The Israeli ship is drifting, ever more dangerously, in uncharted waters

Eran Etzion
Non-Resident Scholar

Eran Etzion
  • While Israel moves toward a de facto long-term occupation of Gaza, the country faces increasingly heavy losses on the diplomatic front, with more and more countries, international organizations, academic institutions, and companies cutting off ties to, sanctioning, and boycotting Israeli entities and individuals.

  • A coalition of the willing, led by the United States, must act swiftly and forcefully to force Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas into a long-term cessation of hostilities.

Israel is drifting on multiple fronts. The Gaza campaign is open ended, as far as the government is concerned: “Seven more months,” according to National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi. “You 9th graders will surely be fighting this war when your turn to enlist in the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] comes,” “opposition” leader and former IDF Chief of the General Staff Benny Gantz recently told a group of high school students. Rafah, the southern Gaza Strip city Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu manipulatively portrayed as Hamas’ Stalingrad, has largely been taken, but with no strategic gains. The IDF has also retaken the so-called Philadelphi Corridor, a 14-kilometer stretch delineating Gaza’s border with Egypt, in addition to the Rafah border crossing; this makes Israel, officially and legally, the “occupying power” of the entire strip. Egypt has refused to play along and immediately blocked the Rafah passage to humanitarian aid, refusing to reopen it as long as Israel controls it.

United States President Joe Biden’s Friday speech referencing a new Israel-Hamas deal notwithstanding, on the ground Netanyahu’s government is playing the long game: an occupation game. On the diplomatic front, however, Israel is incurring heavy losses. More and more countries (Turkey, Columbia, France), international organizations (the International Court of Justice, International Criminal Court, United Nations), academic institutions (University of Torino), and commercial entities (Pret A Manger) are cutting off ties to, sanctioning, and boycotting Israeli entities and individuals. The international bon ton is rapidly shifting toward multilateral action to bring about the creation of a Palestinian state — not via a negotiated settlement but through a concerted international and bilateral series of actions. A recent case in point has been the official recognition of Palestine by Spain, Ireland, and Norway.

On the northern front, along the border with Lebanon, the month of May saw considerable escalation; and popular rage against the Israeli government’s apparent total lack of solutions is mounting. The worsening level of destruction on the Israeli side is unprecedented, with entire communities, such as the rural agricultural settlement of Margaliot, having been reduced to near rubble from shelling and missile attacks. Crucially, Hezbollah’s precision-guided munitions often hit their targets, including high-value IDF assets.

Most importantly, Israel’s domestic arena, its political system, state institutions, and various population segments, are all suffering various degrees of malfunction. Some 53% of Israelis believe their prime minister is acting out of personal and partisan considerations, at the expense of the national interest. A growing majority is calling for immediate general elections, craving a radically different leadership. Trust in state institutions, including the IDF, is at an all-time low. While the fight between the far right, messianic zealots, and anti-democratic elements, on the one hand, and the pro-democracy, liberal, and largely secular mainstream, on the other, is deepening and becoming more aggressive and violent.

The only realistic off-ramp from this spiraling quagmire is Biden’s Hail Mary hostage/cease-fire deal, designed to end the war, restore calm, and begin the long road to establishing a new regional order, including the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But absent much more forceful coercive measures by the US, other international powers, and the Israeli majority, Netanyahu will use his all-too-familiar sabotaging tactics to continue to perpetuate the war and stay in power. As such, Netanyahu and his cohorts alone stand against most of the Israeli public, the US national interest, and global peace and security. The stakes are very high, and the window for averting regional war and chaos is rapidly closing. A coalition of the willing, led by President Biden, must act swiftly and forcefully. Netanyahu and Hamas will have to be forced into a long-term cessation of hostilities. Hezbollah will then most probably enter into a negotiated truce. And at long last, the Israeli people will vote — in free and fair elections — on their new leadership and on Biden’s plan.

Follow: @eranetzion

President Biden’s public diplomacy and strategic communications to advance a Gaza deal

Brian Katulis
Senior Fellow for US Foreign Policy

Brian Katulis
  • On Friday afternoon, President Joe Biden announced a three-phase plan to end the Gaza war, but as of Monday it remains unclear whether the two main combatants will accept the deal.

  • The move is the latest in a protracted series of diplomatic attempts to achieve a cease-fire and hostage release, which the Biden team sees as the first step in a wider effort to support conflict resolution and reconstruction.

