FP: How America fueled the fire in the Middle East

11:40 19.04.2024 •

Israel is in growing danger — but the responsibility lies more in Washington than in Tehran, writes Stephen M. Walt, a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

Iran’s decision to retaliate against an Israeli attack on its consulate in Damascus, Syria, by launching drone and missile strikes reveals just how badly the Biden administration has mishandled the Middle East. Having convinced itself on the eve of Hamas’s Oct. 7, 2023, attack against Israel that the region was “quieter than it has been for decades,” U.S. officials have since responded in ways that made a bad situation worse. The most one can say in their defense is that they have plenty of company; the Trump, Obama, Bush, and Clinton administrations mostly made a hash of things, too.

The administration’s response to Hamas’s brutal attack on Oct. 7 has had three main objectives. First, it has sought to convey steadfast support for Israel: backing it rhetorically, conferring regularly with top Israeli officials, defending it against accusations of genocide, vetoing cease-fire resolutions in the United Nations Security Council, and providing it with a steady supply of lethal armaments. Second, Washington has tried to prevent the conflict in Gaza from escalating. Lastly, it has tried to convince Israel to act with restraint, both to limit harm to Palestinian civilians and to minimize the damage to the United States’ image and reputation.

This policy has failed because its aims were inherently contradictory. Giving Israel unconditional support gave its leaders little incentive to heed U.S. calls for restraint, so it is hardly surprising that they have ignored them. Gaza has been destroyed, at least 33,000 Palestinians (including more than 12,000 children) are now dead, and U.S. officials now admit that civilians there are facing conditions of famine. Houthi militias in Yemen, claiming to demand a cease-fire, continue to target shipping in the Red Sea; a low-level conflict between Israel and Hezbollah is still simmering; and violence has risen sharply in the occupied West Bank.

And now Iran has retaliated against the April 1 bombing of its consulate by launching drone and missile strikes on Israel, raising the prospect of an even wider war. And is its decision to respond to Israel’s recent attack on its consulate — killing two Iranian generals in the process — even remotely surprising?

According to the Geneva Conventions, a population living under “belligerent occupation” has the right to resist the occupying force. Given that Israel has controlled the West Bank and East Jerusalem since 1967, colonized these lands with more than 700,000 illegal settlers, and killed thousands of Palestinians in the process, there is little doubt that this is a “belligerent occupation.” Acts of resistance are still subject to the laws of war, of course, and Hamas and other Palestinian groups violate them when they attack Israeli civilians. But resisting the occupation is legitimate, and helping a beleaguered population do so is not necessarily wrong, even if Iran has done this for its own reasons and not from a deep commitment to the Palestinian cause.

Similarly, Iran’s decision to retaliate after Israel bombed its consulate and killed two Iranian generals is hardly evidence of innate aggressiveness, especially given that Tehran has repeatedly signaled that it had no desire to widen the war. Indeed, its retaliation was conducted in a way that gave Israel considerable warning and seems to have been designed to signal that Tehran did not want to escalate further. As U.S. and Israeli officials typically say when they use force, Iran is simply trying to “restore deterrence.”

Let’s not forget that the United States that has been “flooding” the Middle East with weaponry for decades. It provides Israel with billions of dollars of sophisticated military equipment every year, along with repeated assurances that U.S. support is unconditional.

States with unchecked power tend to abuse it, and Israel is no exception. Because Israel is vastly stronger than its Palestinian subjects—and more capable than Iran, too, for that matter—it can act with impunity against them, and it typically does. Decades of generous and unconditional U.S. support have enabled Israel to do whatever it wants, which has contributed to its politics as well as its behavior toward the Palestinians becoming increasingly extreme over time.

Only on those rare occasions when Palestinians were able to mobilize effective resistance—as they did during the First Intifada (1987-1993) — were Israeli leaders such as former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin forced to acknowledge the need to compromise and attempt to make peace. Unfortunately, because Israel was so strong, the Palestinians so weak, and U.S. mediators so one-sided in Israel’s favor, none of Rabin’s successors were willing to offer the Palestinians a deal they could accept.

The tragic irony here is that the individuals and organizations in the United States that have been the most ardent in shielding Israel from criticism and pushing one administration after another to back Israel, no matter what it does, have in fact done enormous damage to the country that they were trying to help.

Consider where the “special relationship” has led over the past 50 years. The two-state solution has failed, and the question of the Palestinians’ future remains unresolved, in large part because the lobby made it impossible for U.S. presidents to put meaningful pressure on Israel. Israel’s ill-advised invasion of Lebanon in 1982 (part of a foolish scheme to consolidate Israeli control of the West Bank) led to the emergence of Hezbollah, which now threatens Israel from the north. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials tried to weaken the Palestinian Authority and block progress toward a two-state solution by covertly backing Hamas, thereby contributing to the tragedy of Oct. 7. Israel’s internal politics are more polarized than the United States’ (which is saying something), and its actions in Gaza, which most groups in the lobby defend at every turn, are helping turn it into a pariah state. Support among younger Americans — including many Jews — is cratering.

If the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its allies were capable of self-reflection, they’d be mortified by what they have helped Israel do to itself.

By contrast, those of us who have criticized some of Israel’s actions — only to be falsely smeared as antisemites, Jew-haters, or worse — were in fact recommending policies that would have been better for the United States and Israel alike. Had our advice been followed, Israel would be safer today, tens of thousands of Palestinians would still be alive, Iran would be farther from having the bomb, the Middle East would almost certainly be more tranquil, and the United States’ reputation as a principled defender of human rights and a rules-based order would still be intact.

But until there’s a more fundamental shift in U.S. policy toward the Middle East, those hopeful possibilities will remain out of reach, and the errors that got us here are likely to be repeated.


read more in our Telegram-channel https://t.me/The_International_Affairs