Israel-Palestine: imperialists worried war could escalate

Israel’s war on Gaza has all the potential to escalate into a much bigger conflict, with fronts opening up on the border with Lebanon and on the West Bank, and turmoil spreading throughout the region. Such an escalation would have a huge impact, not only on the whole of the Middle East but on the whole world situation. The ongoing massive bombardment of Gaza is already shaking the world, politically, economically and socially.

All the plans of US imperialism in the region now lie in tatters, and they are desperately trying to glue the pieces together again. But there is no way that they can go back to the precarious situation that existed prior to the events of 7 October.

The unprecedented character of this situation can be seen in the fact that the President of the United States, Joe Biden, felt it necessary to use all the authority of his position as leader of the most powerful imperialist country in the world to try and get back some semblance of control, by rushing to pay a visit directly to Netanyahu and his war cabinet.

The dilemma facing US imperialism in the region is: how to fully back Israel in its bloody onslaught on Gaza while at the same time protecting US interests across the Middle East, which are now at risk? To understand this dilemma, it is necessary to briefly outline the changed balance of forces between the major powers both globally and within the Middle East itself.

The first factor is the relative decline of US imperialism – and we stress the word ‘relative’, as it remains by far the mightiest imperialist force on the planet, with the most powerful war machine that history has ever seen. The United States spends more on defence than the next 10 countries combined. Thus, from a military point of view, no one can match the firepower of the US. The next biggest spender is China, but it is far behind the United States.

Firepower alone, however, is not enough. One also has to look at the ability to use that firepower, and at the US’ capacity to maintain a war effort economically for a lengthy period of time. That is where its relative weakening appears more evident. Compared with other countries, the economic muscle of the US has significantly declined in relative terms. There was a time when the US produced half of global GDP. This is now down to a quarter.

The relative weakening of US imperialism means that it cannot play the role of unchallenged world policeman as it used to in the past. Its humiliating exit from Afghanistan in 2021 – after 20 years of attempting to bolster its local puppets in the country – was a clear example of this. Its limited room for manoeuvre in the Syrian crisis, where Russia played a much bigger role, was another example.

This relative weakening of US imperialism has been accompanied by the growing strength and influence of other powers: first and foremost, that of China, which has massively increased its military spending, and Russia which has reasserted its position in the Middle East, as we saw in Syria, and more recently in Ukraine.

In this scenario, a number of smaller powers have been increasingly flexing their muscles, from Iran to Turkey, to India to Saudi Arabia. Israel, although remaining the only real reliable ally of the US in the Middle East, has also slipped from the grip of US influence, and is proceeding with its own policy.

‘Normalisation’ is in tatters

Most important of all for US interests in the region have been Iran’s manoeuvres to block the so-called ‘normalisation’ process, which has seen Israel establish diplomatic relations with a number of Arab countries. Israel has long had peace agreements with both Egypt (since 1979) and Jordan (since 1994). And during Trump’s presidency, as a consequence of the 2020 Abraham Accords, Bahrain and the United Emirates recognised Israel, and were joined later by Sudan and Morocco. 

Abraham accords Image The White House Wikimedia CommonsAs a consequence of the 2020 Abraham Accords, Bahrain and the United Emirates recognised Israel / Image: The White House, Wikimedia Commons

Saudi Arabia, however, never had diplomatic relations with Israel, but prior to the recent dramatic turn in the situation, top level meetings had been taking place, with Israeli ministers visiting their Saudi counterparts. The aim was to add Saudi Arabia to the list of countries with ‘normalised relations’. The present crisis has put an end to that.

The US administration has an active interest in establishing normal relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, both of whom have been considered as allies in the region by the Americans. The US is attempting to create relations between a number of countries in the region that would be beneficial to its interests, pushing back on the growing influence of both Iran and Russia but also China.

All of this would come at the expense of the Palestinians, who would have been practically cancelled out of the equation. While Netanyahu was proceeding with negotiations with the Saudis, he indicated very clearly that not one single concession would be made to the Palestinians.

