Deepening Fault LinesMiddle East Conflict Tests the Postwar World Order

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Demonstrators supporting both the Palestinians and the Israelis in various cities around the world

Foto: Adrian Dennis / AFP; L. Vradi / REUTERS; C. Hei Leung / ZUMA Wire / IMAGO; U. Ifansasti / Getty Images

The escalation in the Middle East has sparked anti-Western rage in many parts of the world. Many believe the U.S. and Europe are applying a double standard to Israel – and the deepening chasm between the West and the Global South poses a threat to the world order.

For the briefest of moments, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres allowed himself a gesture of the kind he doesn’t usually make at this venue. He glanced at Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen following his speech before the UN Security Council and shook his head. It was a small gesture, but it said a lot about the situation in which the world currently finds itself.

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 44/2023 (October 28th, 2023) of DER SPIEGEL.

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Guterres opened the Security Council meeting with a sharp condemnation of the “unprecedented” terror attacks committed by Hamas on October 7. But then he said: “It is important to also recognize the attacks by Hamas did not happen in a vacuum.” The Palestinian people, he said, have faced 56 years of “suffocating occupation.” That doesn’t justify the horrific attack perpetrated by Hamas, Guterres said, nor do “those appalling attacks … justify the collective punishment of the Palestinian people.” Even war has rules, he said.

Israel’s Foreign Minister Cohen furiously attacked the United Nations following Guterres’ speech. “Tell me, what is a proportionate response for killing of babies, for rape of women and burn them, for beheading a child?” he demanded in his speech. “Mr. Secretary-General, in what world do you live?” He questioned the purpose of the UN, repeatedly pointing his finger at the secretary-general. If all nations do not stand by the basic values of humanity as described in the UN Charter, he said, “this will be the darkest hour of the United Nations – under you, Mr. Secretary – and this place will have no moral justification to exist.” Later, he cancelled a planned meeting with Guterres and Israel’s UN ambassador, Gilad Menashe Erdan, and called for the secretary-general’s resignation.

Increasingly Toxic Debates

Instead, the world’s divisions were on full display, this time driven by the conflict in the Middle East, which is, as Guterres said, “splintering societies” and threatening to “boil over” across the entire region.

Some of the speakers on Tuesday, such as the Libyan representative, began by invoking God “the merciful,” only to then avoid mentioning the Israeli victims of Hamas with even a single word. Others, many Western ministers and ambassadors among them, were clearly conflicted about whose suffering should be mentioned first to avoid falling under suspicions of ignoring the suffering of the other side.

The Russian war of aggression against Ukraine that began in February 2022, to be sure, deeply divided the world following a few early weeks of apparent unity. But compared to the global situation left behind by the Hamas attack, those earlier cracks seem relatively clear and understandable. Roughly speaking, they ran along the line dividing the West from the Global South, between the wealthy, industrialized nations and the emerging and developing world.

Demonstrators take to the streets of Lagos, Nigeria, to support Palestinians on October 21.

Demonstrators take to the streets of Lagos, Nigeria, to support Palestinians on October 21.

Foto: T. Adelaja / REUTERS

A pro-Israeli demonstration in Seattle in the U.S.

A pro-Israeli demonstration in Seattle in the U.S.

Foto: C. Hei Leung / ZUMA Wire / IMAGO

The divide is similar today, but it is only one of many fault lines running through countries, regions, governments, populations and generations. And these fault lines are deeper and more complex.

What are the consequences of this extreme polarization? What are the consequences for a possible cease-fire, armistice or – as anachronistic as it might sound – for a political solution of the Middle East conflict? What about the broader consequences for a world order which, following the September 11, 2001, terror attacks in the U.S., the financial crisis in 2008, the coronavirus pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, is clearly decaying?

“Blatant Double Standard”

Politically and geographically, Israel’s Arabic neighbors are most affected by this war: Lebanon, Egypt, which shares a border with the Gaza Strip, and Jordan, where hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees and their descendants live today. Egypt has had a peace deal in place with Israel since 1979, and Jordan followed in 1994 – treaties signed by courageous statesmen in both countries. Their less courageous successors are now facing the possibility that public opinion might turn against them.

That’s likely one reason why Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi held a “Peace Summit” last week to which Israel wasn’t invited – and where Jordanian King Abdullah II said: “the message the Arab world is hearing is loud and clear: Palestinian lives matter less than Israeli ones.” His wife Queen Rania, who comes from a Palestinian family, complained on the U.S. news station CNN of a “glaring double standard.” Following the Hamas attack on October 7, she said, the world immediately united behind Israel. But in the face of the catastrophic situation faced by Palestinians, the queen said, there is “silence.”

