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US must restrain Israel now to avoid a regional conflagration

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Natale Labia writes on the economy and finance. Partner and chief economist of a global investment firm, he writes in his personal capacity. MBA from Università Bocconi. Supports Juventus.

From the outset, fears have lingered that the war in Gaza could trigger a full-scale regional conflagration. As the situation deteriorates, this is looking increasingly likely. Can it be avoided and, if so, how?

Once the appalling scale of the Israeli response to the brutal 7 October 2023 attacks on Israel by Hamas became apparent, it was unlikely that whatever was happening in Gaza would stay in Gaza. 

Since then, the conflict has indeed spread. Israel and Hezbollah have been trading daily fire in Lebanon and northern Israel. A campaign of harassment of Red Sea shipping by Houthi rebels based in Yemen has led to an ensuing campaign of airstrikes against them by the US and UK. Dozens of attacks on US bases in Jordan, Iraq and Syria have been carried out by various militia groupings. Last week, a drone strike on a US military facility in Jordan killed three service personnel and wounded dozens more.

Many, particularly in the US, believe that if any thread links the various eclectic mix of elements fighting against Israeli and US forces in the Middle East it is a chain of command that ends in Tehran. Hezbollah, the Houthis, and many Iraqi and Syrian militia groups are all seen as Iranian proxies to some degree.

It was with this in mind that the US unleashed its biggest wave of airstrikes in the region for years last Friday, hitting 85 targets at seven facilities. The US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, warned on Sunday the barrage of strikes against the targets in Iraq and Syria on Friday was “the beginning, not the end” of Washington’s response.

Iran’s foreign ministry duly responded, saying the wave of US strikes over the weekend “contributes to chaos, insecurity and instability” across the Middle East. 

In Baghdad, Basim Al-Awadi, a spokesperson for Iraq’s government, said on Saturday that “this aggressive strike will put security in Iraq and the region on the brink of an abyss”.

Can a full-scale conflict be avoided?

From the outset, fears have lingered that the war in Gaza could trigger a full-scale regional conflagration. As the situation deteriorates, this is looking increasingly likely. Can it be avoided and, if so, how?

Three factors further complicate the picture. 

First, the relationships between Iran and its so-called proxy actors are more complex than they seem. While Iran tries to pull the strings, they are operating more or less independently. Iran is a key protagonist and undoubtedly has armed and built up these groups, but they are not controlled by Tehran. The term ‘Iran-backed’ is perhaps used too loosely. According to Vali Nasr, professor of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University, such groups have their own vested interests. In their relations with Iran, there is a worryingly unpredictable dynamic of “the tail wagging the dog”.

Second, neither side wants a broader conflict. In an election year, a full-scale war would be disastrous for the US and, more specifically, President Joe Biden’s re-election campaign. The US needs to hit back at aggression to maintain its supposed dominance across the region and to defend economic interests, but without risking any direct strikes on Iran. 

To retain credibility, Iran and its proxies need to look as if they are acting tough on Israel and the US, particularly as the ongoing atrocities in Gaza incite anger and rage across the region. However, with its economy battered by sanctions, a full-scale conflict with Israel and the US would be ruinous. 

This delicate balance is precarious at best. Historical precedents, such as the Lebanon civil war, offer a stark reminder of the Middle East’s propensity for proxy conflicts. As the saying in those days went, “Whenever anyone in the Middle East wants to pick a fight with someone else they go to Lebanon to do it.”  

Thankfully, that conflict remained relatively localised. It is, however, harder to see such a dynamic playing out today, given the sheer number of actors across the region in Iran’s “Axis of Resistance”, stretching from Tehran through Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

Finally, the implications for the rest of the world are profound. Already the assault on shipping in the Red Sea has increased freight costs, worsening inflation. The oil price meanwhile, which has in past conflicts appreciated sharply, has remained indifferent to the tensions, and is 8% lower than it was before 7 October.

However, something has to give. The US is at risk of being stuck in an ever-escalating series of violence and tit-for-tat with the various Iran-allied actors across the region. The only way it can end this cycle of violence is to put more pressure on Israel to immediately end its aggression in Gaza and start considering a long-term, two-state solution to the conflict. 

While occasionally sounding critical of Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu, Biden has refused to reconsider his unconditional support for Israel. Such are the US political dynamics in the run-up to an election. But ironically, this inability to act tough with its proxy actor is another instance of the tail wagging the dog. If the US does not force Israel into line, a broader conflict looks unavoidable. While the proxy rebel groups are proving to be unpredictable for Tehran, so is Israel to the US. Both countries are perhaps ruing a case of “the sorcerer’s apprentice”.

