The politics of calculation in Gaza war

The killings in Gaza, the multi-polar world and the Russia factor

Palestinians, including poeple injured during the bombardment, pass an Israeli tank as they flee the north of Gaza
Palestinians, including poeple injured during the bombardment, pass an Israeli tank as they flee the north of Gaza

The politics of calculation in Gaza war

With the Gaza war deep into its second month, western states show few signs of easing their steadfast support for Israel.

While some allies have quietly pressured Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu in private to minimise civilian casualties, and others, such as France, have publicly called for ‘humanitarian pauses,’ no major western power has yet called for a permanent ceasefire or an end to the conflict. Such united western support is unusual.

In Israel’s recent past conflicts, over Lebanon in 2006, then the three previous Gaza wars of 2008-9, 2012 and 2014, western backing was usually more tentative and faded into calls for ceasefires within weeks, sometimes days, of war breaking out.

On the one hand, many western leaders might argue that the solidity of support reflects the shock and horror at the scale of Hamas’ attacks, that saw 1200 Israelis killed and around 249 more taken hostage.

While this might be the case, there could also be wider geopolitical factors in play. The Ukraine conflict catalysed a renaissance in ‘the western alliance’ that had appeared to fray in the years after the Cold War ended.

Palestinians walk amid the rubble of destroyed buildings in Gaza

Though the context is different, western support for Israel after 7 October in many ways reflects the backing received by Kiev after Russia’s invasion. It is aimed not only at reassuring the under fire ally but projecting to the wider world that the western alliance remains strong.

However, the Hamas-Israel war over Gaza is vastly more complex than Ukraine war, arguably, wider reaching given the length and global emotional heft of the Israel-Palestine conflict. As a result, the west’s steadfast support for Israel may yet throw up unforeseen challenges.

While in the short term it may seem the western alliance has been strengthened by the Gaza war, in the long term it carries the potential to weaken the west’s global position.

Read more: A Middle East war motivated by destructive politics

The Western alliance and the Gaza war

Though critics often assume Western states unquestioningly back Israel in its regional wars, the reality in recent years has been more nuanced.

While the United States, Germany, the UK, and Canada can usually be relied on to stand by Israel, other western governments and institutions have been less enthusiastic, and there was not always a united western front.

In Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah, for example, while the US and UK defended Israel’s right to self-defence and lobbied to delay a proposed ceasefire at the UN, the European Union condemned, “the disproportionate use of force by Israel in Lebanon,” within days of the war’s beginning.

In its subsequent wars in Gaza in 2008-9, 2012 and 2014, western support for Israel was similarly lukewarm. In 2008-09’s Operation Cast Lead, again the European Union called for a ceasefire days after IDF ground incursions began, echoing criticism of Israel from major European powers like France and Spain, balancing somewhat the US, Germany, and Canada’s insistence of Israel’s right to self-defence.

US President Joe Biden speaks about the release of hostages from Gaza

In 2012, the pattern was repeated, with Washington, Berlin and London vocalising their support for Israel, while France and the EU, among other western states, urged ‘restraint’ on Netanyahu.

In 2014 even the United States showed signs of conditional support for Israel. Perhaps reflecting his strained ties with Netanyahu, President Barack Obama insisted on Israel’s right to defend itself, but urged restraint. In contrast Congress passed a resolution underlining its support for Israel.

Read more: The 'Sunni facade' of Hezbollah on Israel's northern borders

Yet the 2023 Gaza war has thus far followed a different pattern. Few western states, especially members of the G7, have been publicly critical of Netanyahu or his Gaza offensive. While ceasefires had been pushed for and agreed by this point in previous wars, no G7 leader has even called for the fighting to end yet. The most vocal western critic has probably been France, with President Emmanuel Macron telling Netanyahu that there have been “too many civilian losses” and urging a humanitarian pause, but this is a long way from the harsher stance of past French leaders.

The extent of Israel’s initial casualties and the shock of the 7 October attack might be one justification for this uncharacteristically close stance. However, it also reflects the new unity among western leaders after the Ukraine war. Indeed, the unity behind Israel, in many ways reflects the stance taken in western capitals after Russia’s 2022 invasion.

It may not last, especially as the casualties in Gaza mount, but for now these western leaders are seemingly keen to project to the world that they are as united behind Israel as they were behind Kiev.

Having failed to win support for Russian sanctions from historic allies in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America, this new western alliance may be smaller than its Cold War predecessor, but its leaders are keen to show it is still as, if not more, united.

For now these western leaders are seemingly keen to project to the world that they are as united behind Israel as they were behind Kiev. 

The Russia factor 

Beyond the immediate security imperative to support Israel in its hour of need, there is a wider geopolitical logic for the west's strong backing during the Gaza war regarding the confrontation with Russia that began in 2022. Despite the long history of western support, Israel opted not join the sanctions regime against Russia after the invasion of Ukraine, effectively keeping itself out of the western alliance that coalesced. There were several reasons for this. Israel, like Turkey, had strong ties to Ukraine and Russia, with both boasting significant Jewish communities, and attempted to tread a more neutral path. Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin have struck up amiable ties in recent years, particularly after Russia's 2015 intervention in neighbouring Syria. The latter's presence there has been key in facilitating the IDF's regular raids against Iranian and Hezbollah positions, a key security advantage that Israel was reluctant to risk.

