The sun sets on the American empire: the Gaza debacle

Jun 25, 2024
USA, Israel and Palestine flags on wall Image:iStock/ Ruma Aktar

The mayhem of the last eight months suggests that the United States remains ascendant in the Middle East, and its global hegemonic presence undiminished. Reality points in a different direction. In this series, Joseph Camilleri explains how, despite its global military reach and expanding alliances in Europe and Asia, America today stands adrift and diminished. Gaza, Ukraine and the China obsession tell the story.

Biden’s fulsome backing of Israel in the present confrontation continues a special relationship that dates back to the inception of the state of Israel. It is a relationship that successive US administrations have regarded as the centrepiece of America’s regional dominance.

Between 1946 and 2023 Israel was by far the largest cumulative recipient of US economic and military aid, estimated at close to $300 billion (in constant 2022 dollars). In recent years, the United States has provided Israel an average of $4 billion annually in foreign military financing and an additional $500 million for cooperative missile defence programs.

Little surprise then that in April 2024, the Biden Administration chose to sign off on war assistance to Israel estimated at some $25 billion at the very time that the Palestinian death toll had exceeded 35,000, most of them women and children.

This was the strongest signal yet that, words to the contrary notwithstanding, Washington was prepared to give Israel’s war machine carte blanche to conduct its operations as it saw fit.

The special relationship with Israel has served several US objectives. It has enabled the United States to extend and justify its military presence in a region of high strategic importance. It has kept most Arab states on a leash. And, it has been frequently used to contain the assertive reach of adversaries, notably Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, importantly Russia, and plausibly even China.

The sheer brutality of Israel’s invasion of Gaza has undone much of this. It has severely curtailed Israel’s and America’s diplomatic leverage. It has exposed and exacerbated political divisions within Israel and created new tensions in a highly fractured American society.

What went wrong?

The Hamas attack of 7 October 2023 was initially viewed by the Biden administration as a godsend. The relationship with Israel could be safely strengthened, while the idea of the Jewish nation placed once again under siege could help galvanise European allies into action.

By contrast, Hamas was a monstrous terrorist organisation acting in collusion with Iran’s autocratic rulers. Its barbaric actions would solidify the West’s relationship with Arab governments, and swiftly move the Israeli-Saudi rapprochement towards diplomatic normalisation.

Little of this has come to pass. Israel’s conduct in Gaza has proved a huge embarrassment. By early June 2024, the death toll exceeded 37,000, the number of injured had risen above 84,000, while the number of missing was estimated at close to 10,000. Endless US exhortations for Israel to be more protective of Palestinian civilian lives went unheeded.

The entire UN system, from the office of the UN Secretary-General to every UN agency, has been unsparing in its condemnation of all aspects of the Israeli military offensive. UN reports estimate that by the end of April more than 50 per cent of all structures had been destroyed, 360,000 housing units damaged, 5 per cent of the population killed or injured, and two million people displaced.

By May, governments, international organisations and civil society were overwhelmingly critical of Israel’s disregard for human life. After five months of mayhem in Gaza and five US vetoes of draft resolutions, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution on 25 March 2024 demanding an ’immediate ceasefire in Gaza for the month of Ramadan’ leading to a lasting ceasefire, the ‘immediate unconditional release of all hostages’ and humanitarian aid access. Under mounting international pressure, the United States felt obliged to allow the adoption of the resolution by abstaining.

Unimpeded by US vetoes, the UN General Assembly was able to act much sooner. On 27 October 2023, 121 governments voted for a resolution calling for a humanitarian truce. Six weeks later a similar resolution was passed with an even larger majority – 153 voting in favour, 20 against, and 24 abstentions. Then on 10 May 2024. it voted overwhelmingly in support of the Palestinian bid for full UN membership – 143 voting in favour, 9 against, and 25 abstentions.

Israel’s diplomatic isolation came into full view with the announcement that Norway, Ireland and Spain would formally recognise Palestinian statehood as of 28 May 2024. Spanish Prime Minister Sánchez, using the bluntest language yet by a European leader, accused Benjamin Netanyahu of presiding over massacres. The number of countries recognising the State of Palestine now stands at 145.

In the meantime, the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court have become the centre of attention. Following the case filed by South Africa, the Court judged that Palestinians in Gaza had plausible rights under the Genocide Convention, and concluded that they were at real risk of irreparable damage.

In the ensuing months, a raft of countries have formally joined, or expressed support for, South Africa’s genocide case against Israel, as have several international organisations, including the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

No less dramatic was the announcement on 20 May 2024 by ICC chief prosecutor Kharim A. A. Khan that he had requested arrest warrants for Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Defence Minister Yoav Gallant. Were ICC judges to grant the requested warrants, 124 countries, including every member of the European Union, would be legally obliged to arrest Netanyahu and Gallant on sight.

This is the first time in the court’s history that the leader of a liberal democracy closely allied to the United States has been targeted in this manner. US President Joe Biden described the legal step against Israel’s most senior leaders as ‘outrageous’, while the French Foreign Ministry expressed France’s full support for ‘the International Criminal Court, its independence and the fight against impunity in all situations’. The contrast could not be starker.

Hundreds of thousands of people across the world have been protesting against the war in Gaza, calling for a ceasefire, the ending of the Israeli blockade and occupation, humanitarian aid to Gaza, and Palestinian self-determination.

According to one study, at least 7,283 pro-Palestinian protests were held worldwide between 7 October and 24 November.

Since October 7, London alone has seen at least 15 pro-Palestinian marches, with people attending in their tens of thousands, several times, well in excess of 100,000.

The last few months have also seen a flurry of student activism at US college and university campuses, which has since spread to Europe, Australia and Canada. Apart from the usual demands for an immediate and permanent ceasefire, students are calling on universities to terminate their involvement in any research project or financial arrangement which supports Israel and the war in Gaza.

Israel is now at an impasse, with a sharply polarised society, a divided government, a war cabinet that had to be dissolved, a deeply unpopular prime minister whose political survival rests on satisfying the demands of a motley group of extremist parties, and no clear plan as to how the fighting will end or what will then follow. International support for the State of Israel is at its lowest ebb since 1948.

For its part, the United States is saddled with an ally of dubious value. If it continues to serve as Israel’s principal backer, it will have to bear the rising costs of economic and military aid, suffer increasing diplomatic isolation, and run the risk of a widening regional conflict beyond its capacity to resolve.

The United States now has to contend with three flashpoints, the wars in Gaza and Ukraine and a fraught relationship with China, with its allies in Europe, Asia and elsewhere increasingly aware of the high costs of complying with US directives and priorities.

In the Global South, the Gaza debacle has reinforced the widely held view that the American ship is in distress. The purported US commitment to democratic values is regarded as at best erratic, at worst unashamedly hypocritical.

Governments in the Global South feel emboldened to pursue an independent course of action, and explore avenues for collaborative action through the UN and other multilateral settings.

As for Washington’s principal adversaries, China, Russia and Iran, they feel better placed to pursue their preferred strategic options, confident in the knowledge that the United States is amply distracted by the paralysis of its political institutions and its engagement in two conflicts (Ukraine and Gaza), which promises much pain and little reward.


Read the two following articles in this three part series:

The Sun sets on the American empire: Dead-end in Ukraine


The sun sets on the American empire: the perils of containment

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