While it is true that foreign issues do not win elections, they can lose them. A full-scale conflict in the Middle East would, in all likelihood, signal the end of Biden’s tenure as president. To have any chance of being re-elected, he counter-intuitively should act tougher on Israel, sooner rather than later. DM

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  • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

    The issue is getting complicated by the day, even before October 7 America was quietly in the middle east indirectly doing numbers on Iran through bases in different locations.
    In Syria they were supporting the Kurds and pumping out oil in what the Syrian president call outright theft.
    Clearly Israel is commiting ethnic cleansing using American weapons.
    America has one obsession use of military power and propaganda to force the world and international organisations to submission.
    Israel is not ignoring calls to stop killing civillians but like the weapons offered without any conditions, the call from America is to minimize the killings without any minimum condition against the known 2 million in Gaza alone.
    In the public they condemn the high numbers but in private the give the nod.
    Confirmation is the veto for a ceasefire.
    America has nothing against the Palestinians except that in their eyes the lives of Jews matters more than that of Palestinians and Israel offers them the strategic base for the control of the middle east.
    If they have direct access to resources there they don’t have to rely on Russia.
    The aggression grew after the sanctions on Russia.
    Even if Hamas did not commit the horrible act they would have designed a false flag and used Israel as a platform to flex their muscles.
    Trump might decide to stop the reliance on the middle east and go back to Russia then there will be temporal peace if there will still be Palestinians in Gaza and the settlements.

  • Steve Du Plessis says:

    That is one of the least coherent and nonsensical articles about the Middle East that I’ve ever read. The author should stick to topics that he vaguely understands

    • Martin Bongers says:

      Thought that the nuance of the proxy conflicts were delicately balanced. The tail wagging the dog in the case or Iran and the USA was nicely threaded through the opinion piece. Takes two to tango, which means the USA has the ability to steer this conflict, by slowing down the invisaged scope of Isreal’s revenge.

      Which part did you find incoherent? Comment below and we can discuss it, understand the opinion piece as a community and then properly debate it.

      Non specific put down comments is not fair to the author of the article. Be specific and I guarantee that someone will learn something. (The author, other readers and possibly yourself)

      • Bob Dubery says:

        I agree with you, but don’t you think that the US has the same problem as Iran in that they can’t really control the guys they are backing? Nethanyahu is not for turning. He doesn’t care what some woke democrat says, and won’t care what Trump might say in the future, he is going to swat that gnat with baseball bat and he doesn’t care what it takes or what the rest of the world thinks.

        • Martin Bongers says:

          Valid point of view.
          Worth debating this point.

          USA in a stronger position to Iran and therefore have more options. Netanyahu would feel emboldened to continue the status quo. His sums may change if his strongest ally pushes back in a meaningful way. Big if though.

          The authors opinion is not incoherent though, which is my main point. It is the sum of perspectives that helps to us to navigate the information we have and don’t have in order to test our predictions against.

      • Mo Sheikh says:

        This is not a nuanced conflict – it is a war of a western democracy against a fundamentalist islamist organisation. The only rational approach is to assist in the dismantling of the evil ISIS Hamas and to support Israel fully in doing so. The war can end instantly if Hamas lays down its arms and releases the hostages

        • John P says:

          Mo you are repeating the same Netanhayou deflection as always. No, the war would not end instantly if Hamas lays down it’s arms and releases the hostages. Netanhayu will just see this as an opportunity to hunt down every last Hamas member, sympathiser or associate and, at best, add them to the thousands of Palestinians already in jail without trial.

          • Ben Harper says:

            Head firmly planted in the nether regions still. Hamas does not want a negotiated settlement, they have made this very clear for decades and have reiterated it numerous times since October 7 so, like him or not, the only option for Israel is to hunt down every single one of them

        • L T. says:

          You have called it exactly as it is. Well said!

        • Ben Harper says:

          Exactly, thank you

  • Coen Gous says:

    With the US election coming the end of this year, the Dems are unlikely to do anything at all. Trump, on the other hand will use any opportunity to discredit Biden. This country is in its biggest mess ever

  • John M says:

    What rubbish!
    To offer up a solution which requires “…more pressure on Israel to immediately end its aggression” and “…a long-term, two-state solution” displays Mr Labia’s woeful ignorance of the situation.
    Israel has repeatedly stated that it will not cease until Hamas is eliminated, and a “two-state solution” is a western nations’ concept that neither Israel nor Palestine has ever supported.

    • Geoff Coles says:

      This concept of a ‘two state solution’ is exactly what? If W Bank and Gaza, well, its divided by more or less 50 km of Israel, and does WBank really want Gaza.

      • Ben Harper says:

        Give the WB back to Jordan and give them Gaza. Only problem is, Hamas and Islamic Jihad don’t want a two state solution and every time this has been put on the table there has been a violent attack on Israel by Hamas and it’s predecessors

  • Agf Agf says:

    Why are there always calls for Israel to “stop the slaughter”, the Western leaders to put pressure on Israel, etc.? Why are there not more calls for Hamas to surrender, hand over the hostages and end the war in an instant? Surely if they really care for the people of Gaza this would be the quickest and most courageous solution?

  • Geoff Coles says:

    The inability of Joe Biden….you got that right. …..but Iran and its allies, proxy or whatever, and maybe including SA see themselves as anti Israel, anti USA, first and foremost.

  • Vic Mash says:

    The end of the US is near.

