10 misconceptions about the conflict in the Middle East (and how to correct them)
It takes humility, a knowledge of history and politics, and maybe a little chutzpah to understand the war in Israel, Gaza and the Palestinian Authority. We Americans, living in a far-off place and a foreign culture, often get matters wrong. Here is a list of 10 misconceptions and ways to correct them:
- It’s not just the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, although that’s at the heart. It’s also a conflict among different Palestinian groups, mainly Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. When the Biden administration restored aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) unconditionally, an emboldened PA canceled elections, which pushed Hamas into asserting its authority by inciting riots by Arab Israelis and shooting rockets. The ironic twist is that Israel is now destroying Hamas’s leadership as a result. The tragic outcome, besides the death and destruction, is the damage done to the very real progress made in getting Arabs and Jews to live together in peace.
- It’s not just a war between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. Iran is a major actor. Iran has long proclaimed a strategic goal of destroying Israel. Iran has followed a policy of using Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad as proxies to strike at Israel, and the current attack is a case in point. Hezbollah, whose military wing has been designated a terrorist organization by some states and the European Union, is the most powerful political force in Lebanon.
- It’s not a battlefield that leaves you out. Information has always been a tool of warfare, from the Trojan Horse to Twitter, but never more so than in the current state of the art. “Hybrid warfare,” as it has been aptly called, aims at many different targets. One of them is you, as a consumer of information on social media or other platforms. Beware.
- It’s not just about the bombs or the rockets. Murderous as those weapons are, they are but a means to an end. War, as Clausewitz wrote, is politics and policy by other means. Each of the combatants has a policy goal, towards which weapons are but a tactic.
- It’s not about primitive emotions or primordial hatreds. People in the region have been engaged in struggles for power and survival for literally thousands of years. The hands they play lack nothing in sophistication, however violent they may sometimes be.
- It’s not about “extremists on both sides,” as has often been said in the U.S. lately. Rather, the issue is American policy changes since the Biden administration took office earlier this year. It is unlikely that the current violence would have happened without Washington’s decision to try to return to the Iran nuclear deal and lift sanctions on Iran, while also tossing cold water on the anti-Iranian strategic alliance represented by the Abraham Accords. Under the Trump administration, Iran was on the ropes, Israel and Gaza were quiet. No longer. By enabling Iran, Washington no doubt inadvertently lit a fire.
- It’s not just about foreign policy. Domestic politics plays a role too, from the relationship between President Biden and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, not to mention between Biden and Republicans; to the jockeying for power among caretaker Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and his rivals, to the upcoming election in Iran and to internal dissent there; to the aforementioned struggle between Hamas and the PA.
- It’s not just about the United States. Other great powers, notably China, the European Union, India and Russia, are also engaged in the region. China, for example, has been hoping for years to strike a strategic partnership with Iran, but was sidelined by the tough sanctions regime under the Trump Administration. This spring, China and Iran signed a $400 billion deal. Yet, at the same time, China is courting Israel for its technological expertise. No one said the picture was simple.
- It’s not just about the Middle East. U.S. policy there will have repercussions far away. If the U.S. empowers Iran at the expense of Israel, then Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, India, the Philippines and Australia will all take note. These and other regional players will all be important to the U.S. in its relationship with China. The last lesson to give them is that America is not a trustworthy partner.
- It’s not just about war. The Abraham Accords, and the larger promise of Arab-Israeli peace, may be the best development in the region in many years. Economic integration, missile defense and people-to-people relationships are all among the possibilities. These, along with continued sanctions pressure on Iran, offer a better promise of peace to the region than does a renewed nuclear deal with Iran. It’s not too late for the Biden administration to change course.
Barry Strauss is a military historian and classicist at Cornell University and the Corliss Page Dean Fellow at the Hoover Institution.