Butterfly Effect: Guess Who Gains From a Burning Jerusalem?


Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

When the sounds of sirens in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are accompanied by wails of crying mothers in Gaza, it means only one thing: Israel and militant Palestinian groups are trading bombs and rockets yet again. The death and destruction this week are mounting. By Wednesday morning, at least 83 Palestinians — including 17 children — and seven Israelis had died in the latest attacks and counterstrikes.

Yet, while they say that there are no winners in war, the truth is that the current clashes help the cynical politics of Israel’s embattled prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the extremist Palestinian group Hamas. The irony? Their narrow gains actually represent a setback for the broader interests of Israel and of Palestinian hopes of a homeland.

The current crisis has roots in a proposal to evict six Palestinian families from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah and restrictions placed by Israel on Muslim worshippers during the month of Ramadan. Palestinians have traditionally gathered at the historic Damascus Gate of the Old City after breaking their evening fasts during Ramadan. This year, they were blocked by barricades.

Then, clashes between Israeli police and worshippers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque — Islam’s third holiest shrine — injured hundreds over the past week, injecting the added tension needed to ignite an all-out conflict. Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, is firing hundreds of rockets into Israel, whose sophisticated Iron Dome defense system helps it reduce casualties. The world’s only Jewish nation has responded with more lethal airstrikes on Gaza. Though Israel insists its attacks are targeted at militant commanders and weapons depots, they invariably kill innocent Palestinians too.

Even as Egypt, Qatar, global powers — including the U.S. — and the United Nations try and mediate between the two sides, Netanyahu has vowed to escalate strikes on Gaza. Hamas, he said, “will be hit in ways that it does not expect.” Militants from Gaza, including the Islamic Jihad group, aren’t backing down either.

But while the world understandably focuses on the unfolding violence and deaths, the intensifying crisis is quietly bolstering Netanyahu and Hamas politically. Last week, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister failed to pull together a ruling coalition after the country’s fourth election in two years. Centrist opposition leader Yair Lapid is trying to sew up a governing front that includes both a conservative Islamist party, called the United Arab List (Ra’am in Hebrew), and conservative Jewish groups opposed to Netanyahu.

The clashes have dealt what could be a death blow to those anti-Netanyahu efforts. Lapid and other opposition leaders have been forced to fall in line with the government’s attacks on Gaza. That in turn has made Ra’am withdraw from negotiations. Meanwhile, Likud, Netanyahu’s party, and other right-wing groups have blamed the violence on the political discussions led by Lapid. Israel might well be headed toward a fifth vote since 2019, with the crafty Netanyahu still politically alive.

Hamas is making its own calculations. The Palestinian Authority, led by octogenarian Mahmoud Abbas, controls the West Bank but has seen its legitimacy before ordinary Palestinians wane in recent years as it is thought to have accomplished little through its more peaceful approach. It has criticized the assaults on worshippers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque but has tried to control Palestinian protests against Israel. By contrast, Hamas gets to project itself as the true, fearless defender of Palestinian interests, willing to take on the might of the Israeli military. In recent days, Palestinian crowds in Jerusalem have chanted slogans in favor of Hamas and accusing Abbas of betraying them. Unlike the Palestinian Authority, Hamas has little global support. The violence forces the international community to include them in backroom negotiations, giving them much-sought diplomatic credibility. It’s a tactic America knows well — that’s exactly what the Taliban does in Afghanistan.

So, what does all of this mean for Israel and for Palestinian dreams of statehood? Israel’s true strategic rival in the Middle East is Iran. At a time when the Biden administration is trying to revive the nuclear deal between Washington and Tehran, Israel would want to focus on building a broad coalition against those efforts. Yet the videos of the crackdowns at Al-Aqsa during Ramadan and the reports of dead children in Gaza will make Israel’s job much harder. Last year, it struck historic peace deals with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan. All four have sharply criticized Israel’s actions in recent days.

Meanwhile, prodded by the Biden administration, Saudi Arabia has begun talks with Iran. That both countries have publicly acknowledged those negotiations shows the geopolitical force pushing the traditional enemies together.

Yet a stronger Hamas won’t help the Palestinian cause globally either. A vast majority of countries around the world back a two-state solution in the Middle East, but it’s hard for them to argue for it assertively while the militant group lobs rockets indiscriminately into civilian neighborhoods in Israeli cities.

Still, this latest cycle of violence will further entrench the politics of Netanyahu and Hamas in the hearts and minds of Israelis and Palestinians, respectively. The already fading hopes of any long-term resolution to this historic conflict will continue to recede. The sirens and the wails will recur … again and again and again.

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