President Joe Biden refuses to publicly back a ceasefire to end Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.
Without one, the United States will find its moral authority in the Middle East increasingly diminished, especially among its partners in the region and an Arab public that is mobilizing at levels not seen since the Arab Spring revolutions.
A prolonged fallout also brings the region closer to a broader conflagration, and threatens to undo significant advances in de-escalation that have taken place since 2020.
It is now the third week of Israel’s daily bombardment of the Gaza Strip, in response to the Hamas attacks on 7 October in which over 1,400 people were killed and more than two hundred taken hostage.
A rising death toll of 7,000 in Gaza includes over 2,500 children, in addition to dozens of journalists, and aid workers. A convoy of twenty trucks brought in limited goods through Egypt, but Gaza remains cut off from electricity, fuel, and water.
Its Ministry of Health issued a warning that its hospitals are nearing collapse, with no medicines left to treat the wounded. An excavator that assists in extracting survivors out of the rubble no longer has fuel to operate. A rising death toll is inevitable. The possibility of an extended, violent conflagration engulfing the region is very real.
Following Hamas’s 7 October attacks, Biden expressed his unconditional support for Israel in its moment of grief. Landing in Tel Aviv, the president articulated several objectives for the US: averting a broader war, and opening a humanitarian pathway into Gaza. He also cautioned Israel not to be ‘consumed by rage’.
While hinting against a military escalation, the US has undermined efforts to reign in Israel’s use of force in Gaza, including by voting against a United Nations Security Council Resolution calling for a ‘humanitarian pause’ to deliver aid.
The 19 October veto took place in the context of the US deployment of two aircraft carriers to the Eastern Mediterranean and its dispatch of missile defence systems to guard US troops, possibly suggesting that it was preparing for a prolonged conflict.
To actors across the region, Washington appeared to give Israel a green light for its continued bombardment of Gaza regardless of its cost in Palestinian lives.
The president has offered an explanation for his stance, declaring that he would refuse to support a ceasefire until Hamas releases all hostages. Four have been released to date. On the eve of an election year, the president also likely sees a staunchly pro-Israel stance as politically useful.
A regional escalation
The conflict is already spilling into Lebanon. Since the 7 October attack, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the political and militant group backed by Iran, has had almost daily exchanges of fire with Israeli forces along the border between the two states.
On 25 October, a statement released by Hezbollah affirmed that the head of the group met with leaders from Hamas and Islamic Jihad to discuss efforts to achieve victory over Israel.
Any reprisals from these groups are almost certain to also target US military troops stationed across the region, including in the Gulf States. If this happens, they are also likely to draw support from other actors with close ties to Iran, including paramilitary groups in Iraq, and possibly the Houthis in Yemen.
The scenario would represent a more violent evolution of the spate of attacks that took place between 2019 and 2021 which targeted US military bases in Iraq, as well as Saudi Aramco (the Saudi state oil company) and extended into the UAE.
These attacks were retaliation for policies adopted by the US – and sometimes by its Gulf partners, seen as contrary to the interests of Tehran and its allies. This time, the blowback is likely to be more severe.
Hearts and minds
To many in the Middle East, the rising humanitarian death toll in Gaza is also costing the US any lingering vestiges of moral capital.
For a generation growing up in the early 2000s, Washington’s invasions of Iraq and its support for Israel during the second intifada gave rise to pervasive anti-American sentiments.
Twenty years later, comparable levels of anger are being directed at both Israel and the United States. This time, the Arab masses are pointing to Western hypocrisy when it comes to upholding principles of international law and morality in Ukraine, and its apparent indifference to the loss of civilian life in Gaza and the West Bank.
Meanwhile, the other powers that the US fears it is losing influence to – China and Russia – have been clear in urging for a ceasefire, and articulating concerns towards the Palestinians plight: a matter that is not going unnoticed.
Arab anger towards the US and Israel is erupting through sweeping protests that are also bringing to the fore differences between Arab publics, and the governments that normalized their relations with Israel.
In Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain, and Egypt, protesters have called for the severance of diplomatic ties with Israel. Public anger is unlikely to dissipate overnight. It may also leave Arab governments struggling to contain the fallout.