US President Joe Biden’s public statement on Friday outlined a new plan to end the Israel-Hamas war; but in many ways, it was simply a recycling and public surfacing of many elements of the ongoing, months-long diplomatic efforts to secure a cease-fire and hostage release. His remarks contained some new elements, including the articulation of a three-phase plan, but overall they should be read as the latest attempt to get the two main combatants in this conflict to agree to a deal the United States has been working on since the last cease-fire collapsed in December.

What’s different about this latest initiative is that it seeks to make public plans that have heretofore been discussed inside of the Biden administration and behind closed doors with key regional partners; the goal appears to be to spotlight stonewalling by Hamas and right-wing members of the current Israeli government as key roadblocks to a diplomatic settlement. Both Hamas and the extreme right-wing elements of Israel’s government oppose a two-state solution, which is at odds with long-standing US policy.

In his speech, Biden echoed a message his Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivered on his last trip to the Middle East: that Hamas was standing in the way of a diplomatic deal. Biden also sent a clear message to members of the current Israeli government that it should not oppose this deal; however, some of the extreme right have already threatened to bring down the government of Benjamin Netanyahu if Israel accepts it.

As of now, it remains unclear if this new approach of shining a spotlight on the complications that have hampered a diplomatic settlement will achieve the intended result. In a sense, such a public effort is akin to “taking a mulligan” in golf, when a second chance is given to take another shot after the first chance went wrong through bad luck or a mistake.

This move is also intended to avoid the previous episodes of confusion, when it seemed like a cease-fire deal had been reached. Less than a month ago, for example, celebrations briefly broke out in Gaza after mistaken reports circulated that Israel and Hamas had actually agreed to a deal; that false hope was scuttled by misunderstanding over the details of the actual agreement under discussion. The latest public diplomacy and strategic communications effort by the Biden administration, working in close coordination with Egypt and Qatar, is aimed at avoiding that previous misstep.

It remains to be seen whether the two parties to this conflict will sign up for even the first phase of the proposed deal. Whereas, the next two phases outlined by the Biden team, including the full withdrawal of Israeli forces and long-term reconstruction of Gaza, will take years to implement. This extended timeframe presents many opportunities for opponents and spoilers in Palestine, Israel, and the broader region to upset the implementation of the plan at any stage.

Adding to the complications are short-term issues like ongoing discussions about how to reopen the Rafah border crossings from Egypt into the Gaza Strip and who will control that crossing, an issue that diplomats are currently wrestling with in Cairo.

For this Biden plan to work will require the US to double down on diplomatic and political efforts in the Middle East, even more so than it already has in the past few months. One key lesson that should have been learned from Biden’s last trip to Israel in October and the speech he gave to the nation right after his return is that it is not enough to make one-time public statements and expect results. In Biden’s October speech, he called on Congress to approve his proposed supplemental funding for Israel, Ukraine, and Taiwan — and that took another six months to pass.

All of this comes at a time when the United States is increasingly focused inward on its own challenges and looking to the November presidential elections. For the three-phase Biden plan to have any chance of becoming a reality, it will require increased US diplomacy in the Middle East at a time when the attention of America and President Biden himself will be elsewhere.

Follow: @Katulis

From tactical strikes to a strategic vision: Shaping Western policy toward the Houthis

Fatima Abo Alasrar
Non-Resident Scholar

Fatima Abo Alasrar
  • The Houthis, entrenched within Iran’s Axis of Resistance, pursue broader geopolitical goals that aim to reshape the regional and international order, reflecting a calculated strategy to project power and influence while challenging Western diplomatic and military resolve.

  • The limited political effect of the United States and United Kingdom’s intensified military actions against the Houthis highlights the need for a balanced approach that integrates military force with diplomatic, economic, and informational campaigns.

Last week’s intensified military actions by the United States and the United Kingdom against the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen underscore the complexities of Western military interventions as well as illustrate the challenging balance between diplomatic negotiations and the application of force. The need for these latest, stepped-up strikes is a symptom of a years-long inconclusive policy that has oscillated between negotiations and military action without a clear, long-term vision.

The US and UK strikes sought to degrade the Houthis’ ability to continue their relentless attacks on pivotal maritime routes in the Red Sea, which have not only jeopardized vital international trade but also challenged the efficacy of the global diplomatic framework designed to maintain peace and prevent conflict. While these military actions challenge the Houthis’ operational abilities, their defiant response — with threats of retaliation — demonstrates that military measures alone are insufficient to curb the group’s resolve. This resistance underscores that while a robust military deterrent is necessary, it must be part of a broader strategy that includes proactive diplomatic efforts to address and mitigate the underlying geopolitical tensions, particularly those fueled by Iran’s support of the Houthis. Such a combined approach is crucial to alter the strategic calculus of the Houthis and to ensure a sustainable resolution of the threats they pose.

