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The 'Bigger Picture' Behind the Israel-Hamas War
Since nothing happens by coincidence in the Middle East, many of us in Israel are not buying that the war between Israel and Hamas is just that.
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The Israel-Hamas war is, most likely, not just a war between Israel and Hamas.
In the Middle East — and, frankly, anywhere else where diametrically opposed ideologies collide — nothing happens happenstance. Plus, the idea that a wannabe governing body (Hamas) has the capabilities, on its own, to carry out the attack it did against Israel, is at best mind-bending, and at worst ludicrous.
The hundreds of people in Israel who were massacred and taken hostage by Palestinian terrorists is one thing. But I’m talking more about the precise intel that these terrorists had. They knew the specific addresses where army commanders lived. They knew how to deactivate critical communications systems in a military base. They had detailed maps and instructions for large swaths of Israeli terrain, some seven kilometers into the country.
Imagine the kind of training they underwent to pull off, in many Palestinians’ minds, such a spectacle. The coordination, the secrecy, the more than 3,000 Palestinian terrorists who easily entered Israel that Saturday morning in such a surprise move, it blew away even the sterling Israeli intelligence community.
The result? The bloodiest day in Israel’s 75-year history. Mind you, this is a country that was attacked by five — five! — neighboring nations when it declared its independence in 1948, and even then there wasn’t a single day as brutal as October 7th, 2023.
This is why, at least in Israel, many of us are not buying that the Israel-Hamas war is just that: a war between Israel and Hamas. Again, nothing happens happenstance in the Middle East, which leads us to a couple of “bigger picture” theories about the impetus of this seemingly unexpected conflict.
The first theory is the more obvious one, involving Iran at its epicenter. It’s been well-documented that the Iranian revolution culminated in an overthrow of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1979. The theocratic regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a religious cleric who headed one of the rebel factions, superseded the Pahlavi dynasty. Since then, Khomeini has been relentlessly investing in exporting Iran’s Islamic revolution, with the aim of maximizing regional hegemony.
As part of this masterplan, the Iranians identify other like-minded rebel groups across the Middle East and North Africa, and supply them with training, weaponry, and funds to carry out (or stand ready to carry out) “missions” that align with this masterplan. This is what the term “Iranian proxies” means.
Experts say Iran hopes to further leverage its growing network of proxies to move equipment and personnel across the Middle East and North Africa — and remove Western powers that stand in its way. In recent years, Iran has sought to improve cooperation among these proxies, with the grand plan of forming a more united “Axis of Resistance” against mutual enemies.
Acting through proxies is a method of eluding responsibility, and surely a more efficient way to expand Iranian imperialism. After all, why build bases in other countries and then ship your troops to babysit them, when you could piggyback on local groups who already have plenty of manpower and even political influence (such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories) in the places they operate?
Do you know who else has proxies across the Middle East and North Africa? A country called Saudi Arabia, the competing empire with which Iran has been engaged in an ongoing, highly lethal struggle for dominant influence in the Middle East and other regions of the Muslim world.
In what’s been described as a new cold war, the conflict is waged on multiple levels: geopolitical, economic, and sectarian to name a few. Iran believes it’s the leading Shia Muslim power, while Saudi Arabia sees itself as the leading Sunni Muslim power.
The context of this Iranian-Saudi feud features historical religious sectarian tensions, which have existed between Shia and Sunni Muslims for centuries, as well as historical ethnic tensions between Arabs and Persians.
In this regard, the rivalry is often seen as being between Iran and Gulf Arab monarchies (all of which identify more with theocratic governance), such as the Gulf Cooperation Council states and their allies (namely Egypt, Sudan, Jordan and Morocco, all of which Israel has normalized relations).
In the 1950s and 1960s, prior to the Iranian revolution, Saudi Arabia fashioned itself as the leader of the Muslim world, basing its legitimacy in part on its control of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. But in 1979, Saudi Arabia’s image as the leader of the Muslim world was undermined with the rise of Iran’s new theocratic government, which challenged the legitimacy of Saudi Arabia’s Al Saud dynasty and its authority as Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.
Saudi King Khalid initially congratulated Iran and stated that “Islamic solidarity” could be the basis of closer relations between the two countries, but relations worsened substantially over the next decade. Since then, the two countries have been engaged in proxy wars across the Middle East, such as in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Kuwait, and even amongst the Kurds.
Fast-forward to 2023, and United States President Joe Biden’s administration is pushing hard for Israel-Saudi Arabia normalization, following a series of normalized relations between other (albeit far less influential) Arab states and Israel, known as the Abraham Accords.
When Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sat down on September 20th for his first English-language television interview, he indicated that prospects for a deal to normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel were on track. While he added that “for us, the Palestinian issue is very important” and needed to be resolved, his comment on Israel reinforced a view that negotiations for the “deal of the century” were well underway.
Leaks to media outlets that outlined contours of the three-way talks related to defense, energy, and civilian nuclear power added to the sense that Saudi, Israeli, and American officials were persevering for a breakthrough that the Saudi Arabian Crown Prince asserted would be “the biggest historical deal since the end of the Cold War.”
Largely absent from the stream of material released into the public domain was any meaningful consideration of Palestinian interests, which at times appeared to be seen more as a concession in the tri-party efforts to reach an equilibrium, which would allow Saudi and Israeli officials to effectively “sell” any deal domestically and regionally.
