For global leaders, foreign crises come not as single spies but in battalions. The shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet by pro-Russian separatists, the Israeli assault on Gaza in retaliation for missile attacks by Hamas, the murderous rampage of Isis in Iraq, the perpetual civil war in Syria – all have shaken and demoralised western elites.
Never has the UN Security Council, which is divided along old cold war lines, seemed more irrelevant. Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the UN, is an especially forlorn figure, a symbol of the decline of the world’s multilateral institutions.
The graphic images of the bodies of passengers, lying in the wreckage of Flight MH17, have concentrated the public mind on the war in Ukraine. It has been said that Vladimir Putin’s determination to rebuild Russia’s sphere of influence and bolster his nation against western expansionism is a sign of weakness rather than strength. But the ease with which the Russians were able to annex Crimea and enter eastern Ukraine merely reinforces western impotence.
The challenge for the United States and the European powers is to agree a set of policies that would ensure that support for rebel groups such as the one that shot down Flight MH17 has profound economic and political consequences for Russia and its leaders.
Meanwhile, Israel’s long war against the Palestinians goes on. Israel has a right to defend itself from incoming rocket fire from Gaza but, however ruthless and cynical Hamas may be, no state, least of all one that purports to be a liberal democracy, has the right to shell a hospital deliberately or indiscriminately kill civilians. It can seem at times as if a kind of collective punishment is being visited upon all Palestinians.
On page 24, Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East editor, writes that he “saw no evidence during my week in Gaza of Israel’s accusation that Hamas uses Palestinians as human shields”. This is an important insight: the Israeli justification for bombing hospitals, schools and a home for the disabled was that Hamas militants were hiding inside the buildings. Even if they were, this would still offer no justification for the state-directed murder of the innocent, who include children.
Before this latest small war, Hamas, corrupt and nefarious, was weak. The fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – the country’s then president, Mohammed Morsi, brokered the last ceasefire between Hamas and Israel in November 2012 – had left the Palestinian militant group even more isolated.
Yet the ferocity of Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip has served only to bolster Hamas. By killing civilians and destroying homes, the most recent offensives by the Israel Defence Forces may prove to be the greatest recruiting sergeant Hamas could wish for.
If any ceasefire is to be permanent, it must be followed by substantive moves towards a political settlement of a kind that, in truth, has never seemed more unlikely. The economic blockade of Gaza – which Palestinians liken to an open prison – must be ended and the 1.8 million people who live in the blighted Strip must be given hope and a sense of possibility, as suggested by Uri Dromi, a spokesman for the Rabin and Peres governments between 1992 and 1996, writing on page 16.
At present, there is no sign that Israel, its people traumatised by decades of war and by Hamas rocket attacks, is willing to make unilateral moves towards a lasting peace. The settlement building continues in the West Bank and the Likud-led coalition government remains belligerent.
What unites the crises in Ukraine and the Middle East is the world’s powerlessness to resolve them. The UN Security Council is riven and ineffective; the EU cannot agree over what should be done in Ukraine. Under the leadership of the cautious and pragmatic Barack Obama, the US is in retreat from world leadership, exhausted by its occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Before Gaza, I’d spent most of the past two months in Baghdad, Beirut, Jerusalem, Aleppo and Damascus,” Jeremy Bowen writes in his NS Notebook. “The Middle East is on fire. I haven’t seen anything like it since my first reporting trip to the region in 1990. I don’t think anyone knows how to put the fire out.” Such is the weakness of the western powers in an age of insecurity.