The Platform

Israeli Merkava tank near Gaza Strip.

Renewed fighting between Israel and Hamas will have wider implications.

On the morning of October 7, an unprecedented and intricate attack saw Hamas fighters pour into Israel. The assault resulted in the tragic loss of over 1,200 Israeli lives, with hundreds more wounded. Additionally, well over 100 Israelis and others including Americans were taken as hostages back into the Gaza Strip. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s response to the attacks was blunt: “We are at war.” What motivated this shocking attack, and what lies ahead for Israel and the broader region?

Across the globe, numerous experts and prominent figures have drawn parallels between Saturday’s Hamas attack and the Israeli 9/11. On that day, the intellectual elite engaged in rapid analysis. To bolster the arguments and implications explored in this analysis, let us consider the insights of three experts associated with the Atlantic Council.

Jonathan Panikoff, Director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative and former Deputy U.S. National Intelligence Officer for the Near East, argues that despite sporadic violence in the region in recent years, this is no minor tit-for-tat exchange. The unprecedented nature of the attack precludes such a simplification. Israeli forces swiftly retaliated with strikes on Gaza, raising concerns that Hezbollah might enter the fray from its Lebanese base. Panikoff underscores that warnings of a multi-front war have loomed for years, and if this is the beginning of one, the potential for casualties and destruction exceeds anything witnessed in decades.

While Riyadh may outwardly support Israel’s efforts against Hamas terrorists, the sentiment on the Arab street is less enthusiastic, especially as images of death and despair inundate social media. As Panikoff points out, Israel now finds itself in an unenviable position due to the audacious attack, which may lead to domestic indictments. Consequently, Israelis are grappling with profound outrage and bewilderment over the situation’s genesis.

Richard LeBaron, a former Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Israel, underscores that the West Bank could become another front in this war, given the scale of the attacks. It is vital to remember that the United States has long sought to normalize Israeli relations with Islamic countries without securing a resolution or guarantee for Palestinian rights. LeBaron asserts that the planning for Hamas’s Sunday attack likely predates the upswing in Israeli-Saudi talks. Nonetheless, the attack serves as a message to Riyadh: the Palestinian issue cannot be relegated to secondary status in normalization discussions. For Hamas, Palestine remains the central concern. Beyond normalization, the attack’s principal motive, according to LeBaron, is to underscore that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains unresolved. Hamas may have perceived the situation as deteriorating under Israel’s right-wing government, and if there are any signs to read, the first is that Hamas has significantly embarrassed Israeli leadership, its military, and its intelligence apparatus. For Hamas, this might suffice.

The looming conflict will likely cast a shadow over ongoing negotiations between Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States regarding their normalization agreement. Kirsten Fontenrose, a nonresident senior fellow in the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative and former Senior Director for the Gulf on the U.S. National Security Council, suggests that if Hamas, backed by Iran, seeks to derail these negotiations, Israel might impose an unprecedented presence and suffocating restrictions on Gaza. This would set a new baseline, requiring Riyadh to navigate a path forward for the Palestinians. To preserve the fragile negotiations, Fontenrose advises Israel to exercise restraint in responding to Saturday’s attacks, as any misstep could jeopardize the outcome of its agreement with Hamas and Iran, along with innocent Palestinian lives. Saudi Arabia cannot deviate from these actions if it hopes to reach an agreement with Israel.

Thus, it is essential to glean at least one lesson from history. Saturday’s attack coincided with the 50th anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. During those 19 days, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir faced the prospect of Israel’s destruction. She navigated through high stakes, an uncertain cabinet, and a complex relationship with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, all with millions of lives in the balance. Leadership demanded difficult decisions, leaving behind a controversial legacy worldwide.

Fast forward 50 years and history appears to be repeating itself in Israel. Half a century ago, Israel questioned full U.S. support, and today, due to the Biden administration’s approach toward Iran, Israel finds itself estranged from the United States. In 2023, Israel teetered on the brink of a civil war, not just a civil conflict. In 1973, the Arabs sought retribution for past defeats (in 1948 and 1967). This time, Hamas serves as a reminder that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict endures and must remain a global priority. The war may be a century old, but this time, it takes on an unprecedented form.

Secondly, this war promises to impact global energy and fuel prices. Exactly a year ago, on October 11, 2022, Israeli and Lebanese leaders reached a U.S.-brokered agreement permitting both nations to exploit gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean. This pact held the potential to resolve decades-long disputes over maritime borders, ease rising military tensions, and offer a lifeline to Lebanon’s ailing economy.

From 2010 to 2023, Israel underwent an energy revolution, achieving self-sufficiency in natural gas. It also commenced gas exports from the Tamar gas field to Jordan in January 2017, with the Leviathan field following suit in exporting to Egypt in January 2020. The Leviathan deals, deemed even more significant for the economy, included the export of Cypriot and Israeli gas to Europe via a 1,900-kilometer underwater pipeline to the Greek island of Crete. Consequently, the war threatens to disrupt the Mediterranean waters, a strategic conduit for the transportation of oil, gas, and goods from the Middle East and Africa to Europe and the broader West.

Thirdly, since 1978, whenever Turkey-Israel relations improved or normalized, it often came at the expense of the Syrian issue and efforts to monitor Iran and Iraq. In essence, political, diplomatic, and economic ties between Turkey and Israel have been officially normalized for a year. Back in 2010, the relationship faltered due to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s support for the Palestinians and threats against Israel. Since 2017, Turkey has consistently advocated for normalization. This normalization may negatively impact the Kurdish issue in Syria and create conflict and instability in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and separatist areas.

These regions have expressed concerns that Kirkuk and Sinjar have become part of Iran’s strategy and influence since October 16, 2017. To put it more bluntly, Turkey’s actions in the Kurdistan Region extend beyond the PKK to include Iran. Historically, Turkey was the first major Islamic nation to congratulate the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. In the 1990s, Israeli-Turkish relations flourished to the extent that they spanned every arena, even collaborating on the arrest of Kurdish and PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan with Israeli assistance. Responding to this strategy, both the PKK and Hamas waged a war inside Turkey and Israel within a week, conveying their respective messages.

This war offers a glimpse into the shifting power dynamics of the Middle East, reflecting the rise of regional powers amid the waning influence of the United States. More precisely, it signifies a perilous geopolitical shift driven by natural gas and oil pipelines. The Russian-Iranian bloc emerges victorious, while Western nations grapple with energy shortages, much like Russia did in 2014 when it forcibly occupied Crimea, which derailed the Nabucco gas pipeline project. The final puzzle remains whether Israel and its allies will adopt a similar approach, internalizing the conflict within Iran.

Bahrooz Jaafar holds a Phd in International Relations from Cyprus International University in Nicosia and he is also the founder and head of the Mediterranean Institute for Regional Studies.