The repercussions of the Gaza war show that, unlike the saying about Las Vegas, what happens in Gaza doesn’t stay in Gaza. Israel’s invasion and ensuing genocide against Palestinians there, has drawn its Axis of Resistance allies–Iran, Iraq, Hezbollah and the Houthis–into the fight. They have not–as the US feared–mounted full-scale attacks on Israeli or US assets in the region. But they have drawn blood. They have forced the US to recognize that there is a price to be paid for supporting Israeli aggression.
Resistance has taken various forms depending depending on the actor. In Yemen, the Houthis have launched 100 attacks by drones and missiles at both Israel and global shipping in the Red Sea. They’ve targeted US warships patrolling in its waters and oil tankers owned by or associated with Israel. It has declared its intent to close the waterway to shipping headed to Israel’s southern port, Eilat. Remember, it was just such a threat by Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdul Nasser, which offered Israel the excuse to launch the pre-empive strike which started the 1967 War.
As a result, three of the world’s largest shipping companies have stopped sending their tankers through the Bab al Mandab Straits. 15% of the world’s commercial shipping traverses this route. One-third of all cargo shipments to Israel travel through the Red Sea or Suez Canal. The world’s three largest cargo companies have abandoned it. 350 vessels have been rerouted. The cost is incalculable: in the hundreds of millions, if not billions.
The US has responded by positioning a warship there, which has intercepted many of the missiles fired at itself and other ships. This is an exceedingly cautious response considering US warships have been directly targeted. But the US has no interest in widening hostilities. It needs a direct conflict with the Houthis like it needs a hole in the head. It certainly learned from the Saudi fiasco, that fighting Yemenis is in no one’s interest. But even the best laid plan can go awry:
Future incidents in which US soldiers are killed or naval assets are seriously damaged would leave Washington little choice but to get sucked deeper back into the Middle East after the last three presidents tried to disengage from the region.
As these incidents have become more frequent, the US has recruited a coalition of nations to form a joint sea patrol that would accompany commercial cargo vessels to and from their Red Sea ports. It’s hard to see this as more than a symbolic act, since the Houthis are not boarding ships or hijacking them. Instead, they are firing missiles at them in salvos lasting hours. No matter how many they shoot down, some will get through.
Israel has recognized a threat from the south and, in developments reported here, built spy stations on the Saudi-controlled Socotra Island in the Bab al-Mandab strait, along with a listening post on a mountain in Eritrea. One report says that Israeli war planes attacked a Houthi missile base.
In a separate development, Iran piloted a drone around 900 miles to the Indian coast, where it exploded on an Israel-linked ship. This considerably widened the war, as the Houthis have only attacked Israeli shipping in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea. In response, the Indian navy has stationed one of its warships in the area. The attack sent a clear message to the US that Iran’s reach was far and that it would not go quietly as Hamas is decimated in Gaza.
Iraqi militias allied with Iran have also launched air attacks on US troops in Syria. A number of soldiers have been seriously wounded. The US has responded with air attacks on such Iraqi targets.
Hezbollah and the 7-front war
The most dangerous arena outside of Gaza has been on Israel’s northern front. Indeed, in the first week after 10/7 Defense Minister Yoav Gallant wanted to launch a pre-emptive strike not against Hamas, but against Hezbollah. Such an attack would likely have started a full scale war, comparable to Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon:
Israeli warplanes were in the air awaiting orders when Biden spoke to Netanyahu on Oct. 11 and told the Israeli prime minister to stand down and think through the consequences of such an action, according to people familiar with the call.
…It took about six hours of back-and-forth calls and meetings before Israeli officials agreed to stand down, as the U.S. insisted the intelligence didn’t suggest an imminent Hezbollah attack.
It is extraordinary that Israel was moments away from starting a regional war before it consulted the US. And that a US president had to command the Israelis to stop before it was too late. This is not the behavior of a proper ally. It is the behavior of a spoiled brat let loose to wreak havoc.
Israel was on edge because its intelligence services claimed that Hezbollah was preparing to launch an imminent invasion of northern Israel. It ordered its troops there on high alert and told them to expect Hezbollah fighters and paragliders to attack any moment. This judgment was wrong. There was no attack. This further shows how such errors lead inexorably to catastrophic consequences. And just because the region averted this blunder doesn’t mean the next one won’t follow the path that led to World War I.
Netanyahu further blocked Gallant by drawing two Opposition leaders, Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot (themselves former chiefs of staff), into a war cabinet. Neither favored the Hezbollah attack.
After demanding that Israel stand down from its attack on Lebanon, Biden sent two aircraft carriers to the region. That served three purposes: to reassure Israel that its ally had its back; to warn Hezbollah and Iran against an attack; and to warn Israel as well, that it was monitoring its every move to ensure it did nothing foolish that would result in a further escalation.
Nevertheless, it appears more and more likely there will be, if not war, a major clash in the coming days and weeks. There are daily raids, artillery shelling, and drones and missiles attacking both sides:
Militants in Lebanon have hit Israel more than 200 times in attacks that have killed 10 people, including seven Israeli soldiers…Israel has responded with nearly 1,000 strikes inside southern Lebanon that have killed more than 120 Hezbollah fighters and 10 Lebanese civilians.
