From the moment it moved its first aircraft carrier into the eastern Mediterranean, the US has adamantly said and said again that it wants to avoid a regional war. Despite that reluctance, regional war is here.
In a sense it has been from the start, since Iran (a non-Arab, often anti-Arab country) is on the east of the region, but its empire of vassals and proxies control Lebanon, Gaza, and Yemen as well as infiltrating Iraq and Syria with its own soldiers (the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, IRGC) and arming Hamas in the occupied West Bank.
After the US accepted more than 160 attacks on its limited forces and facilities in Iraq and Syria, three US soldiers (two women and a man) were killed about two weeks ago, and the US vowed retaliation. Heavy strikes directed at key targets in Syria and Iraq occurred last Friday night, with more to come.
The Houthis, the terrorist group controlling Yemen, has for months attacked merchant ships in the Red Sea, impeding twenty percent of world commerce and decimating Suez Canal traffic. The group also attacks US naval vessels. After patiently building an international coalition, the US was aided by Britain and supported by Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles and Spain in massive strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen, with more to come. After Iran itself sent a drone that struck a merchant ship the Arabian Sea near India, that huge country deployed its naval power to deter future attacks.
In neither case did the US or coalition response include direct attacks on Iranian soil, and the US seems determined to keep it that way, hoping to prevent a war with Iran. This is the only sense in which the war is not yet regional. But of course all these forces are already at war with Iran’s imperial extensions and ambitions. So despite the official absence of Israel from the coalition, all these countries have Israel’s back. Israel’s could not focus on Hamas if they did not.
Bahrain is the only Arab member of the coalition; it and the other nations that normalized relations with Israel in late 2020 (the United Arab Emirates/UAE, Sudan, and Morocco) have all called for a cease-fire in Gaza. But none has withdrawn from its 2020 agreement with Israel. The same is true of Egypt and Jordan, long at peace with Israel. Saudi Arabia, with US mediation, was on track to form a similar agreement and, remarkably, it has announced that these negotiations will resume after the war, with an important proviso: Israel progress toward a Palestinian state side by side with the Jewish one.
Benjamin Netanyahu has said that Israel will maintain security control over the entire territory and has refused to explicitly support a Palestinian state, but neither of these is the same as rejecting one. Many Israeli governments before his have paid lip service to the two-state solution, always specifying a demilitarized Palestine. President Biden has recently noted that several UN countries have no military (peaceful and beautiful Costa Rica is one), so this is quite possible for a future Palestine.
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of Israeli-Arab normalization after the war. All these states fear Iran and its terror proxies as much as Israel does. The result would be a huge swath of economic and some political cooperation from India through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel to Cyprus, Greece, and all of Europe. This massive crescent would effectively halt Iran’s imperial ambitions and set some limits on those of Russia and China.
The obstacles are serious. Hostages held by Hamas may not be recovered. Netanyahu must watch his right flank—cabinet ministers Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, in my view racist scum—or lose his government and face not only disempowerment, but jail. I say good riddance to them all, but it is not guaranteed. Also, no one, I repeat no one, has yet stepped up who is able and willing to build (not just physically) a new Palestinian state. Finally, the most important imperial arm of Iran, Hezbollah and its puppet regime in Lebanon, remain a grave threat to Israel and peace. Lebanon could be engulfed in yet another war, worse than the one in Gaza. Iran could keep a lid on this, or make it happen.
The war will continue for now; more than thirty countries have joined the US and (remarkably) the International Court of Justice/ICJ in declining to call for a cease-fire. The last bastion of Hamas, civilian-packed Rafa on the Egyptian border, presents new difficulties. Even if the war is concluded soon, the best outcomes are not at all guaranteed. But for me, optimism—however skeptical and cautious—has to be deployed in the greatest battle of all, the one against despair