We need context for understanding and solving the unfolding tragedy.
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In these first days of what could be a long and certainly sickening Middle East conflict, it may seem too early to “pull back the camera” to identify the larger framework, to begin seeing what this is about, why now, and what it all means. But we need to get into that terrain as fast as possible — if we are to rally the forces of reason to a response that can halt this bloody conflict. Or at least minimize the damage.
We must ask: Cui bono? (Who benefits?) And what is behind all this?
If there’s one indisputable tenet in an often confusing world, it’s that few major actions come without motive, purpose, and an expectation of some desired outcome.
For Hamas, its leaders had to understand that Netanyahu would react with an iron fist.
This may have been Hamas’s very intention. Israel lost massive amounts of support worldwide when it overreacted in the past, the worst case being its acquiescence to a mass slaughter of Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon by Lebanese Christian phalange in 1982. (For an Al Jazeera report, go here; for a Jewish Virtual Library report, go here.)
Putting aside the arguments about right and wrong, understanding the moves on the chessboard is — for serious journalists, analysts, and yes, political leaders — the first order of business.
At first glance, we can see that this horrific bloodletting has already produced some clear winners and losers.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia has close ties to Hamas; its leader visited Moscow in July. Putin is also close to Iran’s mullahs, who support Hamas and Hezbollah.
Putin needs to distract the world from Ukraine so he can commit even more atrocities, increasing his chances of forcing that smaller country to submit. He also benefits by subverting focus and agreement on further coordinated action against him. He knows that a huge conflict like Gaza is “even hotter” than Ukraine to international audiences, a “long running classic” with strong emotions.
Among Hamas’s key sponsors, the mullahs in Iran, worried they will be overthrown by the oppressed and restive Iranian people, are counting on support from their alliance-of-convenience with Putin.
Iran can supply Putin’s armed forces with urgently needed military equipment, notably drones, to replace Russia’s massive losses in Ukraine. In turn, Putin can be expected to protect the mullahs and even, if necessary, help them crush any homegrown rebellion. Iran knows it can count on Putin, just as its ally Syria has done. Syria, like Iran, has been a reliable backer of Putin in his war on Ukraine.
Extremists on Both Sides in Israel and in US
This eruption is good for anyone intolerant, anyone who benefits from hatred and conflict — whether Palestinian or Israeli hard-liners or self-serving American politicians.
The Hamas leaders get funding and their moment in the sun. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, politically on the ropes for corruption and his anti-democratic power grab over the country’s Supreme Court — and facing massive protests and frustration — gets a reprieve, as Israelis come together to repel and punish a deadly foe.
This worked for George W. Bush in the US, after 9/11, and the devastating Hamas attack is being called “Israel’s 9/11.”
Given, as noted above, the benefits to Putin, it’s striking how close a relationship Netanyahu and Putin have forged in recent years, even after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — until US pressure on Netanyahu forced him to distance himself.
In the not-so-strange-bedfellows department, Putin and Netanyahu are extremely close with Donald Trump, and they will all benefit prodigiously if this conflict wounds Biden and leads to Trump regaining the White House.
Trump — who as president famously played up his hard-line support for the Israeli far right and moved the US embassy to Jerusalem — is already falsely accusing Biden of enabling Iran to fund Hamas, generally portraying him as weak, and has become even more bellicose in his support for Netanyahu.
At the same time, his authoritarian-model Putin is influencing Iran, which is influencing Hamas.
Trump, meanwhile, also needs some headline events to distract the public from all of his legal travails.
At some point, attention will turn to the fact that Trump showed classified intelligence about the Islamic State extremist organization to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the Oval Office. But Trump is all but certain not to face any consequences for this with his base.
From Matt Gaetz to Elon Musk, critics of the current administration clearly benefit from the crisis and, as chaos agents, take any opportunity to sow mayhem and disinformation. Musk has already posted disinformation from untrustworthy sources on the events in Israel and Gaza.
The armaments industry always benefits from war. That’s a no-brainer.
Biden and the Democrats
Trump and the GOP were quick to characterize the attack on Israel as something that would never have happened on their watch: “Hamas wouldn’t dare…” It’s another chance to paint Biden as weak, though that is clearly unjustified, and it will surely swing some voters here and there, which might be enough in key close races.
Ordinary People Everywhere
These armed conflicts are always hardest on ordinary people, the Gazans and Israelis who will suffer and die, either in the crossfire or as intended targets. If it benefits the Iranian mullahs (see above), it will only empower them to further oppress their own people — who are by no means united for one side or the other in the current conflict. (Here’s an Iranian soccer match, where members of the crowd express anger at others who are waving Palestinian flags).
It destabilizes the effort for rapprochement between Israel and other Arab countries, notably Saudi Arabia. This benefits the Saudis’ arch-enemies in Tehran.
It also provides an opportunity for Putin’s allies in the US to argue either that the US should divert Ukraine aid to Israel, or that the Middle East situation is proof the US should stay out of all such “disputes” (i.e., Ukraine).
Plenty of groups and individuals from both camps have spent years laboring largely in obscurity to move the needle on the Middle East, looking for ways to foster cooperation of any kind between the adversaries.
The fallout from the Hamas attack and the Israeli military response will be especially dispiriting to the activists in Israel who have been advocating respect for Palestinian rights and autonomy — and all those opposing Netanyahu’s rolling power grab.
As I said, it’s not easy to ask “Cui bono?” while bullets and bombs are flying.
But it’s necessary to examine the actions and understand their strategic significance if the US and other players are to mount effective responses to stop the conflict and end the bloodshed.
Engaging in this kind of analysis is potentially life-saving if it leads to a quicker resolution of the current mess. So let’s get on with it.