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Artillery Row

The West needs more decisive diplomacy

Diplomatic vacillation is enabling the spread of armed conflict

After weeks of fear that the Gaza war could trigger regional conflagration, we need to see the daily headlines from Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, let alone Gaza, and identify what is underway. Yes, a wider Middle East conflict — embracing multiple countries and leading the West, specifically the United States and Britain, to engage militarily, bombing unknown enemies in unlikely places, in a way they surely never wanted.

Then just listen to the frustration that goes with this mission. President Biden, ordering another round of attacks on missile sites used by the Islamic zealots known as the Houthis in Yemen, frowned: “Are our attacks stopping the Houthis? No. Are they going to continue? Yes”. That night the Houthis launched their own missile attack on a US ship in the Red Sea — a shipping lane crucial to world trade.

Likewise, consider Biden’s latest conversation with Israel’s Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. The President urged “targeted operations” in Gaza to limit civilian casualties and re-asserted the call for a Palestinian state to defuse Arab world outrage, just hours after the Israeli leader ruled that two-state option out, and just hours before he gave the green light for an Israeli strike on the Syrian capital Damascus, upping the ante on the regional conflict.

America’s own indecisive diplomacy surely lies behind this military escalation

What makes this broader conflict so sobering is that America’s own indecisive diplomacy surely lies behind this military escalation, and its return as front-line force to the region that so humiliated and traumatised the Washington establishment in the first decades of this century. Because Washington’s failure to make Israel listen to the clamour for restraint in Gaza and elsewhere has opened the door for its enemies in the region — led by Iran, quietly supported by China, and peopled by the likes of Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen.

We can have no illusions about the roots of this expanding Middle East nightmare. Israel’s siege of Gaza and the Hamas leadership emerged from the mass murder of innocent Israelis by Hamas on October 7, but the deaths of more than 25,000 Palestinians in Gaza, coupled with the tragedy of so many Gazans engulfed by hunger and illness, has spawned the daily volleys of missiles over the Red Sea, and the nightly barrage that lights up Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, not to mention bombings in Syria and Iraq, even Pakistan.

The Houthis use inflammatory anti-Western and anti-Semitic language. (“Death to America, Death to Israel, A Curse Upon the Jews” is part of one of their slogans.) Yet they have insisted that their goal in terrorising shipping in the Red Sea is to pressure the United States to force Israel to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza. Given the UN’s latest verdict, suggesting more than 90 per cent of Gazans are displaced, and more than 80 per cent of them are in danger from starvation and disease, their calling card is clear.

Yet witness the latest diplomatic mission to Israel, made by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken — his fourth such visit to Jerusalem since the Gaza war erupted. He did say, finally, to Benjamin Netanyahu, after three months of skirting the issue: “Far too many Palestinians have been killed.” He suggested that a Palestinian State must be part of any post-conflict solution. He urged a humanitarian pause in the fighting, and immediate clearance for massive amounts of aid, everything from food, to fuel, to medicine.

But he left with only one concession: an agreement for the United Nations to assess the needs of Palestinians in Northern Gaza, a take-away so small that it astonished former colleagues of mine at the UN, even though they had pushed for it. “Indecisive may be one word for American diplomacy,” to quote one senior UN figure in New York. “Blatantly one-sided is better, and certainly way too little, way too late.” 

What could the United States have done to make a decisive difference? Waiting until the year’s end to declare publicly too many Palestinians had died and to call for “targeted operations,” spoke to vacillation writ large. Then there has been the failure to insist that Egypt’s military leader, an ally of Washington, not to mention recipient of huge amounts of US aid, open his border unilaterally with Gaza to permit humanitarian aid. That is yet another glaring opportunity missed, or maybe just bypassed out of deference to the Netanyahu Government. 

The clout that goes with massive US aid to Jerusalem has surely not been exploited as leverage. Israel is the number one recipient of Washington’s military largesse abroad. This amounted to some 3.8 billion dollars last year, part of a 10-year programme totalling 38 billion, and bolstered by one-off weapons shipments since the Hamas invasion: everything from small diameter bombs to armoured tanks, artillery rounds and ammunition. Even during the recent disagreements with the Netanyau government, the Biden administration has urged Congress to send more aid to Israel.

As for Netanyahu, he chose to say farewell to the latest US diplomacy with a stunning rejection of Blinken’s call for a Palestinian state. “Our Prime Minister needs to be capable of saying No to our friends,” he declared, having earlier gone on US TV to insist: “I’m proud to have prevented the establishment of a Palestinian State.” The Biden White House, clearly taken by surprise, arranged that instant conversation with Netanyahu, reiterating the call for a two-state solution. 

The silence seems to have been deafening on Netanyahu’s part. He had his advisers remind all that he had plainly ruled out the two-state solution. Within hours, the Israelis struck the Syrian capital Damascus, killing spy chiefs of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and triggering warnings from Tehran of “massive reprisals.”

In the circumstances, much as Biden and Rishi Sunak defend their bombing campaigns in the regions as vital to keep the Red Sea working, a power shift seems underway in the Middle East. The Iranians are supplying the Houthis with training, weapons and intelligence to hone in on Western shipping. Tehran has built Hezbollah into the fearsome military and political force it has become in Lebanon, with the Israelis saying that Hezbollah north of the border represents their next target. Hamas leaders report to Iran and always have.  

Bear in mind that Iran’s ayatollahs may not report to China’s Xi Jinping, but they certainly listen to him. Joe Biden had a conversation with Xi, back in November, and urged him to restrain Iran. Again, US diplomacy did not get the job done — indeed it became a cul-de-sac.

“The fear is that we have been sucked into a regional escalation, just as the Iranians wanted, and maybe the Chinese,” to quote one former White House adviser, who worked for Presidents Clinton and Obama. “And the impression left, certainly in the Muslim and Arab world, let alone to our enemies, is that it’s easier for us to bomb Yemen than to pressure Israel.”

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