The impact of the Israel-Hamas war will reverberate around the world, with consequences for the Middle East, Europe, China, and the United States. While the specific challenges vary, none has an interest in drawing out or widening the conflict.
WASHINGTON, DC – War has returned to the Middle East. Nearly a month after Hamas militants carried out their brutal rampage, Israel’s military retaliation continues with an intensifying ground offensive in Hamas-controlled Gaza. For people living, or with family, in Israel – including me – this is a deeply personal crisis. At the same time, many people around the world identify with the thousands of Palestinians who have been killed by Israeli airstrikes. But, personal connections aside, this is also a geopolitical crisis, possibly even more profound and far-reaching in its global impact than the Ukraine war.
The most immediate consequences will be felt in the Middle East. For years, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu operated under illusions that have now been shattered. The biggest was the expectation that Israel could normalize ties with the Arab world without addressing the Palestinian question, which he apparently believed could simply be wished away.
Now, that question has become impossible to ignore. Regardless of the outcome of its offensive in Gaza, Israel will have to do some serious soul-searching, possibly rethinking its strategy toward the moribund Middle East peace process entirely. Saudi Arabia, which was on the verge of normalizing relations with Israel, will now probably demand some concessions for the Palestinians before moving forward, lest it incur the ire of its population and the wider Muslim world.
Israel has an incontrovertible right to self-defense. But there is a risk that, in his desperation to regain control of the narrative and preserve his political position, Netanyahu will draw out the war or encourage a regional escalation. With his nominal allies in the Gulf on the fence, Netanyahu may be hoping to restore his preferred geopolitical constellation: Israel and the Sunni Arab states face off against Iran’s “axis of resistance,” with the Palestinians once again reduced to a sideshow in a much broader confrontation.
The conflict will also have grave consequences beyond the Middle East, with one of the biggest losers being Ukraine. The violence and suffering the country’s people are enduring do not appear nearly as exceptional as they once did. The images being broadcast from Gaza are as heartrending as anything that has come out of Kharkiv or Mariupol. Moreover, for many, the war in Gaza makes Ukraine look like a “local” European conflict.
Given that Ukraine’s survival depends on the international community’s continued support, anything that distracts from its struggle is bad news. Moreover, if the Israel-Hamas war escalates, with Iran entering the fray, the impact on oil prices could make it more expensive for the West to maintain its sanctions on Russian energy.
For Europe more broadly, the crisis in Gaza raises several challenges. For starters, it has exposed deep fault lines within France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. France, for one, has recorded more antisemitic incidents in the last three weeks than it had over the previous year. At the same time, the Israel-Hamas war has fueled fragmentation among other European Union member states.
Following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, European countries showed tremendous unity. But EU leaders are now splitting their focus among Ukraine, Nagorno-Karabakh (which Azerbaijan recently reclaimed after a 24-hour military offensive), and Gaza. In last week’s vote on a United Nations General Assembly resolution calling for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza, EU member states voted three different ways.
The EU’s shambolic response to the Israel-Hamas war has made China’s forceful reaction all the more notable. Unlike its effort to remain neutral after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China quickly expressed support for the Palestinians. China’s response has become part of its outreach to the Global South. And Chinese diplomats are undoubtedly chomping at the bit to highlight Western double standards – Israel versus Russia, the Palestinians versus the Ukrainians – over the coming weeks and months.
But choosing sides could cause complications for China. Most obviously, a broader regional confrontation could disrupt the fragile peace China managed to broker between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
As for the United States, it has become a cliché to describe its experience in the Middle East with a line from The Godfather Part III: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!” This is particularly apt today, since US President Joe Biden’s administration has shown far more discipline and determination in advancing a foreign-policy pivot from the Middle East to Asia than either of his predecessors, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. But now, the region is again at the top of US policymakers’ agenda.
So far, Biden has done well to balance support for Israel with calls for the Israelis to exercise more restraint in their response to the Hamas attack. And his decision to combine assistance for Ukraine with support for Israel in a single national-security package offers a chance of overcoming resistance by Republican lawmakers to supporting Ukraine.
Nonetheless, Biden is walking a tightrope. Ukraine already represented an unwelcome distraction from America’s top priority: the strategic competition with China. In this sense, greater engagement in the Middle East is the last thing the US needs.
Nobody – with the possible exceptions of Hamas and Netanyahu – has an interest in drawing out or widening the conflict now underway in Gaza. One hopes (against hope, perhaps) that relevant actors recognize their shared interests and work together to advance them. That means, most urgently, ending the conflict as quickly as possible, without further escalation. And, once Hamas’s military wing has been dismantled and its Israeli hostages freed, it means pushing for a political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There is no other way to guarantee Israel’s long-term security.
About the author
Mark Leonard, Director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, is the author of The Age of Unpeace: How Connectivity Causes Conflict.