The Houthis, backed by Iran and entrenched within the Axis of Resistance, pursue a strategy that is deeply beholden to Tehran — designed to reshape the geopolitical realities across the Middle East and beyond. Their sustained attacks on the Red Sea, aiming to destabilize regional stability and global trade, thus exemplify a wider, more calculated campaign than a mere tactical insurgence. It is a clear manifestation of their long-term vision to alter the region’s strategic balance in their favor.

Western countries face the critical task of conducting targeted military actions that effectively deter aggression without triggering broader regional instability. This complex scenario requires a sophisticated strategy that emphasizes not just military precision but also a concerted effort to strengthen diplomatic relations with local Yemeni actors and regional partners. The US, in particular, must avoid a purely reactive posture that plays into the hands of the Houthis and their supporters. Instead, Washington should focus on a proactive, long-term strategy that undermines Houthi capabilities and isolates them economically and politically while also addressing the broader ideological, social, and political landscapes that bolster their resilience. By coordinating closely with regional stakeholders, the US can develop a comprehensive approach that addresses the root causes of instability, preventing the Houthis from gaining more ground.

Currently, Western military strategy is focused on a “defensive interventionism” model, whereby military force is used to address immediate security concerns in the Red Sea without assessing the mission’s long-term impact on Yemen, the region, and international relations. But a far better approach would combine defensive interventionism alongside a comprehensive array of diplomatic, economic, and informational tools to uphold and enforce international norms. It demands a careful balance: robust and decisive actions must coexist with ongoing diplomatic efforts to create policies that not only deter aggression but also promote conditions favorable for peaceful negotiations. This balanced approach would aim to craft a sustainable policy that supports long-term stability and peace.

It is of paramount importance that the military actions by the US and UK are part of a broader strategy aimed at influencing the future international conduct of nonstate actors and their backers. This strategy must also involve engaging and strengthening local actors whose influence is vital for maintaining on-the-ground stability and ensuring the success of peace initiatives. Affirming Washington’s and its allies’ resolve and preparedness to act, such a comprehensive approach is essential to successfully navigating the complexities of modern geopolitical conflicts and enhancing the effectiveness of Western interventions on the global stage.

Follow: @YemeniFatima

In MENA, China increasingly shifts from geo-economic focus toward greater geopolitical influence

John Calabrese
Senior Fellow and Book Review Editor, MEJ

John Calabrese
  • Although the Gaza conflict was a key focus of last week’s China-Arab States Cooperation Forum, the remarks by President Xi Jinping and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, along with the bilateral discussions on the sidelines, highlighted Beijing's broader, forward-looking agenda and priorities.

  • At the forum, Wang outlined four priorities, which extended beyond traditional geo-economic concerns: 1) firmly supporting each other’s core interests; 2) deepening practical cooperation; 3) jointly maintaining the “correct direction” of global governance; and 4) creating promising prospects for the China-Arab states community with a shared future.

This past week, Beijing hosted the 10th meeting of the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF). As China’s foremost platform for multilateral engagement with the Arab world, the CASCF convenes biennially, alternating between the Middle East and China, to address regional issues and explore opportunities for deeper collaboration. This year’s discussions were not only overshadowed by the ongoing conflict in Gaza but largely focused on it, particularly as Israel faces growing international condemnation after the strike in Rafah that resulted in at least 45 Palestinian civilian fatalities. The subsequent statement by Israeli National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi suggesting that military operations in Gaza could continue at least until the end of the year further heightened tensions and shaped the discourse at the forum.

In his keynote speech, Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated calls for an immediate cease-fire, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, and Palestinian membership in the United Nations — positions closely aligned with those of Arab nations. Xi also called for a “more authoritative and more effective” peace conference and affirmed China’s commitment to alleviating the humanitarian crisis and supporting post-war reconstruction, announcing an additional $69 million in emergency assistance and a $3 million donation to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

Although the Gaza conflict was a key focus of the forum, the remarks by President Xi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, along with the bilateral discussions on the sidelines, highlighted Beijing's broader, forward-looking agenda and priorities.

In laying out his vision for greater cooperation with Arab States, Xi underscored China’s primary objectives: enhancing collaboration across various sectors including oil and natural gas, trade, and investment, while also pioneering new avenues for growth such as artificial intelligence (AI). Additionally, China aims to expedite the negotiation and implementation of bilateral and regional free-trade agreements.

