New Global Divisions on View as Biden Goes to Israel and Putin to China

user avatar Author: Editors Desk Source: N.Y Times
October 18, 2023 at 09:16
Washington’s strong support for Israel against Hamas is contrasted with Russian and Chinese efforts to align with the Palestinian struggle.
President Biden arrived in Israel on Wednesday to show solidarity with Washington’s close ally in the Middle East.Credit...Kenny Holston/The New York Times
President Biden arrived in Israel on Wednesday to show solidarity with Washington’s close ally in the Middle East.Credit...Kenny Holston/The New York Times

As President Biden lands in Israel on Wednesday, seeking to display steadfast American support for the country, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia is in Beijing, seeking to display his “no limits” partnership with China’s top leader, Xi Jinping.

The two contrasting trips show how vastly the global political landscape has been redrawn by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and how that changed landscape is on full display in the war in Gaza.

Russia, China and Iran were already forming a new axis over Ukraine, one they have pursued diplomatically, economically, strategically and even ideologically. Russia relies on weapons from Iran and diplomatic support from China to fight in Ukraine. Iran has been isolated and only too happy to have new trading partners and some source of international legitimacy. China, whose economy is ailing, has saved billions of dollars by importing record amounts oil from countries under Western sanctions, like Russia and Iran.

Together, they find a common ideological cause in denouncing and defying the United States in the name of reforming the existing international order dominated by the West since World War II.

As they do, they have made no secret of the grievances they harbor over the way things were done in the past. Yet each side sees hypocrisy in the other, increasingly forcing nations to choose sides.

The Israel-Hamas war, and the intensifying crisis there after a deadly explosion at a hospital, have underscored the widening differences between the West on one side and Russia and China on the other. Those differences are not only over who is to blame for the escalating violence. They are also about competing views of the rules that underpin global relations — and who gets to define them.

“This is another conflict that drives polarization between the Western democracies and the authoritarian camp of Russia, China and Iran,” said Ulrich Speck, a German analyst. “This is another moment of geopolitical clarification, like Ukraine, where countries have to position themselves.”

 
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia with President Xi Jinping of China.
An image released by Russian state media shows President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia with President Xi Jinping of China in Beijing. The countries have refused to condemn Hamas after its attacks on Israel.Credit...Sergei Savostyanov/Sputnik
 
Russia, with China’s support, has portrayed its invasion of Ukraine as a defense against Western subversion of Moscow’s traditional sphere of cultural and political domination. The United States and Ukraine have portrayed Russia’s war as an aggressive effort at recolonization that violates international norms and sovereignty.

When it comes to the Middle East, there is perhaps no region where the through-the-looking glass nature of these competing views is more apparent.

Russia and China have refused to condemn Hamas. They have instead criticized Israeli treatment of Palestinians, especially its decision to cut off water and electricity to Gaza and the civilian death toll there. They have called for international mediation and a cease-fire before Israel considers that its war has fully begun.

After the horror Tuesday night, when hundreds of Palestinians were reportedly killed in a strike after seeking shelter from Israeli bombing at the Gaza hospital, Russia and China are expected to intensify their calls for a U.N. resolution and an immediate cease-fire. According to RIA Novosti, a Russian state news agency, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, called the explosion a “crime” and an “act of dehumanization,” and said Israel would have to provide satellite images to prove it was not behind the attack.

Despite Israeli denials of responsibility for the blast, the fierce reactions among Palestinians and ordinary Arabs have made Mr. Biden’s trip considerably more awkward.

Mr. Biden’s plans to meet with both Israeli and Arab leaders, including Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, were dashed, and it will be harder for him to act as an honest broker. There will be more pressure on Mr. Biden to persuade Israel to allow humanitarian aid, including water and electricity, into Gaza. He will also, Israeli officials suggest, try to keep Israeli’s politically wounded prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, from overreacting in a way that will harm America’s larger regional interests, let alone Israel’s.

 
A closer shot of Mr. Biden on the tarmac. He is greeted by Israeli officials and a person in sunglasses stands behind him.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Isaac Herzog of Israel greeting Mr. Biden. Mr. Biden will face pressure to persuade the country to allow aid, water and electricity into Gaza.Credit...Kenny Holston/The New York Times
 
For Mr. Putin, the war has presented another opportunity for gloating, as he blames Washington for the conflict. “I think that many people will agree with me that this is a vivid example of the failure of United States policy in the Middle East,” which ignores, he said, Palestinian interests.

China has already demonstrated an ambition to extend its influence in the Middle East by the surprise rapprochement it brokered between Iran and Saudi Arabia this year; Beijing is seeking to portray itself as an honest broker compared with Washington.

