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Commentary: Israel-Hamas conflict – key takeaways for Singapore amid seismic shifts in the Middle East

SINGAPORE: Hamas’ terror attacks – let’s call a spade a spade – against Israel on Saturday (Oct 7) have engulfed the Middle East in another spasm of violence. The Israeli armed forces have responded by launching strikes against more than 1,000 targets, cutting off the flow of electricity, water and food to Gaza, and promising that more is to come.

There is no telling how all this will end. What is certain is that there will be more deaths and misery inflicted on the people of both sides. While condemnation has been swift in some quarters, others have muted their reactions, or, worse, celebrated the wanton killing of non-combatants.

What should we make of this turn of events? The kinetics have made arriving at a nuanced reading difficult, but there are three facets that Singaporeans should bear in mind.

WHY HAS HAMAS ATTACKED?

The violence initiated by Hamas came 50 years and a day since Israel was similarly caught off-guard when Egyptian and Syrian forces attacked. The Yom Kippur war was aimed at gaining leverage in negotiations between the two countries and Israel to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the years following, the Egyptian leader, Anwar Sadat, was lauded as a visionary who launched a war for peace – a not-altogether incorrect, if simplistic, analysis.

Hamas has no such intentions. By killing civilians, including women and children, in cold blood and taking scores hostage, its fighters have made clear that its intentions are much darker.

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As Arab nations have moved to recognise Israel, the terrorist group – whose avowed objective is the destruction of Israel – has increasingly found itself on the margins, swimming against an inexorable tide. Its response has been to try and upend the current march and torpedo future moves, most importantly a prospective deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

By doing so, it seeks to reclaim its own relevance, never mind that this effort will come at the expense of those it governs. Gaza has been described by some of its inhabitants as an “open-air prison”. What is to come will be much worse. But this should not be surprising: The well-being of Palestinians has never been a Hamas priority.

That normalisation is at the centre of everything is clear from the response of Iran, Hamas’ ideological and political partner, and patron. Israeli and American intelligence officials have admitted that there has been no evidence linking Iran directly with the attacks – so far – and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has said as much. He did say, however, that “we kiss the foreheads and arms of the resourceful and intelligent designers” of the attack.

Ayatollah Khamenei’s posts on X, formerly Twitter, tell a fuller story. On Oct 3, he warned that “countries that make the gamble of normalisation with Israel will lose. They are betting on a losing horse”, an argument he has made several times in the past.

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DISUNITY PROVES COSTLY FOR ISRAEL

The failure of Israeli intelligence to pick up signs of a such a large attack, and its initial slow response, is another facet that ought to occupy our minds. The operational failures, including an over-reliance on a high-tech border surveillance system, will provide plenty of fodder for military analysts to chew on.

But we should focus on the impact that the current Israeli government, the most right-wing and extreme in its history, as well as the internal turmoil generated over the past few years by divisive elections, have had on the country’s unity.

The government’s pursuit of changes to neuter the power of the judiciary has cleaved Israeli society. Over the past few months, huge protests have been sparked against such moves, and the rifts have come into stark relief. In simplified terms, the ultra-Orthodox and settlers, whose vision of Israel is that of a religious and nationalist state, are arrayed against those who want a more secular, pluralist country.

The latter includes many former high-ranking military and intelligence officials. Many reservists have refused to report for duty, and this has affected the Israeli Defense Forces’ (IDF’s) operational readiness. Moves provoked by right-wing ministers have emboldened settlers in the West Bank, requiring the IDF to deploy more forces to the area to prevent growing violence, distracting it from the Gaza front.

Israel’s defence, which relies on conscripts, demands national unity. The internal divide has been an agent of chaos in this regard.

Faced with a massive threat, the country has come together again. Many of those opposed to the government’s moves have reported for duty, setting aside political differences to take up arms. But the damage has been done.

When this is over, there will be bills to pay. Israel’s leader when the 1973 war broke out, Golda Meir, was forced to leave office six months after hostilities ended, when the tab came due. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will face a reckoning, too, and many experts say Oct 7 will be the stain on his record that will set him on the same path.

The lesson is clear: Without unity, even a powerful military will have trouble when the country it defends is fractured.

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PEACE IN THE MIDDLE EAST IS STILL A MIRAGE

Barely over a week before the attacks, the United States National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, boldly proclaimed that the Middle East is now “quieter today than it has been in two decades”. His timing could not have been worse.

Mr Sullivan’s claim was an act of political theatre, meant to showcase the Biden administration’s prowess in putting out brush fires in the volatile region. It now lies in tatters, to almost no one’s surprise.

At the Middle East Institute’s annual conference earlier this year, a panel of experts wrapped up the event by discussing this question: Is peace in the Middle East a mirage?

The question was posed in response to a rash of detente that has broken out in the region over the last few years: The Abraham Accords, the end of the Blockade of Qatar, and a Saudi-Iran deal to resume ties, among others. While not overly pessimistic, the panel was hardly optimistic. Those who had cause for pause might now feel vindicated.

But the conflagration masks two bigger, more consequential, shifts that will shape the region. The first is that Israel’s existence is a fact, and cannot be ignored. The countries in the Middle East will have to deal with it, and some already have. The second is the urgent, existential need for the big players to ditch their old model economies and transform to face the future.

To do that, they will require more trading partners, investment, and tourism, among others. Israel’s moxie and cutting-edge technologies in everything from defence to agriculture are a critical part of this equation. The United Arab Emirates – which, together with Bahrain, were the first to sign on to the Abraham Accords – signed a free trade agreement with Israel last year, and both sides project that annual bilateral trade will hit US$10 billion within five years, 10 times that in 2021.

These are the overriding national interests guiding the policies of the major economies in the region, and they will not change soon. For now, Israel’s main interest is in defending itself, while countries like the UAE, which aligned with it, will be forced to keep a distance to quell internal disquiet. For Saudi Arabia, entertaining any thought of normalisation now, or in the near future, will amount to dicing with trouble, something Riyadh is loath to do.

But the big picture has not changed by much. That is the final takeaway Singaporeans should absorb: At the end of the day, all well-governed countries will doggedly pursue what is in their interests, even if the price sometimes appears much too high.

The shifts in the Middle East are seismic. As these things are wont to do, some china will be broken, and we can expect further shocks. But eventually, the contours of the region will be reshaped.

Carl Skadian, a former journalist and editor for 30 years, is Senior Associate Director at the Middle East Institute, NUS.

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