Chairing the ministerial meeting, Foreign Minister Wang outlined four priorities for “Working Toward a China-Arab Community with a Shared Future,” the conference’s theme: 1) firmly supporting each other’s core interests; 2) deepening practical cooperation; 3) jointly maintaining the “correct direction” of global governance; and 4) creating promising prospects for the China-Arab states community with a shared future.

When considered alongside Beijing’s efforts to seize every opportunity to discredit the United States for its response to the Gaza conflict, the emphasis on “core interests” and “global governance” reveals China’s ambition to leverage the CASCF, as well as other multilateral platforms, to rally support for reshaping the international order. The adoption of the “joint statement on the Palestinian issue” signifies Beijing’s shift from a primarily geo-economic focus on the region to one increasingly aimed at building geopolitical influence.

The pointed references by both Xi and Wang to results-oriented cooperation clearly indicate that, despite — or perhaps because of — the economic challenges China currently faces, the leadership is determined to intensify its project participation and investments in the region. This commitment was evident in the adoption of the “Forum’s Action Plan for 2024-2026.” It was also evident in the signing of several bilateral cooperation agreements, witnessed by President Xi and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, along with Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry. These agreements, covering infrastructure, technology, and food imports, mark another phase in the development of Sino-Egyptian relations, in which China has made substantial investments in recent years.

As normalization fails, the vacuum on Syria diplomacy returns

Charles Lister
Senior Fellow, Director of Syria and Countering Terrorism & Extremism programs

Charles Lister
  • One year on, the Arab Initiative to re-engage with and normalize the regime of Bashar al-Assad can only be described as a complete failure, as every aspect of Syria’s crisis has worsened significantly.

  • Ultimately, normalizing Assad’s place in the Middle East has consolidated his highly problematic rule, exacerbated all of the effects of the Syrian crisis, and undermined the prospects for any meaningful resolution.

This time last year, the regime of Bashar al-Assad was flying high in the Middle East. After 12 years of near-complete isolation, Syria had regained its seat in the Arab League and the regime was being engaged and normalized at the highest levels by governments across the region. That elevation of the Assad regime’s status was the crux of the so-called “Arab Initiative,” an attempt by regional states to resolve the most pressing symptoms of Syria’s crisis and pave a path toward a comprehensive solution. 

While the United Arab Emirates had fostered and promoted ties with Assad’s regime since late 2018, momentum for the broader regional shift in 2023 came from Jordanian proposals, some Egyptian encouragement, and ultimately, a Saudi decision to decisively re-engage. Qatar was opposed to the change and Kuwait remained skeptical, but Assad’s welcome at the Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia in May 2023 sealed the regime’s regional return.

For the governments of the region, normalizing ties was presented as the best option available to help achieve increases in aid delivery; secure mass refugee returns; end the regime-facilitated drug smuggling threat; counter terrorism challenges; resume the work of the Syrian Constitutional Committee; and finally, to comprehensively resolve Syria’s crisis. The theory held that by engaging Assad directly, and by placing him back at the table, his regime would reciprocate with positive behavior.

One year on, the Arab Initiative can only be described as a complete failure, as every aspect of Syria’s crisis has worsened significantly. With aid flows falling to their lowest levels ever, polling conducted by the United Nations shows only 1% of refugees would consider a future return to Syria under prevailing conditions. Not only does the regime’s trade in the illegal drug captagon continue, it has grown more violent, expanded into new areas of the region, and diversified to include crystal meth and weapons. The rate of drug smuggling incidents on Jordan’s border alone has tripled in the past year. On the political front, the Constitutional Committee has not met in two years, and Assad has repeatedly asserted his opposition to any future political process. 

Ultimately, normalizing Assad’s place in the Middle East has consolidated his highly problematic rule, exacerbated all of the effects of the Syrian crisis, and undermined the prospects for any meaningful resolution. There is no better illustration of the failure of regional policy than the Arab League’s summit in Bahrain two weeks ago, with Assad in attendance on the condition that he remain silent, prohibited from speaking.

With the Arab Initiative faltering, and follow-up regional meetings repeatedly postponed due to anger at Damascus’ intransigence, the vacuum on Syria diplomacy has returned. While the international community gathered in Brussels on May 27 to pledge billions of dollars for the Syria aid response, no thought was given to solutions. For now, the relative disinterest in Syria diplomacy seen from the US and Europe serves only to further deepen the roots of the crisis and compound the many sources of instability emanating from it.

