Hardliners ride high in the Middle East

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by James M Dorsey    22 January 2024

A recent Lebanese public opinion poll suggests there may be limits to Iran-backed Shiite militia Hezbollah’s restraint in confronting Israel. It also suggests why Iran feels emboldened by escalating tensions in the Middle East.

The poll results are significant with Hezbollah and Israel engaged in tit-for-tat cross border attacks that both parties have sought to contain but could spin out of control at any moment.

Hezbollah has wanted to contain the hostilities because a majority of Lebanese oppose their country becoming embroiled in a war, particularly with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu warning that Israel could turn Beirut into another Gaza.

In the final analysis, the poll, conducted in late November and early December by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, suggested that public support for Iranian-backed militants was on the rise.

The poll further indicated that the majority of Lebanese opposed to increased military engagement in support of Gaza is fragile.

Various factors could upset the apple cart.

These include an unintended escalation of the border hostilities sparked by a large number of civilian casualties, repeated Israeli targeted killings on Lebanese soil of prominent Hezbollah and Hamas figures, a potential International Court of Justice ruling asserting that Israel’s military campaign in Gaza risks genocide in a case submitted by South Africa, and the fallout of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu rejecting the creation of an independent Palestinian state and insisting that Israel would maintain control of territory conquered in the 1967 Middle East war.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90

This is a necessary condition, and it conflicts with the idea of (Palestinian) sovereignty. What to do? I tell this truth to our American friends, and I also stopped the attempt to impose a reality on us that would harm Israel’s security,” Mr. Netanyahu said.

“Every area that we evacuate we receive terrible terror against us. It happened in South Lebanon, in Gaza, and also in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] which we did it. And therefore I clarify that in any other arrangement, in the future, the state of Israel has to control the entire area from the river to the sea,” Mr. Netanyahu said.

The poll showed that only a slim majority of Lebanese, 53 per cent, prioritised addressing their country’s political and economic crisis above becoming embroiled in a “foreign war.”

An identical slim majority, 53 per cent, believed resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict required negotiations rather than a military solution.

Even so, a vast majority postulated that Israeli weakness and internal divisions meant that Israel ultimately can be defeated.

At the same time, Lebanese were unanimous, 99 per cent, in wanting Arab states to break all ties to Israel because of the Gaza war.

Hezbollah is likely to take heart from significant increases in its popularity across denominations with Shiite Muslims, Sunni Muslims, and Christians each accounting for roughly one third of Lebanon’s population.

Eight-nine per cent of Shiites had a “very positive” view of Hezbollah up from 66 per cent in 2020. Hezbollah’s popularity among Sunnis who had at least a “somewhat positive” attitude towards the group jumped from six per cent in 2020 to 34 per cent, while 29 per cent of Christians expressed a similar opinion compared to 16 per cent in 2020.

Similarly, 79 per cent of Lebanese viewed Hamas favourably.

Mr. Netanyahu’s public rejection of a Palestinian state fit a long-standing pattern of Middle Eastern politics in which hardliners on both sides of various divides reinforce one another.

That may be only the icing on Mr. Netanyahu’s cake.

Mr. Netanyahu did not say anything he had not suggested over the years, which puts the emphasis on the timing of the prime minister’s comments.

His reiterated rejection of a Palestinian state was designed to pacify his ultra-nationalist and ultra-conservative coalition partners as well as stymie US efforts to persuade Saudi Arabia to establish diplomatic relations with Israel that emphasise a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“There is a profound opportunity for regionalization in the Middle East, in the greater Middle East, that we have not had before. The challenge is realizing it,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told this week’s World Economic Forum gathering of leaders in Davos.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken gestures during his speech at the Annual Meeting of World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024. The annual meeting of the World Economic Forum is taking place in Davos from Jan. 15 until Jan. 19, 2024. Photo: AP/Markus Schreiber

The United States needs regionalization for Arab buy-in to post-war arrangements in Gaza and the West Bank which is unlikely to be forthcoming without the prospect of a credible peace process.

Speaking at the Davos forum, Israeli President Isaac Herzog described relations with Saudi Arabia as a gamechanger and a key to ending the Gaza war.

