war and then in 2014 with Hamas in Gaza lost mastery of infantry combat and urban combat.
The attack of October 7, when Hamas commandos had no difficulty in crossing the "29-point" security barrier after having neutralized the "long distance observation units", dramatically illustrated the limits of the Israeli army's bunkering strategy and the intrinsic fragility of a model analyzed by the American anthropologist Jeff Halper in his book War Against the People: Israel, the Palestinians and Global Pacification (Pluto Press, 2015). The author explains that:
"The occupation represents a resource for Israel in two senses: economically, it provides a testing ground for the development of weapons, security systems, population control models and tactics without which Israel would be unable to 'to be competitive in international arms and security markets; but, no less important, to be a major military power serving other military and security services around the world gives Israel an international status among world hegemons that it would not otherwise have had."
However, if, until now, many companies wanted “have the Mossad in their home” Due to Israel's cybersecurity capabilities, the October 7 episode shows the limits of Israel's "security policy" and its sophisticated surveillance systems. This attack called into question the idea of "security" of a State which presents itself as a rallying point for the Jewish diasporas, and could in the longer term harm the Israeli technological sector, “already facing a slowdown in 2023”.
The discontent of Washington's allies
Furthermore, October 7 also illustrates the bitter failure of the American approach consisting of promoting de-escalation and regional integration through normalization agreements while ignoring the Palestinian question in a Middle East demoted in visibility. In this region, Washington, whose strategic concerns have focused in recent years on China and Russia, has opted for the daily management of the lives of populations through checkbook diplomacy.
In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority, kept on life support, receives financial assistance from Washington to help the population survive in a context ofintensification of colonization which undermines any hope of a political solution to the conflict. According to the OECD :
"Aid to the Palestinians amounted to more than $40 billion between 1994 and 2020. Most of this aid (35,4%) was used to support the Palestinian Authority's budget, while the remainder was allocated to various services and economic sectors in the Palestinian territories. The majority of aid – almost 72% – comes from ten donors: the European Union (18,9), the United States (14,2 ), Saudi Arabia (9,9), Germany (5,8), United Arab Emirates (5,2), Norway (4,8), United Kingdom (4,3), World Bank (3,2), Japan (2,9) and France (2,7)."
At the same time, assistance to Israel remains a constant in American policy. As noted in July 2020 by a study by the American think tank Quincy Institute :
“Unconditional US military support for Israel has facilitated the continued occupation of Palestinian territory (which could culminate in the annexation of the West Bank) and reduced incentives to seek a peaceful solution to the conflict […]. U.S. policy in the Middle East is often justified by the need to protect the status quo to preserve stability, but current policies clearly undermine regional stability and U.S. security."
For its part, Hamas had for several years received financial aid from Qatar to manage the Gaza Strip, with the approval of the United States and Israel. In recent years, the question of resolving the conflict has been the subject of increasing disinterest on the part of the United States, but has also receded into the regional concerns of Arab countries, which have embarked on the path of normalization with Israel.
However, the assault of October 7 serves as a reminder that no stabilization of the Middle East is possible without a solution to the conflict. Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohamad Bin Salman, engaged in talks with the United States for several months and who explicitly declared last September “every day we get closer” of concluding an agreement with Israel, publicly affirmed his support for the Palestinians and reiterated his position in favor of the two-state solution. Once again, regional allies are distancing themselves politically from Washington (a divergence of views which had already been expressed in the context of the war in Ukraine and the refusal to sanction Russia).
Despite US pressure, Egypt rejected the Israeli Intelligence Ministry's plan to transfer the 2,3 million residents of the Gaza Strip to Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, fearing "that a massive influx of refugees from Gaza undermines the Palestinian nationalist cause".
The unconditional support of Western powers for Israel – which, despite some statements, hardly bothers with humanitarian considerations – today weighs more and more in the representations of the countries of the Global South, dismayed by the situation in Gaza described by the UN Secretary General as "cemetery for children".
This mismatch between the posture of Western powers and that of the rest of the world could lead to lasting consequences in relations with the countries of the South. It also risks fueling, within Arab societies, a powerful resentment which could prove to be an important lever of mobilization for armed non-state actors, both relays of Iranian influence in the region and with their own security and political agenda. The other danger for the United States would be to see regional actors transcend their old rivalries, notably their allies who have long perceived Iran as a destabilizing power, to converge on the settlement of the Palestinian question, once again perceived as the essential condition for regional stabilization.
Finally, while the United States has sought for several years to reduce its military footprint in the Middle East to focus on its strategic priorities in the Asia-Pacific, the fear of Washington becoming bogged down again in the region is now real.
A new stalemate in the region
The Americans have sent to the eastern Mediterranean the aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford – an unprecedented overreaction. In 1973, after the surprise attack on Israel by Egypt and Syria, the United States established an airlift to help its organic ally engaged on two fronts, but it never sent a aircraft carrier.
This time, the situation has changed. On October 15, the spokesperson for the US National Security Council, John Kirby, publicly stated that "the United States is prepared to act if any actor hostile to Israel considers trying to escalate or expand this war." Even if the effect sought by this declaration is dissuasive, the mobilization of powerful military means reveals both the absence of an American strategy in the Middle East, but also the risk for Washington of getting bogged down in a region which does not was no longer at the forefront of strategic concerns.
As recalled on November 3 former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haas :
"For the United States, all of this increases the risks and costs of this unexpected and unwanted crisis. The U.S. military presence in the region has been increased to address potential threats from Iran against U.S. forces in Syria and in Iraq, and it has already shot down missiles fired by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. The last thing the United States needs is a protracted crisis in the Middle East, given the strategic imperative to help Ukraine against Russia and to strengthen their capacity to deter and, if necessary, defend against China which is attacking Taiwan."
The end of the American era
The Israeli war against Gaza could lead to a regional recomposition with significant consequences for Tel Aviv and Washington.
The American approach has reached its limits. The current disconnect between the posture of Western powers and those countries of the global South who condemn the unconditional support for Israel in the current offensive, as well as the reiterated refusal of regional allies of the United States to rally to their views testify to a profoundly transformed geopolitical context. On this point, the article "The new Middle East" by the same Richard Haas published in 2006, appears today to be prophetic:
"A little over two centuries after Napoleon's arrival in Egypt, which heralded the advent of the modern Middle East, and some 80 years after the demise of the Ottoman Empire, 50 years after the end of colonialism and less 20 years after the end of the Cold War, the American era in the Middle East, the fourth in the region's modern history, has come to an end."
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