Indeed, Netanyahu, at the head of a government coalition that includes far-right fanatics, has been systematically promoting ever more annexations of Palestinian land in the West Bank. He has promoted settlements by some of the most fanatical, ultra-fundamentalist Zionist settlers, who are armed, and backed by the Israeli military, and who have been systematically terrorising Palestinian communities on the West Bank.

Saudi officials – while preparing to reach a deal with Israel – have, of course, continued to pay lip service to the national rights of the Palestinians but without lifting a finger to actually help them in achieving these rights. This impending rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia was described as being a potential “tectonic shift” that would serve to push back on Iran’s growing influence in the region. The problem is that Iran had ‘normalised’ its relations with Saudi Arabia in March of this year, in a deal brokered by China.

Here we see a clear expression of the shifting balance of power and influence. China has been promoting its economic interests in the region, as it attempts to maintain stability at home. Russia has an interest in opening up a corridor directly to the Persian Gulf via Azerbaijan and Iran, and is pushing for a ceasefire with the aim of stabilising the region.

In an attempt to circumvent US sanctions (strengthened under Trump) Iran has been trying to spread its influence throughout the region. Re-establishing diplomatic relations with the Saudis was part of this process.

The reactionary Saudi rulers themselves have been moving towards a position that is more independent from the US. During the 2011 Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia watched with horror as Washington abandoned Mubarak, its faithful ally for over three decades. The US had no option, as the alternative was a full-fledged revolution in Egypt that could have brushed aside not only the hated Mubarak, but would have threatened capitalism as a whole.

The Saudi ruling clique drew a clear conclusion: the US is not a reliable ally and will not defend us to the end. They decided to balance between the US, Russia and China to acquire a slightly more independent position. This has been expressed in the recent period in Saudi Arabia’s policy of cutting oil supplies within OPEC, which has kept oil prices high, to the advantage of Russia, a policy that was met with muted fury in Washington.

It is in this context that we have to understand US imperialism’s alliance with Israel. The latter remains its only stable ally, the only one that it can count on when the chips are down. The US has continued to back Israel not just in words but also to the tune of billions of dollars of military aid. And when it deems it necessary, such as in the present crisis, it can up that level of aid massively, with the sending of more weapons.

The US has also sent two aircraft carriers into the vicinity of Israel, the USS Gerald R. Ford and the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, together with another eight American warships, making for a total of 10 warships with about 12,000 personnel on board, and over 130 fighter planes, should they be required. They do not intend to get US military personnel directly involved in any fighting, but rather are trying to deter any other powers, in particular Iran, from intervening against Israel.

The war could widen

What the US government fears at this moment is that the present conflict could spread beyond Gaza. The signs are already there that it could. Hezbollah forces have launched rockets into Israel, hitting IDF army posts and other targets. Israel has in turn responded by firing into Lebanon.

Over the past week there have been a series of such incidents, confirming that a broader conflict could emerge, especially in the event of a land invasion of Gaza. Thousands of people living in the border region in Lebanon have been fleeing northwards for fear of such a conflagration, while Israel has begun evacuating people away from the Lebanon border.

In 2006, 1,000 Lebanese were killed in fighting between Israeli forces invading South Lebanon and Hezbollah fighters. Since then, Hezbollah has significantly built up its firepower – with the help of Iran. It should be noted that the 2006 adventure ended in a tactical defeat for Israel, which was forced to withdraw without having achieved its aims.

HN ImageHassan Nasrallah, claims he now has 100,000 fighters at his disposal / Image: Ali Khamenei, Wikimedia Commons

The leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, claims he now has 100,000 fighters at his disposal. The US estimates they also have around 150,000 rockets stockpiled. Israel’s Defence Minister Yoav Gallant has responded to the possible threat of war by Hezbollah by threatening to “…return Lebanon to the Stone Age.” However, such a belligerent tone hardly masks the underlying concern that the opening of a second front would represent a serious threat for Israel.

