The nightmare scenario: Are we on the eve of a global war?

In the aftermath of yesterday’s airstrike killing 500 Palestinians in a Gaza hospital, what are the risks of the conflict escalating into a regional or even global conflagration?

US President Joe Biden today walks into a quagmire as he visits Israel a day after a deadly air strike on a Gaza hospital that left 500 dead.

Since the hideous attack by Hamas in Israel on 7 October, western diplomacy has walked a tightrope between unqualified support for Israel, despite ongoing war crimes, and a frail message of restraint towards an ally whose actions may trigger an escalation of unpredictable and catastrophic proportions.

While Arab governments including US allies have blamed Israel for the hospital massacre, Israel has blamed the incident on a rocket misfired by the Islamic Jihad group. Israel also accused Hamas of misinformation aimed at misguiding public opinion and stirring trouble in the region.  

The evidence presented by Israel is still being verified by news agencies and other governments,  but US President Joe Biden has gone a step further declaring that “based on what I have seen, it was done by the other team, a term more appropriate to a football match then to a grave international crisis.

But any declaration by Israel and the US is unlikely to carry much weight in Arab streets. Moreover, the tragedy has put the spotlight on the humanitarian emergency in Gaza aggravated by  constant bombardments, a mass evacuation of people and a cruel siege depriving civilians of food, water and medical assistance . 

And the deteriorating situation in Gaza, confirmed by the United Nations, certifies the failure of Biden’s attempt to condition Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by showering him with love. Indeed, it may represent a decisive leap in the dark.

The nightmare scenario goes as follows:

Israel initiates a ground offensive in Gaza, further increasing the human cost of its operations. Containing the war to northern Gaza might prove impossible, especially as Hamas operatives are detected in the flow of people heading to the Rafah crossing. Egypt is under increased pressure to open its doors, which Palestinians would view as another Nakba (the expulsion of thousands of Palestinians from their towns and villages in 1948). Egypt is likely to refuse, fearing destabilisation. But if it complies Hamas infiltrations could turn the Sinai into a new Gaza.

As the human cost in Palestine mounts, Iranian-backed Hezbollah – a battle-hardened militia operating from Lebanon and Syria – may feel compelled to react or display signs of preparing to do so. In response, Israel could take pre-emptive action, opening a northern front and potentially dragging Lebanon and Syria into the quagmire, with Iran either actively assisting its proxies or intervening directly.

US aircraft carriers in the region might react by launching strikes on Hezbollah and possibly Iran. Meanwhile, the West Bank erupts in violence as bullish right-wing settlers become emboldened, leading to a renewed cycle of violence and potentially more terror attacks in an unending spiral. In the background, Russia may increasingly feel indebted to Iran, and China might seize an opportunity to strike at Taiwan as the west becomes overstretched.

Fiction or reality?

This scenario may seem like geopolitical fiction, and several factors militate against its realisation. These include a reduced appetite for war in the region, the unwillingness of most Arab countries to be dragged into the abyss, and Iran's own survival instinct that might temper any desire for revenge on the part of Hezbollah beyond symbolic skirmishes along the border.

However, while the nightmare scenario may not fully materialise, a prolonged conflict in the Palestinian occupied territories, including the West Bank, remains a likely possibility after ground operations.

Even if Israel successfully weakens Hamas, thousands who have lost their homes and loved ones may end up in refugee camps, which can become breeding grounds for terrorism. Furthermore, Russia might remain aloof while benefiting from the pressure on western ammunition depots.

International legitimacy: Cover or bargaining chip?

So far US diplomacy headed by Anthony Blinken has been based on the premise that unconditional support for Israel could serve as an effective bargaining chip to restrain the country and prevent an escalation. Israel needs international legitimacy for its actions, and the US can provide cover, within certain red lines.

Yet yesterday’s terrible air strike on a hospital – despite conflicting reports on who bombed it – suggests that this contradictory approach has failed.  The real leverage the US has on Israel consists of money and weapons.

Sure, there has been a change of tone over the past few days. For instance, the US has already ruled out Israel's reoccupation of Gaza. However, the end game remains unclear. Who will be responsible for the fate of the displaced Gazans, their resettlement, and the reconstruction of Gaza? And who will govern Gaza after and if Hamas is defeated? Surely Fatah will be reluctant to be seen as Israel’s enforcers while people who lost their loved ones under Israeli bombs may well reconstitute Hamas or a new version of it.

Moreover, the US’s unconditional support comes with the risk of being perceived in the Arab world as an active accomplice in ongoing war crimes in Gaza, where a medieval siege is causing significant human cost – something which provides ammunition for western critics, including Russian President Vladimir Putin.

This is why the EU can articulate what Biden cannot. While the EU has limited influence over Israel's actions, its support is crucial for legitimising US policy in the region.

In short, the US can leverage Israel, while the EU, along with moderate Arab states, can condition the kind of support the US provides to Israel. Maintaining principles is crucial for the EU. It is also in the EU’s self-interest to ensure the conflict is contained and no escalation occurs. So far, the EU has largely followed the US script with calls by European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen and EU parliament President Roberta Metsola for the respect of international law, appearing as some sort of disclaimer for unintended consequences of Israeli action.

With hindsight, their publicity stunt in Israel may well have further emboldened Israel to defy international law in the wake of the unqualified support it found after Hamas’s pogrom. Instead, the EU can afford to be more forceful in its dealing with Israeli and following yesterday’s massacre the only reasonable demand is one for an immediate cease fire. 

Can Biden trust Netanyahu?

Much now depends on whether US policy will remain driven by an ideological commitment to support Israel at any cost or by a more realistic approach that recognises the complexities of the situation and the dangers of being dragged in a war presided over by Netanyahu and his far-right allies.

As military analyst Amos Harel wrote on Haaretz last week: “There is an unusual combination of people at the top in Israel. On one hand, there is an unfit prime minister, a nearly Shakespearean figure who is facing the personal danger of an ignominious conclusion (because of a pending corruption case) to an arguably brilliant career and facing him are a military brass who are smitten and consumed with guilt feelings. That’s not a perfect recipe for considered decision-making.”

Also, weighing in on US options is the prospect of being dragged into another Middle East war which risks undermining what New York Times columnists Thomas L. Friedman describes as “three of America’s most important foreign policy interests right now”: Helping Ukraine defeat Russia; containing China; and counter balancing Iran by propping up a pro-western bloc that includes Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The US can draw on the lessons learnt from its failure to eradicate the Taliban and stabilise Iraq, and its greater success in weakening or eliminating Al Qaeda and Isis through a combination of surgical strikes and active collaboration with regional allies.

Israel faces a stark choice between behaving like a mature regional player which can dig its roots in the region becoming its economic power house, or to further isolate itself in its role as a settler state whose democratic institutions are increasingly corroded by authoritarianism and stained by the blood of Palestinians.

It is clear that the current leadership in Israel thrives in the latter scenario and are using Hamas’s heinous crimes to further an agenda of ethnic cleansing openly advocated by Netanyahu’s far-right allies.  The US and, to some extent, the EU can play a role in steering Israel away from an irreversible course of action. But yesterday’s tragedy suggests that they have to be much more forceful and clear in defending international law.