President Isaac Herzog speaks at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 18, 2024, alongside a photo of Hamas-held Israeli hostage Kfir Bibas. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

However, that remains a pipedream with the current Israeli government. Moreover, the problem is that a new Israeli government may not have the sharp edges of Mr. Netanyahu’s ultra-nationalists and ultra-conservatives but may be equally unwilling to make the kind of concessions required for a credible peace process.

Former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to the United States and Britain Turki al Faisal, who is believed to be close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, appeared to echo that sentiment and take it a step further.

“The present leadership of Hamas, of the PLO, and of Israel should be excluded from any participation in any future political role They have to pay for what they have done… All of them are failures,” Mr. Al Faisal told CNN’s Christane Amanpour.

Responding to Mr. Netanyahu’s rejection, US President Joe Biden, wittingly or unwittingly, noted that a two-state solution means different things to different people. The president suggested a two-state solution could involve a demilitarised Palestinian state that would be more palatable for Israeli hardliners.

US President Biden. Photo: Tayfun Coşkun – Anadolu Agency

That has long been Israel’s often unspoken definition across the country’s political spectrum with few exceptions, reinforced by Hamas’ October 7 attack in which 1,100 people, mostly civilians were killed.

The problem is that Israeli security concerns about Palestinians are a mirror-image of Palestinian security concerns about Israel after more than half a century of occupation and the current Gaza carnage, likely making demilitarization a non-starter for Palestinians.

For his part, Mr. Netanyahu feels emboldened by Mr. Biden’s poor polling in an election year, solid Republican support for Israel, and his past ability to counter a US President domestically in the United States.

At the same time, Mr. Netanyahu bolstered with his comments the credibility of Iran’s opposition to Arab states normalizing relations with Israel.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei cautioned days before Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel that normalisation of relations with Israel amounted to “gambling” that was “doomed to failure.” He warned that countries establishing relations with the Jewish state would be “in harm’s way.”

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, speaks during a meeting in Tehran. Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader/WANA/Reuters

Events since October 7 have reinforced Iran’s sense that the winds of Middle Eastern geopolitics are blowing in its favour.

Israel’s conduct in the Gaza war has drawn criticism from much of the international community, except for the United States and several European countries. A potential international court ruling would deepen the dent in Israel’s moral standing inflicted by the war.

In Switzerland, prosecutors said they were investigating unspecified criminal complaints against Mr.  Herzog as he attended the World Economic Forum. It was unclear whether the complaint was related to his remarks at the Forum or to past remarks or actions.

Mr. Herzog was cited in South Africa’s international court case as suggesting that all Gazans were responsible for Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel.

In addition, Iran’s non-state allies complicate affairs for Israel and the United States.

More than three months into the war, Israel has yet to achieve its goals of destroying Hamas and liberating the remaining 139 Hamas-held hostages abducted during the October 7 fighting, including the bodies of those since killed in Gaza.

While not directly involving Iranian non-state allies, mounting tensions on the West Bank where Israeli raids and clashes with Palestinian fighters threaten to mushroom into an insurgency, strengthen Iran’s hardline position.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah, backed by Iran, has forced 100,000 Israelis to evacuate northern Israel and has tied down a substantial number of Israeli forces along the border.

Iran-supported Yemeni Houthi rebels have trapped the United States in a Catch-22 with attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea.

Finally, Iranian missile strikes in the last week in Iraq, Syria, and Pakistan reflect Iran’s sense of having the upper hand rather than an intention to escalate regional tensions. They signal Iran’s willingness to defend itself, even if it does not want to see Gaza escalate into a regional conflagration.

The strikes were in response to attacks on Iranian targets, including Islamic State bombings in the city of Kerman that killed 94 people, the assassination in Syria of a senior Revolutionary Guard commander, and an attack on an Iranian police station by a Pakistan-based jihadist group.

Overall, the different hot spots suggest that hardliners are calling the shots for now.

Without a halt to the fighting in Gaza, containing the various flashpoints and preventing them from spinning out of control increasingly is becoming mission impossible.

Said US foreign policy scholar Christopher S Chivvis: “In a situation where emotions are running high thanks to the appalling violence in Gaza, with hawks in Washington eager to dole out hellfire and brimstone on Tehran, and the global economy at stake, it will be even harder to exercise restraint and avoid a broader regional war – the worst-case outcome for American interests.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and podcast, The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey.