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Israel’s war with Hamas will cause deep and wide political shockwaves

Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN

(CNN) — Cataclysmic events like the Hamas onslaught on Israel trigger profound political shocks and strategic transformations that no one could predict at the time.

The rocket attacks, hostage takings and mass killings inside Israel came as the global order was already at a pivot point, with the post-Cold War era swept away by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s superpower ascent.

The raw shock over what just happened – the scenes of gunned down civilians at an Israeli music festival, the wrenching accounts of families torn apart and the fierce first burst of Israeli reprisal attacks on Gaza – are transfixing the world.

But politics is never still for long. The sudden and bloody shattering of a rare interregnum of calm and hope for diplomatic breakthroughs in the Middle East is already shifting calculations in Israel, the United States, the Arab world and across the globe.

The Hamas assault has been compared to the September 11 attacks in the United States in 2001 – as a comparatively low-tech assault on civilians that breached the homeland of a more powerful and sophisticated adversary, partly by defying the imagination of threat assessors in a complacent national security and political establishment.

The lesson of that historic trauma was that the political and military steps taken by American and other leaders when normal politics roared back to life did not just change the world through military action. They unleashed extraordinary political forces inside nations like the United States and Britain, creating conditions that are still influencing society and elections.

This may be where Israel finds itself now. The Jewish state is no stranger to rocket attacks from Gaza or Lebanon or bus and suicide bombings. But the Hamas invaders just shattered Israelis’ illusions of their own security more deeply than at any time since the Yom Kippur war in 1973 when Egyptian and Syrian forces attacked. This sense of emotional violation will condition Israel’s response in the days ahead and will influence how the rest of the world reacts to its fight-back.

Compounding Israel’s national wound is the extreme political challenge now facing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who set himself up as the ultimate guarantor of Israeli security but whose long watch will now be mostly remembered for one of the most devastating defeats and intelligence failures in his nation’s history. For now, the schisms in Israeli society, which have been caused by Netanyahu’s far-right coalition and his attempts to reform the judicial system in a way that critics said threatened democracy, have closed in the wider cause of national unity. But the veteran Israeli leader has an incentive to launch a devastating response to the attack to cover his political vulnerabilities as well to avenge Israel’s agony. The excruciating reality that Hamas is holding Israeli hostages that it can use as leverage against Netanyahu makes the situation even more intense. The long-term political consequences are impossible to predict.

“What we will do to our enemies in the coming days will resonate with them for generations,” Netanyahu said in a national address on Monday.

The Israeli leader’s comments raised the immediate question of whether a relentless Israeli counter-assault could all but eliminate Hamas in Gaza in the days ahead. But another lesson from 9/11 is that wars launched in the dark weeks after an attack don’t always turn out as hoped and risk rebounding against leaders who launch them. Israel has already experienced the price of an incursion into densely populated Gaza, an urban warren of sprawling refugee camps, for instance. And after 9/11, the Bush administration’s war on terror caused after-effects for years – including war fatigue and cynicism about government that helped nurture the presidencies of both Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

Those sentiments linger. In launching his independent bid for the presidency on Monday, which could have unpredictable consequences in critical swing states, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. repeatedly slammed the military industrial complex and the “long pipeline of continuous wars” more than 20 years after 9/11.

The world will have to react to Israeli’s reaction

Israel’s next moves will be critical. So far, the overwhelming emotions have been empathy and horror. But if Israel’s counter-attack against Hamas leads to even greater civilian casualties in Gaza or if the enclave is cut off from water and electricity for days in an Israeli siege, the politics even inside allied nations – where white and blue lights daub public monuments – may begin to change.

Joe Biden, one of the most unequivocally pro-Israel Democratic presidents in living memory, is expected to address the attacks in televised remarks on Tuesday. So far, he has buried his animosity with Netanyahu, who still hasn’t visited the White House during Biden’s tenure. The Israeli leader said on Monday he’s been in “continuous contact” with Biden since the attacks. The US is surging air defense materiel and munitions to Israel and has offered intelligence support for hostage rescue operations. As a show of support and deterrence to Israel’s enemies, Washington is moving an aircraft carrier group to the eastern Mediterranean.