According to a 16 October New York Times article: “Israeli and American officials currently assess that Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, does not want an all-out war with Israel, for fear of the damage it would do to his group and Lebanon.” But then immediately added that, “U.S. officials said that assessment could change as more intelligence is gathered and events unfold.”

Events, however, are indeed unfolding – among them: the land invasion that Israel is preparing in Gaza. The killing of 500 civilians in and around the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital is another such event that has sent shockwaves throughout the Middle East and beyond, and is something the Americans had not prepared for.

The US and Israeli governments fear the conflict could escalate, and if it did it would mean the Israeli military having to fight on at least two fronts, if not more, at the same time. And it could lead to the direct intervention of US forces, at least in terms of air raids from the warships stationed in the area.

The recent exchanges of fire between Hezbollah forces and the Israeli military have been the most serious since 2006, and Israel’s evacuation of the northern border, together with its sending of additional military units to the area, indicate that in spite of their evaluations, their fear of a conflict opening up on Israel’s northern border is real. Such a scenario would force Israel to move forces that it needs in Gaza, and would make policing the ever-more unstable situation in the West Bank increasingly difficult.

Meanwhile, Al-Sisi, the president of Egypt, has warned Israel against forcing Palestinians out of Gaza and into the Sinai Peninsula, as this would inevitably turn the area into a Palestinian base from which to hit Israel, in a similar manner to the situation in southern Lebanon. This would open up the scenario of Israeli forces bombing Egyptian territory in the future, thus pulling Egypt into war with Israel.

The anger of the Arab peoples

Israel’s land invasion of Gaza would inevitably lead to an even greater number of Palestinians being killed, and this would massively heat up the whole region. The Arab peoples – as opposed to their political leaders – genuinely feel for the plight of the Palestinian people, who they see as brothers and sisters. If large-scale bloodshed in Gaza, far beyond anything we have seen so far, continues to dominate TV screens, this will inevitably radicalise the Arab population across the Middle East, starting with the youth.

A huge demonstration took place in Rabat in Morocco on Sunday 15 October, in solidarity with the Palestinians.

This is highly significant, given that the Moroccan regime was one of the latest to sign a normalisation deal with Israel in 2020. The opinions of the Moroccan masses are clearly very different to those of the ruling elite. In Jordan, we have seen protestors marching towards the border with the West Bank in support of the Palestinians.

Mass protests also erupted in Amman, the capital of Jordan. Similar protests have been seen in Iraq, as well as in Egypt. Some have estimated that the protests that have erupted in Tunisia are the biggest since the Arab Spring in 2011.

Any government in the region which appears to be in any way supporting Israel, or even to be close to the US, risks being overthrown by its own people. This is precisely the reason that Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, together with the king of Jordan and the Egyptian president, were forced to cancel their summit with Biden after the Gaza hospital bombing carnage. 

Economic instability and revolution

Beyond the mass anger and radicalisation the conflict is already provoking, there is also the real fear of the economic effects of a prolonged war in Gaza. The Financial Times published an article, ‘Israel-Hamas war sends jitters through neighbours’ debt markets’, which explains that the borrowing costs for Jordan and Egypt are going up as investors become more wary of keeping their money in these countries. This is not to mention the situation in Lebanon, which defaulted on its debts just three years ago.

All this comes in the aftermath of the Ukraine war, which has led to a severe food crisis due to supply disruptions, and price increases of basic agricultural products. Some Middle Eastern countries have been directly affected because of their high dependence on imports from both Russia and Ukraine. Lebanon is extremely vulnerable economically, and Egypt was facing the risk of growing mass unrest even before the present conflict broke out in Gaza. It is heavily dependent on food imports, in particular wheat. 

What we are looking at here is the real risk of social upheaval and revolution in Egypt. They had a taste of what the Egyptian masses are capable of back in 2011, and such a movement is destined to return as the conditions of the workers of Egypt continue to deteriorate. 

