Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 13 October 2023


A Middle East Wake-Up Call

Hamas’s atrocities make complacency much harder to sustain. But will we face up to the Iranian threat?

Walter Russell Mead

Oct. 12, 2023 12:29 pm ET

The Israeli flag projected on the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City in Israel, Oct. 11. PHOTO: NIR ALON/ZUMA PRESS

Almost a week after Hamas fanatics bent on murder slipped across the borders of Gaza, the world is still struggling to process the shock. It will be months or perhaps years before the full consequences of this attack can finally be assessed, and we do not know if the war in Gaza will spread across the Middle East and possibly beyond.

But three consequences of the attack can already be discerned. First, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been seriously and maybe irrevocably wounded. Mr. Netanyahu has argued that he was the indispensable man who alone had the stature and vision to guide a small nation in a rough world—even if the price of his continued leadership involved bringing an unruly and chaotic coalition to power and a year of all-consuming domestic political strife. That seems harder to justify now.

Similarly, the belief among some on the Israeli right that Israel was strong enough and the Palestinians were isolated enough so that expanding settlements on the West Bank entailed no real risks or costs has been exposed as a dangerous delusion. The decision to plunge Israel into a year of turmoil over judicial-reform proposals also looks more questionable in light of the Hamas attacks.

Israel needs a sober government. Too many of the parties in the current coalition are too poorly led, impulsive and prone to wishful thinking to provide the leadership an embattled nation needs. Wednesday’s announcement of a wartime freeze on controversial legislation and a unity government with an experienced war cabinet will help Israel focus on the tasks at hand, but a serious political reckoning lies ahead.

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Second, while the Israeli right has lost ground, the cause of the Palestinians has suffered even more. After these attacks, the two-state solution is sick, and the one-state solution is dead.

The time may come when the establishment of an independent Palestinian state returns to the agenda, but I see no prospect that any Israeli government of any party would embrace this cause now. The danger that Hamas-linked genocidaires would take over is too real to make the idea acceptable to Israelis. Israeli politicians must make the survival of Israel the supreme goal of their policies. Thanks to Hamas, the goal of Palestinian independence is further off than ever.

The idea of combining the two peoples into a single state is even more absurd. No sane person can imagine that Israelis would accept millions (or even tens of thousands) of Hamas supporters as fellow citizens of a common state. No serious person would ask them to.

Third, the ability of the Muslim Brotherhood (of which Hamas is a member) to advance democracy in the Arab world has sustained a staggering, perhaps fatal blow. Until the brotherhood unambiguously repudiates Hamas, its credibility as a stabilizing democratic force will collapse. Western governments and nongovernmental organizations will have to review their links with Hamas-supporting groups, and Western pressure for democratization in the Arab world will weaken even further.

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If some things have become clear in the wake of the attacks, important questions remain. The most immediate and urgent concern the possible spread of the war and the role of Iran. The Iranian proxy Hezbollah has launched rockets into Israel and, with an arsenal of more than 100,000 rockets and missiles at its disposal, could significantly widen the conflict. The Iranian regime has poured money into Hamas and provided technical training, weapons and political cover without which attacks on this scale couldn’t have happened.

Washington’s first priority, correctly, has been to reduce the chance of escalation by moving forces into the region and warning Iran and Hezbollah to keep their distance. “Don’t,” was President Biden’s advice for any country or armed group thinking of attacking Israel during this crisis.

For Israel, the priority is to deal directly with Hamas. But soon both Washington and Jerusalem must develop a response to Iran’s undoubted role as funder and sponsor of these attacks. Lawyerly quibbles about the exact details of Iran’s involvement can’t obscure the reality that its role was sufficient to demand a response. If the U.S. and Israel are, in effect, deterred by their fears of Iranian retaliation from inflicting this price, Iran has achieved its long-sought hegemonic position in the Middle East even without the nuclear weapons it will soon possess. It can attack Israel without being punished. It will do so again. Israel and the U.S. must either act or accept this new reality.

The Biden administration has a historic choice to make. Strategic passivity in the face of Iran’s relentless and remorseless rise to regional power was the central plank of President Obama’s Middle East policy and has largely guided policy in the Biden years. The Biden administration hoped that U.S. security guarantees to Israel and Saudi Arabia could maintain a regional balance in the face of growing Iranian power. The Hamas attacks were intended to frustrate this initiative. Iran is determined to destroy the Jewish state and to banish American power from a region that remains vital to the peace and prosperity of the world. Mr. Biden must decide whether he will stand his ground or cede regional leadership to a hostile Iran.

Finally, there is the question of whether American and Western opinion will awaken to the new state of the world. In a horrible way, the descent of death-dealing paragliders into a peaceful music festival in Israel is an apt symbol of our times. The post-Cold War trance of the West, reaping peace dividends, celebrating flower power, and generally living as if utopia had already arrived, has left us mentally and morally disarmed. The revisionist powers that recognize no moral limits on their power as they seek to overturn the existing world system in an ocean of blood are descending onto our festival of folly like the hell-bound paragliders of Hamas. We cannot and should not respond with irrational panic and random outbursts of violence. We must soberly and deliberately address a mortal danger to everything we hold dear—and we must at long last wake up.

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