Saudi-Israeli normalization would be, at least in Iranian eyes, a monumental setback to their regime’s pursuit of regional hegemony, since Israel in many ways represents the West, and Saudi-Israeli normalization would therefore ensure the West is alive and kicking in the Middle East. Especially after the United States virtually withdrew from the region following two disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Hence why many believe that the Israel-Hamas war is, in all likelihood, not just a war between Israel and Hamas, but a war waged by Hamas, with the backing of Iran, to upend Saudi-Israeli normalization and its consequences amid the Iranian pursuit of regional hegemony.
The second theory about why this war broke out also has to do with Iran, but more to do with Russia, one of Iran’s strongest allies. You see, as part of Saudi-Israeli normalization, there was talk of a $27-billion rail expansion that would connect Israel’s outlying areas to metropolitan Tel Aviv and, in the future, could provide overland links to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and India.
This plan is basically a revival of an idea promoted for years — though little progress has been made. More interestingly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced it on July 30th of this year, immediately following a trip by top American officials to Saudi Arabia to advance the prospect of formal relations between the Muslim powerhouse and Israel.
I remember reading about this $27-billion rail expansion plan in my Tel Aviv apartment and thinking to myself, “Why on Earth, in 2023, do we need a railway that would connect Israel to Saudi Arabia?”
Turns out, you don’t just build a railway because, out of the goodness of your heart, you want to transport people across countries. You build a railway so that you can transport of chemicals and materials, and construct cross-border energy pipelines alongside (or underneath) it.
With this in mind, India initially reached out to Iran and floated the idea that Delhi could use Iran’s Chabahar Port as a means of entry into Afghanistan. From there, the International North-South Transport Corridor could allow India to reach Central Asia, Russia, and Europe.
The plan looked perfect on paper, but Iran’s frosty relations with the United States — India’s most important trade partner — punctured Delhi’s desire to engage Iran as a conduit to Eurasia. That’s when the Indians came up with another plan, which allows them to bypass Pakistan and Iran in its quest for connectivity to the Middle East and Europe.
On September 9th, a memorandum of understanding was signed by India, the European Union, Germany, Italy, France, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates at the G20 summit. Under this memorandum, the countries committed to collaborate on establishing what they called: the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor.
The aim of this corridor, upon completion, is to have a dependable and reasonably priced cross-border rail network, consisting of two parts:
The Eastern Corridor, which will connect India to the Arabian Gulf
The Northern Corridor, which will connect the Arabian Gulf to Europe
Proponents of this mega-project claim it will better connect India, the Middle East, and Europe; significantly reduce the amount of time and costs required to carry goods from India to Europe; increase industrial growth in all participating countries; and create more jobs for both skilled and unskilled workers.
This all sounds good and well, except in the eyes of one country: Russia, which has enjoyed long-established international trade routes through its own borders. The freight route across Russia, which for decades served as the main overland link between Europe and China, has become problematic — since countries have been trying to shield their economies from the fallout of the Russian-Ukrainian war and sanctions on Moscow.
But Russia isn’t just interested in maintaining its economic prowess between Europe and Asia. For the last two decades, it has also reaped the benefits of its political, diplomatic, and military investments in the Middle East and North Africa. These investments have paid off for Russia because, for instance, when the time came to impose economic sanctions against Russia following its invasion of Ukraine, most Middle East and North African nations did not follow suit.
Instead, they remained in “non-aligned” or “neutral stance” lanes, which is likely to endure as Moscow continues to strengthen its position in the Middle East and North Africa. This has made Russia an important trade and military partner in the region, thereby establishing strong ties with many governments, factions, and proxies.
In addition, Russia’s investments in the Middle East and North Africa information space are also paying off. Vladimir Putin is seen in the region as fighting the West on behalf of all those who dislike the United States, which breeds persistent faith in Putin’s vision of a multipolar world. A recent survey published by BBC Arabic investigating the feelings of young people in Arab countries showed that they are already more attracted to Russia than to the United States, with 70-percent describing Russia as an ally.
Much of the Arab world’s attitude towards the war in Ukraine will not depend on Russia’s success or failure, since many think that Putin is not interested in a decisive triumph and is already a “winner.” As perceived from Arab capitals, Putin wishes to demonstrate to the world what would occur if you choose to follow the West, which will eventually desert and abandon you, resulting in war and chaos.
For many Arab leaders, the impression they got from the Syrian civil war is that Russia is “sincere” and “does not abandon its allies,” while the West deserted Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt, Gaddafi in Libya, and Assad in Syria. To many Arab leaders and on the so-called Arab street, Russia has shown what it can do in Syria, where it has displayed its toughness and hard power.
But the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor, with its heavy footprints from the West, threatens to bite off a big piece of Russia’s increasing influence in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as its incredibly lucrative chemical exports and energy pipelines to Europe and parts of the Middle East.
What’s more, the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor threatens to diminish whatever success Russia envisions for its political, diplomatic, and military investments in the Middle East and North Africa, since the corridor could very well signal the West’s prominent return to the region.
Hence why many believe that the Israel-Hamas war is, in all likelihood, not just a war between Israel and Hamas, but a war waged by Hamas, with the backing of Iran, and the blessing of Russia.
Just another day in the wacky world of geopolitics.