Biden and Netanyahu Biden and Netanyahu. Photo: U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv / CC BY 2.0

Chris Nineham argues that both the causes and consequences of Israel’s genocide can only be understood in the context of declining Western power

Israel’s assault on Gaza has sent shockwaves around the world. Israel has become isolated like never before. Tensions have flared in countries that continue to support it and the Western powers’ whole ‘rules based order’ has been thrown into question.

Three things have been particularly destabilising. First is the sheer barbarity and length of the attack. Israel has been harassing and killing Palestinians ever since the 1948 Nakba, when the state was established. But the violence of the last months is on a new scale. The horrific official casualty figures are certain to be underestimates. Israeli leaders have confirmed what is obvious from the facts on the ground. This is an indiscriminate attack on a whole people, otherwise known as a genocide.

The second shocking thing has been Western leaders’ full support for Israel even though its crimes have been so blatant. Behind the scenes, Biden has half-heartedly attempted to restrain Netanyahu, but publicly the US president has shown ‘ironclad support’ throughout the whole murderous affair. British and most European political leaders have followed suit.

The final surprise has been the refusal of Israel to bend in the face of global opinion or to comply with the wishes of US leaders, who used to be called ‘their Washington masters’, to limit its operations. Israel appears to be out of control.

The ramifications are immense. Israel and its Western allies have ignored UN votes, rejected International Criminal Court rulings and flouted international norms. Their actions have made a joke of the already shaky idea that Western foreign policy is driven by values of democracy or freedom.

The attack has of course also sparked a huge popular movement around the world, involving massive and sustained demonstrations, spiralling local activity and probably the biggest student movement in the US since the Vietnam war.

The West and the Middle East

What is behind these dramatic developments? There are some local drivers. Since the collapse of the Oslo Accords and any realistic prospect of a peace process, the crude and violent logic of the settler state has openly asserted itself. Far-right forces have gained support in the country and positions in the cabinet. Netanyahu is now dependent on them for his political survival.

However, these events can only be fully understood in terms of the fortunes of Western foreign policy. The US has been the main supporter of Israel since at least the 1967 war when Israel proved its military use by defeating three Arab armies. This support stems not mainly from the influence of the Israel lobby, but from the fact that Israel has become crucial to maintaining US power in the Middle East, still the world’s biggest producer of oil and gas anywhere. As President Biden has said, ‘if there were not an Israel, we’d have to invent one.’ Without this support, Israel wouldn’t be able to survive in its current form, let alone pursue its serial attacks.

Changing Western foreign policy has shifted US-Israeli relations. At the end of the last century, Western foreign policy took a new aggressive turn in response to growing threats to its economic power, especially from China.

The shift began with Nato’s first out-of-area operation, in the former Yugoslavia in 1999. It continued with the post-9/11 invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the subsequent disasters in Syria and Libya. These wars were expensive failures. The US was forced to evacuate Iraq, which was left in a state of chaos. Syria and Iraq remain devastated, while the sudden Western withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2020 was an even clearer humiliation. Nonetheless, military interventions have continued in modified form with huge support for Saudi Arabia’s invasion of Yemen and the massive military backing for Ukraine, which has turned the war there into a proxy war against Russia.

Israel’s genocide and the response to it can only be understood in this context. At the height of the Iraq War in 2004, the US made a deal with Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon agreeing to Israeli expansion in the Galilee and Negev, the building of the Apartheid Wall in the West Bank and a withdrawal from Gaza so that it could be turned into an open-air prison for the Palestinians. Bush also agreed that the US would stop pressuring Israel for a peace process and that it would abandon the demand for Palestinians’ right to return.

As the dissident Israeli historian Ilan Pappé points out, the US agreed this plan because it dovetailed with the kind of operation they were conducting a few hundred miles east in Iraq. At first, President George Bush was reluctant to greenlight the colonisation of the West Bank:

‘The Israelis, however, hoped that the similarities between the American and British conduct in Iraq and Israel’s policies in Palestine would lead the United States to change its position, and they were right.’

The US was effectively abandoning any pretence at a peace policy and backing a turn towards open war on the Palestinians.

The disasters of war

The failure of the US’s wars combined with continued relative economic decline have weakened the US on the world stage. And the wars have hastened the thing they were designed to prevent: rival powers militarising. China and Russia have both increased their arms spending sharply in the last 25 years. Global arms spending actually doubled between 2001 and 2023. The move towards a multi-polar world, welcomed on some parts of the left, has in fact led to a more contested, dangerous world.

All this means the US needs Israel more than ever and is less able control or restrain it. It is this which explains the fact that despite the extraordinary damage the genocide is doing to the Western powers standing in the world, they continue to support it.

In fact, far from limiting support for Israel in the face of genocide, a recent report co-produced by the Financial Times shows that the US has massively ramped up its military supplies since the carnage began. According to the report, ‘at times, so much lethal cargo was transported that there weren’t enough planes to carry them fast enough.’

The West’s turn towards a more aggressive posture has taken place in a situation in which most people believed the days of open imperial violence had been consigned to history. A long period of relative peace had created the illusion that world affairs had become more ordered and consensual, an illusion the Western powers were keen to reinforce.

As a result, ever since Tony Blair led the charge to war in Yugoslavia in 1999, Western leaders have tried to dress up their interventions in humanitarian and democratic terms, as wars against dictators, against terrorists and in defence of Western values. This always had limited traction. Around the world, millions marched against the war in Iraq, and polls in Britain show that, in general, foreign interventions are unpopular.

Israel’s brutal assault on the Palestinians, streamed in real time around the globe, has finally blown up these myths. It has taken us back to an imperial world of open barbarity and mass collective punishment against a largely helpless population. No wonder it has been met with revulsion around the world.

Britain’s role

Some argue that what Britain does in relation to Israel’s genocide isn’t important. Yet, Britain supplies significant amounts of arms to Israel; £42 million pounds worth of licences were made public last year. But more importantly, Britain is the US’s main ally over its Israel policy. Britain backs the US on the UN Security Council and slavishly supports the US line in public. If the British government could be forced to break from Washington and call Israel out, it would be a huge blow for Israel’s standing in the world, and would mark the unravelling of the already fraying Western alliance. That is why the movement here is so important.

The tremendous marches and protests in support of Palestine form the latest phase of opposition to the West’s more and more aggressive foreign policy. Britain’s role as the US’s main booster around the world explains why the two biggest marches in British history, the Iraq demo on February 15, 2003, and the Palestine demonstration on Armistice Day last November, have been about foreign policy.

However horrific and frustrating the situation is, it is important to recognise that the movement is making progress. Israel is becoming a pariah state, and here we have created a political crisis and made Gaza an election issue. The international moves against Israel would not have happened without the massive global movement. It is crucial we maintain a focus on strengthening and deepening the protests.

Our anti-imperialism, however, is only as good as its weakest link. To combat the militarisation of our foreign policy effectively, we need to oppose every manifestation of it. That means we also have to campaign against the West’s proxy war with Russia and the threat of confrontation with China. These may be more difficult arguments, but we need to make the case that the West is arming Ukraine for the same reasons that it is backing Israel, to extend its influence and control in the face of rivals, and that confrontation with China can only lead to catastrophe.

Israel’s genocide and the West’s support for it has exposed the dark heart of Western foreign policy. It is a product of a world order in deep crisis. The great movement for Palestine needs to be a part of the wider campaign to break Western militarism in all its forms and to fight for a society based on justice, solidarity and peace.

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Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.

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