This is not to mention the impact on energy markets, which had already faced skyrocketing inflation due to the Ukraine war. As the Centre for Strategic and International Studies writes:

“The Hamas attacks on Israel will have oil market repercussions if the conflict widens to include Hezbollah or Iran. There will likely be calls to ratchet up sanctions enforcement on Iranian oil exports, which have increased in the past six months. Normalization talks between Saudi Arabia and Israel could be suspended amid deepening Israel-Palestinian conflict, closing off an important avenue of U.S.-Saudi cooperation.”

Energy and food price hikes have been a major factor in provoking revolutionary struggle in the past period, particularly in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia. 

The unstable situation in Lebanon and Egypt is replicated around the region. Tunisia is facing similar problems; not to mention Yemen, which is engulfed in a humanitarian disaster; along with Sudan, which is embroiled in a civil war between wings of the military counter-revolution, and a swathe of other countries.

The threat from Iran

Statements by the leaders of the Iranian regime have not served to calm the nerves of investors in the region. Iran’s foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has threatened an “expansion of war fronts” if the war in Gaza doesn’t stop. He added that, “Iran cannot stand idly by and watch this situation unfold.” The Iranian government has stated that the US’ sending of two aircraft carriers to the region is itself an escalation of the conflict, which indeed it is.

HA Image World Economic Forum FlickrHossein Amirabdollahian has threatened an “expansion of war fronts” if the war in Gaza doesn’t stop / Image: World Economic Forum, Flickr

Hezbollah is considered a proxy of Iran in the region, and is heavily backed by the Iranian regime. That explains why Hezbollah leaders have threatened to attack American positions in the Middle East if the US gets involved directly in the present conflict. The Times of Israel has quoted a Hezbollah spokesperson as saying: “If the US intervenes directly, all US positions in the region will become legitimate targets of the resistance axis and face our attacks. And on that day there will be no red line.”

All this explains why US Secretary of State Blinken was sent rushing around the Middle East meeting the leaders of Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The stated aim of his visit was precisely to prevent a wider war from breaking out in the region. He is clearly worried that Iran and Iran-backed groups could get involved. The fact that, immediately after Blinken’s visit, the US administration thought it necessary to send Biden to have direct talks with Netanyahu, is an indication of how serious they consider the situation.

A war that widens to include the northern front and the West Bank – where so far 79 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli security forces, and a number by settlers, since the 7 October attack – would have hugely destabilising effects, not just in the region itself but far beyond. It would lead to internal conflicts from Jordan to Morocco, risking the downfall of regimes.

The region continues to be extremely important for the world economy. Nearly 30 percent of the world’s oil production is in the region, including the world’s second-largest producer, Saudi Arabia. A large quantity of gas is also produced here. As noted: a prolonged war, especially if it sucks other countries into the conflict, could impact on global prices, precisely at a time when prices had gone up after the start of the Ukraine war. In the more recent period, prices had started to come down a little. But today, uncertainty reigns once more.

Just as winter approaches in Europe and demand for gas goes up, we could see further price hikes and the pressure on millions of households could continue, adding to the already angry mood that exists across the continent.

The United States walks a tightrope

The concerns of US imperialism and their European partners can be seen in the language that they use. Initially it was all about, “Israel has the right to defend itself.” This continues, of course, but now we have warnings about “protecting civilians”.

Their sheer hypocrisy stinks to high heaven. They are not concerned about Palestinian civilians. Rather, they are concerned that scenes of blood and destruction, the barbarism the Israeli armed forces are capable of unleashing in full public view, can destabilise the whole region and catastrophically threaten their imperialist interests in the region and potentially far beyond.

Biden’s visit to the Middle East was never intended to help the Palestinians. On the contrary, it was firstly to express solidarity with Israel, as was shown when he promised “...additional military assistance, including ammunition and interceptors to replenish the Iron Dome.” Meanwhile, for the victims of the bombing of the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital, Biden offered his “condolences”, while using his position to state that Israel was not responsible for the blast.