Many northern Israel communities, with tens of thousands of residents, have been evacuated. All roads are closed.
A few weeks ago, the IDF deliberately targeted three journalists who were observing Hezbollah positions and the fighting in southern Lebanon. As they traveled in a vehicle, they came under attack. One journalist was killed and the others were wounded. Amnesty International produced a report finding that the attack was deliberate and designed to eliminate media coverage. The army has done the same in Gaza, killing 100 journalists there. These too were targeted and deliberate murders, not accidental.
A few days ago, Israel targeted a senior Iranian general responsible for arms shipments to Hezbollah and murdered him. This was a clear message to both Iran and Hezbollah that it would not shrink from a fight.
Gallant has boasted that Israel faces a seven-front war with Hamas, Syria, Hezbollah, Iraqi militia, Iran Houthis, and in the West Bank. Rather than boast, it behooves Israeli leaders to consider the potential consequences of a united Axis of Resistance confronting it in multiple theaters of operation. Though its military capabilities may be limited compared to Israel’s–that can change quickly. Iranian military technology has grown by leaps and bounds. With its highly skilled engineers, they will continue perfecting its weapons arsenal–not to mention its nuclear capability. Neither Gallant nor most Israelis appear to be devoting any consideration to this potential danger.
The IDF and Hezbollah have been probing each other, preparing for a potentially larger conflict. The Lebanese militia is far and away Israel’s most powerful front-line enemy. As Iran’s key ally in the region, it plays a key role in implementing any strategy of the Axis of Resistance. It possesses nearly 100,000 missiles pointed at Israel and has a fighting force of 25,000 active duty fighers and the same amount of reservists. It is a formidable opponent.
That’s why the Biden administration reacted with alarm to Iranian threats to intervene in the Gaza conflict. As a result, it sent not one, but two aircraft carriers to show the flag and warn Hezbollah and that the US would not permit attacks on Israel. It worked, in a sense, as most of the attacks by Hamas allies have been carefully calibrated to show resistance without provoking a wider conflict. But that could easily change. Therein lies danger:
The rising possibility of US combat deaths and the worsening security situation from the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea and stretching through Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Israel represents an unwelcome new foreign crisis as President Joe Biden’s reelection year dawns. And it is becoming a petri dish for a new geopolitical trend — endless tests of America’s will and credibility by its adversaries and their proxies. Warnings by Israel that its war against Hamas in Gaza will last for months, despite US pressure for a ratcheting down of the intensity of the conflict, threaten to heighten the chances war could spin out of control and drag the US further in.
Unlike America, Israel would welcome regional conflict and instability caused by the intervention of Hamas’ allies. The more conflict, the less pressure from the US and Europeans to reach a political settlement with the Palestinians. In the midst of a war, Israel’s allies back off from any such confrontation. Israel even puts them in the uncomfortable position of ratifying the genocide in Gaza, with UN vetoes and their ignored requests to reduce the civilian death toll and permit humanitarian aid to starving Gazans.
Despite the Biden administration policy goals to expand upon the controversial Abraham Accords through negotiation with Saudi Arabia, Netanyahu has sabotaged this effort. Adding the Saudis to the rank of Arab states would have been a crowning achievement Biden could have carried into the November elections. Instead, he is saddled with an unpopular war that threatens to destroy his attempt for a second term:
Any impression that the president is struggling to exert authority on a world that sometimes seems to be spinning out of control could be politically detrimental at a time when Biden is plagued by approval ratings of less than 40% — perilous territory for a commander-in-chief seeking reelection.
Biden has permitted his life-long allegiance to the Israel Lobby to cloud his judgment. He appears to be under a spell and cannot break free of Israel’s fatal embrace. Nearly 60% of Americans disapprove of his approach to the Gaza war. Among young people (18-29) 72% disapprove. His overall popularity rating is 39% (in one poll it is as low as 34%). He is among the most unpopular US presidents at this point in his term since Jimmy Carter. Any other politician would correct course and re-calibrate objectives. Do you want to win an election or or go down with the ship? Biden appears to think he can stay loyal to Israel and win. It’s a dubious proposition.
Another element of the confronttation is the impact it will have outside the region. There may be terror attacks on Israeli and US targets around the world. Muslims states both within and outside the region– including Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia–have issued harsh dennciations of Israel’s slaughter of their fellow Muslims.
At the same time, both American Jews and Muslims face acts of violence from adherents blaming either one for the violence in Gaza. They include the murder of a 6 year old Palestinian boy in Chicago stabbed multiple times by his white supremacist landlord.
I do not include in this phenomenon the invented “anti-Semitism” claims of the Israel Lobby on US campuses, which are meant to suppress legitimate speech criticidal of Israeli genocide.
Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Iran: they are all, to quote Yeats, “turning in a widening gyre” of catastrophe through the region.
My thanks to Prof. Smadar Lavie for sharing her critical research over the past few years regarding Israeli interests in Yemen and the Bab al-Mandab region; and her assistance in preparing the earlier posts I’ve written. Apologies to her for my delay in publishing this.