But at some point in the weeks ahead, the interests of the United States and Israel may diverge. If evidence emerges, for instance, that Iran played a direct role in planning the assaults by its proxy Hamas, the pressure on Netanyahu for a direct strike against the Islamic Republic will become intense. Washington will be concerned about the scale of any such action since the last thing that Biden needs as he embarks on his reelection race is for the US to get dragged into another Middle East war.

The American president also needs to protect his political flanks, especially from a GOP trying to portray him as old and weak. Republicans, led by ex-President Donald Trump, pounced on the Hamas attacks, seeking to saddle Biden with the blame over his attempts to defuse a US confrontation with Iran. Trump also attempted to fuse an inflammatory US domestic issue – the southern border – with events in the Middle East by claiming without evidence that the “same people” who attacked Israel were streaming into the United States. Another GOP presidential candidate, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, repeated his claim that Biden was “complicit” in “this actual war against Israel.”

Republicans have seized on the unfreezing of $6 billion in Iranian funds under a deal to free US hostages last month. The administration insists the money hasn’t been spent yet and can only be used to buy humanitarian and medical supplies under strict international monitoring. But by blurring the facts, Republicans are creating a damaging public narrative designed to influence voter opinion. This kind of hard knuckle politics can work. Incessant conservative media coverage of Biden’s handling of the chaotic US military withdrawal from Afghanistan is still frequently brought up at Republican campaign events by voters who may not be deeply familiar with the details of the US exit but see the drama as shorthand for incompetence.

Biden must also be aware of political fallout on his left. Progressive Democrats have been increasingly critical of Israel in recent years, both for its treatment of Palestinians in Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas, and the West Bank, which is led by the Palestinian Authority, and because of the extreme tilt of Netanyahu’s coalition, which is the most-right wing government in Israeli history. Biden, whose own party has questioned his reelection bid, cannot afford to lose progressive support next year.

Far reaching foreign policy consequences

Biden’s legacy could also take a hit from the Israeli turmoil. His effort to shepherd a normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia that could revamp the geopolitics of the Middle East looks at best stalled. Saudi Arabia will not have the political room to negotiate with Netanyahu while hundreds of Palestinians are being killed in Israeli reprisal attacks in Gaza. Netanyahu has even less bandwidth to make hard territorial concessions to the Palestinians in the West Bank that the deal would likely require to get over the line. The historic nature of the proposed deal is one reason why Iran may have had a strong incentive to support Hamas’ attack, even if the US says at this point there is no concrete evidence proving its involvement.

The consequences of the attack on Israel could also negatively impact another Biden priority – the war in Ukraine. While Israel will get higher-tech weapons from the US than Kyiv – like interceptors for Iron Dome – a prolonged regional war could further strain US reserve armories already depleted by shipments to Ukraine. Biden might try to draw parallels between US support for Israel and his backing for Ukraine, another sovereign democratic nation facing outside attack. But Republicans who already oppose more aid to Kyiv are likely to argue that Washington should prioritize its old friend and cannot afford to help both.

All of these developments could precipitate wider strategic political reverberations. The US has been trying to pivot away from the Middle East and toward Asia for a decade and a half. But any sense in Beijing and Moscow that America is getting distracted by the region again will offer openings for US adversaries. The possibility that China, Russia and Iran could find common cause against the United States has long preoccupied US foreign policy experts. There is no formal anti-US alliance involving those three great adversaries. But as the world appears to be organizing itself into democratic and autocratic blocs, the authoritarian leaders in all three countries have discovered military, economic and strategic synergies through their common antipathy to Washington. And if the US is challenged or weakened in Europe, the Middle East or the Asia-Pacific region, all three could benefit.

In politics and international relations, everything is connected and one action sparks counter-reactions. So the war in Israel and Gaza will resonate far more widely than a cursed corner of the Middle East.

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