US imperialism is walking on a tightrope, and anything could tip them into the abyss. On the one hand they see that their fundamental strategic interests force them to back Israel. But they also realise that they don’t have full control over the situation. No matter what they do, the US has received a historical blow in the region, something which will have global repercussions.

That explains why both Blinken and Biden have started making verbal gestures of “concern” about Palestinian civilians, and that Israel should carry out its “legitimate right to defend itself” according to so-called “international law”. Blinken made diplomatic visits to a number of countries to get local leaders on board in working to prevent the war from expanding, in which he discussed the growing humanitarian crisis. He raised the need for humanitarian assistance and a safe passage for those who wish to leave Gaza, while Biden pushed for aid to be allowed into Gaza.

All of this, of course, is mere verbiage. They are quibbling over allowing a measly 20 trucks of aid into the besieged enclave, while promising US$10 billion in military aid to Israel. If they were serious about their “humanitarian assistance”, they would use their power and influence to stop the war. But that is the last thing they are going to do. On the contrary, the US just vetoed a UN Security Council resolution to allow a “humanitarian pause” in Israel’s onslaught to permit aid into Gaza (with Britain and Russia both abstaining).

The mightiest imperial power on the planet will support Israel in crushing the Palestinians. But at the same time, they worry about the effects of all this. And they have every reason to worry, for the world is pregnant with revolution, including at home where millions of young people are disgusted with US imperialist policy and instinctively sympathise with the Palestinians. The lives of millions of people have become unbearable.

War: a continuation of policy by other means

Flag and soldiers Image Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign FlickrEver since the creation of Israel, the Zionist ruling class has been taking more and more territory from the Palestinian people / Image: Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Flickr

The same tensions that prepare war between the nations, produce war between the classes. It is the impasse of capitalism globally that has prepared the present barbarism we are facing. It is the capitalist class that has an interest in predatory wars. In this case, we have the capitalist class of Israel, backed by the capitalist classes of the United States and Europe, promoting its interests through war.

Back in 1917, referring to the First World War, Lenin posed the question of  “…what caused that war, what classes are waging it, and what historical and historico-economic conditions gave rise to it.”

And he explained that: “War is a continuation of policy by other means. All wars are inseparable from the political systems that engender them. The policy which a given state, a given class within that state, pursued for a long time before the war is inevitably continued by that same class during the war, the form of action alone being changed.”

For decades, ever since the creation of Israel, the Zionist ruling class has been taking more and more territory from the Palestinian people. This is evident to anyone who takes the time to study a map of the West Bank. It is clear that Israeli government policy in “times of peace” has been to systematically squeeze out the Palestinians. Their policy in times of war is the same.

There is no longer one continuous Palestinian territory to speak of. The West Bank has been broken up by the growing number of Jewish settlements. In 1972, there were little more than 10,000 settlers scattered around Palestinian territory. Since then, that figure has ballooned to around 750,000.

To return to the words of Lenin: “This brings me to the last question, that of how to end the war.” And he answered very clearly: “Nothing but a workers’ revolution in several countries can defeat this war [the First World War]. The war is not a game, it is an appalling thing taking the toll of millions of lives, and it is not to be ended easily.”

Today, the same principle applies. So long as the Zionist capitalist ruling class is in place in Israel, and so long as in the surrounding countries power remains in the hands of bourgeois elites, the present war will not be the last. So long as the Palestinian people remain without a homeland, there will be no enduring peace. Even if Netanyahu, through a brutal military campaign with heavy casualties, temporarily reduces the ability of Hamas to attack Israel, the present barbarism is piling up huge resentment among the Palestinians, in particular the youth, who will find ways of fighting back, and the conflict will go on.

The only force that can help the Palestinians achieve their historical aim of a homeland to call their own is the masses of the working class and the poor of all the countries of the Middle East. That means an international revolutionary struggle to overthrow all the capitalist regimes in the region, together with the imperialist powers that back them. So if we want to stop war, we need to remove from power that class which benefits from war: the capitalists of all countries.

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