  • Bob Dubery says:

    What is Biden to do in an election year? If he keeps this up he is comitting to another costly exercise in which young American men will lose their lives fighting somebody else’s war. If he pulls back then he is soft on terrorism and deserting Israel.

    Biden’s dilemma may help Trump win an election. Then Trump will find himself in the same pickle, but Trump is a far wilder card.

    • Alexis Kriel says:

      Biden is too old to continue, but Kama Harris is a disaster. She shouldn’t be the President of the US. There are others in the Democratic Party that are more qualified and would do a better job. Biden and Kamala Harris need to voluntarily step down, so that the Democratic Party can be unified behind the best person.

  • Mark Parker says:

    I always find it interesting that when someone writes “something has to give” or “someone has to stop” it inevitably implies that it is the West or Israel that are the ones that must stop. Is it because that when dealing with Islamist extremism we all know that Islamist terrorists will never stop…ever, until either they and all those around them are dead or they achieve their warped end-game. It seems that the only people who understand this concept are Israelis and Arab rulers (Saudi Arabia, Jordan et al) who see the Muslim Brotherhood and its myriad of offshoots and other islamic extremists as a direct threat to their own hegemony. Imagine if the US and UK decided that it had to stop in its fight against Nazism in Europe because “something had to give”? And get it into your head that there is no 2-state solution, that is merely some 2024 election BS and “look at my empathy for Instagram” because it just so happens that 2024 is a year of major elections in the West. And for those wanting a so-called “free” Palestine you may not have noticed that Hezbollah are Shia and Hamas are Sunni Muslims, so your “free Palestine” will be another civil war bloodbath and disaster similar to that of Lebanon when Hezbollah and Hamas get stuck into each other. Houthis are also Shia Muslims who until recently, were against Hamas but why let Islamic religious differences get in the way of a collective hatred of Jews…for now.

    • PJ T says:

      Indeed, Neville Chamberlain all over again.
      The West never seems to learn that the opposition does not think like they do, and until one understands the other side properly, it is impossible to select the correct course of action.

    • Alexis Kriel says:

      Exactly right. If Israel heeds the call for a cease-fire, Hamas will not release the hostages and a repeat of this situation is inevitable. Remember that Israel didn’t start this. It will be just a matter of time until Hamas hatches another abominable plan and continues firing rockets into Israel. A cease fire can’t be the solution. Netanyahu has handled this atrociously – he should have waited for a response from the world to the Hamas atrocities / called on the world to push for a release of the hostages – and then, if his call wasn’t actioned, he could’ve gone in big and he would’ve had the moral high-ground. Israel’s right to exist and their peaceful existence, alongside a Hamas-ruled Gaza hasn’t happened and isn’t going to happen. As you’ve said – the conflict between the Shiite’s and Sunni Muslims will continue the conflict in this region. Saudi Arabia and Egypt needs to govern Gaza in the interim, expunge Hamas from Gaza and support a new government for Palestinians. But it’s unlikely that they would agree to get involved. No-one wants to take on the situation in Gaza, because Hamas and the Palestinians (who are largely complicit) are way too much trouble. Israel is left to take it on, because they don’t have a choice.

      • Ben Harper says:

        Wait for the world to do what exactly, tell everyone how bad they think Hamas is? He did what any responsible leader in that situation would have done given the reality of the situation. I agree with 100% of everything else you’ve written and it’s time people grow up and see the facts

  • Mo Sheikh says:

    He seems not to know much about the Middle East and politics. The author should stick to finance on the assumption that he knows something about that. by the way, why not ask Hamas to put down their guns and release the hostages – much more rational than asking Israel to stop a war of self defence against a genocidal terrorist organisation.

  • Deon de Wet-Roos says:

    An interesting recent publication from Teruaki Ohnishi entitled “A mathematical model for the occurence of historical events”. Particularly in the conclusion he says “…history can be interpreted as the repetition of the exchange of action and reaction between two substances that have different values from each other…” As the proliferation of “different values” expands including the very different values of Trump and Biden, democrats and republicans, muslims and christians etc. one can expect that at least this exchange of action and reaction will continue for some time. Eventually I think the party with the greater economic utility will hold sway. Israel has the greater economic utility given the proximity to its enemies and its ability to annihilate their economies. The US cannot afford another war unless it somehow improves its economic position. The point is that regardless of all the posturing in the UN people are predictable. Its about survival. Sometimes you have to remind people what you are prepared to do to survive. Israel is doing a splendid job of that.

  • Andrew Blaine says:

    The US is acting in a manner similar to that of Iran. Unless they adopt a more involved approach to the conflict, this will not change the situation. Neither Iran nor the US want a regional conflict, so, in my opinion, the responsibility FOR BOTH COUNTRIES, is to regulate the flow of ordnance?

  • Dov de Jong says:

    I remind Natale of a British Prime minister stepping out of a plane waving a piece of paper and saying ” peace in our time ” Natale blithely accepts the malign actions of Iran and does not see that sometimes despite all the inconveniences for democracies action is the only option. Hizballah is a case in point, inaction has led to a 130000 rocket arsenal sitting on Israel’s border.

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