The Middle East’s political landscape is a tangled web, surpassing all predictions and threatening unforeseen consequences. Since the October 7th events and the Gaza war, events have spiralled alarmingly, particularly with Iran’s use of the Houthi group in Yemen to threaten the Red Sea, a vital global trade artery.
One example of this complexity is the United States’ seemingly lax response to the Houthis’ threat to Red Sea security. Despite owning a naval fleet near Bab al-Mandab, they haven’t joined the international coalition formed to confront Iranian-backed Houthi attacks. This has led shipping companies to twice postpone convoys due to escalating attacks, orchestrated by Iran to force global recognition of its regional role and legitimacy for development, with US support.
The Houthis themselves, emboldened by their impact on global trade, are likely to make demands to tighten their grip on Yemen. These may clash with Iran’s vision, who’s quickly stationed its navy near Bab al-Mandab, further blurring the scene. Are they supporting the Houthis or curbing their ambitions?
The conflicting positions and relationships present a confusing mosaic. At its centre stands the US, supposedly controlling many regional strings. Yet, we see growing friction with Tel Aviv after Israel’s failure to achieve tangible progress in Gaza or reduce civilian casualties. This two-week-old dispute culminated in the withdrawal of the USS Gerald Ford, the most advanced US aircraft carrier, from the Palestinian coast. This hasty deployment to support Israel during the October 7th attack was swiftly reversed.
In essence, Gaza is the crux of the absurdity. If destruction was the aim, the Israeli campaign would have succeeded. According to Hamas’ Health Ministry, casualties exceed 22,000, and much of Gaza lies in ruins. Israel entered the war with clear goals: destroying Hamas, arresting/killing its leaders, crippling its military, ending its control of Gaza, releasing hostages, retrieving bodies, and maintaining international, particularly American, support while protecting recent diplomatic gains with Arab nations. Additionally, rebuilding public confidence in its security institutions was crucial. However, after nearly 100 days, the opposite has occurred. Everyone doubts Israel and its leadership, who’ve failed to achieve any declared or undeclared goals. The current crisis revolves around finding an excuse to salvage Israeli military pride.
Meanwhile, Israelis have lost faith in their security institutions. Many blame Iran for Hamas’s arsenal and tactics, fearing a similar devastating attack from Hezbollah with its larger missile arsenal and more skilled fighters. This escalates the crisis, as frustration may lead to reckless decisions by Israeli leaders, making predicting the next move impossible.
Beyond eliminating Hamas, a stable, long-term governing alternative for Gaza is necessary. Someone must prevent Hamas’s return, but Israel lacks interest in long-term occupation. No significant progress has been made, and Israel’s situation has worsened since October 7th. No external force wants to be Israel’s Gaza police force.
All of Israel’s goals are challenging, and some even contradict each other. The ongoing campaign, meant to significantly weaken Hamas and rebuild public trust in the army, will take months. Even then, eliminating all Hamas leaders and destroying all tunnels is unlikely. Without de-escalating military operations, releasing hostages and maintaining American support will be difficult. An intensified campaign won’t solve the long-term question of Gaza’s governance. When things stabilise, Israel will need a Palestinian partner to manage Gaza, and devastating military operations will weaken their credibility among residents.
Many Israeli leaders fear losing American support. President Biden’s stance has shifted significantly since the war’s start. His party, entering an election year, is increasingly divided regarding Israel’s conduct. Biden himself now criticises “indiscriminate bombing” in Gaza, and his administration pushes for an end to major military operations. This party dispute culminated in the direct order for the largest American aircraft carrier to return home.
Israel must accept that criticism will follow any path it chooses. Its leaders must make difficult choices about prioritising goals and making some sacrifices. To escape this political, economic, and military impasse, Israel’s options are limited.
Achieving their desired results is unlikely, as their goals are challenging individually and even more so collectively. Therefore, Israel must abandon intensive drone strike operations targeting senior Hamas leaders and shift to other methods if they want to preserve remaining American and Western support. They must also avoid an unnecessary war with Hezbollah. Most importantly, they must respond to the Egyptian initiative, the only option for a safe exit for all and a potential starting point for new peace talks. This is the only way out of the cycle of bad choices everyone has been trapped in, even before October 7th.
Dr Hatem Sadek is a Professor at Helwan University