2023 Yearender: Israel in a ring of fire

Karam Said, Tuesday 19 Dec 2023

The Israeli war on the Gaza Strip has unveiled the country’s internal divisions and significantly damaged its regional and international relations, writes Karam Said

Israel in a ring of fire


The Israeli war on the Gaza Strip has shattered a series of long-standing assumptions and general policy directions that had characterised Israeli strategy in preceding years.

The war has exposed internal divisions within Israel and the vulnerability of its security apparatus, coupled with the Israeli economy’s incapacity to withstand significant shocks, as evidenced by the decline in the country’s economic indicators.

Now in its third month, the war has also unveiled Israel’s diminished regional and international standing. This became apparent in the notable shift in some of the Western countries’ stances supporting the Israeli war, particularly reflected in the changing mood in the US.

There have also been setbacks in the normalisation efforts that Israel has been working on over the past two years with countries in the region. As a result, the escalation of the war on Gaza has influenced the present and future trajectories of Israeli policies.

Israel had been grappling with multifaceted crises prior to the Operation Al-Aqsa Flood launched by the Palestinian group Hamas on 7 October, and the war on Gaza has exposed and exacerbated these further.

One of the most notable challenges facing the country is the intense political polarisation within Israel. This gained momentum in May this year, when an Israeli court, amid accusations of corruption, bribery, and breach of trust, started to hear a case against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The case resumed on 4 December at the Jerusalem District Court after a two-month hiatus owing to the war on Gaza.

Earlier, the political climate in Israel had reached a boiling point, with thousands of Israelis taking to the streets over recent months to protest against the Netanyahu government in front of the government complex in Jerusalem that houses the prime minister’s office, the Israeli Parliament the Knesset, and the Supreme Court.

The demonstrations erupted in response to the Netanyahu government’s pushing through of legal changes that curtail the powers of the Supreme Court. The amendments escalated the political crisis in Israel, resulting in a state of paralysis in the country after Histadrut workers, members of the country’s largest trade union, joined in the protests against the changes.

Since then, the war on Gaza has heightened the internal divisions, and voices critical of the government have been growing louder due to its failure to achieve Israel’s objectives in the war.

The discontent reached a peak in November when opposition leader Yair Lapid called for the departure of the Netanyahu government. Protests by the families of Israeli captives detained by Hamas are adding further pressure.

The war has also caused tensions between the Jewish and Arab communities in Israel, in other words the Arabs who remained in Israel after 1948, and it has also widened the gap between extremist Jews supporting the war and secular Jews, who more often advocate for peace.

Former prime minister Ehud Barak, former minister of defence Moshe Yaalon, and Benny Gantz, a former chief of staff, have expressed concerns about the dangers of civil war.

Many Israeli generals have criticised the military strategies used in the campaign against the Gaza Strip, amplifying the discontent within the security apparatus. Tensions within the military escalated with the disclosure of the number of casualties in the war, which exceed 2,400 deaths according to media sources.

This has led to a rising refusal among young Israelis to serve in the Israeli army.

Israel’s economic indicators have also been plummeting over the past two months and during the period of the war. A 13 December report by the international auditing firm PricewaterhouseCoopers said that foreign investments in Israel had gone down by 41 per cent, reaching $6.7 billion.

Conflicts within the Israeli Ministry of Finance due to the war have contributed to delays in the preparation of Israel’s state budget for 2024.

The war is also anticipated to lead to a steady rise in Israeli defence expenditure, estimated at 0.5-1 per cent of GDP. This will necessitate the identification of additional funding sources to cover the increased expenditure, ultimately impacting the living standards of Israeli citizens.

Israel’s internal crisis and its war on the Gaza Strip have also had far-reaching effects on its regional and international relations. This has been evident in the diminishing prospects of normalisation between Tel Aviv and countries in the region.

Several Gulf countries, which had established diplomatic ties with Israel over the past two years, have expressed their opposition to the Gaza war, criticising the Netanyahu government directly in doing so and taking up opposing positions to Israel in various international forums.

Turkish-Israeli relations, which had recently improved, have experienced a setback. Ankara has condemned the Israeli war on Gaza, threatened legal action against Netanyahu, declared Hamas a legitimate resistance movement, and withdrew its ambassador for consultations in November.

In response, Israel recalled its diplomatic mission from Turkey and issued threats against Hamas leaders abroad, including in Turkey. This prompted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to warn Israel of the potential dangers of such actions.

There has been increasing mistrust between Israel and a number of Arab countries. Tensions with Jordan and Egypt have escalated, fuelled by Israel’s efforts to displace residents of the Gaza Strip and its pursuit of liquidating the Palestinian cause.

The Tunisian Parliament is pursuing legislation to criminalise the normalisation of relations with Israel. There is growing popular pressure on the government in Morocco to reconsider its rapprochement with Israel in response to Israel’s war on Gaza.

Normalisation talks between Saudi Arabia and Israel, which had reached an advanced stage before the war, will likely falter, especially following the Saudi Foreign Ministry’s condemnation of the forced displacement of the Palestinian people from Gaza and the continued targeting of unarmed civilians.

Pressure on Washington by Riyadh to act to end the war as soon as possible has also escalated. On 9 November, Saudi Investment Minister Khalid bin Abdulaziz Al-Falih said that the continuation of normalisation talks between Saudi Arabia and Israel was conditional on a peaceful solution to the Palestinian cause.

Israel’s ground invasion of the Gaza Strip has further prompted the freezing of plans supported by the US to normalise Saudi relations with Israel. Sources say that Riyadh cannot continue its rapprochement with Tel Aviv under present circumstances and that the war on Gaza must be given greater priority when resuming any arrangements for normalisation between the two countries.

This indicates that Riyadh still considers the Palestinian cause to be crucial to the peace and stability of the region and the rights of the Palestinian people something that cannot be overlooked.

The war on Gaza has also created notable rifts between Israel and its Western allies. This was evident when US President Joe Biden acknowledged on 12 December that Israel is in a “difficult position,” adding that he has disagreements with some Israeli leaders.

While there had been staunch US support for Israel in its war on Gaza, the prolonged military operations and the significant number of casualties have placed the Biden administration in a challenging position vis-à-vis US society and global public opinion, potentially intensifying pressure on Washington to play a substantive role in bringing an end to the conflict.

The growing scrutiny of Israel’s actions has raised concerns among some European countries traditionally aligned with Israel, also pushing them towards advocating an end to the war. This shift has been evident in the positions taken by Spain and Belgium, both of which have announced their support for Palestinian rights.

The geopolitical challenges surrounding Israel have intensified significantly since the Gaza war began on 7 October. Tel Aviv has accused Tehran of involvement in Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, and the crisis has also escalated the confrontation with the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah, ushering in heightened concern at the militias deployed across the region.

The growing tensions have been evident in the Houthis’ targeting of Israeli ships in the Bab Al-Mandab Strait in the Red Sea.

Israel will likely continue to suffer from external tensions and internal divisions in 2024. If the Israeli extreme-right parties and extremist Jewish factions maintain their influence on the country’s politics, regional and international hostility towards Israel may increase due to its continuing alignment with doctrines that encourage violence and destruction.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 21 December, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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