China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, has said that Israel’s actions have already extended beyond self-defense toward collective punishment of the Palestinians in Gaza.

Russia and China are siding with a Palestinian people seeking liberation and self-determination, while in Washington’s eyes, they themselves deny those same possibilities to the Ukrainians, the Tibetans, the Uyghurs and even to the Taiwanese.

But in their reluctance to blame Hamas and effort to associate themselves with the Palestinian cause, both Russia and China are appealing to a wider sentiment in the so-called Global South — and in large parts of Europe, too. For them, it is Israel that is conducting a colonialist policy by its occupation of the West Bank, its encouragement of Jewish settlers on Palestinian land and its isolation of the 2.3 million people of Gaza, who are subjected even in normal times to sharp restrictions on their freedoms.

The Global South, a term for developing nations, is a vital area of the new competition between the West and the Chinese-Russian alternative, said Hanna Notte, the director of a Eurasia program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

From the point of view of many in the Global South, she said, “the United States fights Russia, the occupier of Ukraine, but when it comes to Israel, the U.S. is on the side of the occupier, and Russia taps into that.”

  
A sunset over Gaza.
Gaza on Tuesday, as seen from Sderot, Israel. A growing humanitarian crisis is unfolding there as Israel pummels the territory with retaliatory airstrikes.Credit...Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
 

Russia also sees the benefit of appealing to the larger Arab public in the name of the Palestinians in countries like Egypt, Jordan and those in the Gulf that have no love for Hamas or the Muslim Brotherhood, that have decent relations with Washington and Israel, and that have little desire to accept Palestinian refugees from Gaza.

Those allies may be keeping relatively quiet as Israel bombs Gaza, but that will be much harder now after the hospital explosion and the anger among their own publics. Still, they are also pleased to see the United States inserting itself again so strongly in the region with military power on the side of stability. Washington has sent two aircraft carriers to make it clear to Hezbollah, perhaps Iran’s most important client, that it should not try to open a second front against Israel from southern Lebanon.

Russia has always resented Washington for dominating the Middle East and the peace process and would see benefits if the war against Hamas slows or even destroys President Biden’s effort to solidify relations with Saudi Arabia, including a possible mutual defense treaty, in exchange for normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, Ms. Notte said.

“The United States has sidelined Russia with its support for the Abraham Accords” between Israel and Gulf States, “and Russia does not like being sidelined,” she said. “If normalization gets derailed, that would be another side benefit from Moscow’s point of view.”

Already allied with Syria and influential in Libya, Russia has also moved closer to Iran, Hamas’s main sponsor, especially as its war in Ukraine has bogged it down, and Russia has sought Iranian arms, missiles and drones. But the interests of Iran and Russia in the region are not the same.

 
President Vladimir V. Putin or Russia standing with President Ebrahim Raisi of Iran in front of a blue background.
An image released by Russian state media shows President Vladimir V. Putin with President Ebrahim Raisi of Iran last year. Russia has moved closer to Iran, Hamas’s main sponsor.Credit...Sergei Savostyanov/Sputnik
 

Russia is reluctant to see the war in Gaza spread to a regional war, because it would inevitably harm if not engulf Lebanon and Syria, where Russia has military bases that are important for its power projection.

“Tied up in Ukraine, the Russians don’t have the bandwidth for that,” Ms. Notte said. “If there is a broader regional war, and the United States comes down hard on the side of Israel, Russia would have to drift even further to the Iranian side, and I can’t see Russia wanting to pick sides in the region.”

Of course if the Israel-Hamas war takes Washington’s attention away from Russia’s war in Ukraine, and diverts already strained American armaments like missile defense and artillery ammunition from Ukraine to Israel, that is just an extra benefit to Moscow.

China was also instrumental in inviting Iran to join the club of developing nations known as the BRICS, which wants to be a kind of alliance against Western hegemony in the international system.

Yet this war also highlights “Iran’s hegemonic project in the region,” Mr. Speck said — a reach for domination that does not necessarily serve the interests of either Russia or China, and which is bringing an increasingly forceful response from both Israel and the United States.

For that reason, “I am convinced that Iran does not want war right now,” said Ori Goldberg, an expert on Iran at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at Reichman University.

“Iran likes deceptions, guerrilla campaigns and proxies, but does not like wars,” he said. “They are willing to support Arab fighters, but unwilling to go to combat themselves.”



Steven Erlanger is The Times’s chief diplomatic correspondent in Europe, based in Berlin. He previously reported from Brussels, London, Paris, Jerusalem, Berlin, Prague, Belgrade, Washington, Moscow and Bangkok. More about Steven Erlanger
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