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25 October 2023

The great unravelling

The Hamas pogrom against Israeli citizens was the day when the Western-led international order expired.

By John Gray

The Israel-Hamas war threatens to overturn what remains of a Western-led international order. An escalating conflict will empower Iran and Russia, strengthen swing states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar and alienate the Global South. A blockage of oil supplies in the Strait of Hormuz would fuel inflation and ravage Western economies. Pulled back into the Middle East, the United States will turn away from Ukraine, its commitment to defending Taiwan will become more equivocal and the faltering hegemon will retreat. A fully multipolar system will come into being, with all its instabilities and dangers.

Some or all of this scenario might yet be averted if diplomatic efforts at de-escalation somehow gain traction. Yet one stark fact stands out. Ethics and geopolitics obey divergent imperatives. Judgements of justice in war collide with the logic of strategy, and under the influence of progressive ideology Western opinion has lost the capacity to make proportionate moral judgements.

It should not be controversial to describe Hamas’s 7 October attack as a pogrom. In the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust, the children, pregnant women and old people who died, sometimes after rape or torture, were not military targets or collateral damage; any views the adults among them had on Israeli policies were unknown to those who killed them. Hamas’s anti-Semitism is demonstrated in its never-renounced original 1988 charter, which cites the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, fabricated around the start of the 20th century prior to a series of pogroms against Jews in Tsarist Russia.

An offshoot from the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas has more in common with al-Qaeda and Isis than with third-world national liberation movements. Its goal is not only the destruction of the state of Israel. It aims to exterminate the Jews that live there, and welcomes surging anti-Semitic attacks in other countries. Whatever crimes Israel may have committed against the Palestinians, this is a response no morality that is minimally civilised can sanction or condone.

If ethics dictates that Hamas be condemned, geopolitics points in the opposite direction. There are many Arab governments that must secretly wish the Israelis success in eradicating the organisation as a military and political force. For the Saudis, the UAE and Egypt, it is a mortal enemy. With the Arab streets ablaze, none of them can do other than express unswerving public support for Hamas. The rapprochement that was under way with Israel has been derailed.

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[See also: Was Israel wrong to trust Qatar?]

Whether or not it was directly involved in planning the atrocity, Iran is the prime mover in the war. Hamas may be a small player destined to be sacrificed as more formidable forces enter the arena from Lebanon. Even so, it has overturned the balance of power in the Middle East. Simultaneously, it has recreated the conditions that produced the “war on terror”. There will be heightened risk in everyday life in Western countries for many years to come.

Benjamin Netanyahu and his government ignored the threat because they believed Hamas could be useful in dividing Gaza. Hamas’s strategy was subtler. Using old-tech methods – infiltrating Israeli territory and communicating with one another without using the internet – it played along and lulled Israel into a false sense of safety, which the Americans shared. A week before Hamas struck, Joe Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan opined: “The Middle East region is quieter than it has been for two decades.” Then Hamas launched an operation very like that presented in the al-Qaeda manual The Management of Savagery, published online in 2004, in which systematic terror is defended as a strategy for establishing a theocratic state.

Despite the catastrophic failures of intelligence, Netanyahu persists in denying the gravity of the disaster he has presided over. According to recent reports, he is proposing that Gaza be governed by the Palestinian Authority, though no one has any idea what self-government in Gaza would mean after continuous aerial bombardment and the devastating ground invasion that is coming. One of the casualties of 7 October is the project of Palestinian statehood.

In the West, especially the Anglosphere, Hamas is increasingly seen through the lens of a progressive mindset in which it is a movement of resistance against a settler state. It is a distortion of history to equate the Palestinian cause with Hamas, which came to power in Gaza in 2007 after a campaign of violence against its rival Fatah, since which there have been no democratic elections. Western media nevertheless tend to give credence to Hamas’s account of events. Early reports by the BBC and the New York Times of an Israeli strike on al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza City on 17 October were at best premature, as there was no reliable evidence available at the time through which they could be verified. Subsequent analysis suggests the strike was more likely caused by a rocket fired from within Gaza, and the reports have been retracted or qualified. In the meantime indelible images of a bombed hospital headlined with seemingly factual statements about the source of the missiles have been implanted in the minds of millions of people. Whatever the truth, Hamas is winning the information war.

Illustration by Lincoln Agnew

The longer the conflict goes on, the harder it will be for Western governments to maintain their support for Israel. Consider the quandary facing Keir Starmer. His drive against the anti-Semitism that festered in Labour’s upper levels under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership was critical in making the party the unified government-in-waiting it is today. But many activists and Muslim voters reject Starmer’s pro-Israel stance, and the resignation of Muslim councillors in Leicester and Oxford puts that unity into serious question.

[See also: The Labour revolt over Keir Starmer’s Gaza policy is spreading]

For all the thunderous recent by-election victories, these are supporters Labour can ill ­afford to lose. Muslim voters will be important in some key seats, and an interview on LBC on 11 October in which the Labour leader said that Israel “has the right” to withhold power and water from Gaza has provoked particularly angry protests. It would be unfortunate for the party to go into an election it is set to win at war with itself.

