Photo by Thomas COEX / AFP

Avoiding the apocalypse

Bold diplomacy must avert an unimaginable crisis in the Middle East

Artillery Row

If you don’t ask, the answer is always “no”, right? As the war between Israel and the Palestinians moves towards a level of bloodshed and barbarity we haven’t seen for 50 years, some of us wonder if Joe Biden shouldn’t make a surprising call to Xi Jinping and challenge him to act in the name of peace, not war.

The realpolitik is all too evident. Joe Biden, for all his obvious disapproval of Israeli leader Bibi Netanyahu on other fronts, stands with Israel at this critical moment. Xi Jinping has cast himself in recent times as a deal-maker in the Middle East — putting a primacy on making allies, from the Saudis to the Iranians, and presenting himself as a counter-balance to the United States whilst ensuring China’s access to their oil. He has a major hand to play with Iran, the power behind Hamas and a major suspect behind this bloodthirsty invasion of Israel proper.

We know the two leaders want to talk. They have had their henchmen arrange a summit conversation come November, to search for a way to live with each other, rather than confront each other. The days of trading insults about who is a “dictator” and who is “absurd and irresponsible” have stopped. The fear of China invading Taiwan has receded of late, although the danger persists of Xi using the Mideast explosion as a distraction from his long-term goal to occupy China’s small neighbour.

It’s time for us to see if Biden and Xi are capable of leading

The time to talk is now, gentlemen, and the crisis of the hour creates not just horror but also opportunity. The two of them hold serious cards in the terrifying war in the Middle East that will play out in the days ahead. It’s time for us to see if Biden and Xi are capable of leading. One is fighting for re-election, and he needs to show the wisdom his age suggests. The other is trying to make autocracy the way of the world, and he wants to display how much clout he has. Both of them have good reason to listen to each other, albeit in pursuit of very different goals.

With every passing day on the ground in Jerusalem, and Gaza, and Nablus, comes Armageddon in the making, and of that we can have few illusions. Anyone who has seen the Israeli Defence Force in action knows they can reduce the most densely-populated place on earth, the tiny Gaza Strip (just a quarter the size of London) to rubble in a matter of days, with more than two million people likely to be refugees in all but name.

Likewise, the way Islamic fundamentalists of Hamas launched this devastating attack on Israel was designed to make every Israeli feel the chill and terror of 9/11 — then to plant the existential question that accompanied the Yom Kippur war of 1973, when Israel’s neighbours shattered the belief that Israel was unbeatable and that its survival as the Jewish state was guaranteed.

Whatever the Israeli propaganda machine says, you know the images of these past few days did irreparable damage to their notion of invincibility — with Palestinian gunmen roaming through an Israeli town shooting innocents from a pickup truck, or an elderly Israeli woman paraded through Gaza as a hostage on a cart.

Now two extreme enemies have written the script for what follows, each needing the other to read their lines and play out George Santayana’s adage about those who forget their history being condemned to repeat it, as we have warned in these pages for some time.

Hamas, under the sponsorship and patronage of the Ayatollahs in Iran, with allies from Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon, will attack, and murder, and outrage, wherever they can. They are seeking the exact response that the very right-wing government of Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu will deliver with clinical efficiency.

The Israeli leadership will have no qualms, and unanimous support, for doing whatever it takes in terms of Palestinian dead. This was not just another Palestinian intifada. This was war, in the streets of Israeli towns and kibbutz, with the taking of hostages, and prisoners, and the murder of hundreds of Israeli citizens, many not in uniform.

Who can put a stop to what comes next? The United Nations Security Council, the forum for peace we once thought of as an arena to talk and work together?

Watching the Security Council go into emergency session, as we saw images of an Israeli soldier bleeding to death, or apartment blocks in Gaza cratering under aerial bombardment, was a tragic reminder of dashed hopes. The world has long tried to make peace in the land of Israel and Palestine, and the UN’s standing has been devalued by its impotence over the war for Ukraine and Syria before that.

What of the United States — for so long the irreplaceable power player in the Middle East? Remember Jimmy Carter, the US President who brokered the first Arab-Israeli pact, between Egypt and Israel, in 1978? Or Bill Clinton, who came so close during my time as a White House correspondent, with the Palestinians and the Israelis in 2000? Again, Washington has been devalued and cast as one-sided support of Israel.

It’s time to make any mediation multi-player and multipolar. It’s time to call in the other giant of this century and make Beijing party to preventing the Armageddon that awaits. This dreadful war should be a wake-up call to the major powers — the trigger for alternative thinking about how the West deals with China and its growing number of satellites.

We can delude ourselves and think we’ve seen this before, but we haven’t

Xi Jinping made a diplomatic feast out of helping broker a truce between Iran and Saudi Arabia this past year — having them sign their agreement in front of him, in Beijing. That’s how he has such cards to play in Tehran, and the Iranians have clear levers over Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. It’s hard not to see Iran’s hand behind the Hamas onslaught — torpedoing Washington’s hope of late, to broker peace between Saudi Arabia and Israel. The West would learn so much by challenging Xi to intervene with the Ayatollahs.

As for Biden, he’s been extraordinarily cold to Netanyahu — not once inviting him to the White House. He has shown concern about how Bibi’s extreme right-wing Government has sought to muzzle the Judiciary and ignore the Palestinians. Biden’s freedom to restrain an Israeli Government is greater than many Presidents have had.

Moving quickly, challenging Xi to use his clout, whilst warning Netanhayu not to destroy any chance of peace, would surely be the way to go, rather than sitting on the sidelines as the Mideast conflict becomes a regional war.

To this veteran Mideast hand, the barbarity and the bloodshed has created a landscape for which we have no answers in the West. In Washington, London and Brussels, we can delude ourselves and think we’ve seen this before. We haven’t. These horrifying events demand that we respond not with a replay of history, but by challenging the wider world to insist, finally, on resolution of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, both children of Abraham.

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