Follow: @Charles_Lister

Amid regional chaos, Russia looks to make the Red Sea red again

Guled Ahmed
Non-Resident Scholar

Guled Ahmed
  • Recent news of a potential military and economic deal between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Russian government highlights Moscow’s efforts to gain access to ports on the Red Sea and expand its political ties with Africa more broadly.

  • Amid the chaos in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, Russia has the potential to further leverage its geo-economic and geopolitical influence to oppose the United States and European Union — a prospect that the US’s current regional policy has done little to prevent.

In a surprising turn of events, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Russian government are reportedly on the brink of signing a major military and economic agreement. The deal, which would purportedly give Russia a naval logistical support facility on the Red Sea in return for supplying the Sudanese government with weapons and ammunition, was confirmed by Lt. Gen. Yasir al-Atta, assistant commander-in-chief of the SAF, in an interview with Alhadath TV in late May.

Many experts believe that the move is a message to the West and a clear sign of the SAF’s disappointment that the United States and its allies have not stopped external actors from providing military and economic support to the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, its opponent in Sudan’s civil war.

The Russia-Sudan deal has reportedly been in the works since February 2023 but was hindered by the outbreak of civil war in the country, as Russia has been seeking to forge closer political ties with African countries that have been hard hit by European Union and US sanctions. The rift between the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar over Sudan’s civil war, combined with the ongoing Red Sea crisis, has prevented them from responding effectively to the Houthis’ attacks on commercial shipping and given Russia an opening to assert its strength and make the Red Sea “red” again.

Russia is also working with Eritrea to set up a naval logistical facility at Massawa port and is currently conducting a feasibility study on the project, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov confirmed when he visited Eritrea in January 2023. This was followed by a Russian naval visit to Massawa in March 2024, suggesting Russia could utilize it as a viable second Red Sea port option.

As Russia works to gain access to Red Sea ports in Sudan and Eritrea, China is strategically positioning itself by the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a critical maritime chokepoint between the Gulf of Aden and the southern Red Sea, building on its existing military presence in Djibouti by increasing its naval visits to the area and allowing an Iranian spy ship to dock off the coast of its base. These moves are a clear consequence of the failure of the Biden administration’s Africa policy and “partner-led, US-enabled” approach. In a similar vein, Sen. James Risch, ranking Republic Party member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has expressed frustration with the Biden administration’s unsuccessful “one-Somalia policy” and has proposed legislation to counter growing Chinese involvement and Iranian influence in the region by seeking to strengthen ties with Somaliland.

Amid the chaos in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, Russia has the potential to further leverage its geo-economic and geopolitical influence to oppose the US and EU. Amid their ongoing attacks on maritime commercial traffic, the Houthis have openly acknowledged that they will provide safe passage to ships flying the Russian flag. It is conceivable that Moscow could support the Houthis in placing sea mines to target civilian shipping, similar to its actions in the Black Sea aimed at blocking Ukrainian grain exports. This strategy could prompt some commercial ships to use the Russian flag when transporting goods through the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. Another possibility is that Russia might employ state and non-state actors in the Horn of Africa, such as the Houthis and other Iranian proxies, to circumvent sanctions by increasing illicit oil and grain sales, thus mitigating energy and food security challenges resulting from US sanctions over the Ukraine war.

Russia has used “grain diplomacy” as part of its outreach to the continent, providing the commodity to six African nations. In particular, Somalia has received 25,000 tons of grain as well as debt relief of over $684 million. However, with the ongoing war against al-Shabaab draining its coffers, the current Somali government, led by President Hassan Sheikh, may succumb to the temptation to seek Russian arms and private military assistance. In addition, as tensions between Somalia and Somaliland escalate, the former may turn to Russia and China for support ahead of the latter’s upcoming election in November. Its chosen candidate, opposition leader Abdirahman Irro, is a former Somali ambassador to Russia and a staunch China advocate. In exchange for access to the port of Berbera, the Russians could potentially offer to interfere in Somaliland's election or even try to disrupt its existing maritime agreement with Ethiopia.

Africa may soon see a further strengthening of Russia’s presence as a result of the shortcomings of US regional policy. Given the strategic importance of maritime access in the Horn of Africa, this could potentially lead to an alarming militarization of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. To see off this risk, the Biden administration would do well to revisit the Somaliland Partnership Act and ramp up collaboration with the Department of Defense to combat Russia and China’s growing influence in the region.

Follow: @GuledWiliq

Photo by Matan Golan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

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