Attitudes to Hamas are different in Europe, where Islamist terror has blunted sympathy for the Palestinian cause. The killing of two Swedish football fans in Brussels on 16 October came after many other atrocities – the Bataclan concert hall attack in Paris in November 2015 being one of the worst – that have left enduring scars. Identification with the Palestinians will be further eroded if another wave of migrants is the result of the flight from Gaza. Egypt and Jordan have already refused to accept any refugees, with a senior Egyptian official reportedly telling a European counterpart, “You want us to take one million people? Well, I am going to send them to Europe. You care about human rights so much – well, you take them.”

Europe is unlikely to step into the breach. Its overriding concern over the coming decades will be with mass immigration, an issue on which far-right and adjacent parties are setting the agenda. In Poland, the liberal Donald Tusk is expected to come to power after echoing the anti-immigrant rhetoric of his nationalist rivals.

Despite his advanced years, Joe Biden has handled the foreign policy crises of his presidency with steadier judgement than many of his critics. But in his address to the nation on 19 October, where he asserted that “American leadership holds the world together”, he spoke as someone from a previous age. Ungovernable after the historically unprecedented ousting of the Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Congress cannot authorise any of the $100bn Biden has demanded in funding, most of it for Ukraine and Israel. With its armouries depleted, federal debt approaching dangerously unsustainable levels and wracked by all-consuming culture wars, America is divided; its primacy survives on borrowed time. Whoever enters the White House in January 2025, the country will be hard pressed to hold itself together.

War in the Middle East will accelerate American disengagement from Europe. The question is no longer whether America’s support for Ukraine will be wound down but when and by how much. Fatigue with the war and frustration with Europe are bipartisan moods in Washington. If Donald Trump would aim to negotiate a partition of the country, a Democratic administration in 2025 might emulate Biden in Afghanistan and essentially cut Ukraine adrift. Either way the consequences would be profound.

The continent of Europe is more dependent on the American security guarantee than it has been since the most perilous moments in the Cold War. With its main proponent, Emmanuel Macron, mired in domestic troubles in France, strategic autonomy – Europe taking over responsibility for its own defence – is more remote than ever. Though the Baltic nations, Sweden and Poland are arming themselves against Russia, Germany and France are leaning towards détente. Having haunted Euro-federalists and Brexiters alike for decades, the phantasm of a European state has evaporated. Europe is (to echo Bismarck in 1872) “a geographical expression”, not a geopolitical actor. Soft power has proved to be a euphemism for impotence. In a scenario unimaginable only months ago, the continent could soon become a Balkanised peninsula on the edges of an intact Russian empire.

It is telling that Biden insists that America can bear the burdens of war on two fronts. What of China, supposedly the fulcrum of American strategy in coming years? An unthinking orthodoxy has it that if the US vacates Europe, it will be in order to check growing Chinese power. But there is little appetite among American voters for a prolonged struggle to regain a fading hegemony. Trump talks “bigly” of making America great again. But one reason for his appeal is that he offers to keep the US out of unending foreign wars.

A second Trump presidency may aim for a trade deal with China rather than risk military conflict. That doesn’t mean China will replace the US as the sole hyper-power. India, for example, won’t accept Chinese supremacy.

America’s relations with the Middle East are also uncertain. Its commitment to Israel’s defence would be severely tested in a protracted war. The nine-month long American-led campaign to retake Mosul from Islamic State in 2016-17 reduced the Iraqi city to rubble. A ground offensive against Hamas will be an even more difficult operation. Obfuscating and effectively eliminating the difference between fighters and the general population is a key feature of guerrilla warfare. Siting its infrastructure underneath schools and mosques, Hamas is maximising civilian casualties as part of its strategy, just as Isis did in Mosul. But Hamas has had longer to entrench itself, and unlike in Mosul, where the ruined city could be taken over by the Iraqi government, no one is ready to rule a desolated Gaza. Inevitably, world opinion will cast Israel as the aggressor.

It is not impossibly difficult to envision the US resuming its attempt to withdraw from the Gulf. The appeal of the now aborted rapprochement was that it enabled the US to exit from a zone of conflict whose oil it no longer needed. Assuming the war does not spiral out of control, the longer-term prospect could be that Israel is left to fend for itself while Iran and its Arab enemies revert to their struggles for regional dominance.

The events of 7 October will be remembered as a day in which a new epoch of barbarism was born. In ethical terms, it will be a time when atrocities were accepted as legitimate weapons in human conflict. In its geopolitical dimension, it was the point at which the post-Cold War order finally ­fractured. We have entered a world of imperial rivalries like that before 1914, which ended in Europe’s suicide in the trenches. After the Second World War, the United States ascended to its global hegemony, which is now in turn coming to an end. The difference is that this time there is no successor on the horizon.

[See also: The Hamas attack was driven by a brutal ideology]

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This article appears in the 25 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Fog of War