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a conference on Artificial Intelligence

That said, western states might hope that, as the result of the Gaza War, Israel could turn on Putin, further incentivising their strong support for Netanyahu. Even before 7 October, Israel's ties with Moscow were becoming strained.

While the return to office of Netanyahu helped ease some tensions given his personal links with Putin, Russia's increased closeness to Iran – partly brought about by Moscow's post-2022 diplomatic isolation – was concerning Israel.

Yet since October 7 Russia has positioned itself in opposition to Israel's assault on Gaza. Linking the conflict to its war in Ukraine, Putin has portrayed Israel's campaign as one being waged by the entire west, akin to what he sees them also prosecuting against Russia.

Hoping to take advantage of a growing wave of sympathy for Gaza and anger at the west, Putin has tried to align Moscow with the tide of frustration rising in the non-western global south. In doing so, Russian-Israeli ties have come under strain.

Not only did Russia call Israel the "occupying power," at the UN, but it then hosted a Hamas delegation in Moscow. On top of this, recent video footage of an antisemitic mob targeting Jewish passengers in Dagestan airport further irked Netanyahu.

Read more: Will the Gaza war push the Middle East to new realism?

However, despite these tensions, western hopes that Israel might join the sanction regime on Russia after the dust of the Gaza war has settled may yet be dashed.

Russia continues to play a valuable security role, being able to informally mediate with Hezbollah and Iran on the Syria border, that Israel would be loath to lose. Similarly, there are extensive personal and business links between the two states, with Israel boasting over a million Russian-speaking citizens, many of whom are key supporters of Netanyahu.

Though Israel is certainly grateful for western support during its war with Gaza, it is unlikely to feel compelled to sanction Russia as reward for this backing and would not be quick to throw away such a valuable security and economic relationship.    

Palestinians who had taken refuge in temporary shelters return to their homes in the southern Gaza Strip during the first hours of a four-day truce

Western risks

Despite the current western unity on Gaza, the conflict carries the risk of weakening the western alliance in the medium term. The first risk is that the unity publicly fractures. As happened with Israel's previous conflicts, historically certain western states, notably France and Spain, are more critical than steadfast allies like the US, Germany, and UK.

The longer the war goes on and the higher the casualties in Gaza rise, the chances grow that one or more western states break ranks and openly call for an immediate ceasefire. Depending on how long any disagreement lasts, this could undermine the spirit of western unity fostered by Ukraine.

The second risk concerns the Ukraine war directly. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has repeatedly warned western states not to be too distracted away from Eastern Europe by the conflict in Gaza. Despite Ukraine's recent successes in crossing the Dnipro River, the summer offensive has failed to make the strides hoped for and the war looks increasingly stalemated.

It has long been Putin's hope that eventually western enthusiasm for the war will wane, allowing Russia to keep its territorial gains. With the Gaza war currently taking up much western policy bandwidth, Zelenskyy will hope that the Middle East soon restabilizes allowing for his conflict to return to the top of the policy agenda and that the distraction is not permanent.

Read more: Israel's conflict management: What could possibly go wrong?

New Global Order

The third risk is arguably the greatest: that western support for Israel in the Gaza war further accelerates the move towards a 'post-western world.' For the last few years commentators and policy makers largely agree that the era of US-dominance is over, and the global order has shifted to one of multipolarity.

The Ukraine war highlighted this when non-western states declined to join the anti-Russian sanctions regime, something that would have been unthinkable during the 'unipolar' era of US dominance after the Cold War.

The expansion of the BRICS states in September was another indicator of this shift, with the non-western economic club growing to nearly 30% of global GDP with its new members.

A truck carrying humanitarian aid enters the Gaza Strip via the Rafah crossing with Egypt

In this context, western support for Israel over Gaza has been characterised by many non-western media sources, whether Russian, Chinese, or Arab, as echoing past western colonial oppression. While this is a message that both Beijing and Moscow are happy to promote given it boosts their own position at the west's expense, it is still one that resonates with many in the global south, who have felt excluded for decades.

Indeed, as Dr Musab Younis of Queen Mary University of London wrote in the Guardian, 'If the current crisis has driven Israel and the G7 even closer together, it has also increased the sense of alienation that the vast majority of the world's population feels towards the small elite that claims for itself the power to rule the world."

Western leaders may not yet have realised, but in the post-western multipolar world, powerful states cannot take the global south's support for granted. Indeed, there is an informal global battle for hearts and minds underway with Russia, China, India, and others seeking to win non-western governments' support for a range of issues that impact their interests.

Whether right or wrong, many southern populations and their governments see unconditional western support for Israel over Gaza in a negative way, as part of a wider pattern of western oppression of non-western populations.

Such developments will only serve to harden and reinforce the global shifts away from western dominance, with conflicts such as Gaza portrayed by Beijing, Moscow, and others as 'the west versus the rest.' Western leaders are unlikely to let such thinking affect their steadfast support for Israel, but this stance may yet impact broader western policy agendas elsewhere in the future.

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