For decades, Arab rulers have used resentment over the Palestinian conflict to deflect attention from their own failings – sometimes so obviously that many people in the region would even ignore calls to semi-official demonstrations of solidarity. Now, though, tens of thousands of people are taking to the streets from Tunisia to Iraq to demonstrate on behalf of the Palestinians, even without official state calls to do so.

The anger in the neglected countries of the Global South to the harsh Western reaction imposed in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine mostly came from their governments. But now, it is the people themselves who are expressing fury at the bombardment of Gaza.

A pro-Palestinian march in Yemen's capital of Sanaa on October 20

A pro-Palestinian march in Yemen’s capital of Sanaa on October 20

Foto: Houthi Media Center / REUTERS

A protest in Berlin against terror, hate and anti-Semitism on October 22 in Berlin

A protest in Berlin against terror, hate and anti-Semitism on October 22 in Berlin

Foto: M. Gambarini / FUNKE Foto Services / IMAGO

That’s a dangerous development, also for the governments of countries like Morocco and Bahrain. Along with the United Arab Emirates and Sudan, they signed treaties with Israel in 2020 without negotiating meaningful concessions for the Palestinians. Even Mohammed bin Salman, widely known as MbS, the almost absolute ruler of Saudi Arabia, has suspended his efforts at normalizing his country’s relations with Israel. Indeed, he is now speaking on the phone with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to discuss Gaza. In addition, during a meeting with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, he condemned the attacks on civilians in Gaza as “heinous” and warned that there would be “dangerous repercussions” if the conflict continued to escalate.

And the tensions aren’t just the product of the unresolved Palestinian question. “The Arab people are frustrated,” says Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, the former prime minister of Qatar. There are also plenty of other grievances that have yet to be solved, he says, including inflation, hunger and other regional tensions. It is a complex mixture, and “leadership” is required, says Hamad bin Jassim, but he says he currently doesn’t see any “qualified personnel” – neither in his region “nor in Europe or the United States.”

Erdoğan’s Incendiary Remarks

The uproar, however, is not limited to the Arab world. Politicians in other largely Muslim countries have recognized the mood and are doing what they can to foment it.

In Turkey, where fireworks were launched at the Israeli Consulate in Istanbul last week, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan used a parliamentary group meeting of his party, the AKP, last Wednesday to exacerbate the situation. “Hamas is not a terrorist organization,” he said, “but a resistance group that is fighting to protect its land and its people.” Turkey, he said, offers itself as a “guarantor for the Palestinian side.” Erdoğan left open what, exactly, he meant by that.

Nor did he mention the Israeli civilians murdered by Hamas. Indeed, he sketched out a clear dividing line between his country and the West. “Israel, the West owes you a lot. But Turkey does not owe you anything,” he said, referring to the Holocaust, the guilt for which Erdoğan apparently does not ascribe solely to the Germans, but to the West as a whole.

Erdoğan has never had much fear of contact with Hamas. He met the group’s politburo chief Ismail Haniyeh in July together with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The Turkish president has also never shied away from incendiary remarks about Israel, which he once claimed to be a “terrorist state.” And such comments are far from being the most radical in Turkey’s political landscape. Since the last election, the Hüda Par party, the Kurdish version of Hezbollah, has sent representatives to the Turkish parliament. They are allied with Erdoğan’s AKP, and instead of speaking of Israel, they refer to the “Zionist regime” whose aim it is to create a Jewish nation state on the territory of Palestine. The lawmakers from Hüda Par argue that the rest of the world should break off relations with Israel. Even the leftist Labor Party, otherwise not known for Islamist tendencies, commented on the October 7 attacks by Hamas by saying: “We know that the Zionists prefer war, not peace.”

The Anger of the Global South

Fury with Israel’s response to Hamas’ terror has also reached regions much further afield. Thousands of people took to the streets of Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, in support of the Palestinians. Like Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Brunei and Malaysia, Indonesia – the most populace Muslim country in the world – maintains no diplomatic relations with Israel. President Joko Widodo called for an end to the violence in the Middle East and placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of Israel: “The root cause of the conflict, which is the occupation of Palestinian land by Israel, must be resolved immediately in accordance with the parameters that have been agreed upon by the UN,” he said.

In Kuala Lumpur last Tuesday, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim walked on stage wearing a Palestinian scarf. Thousands were there to hear his words, many of them waiving black-white-red Palestinian flags.

The 76-year-old spoke to the cheering crowd for over 20 minutes, calling Israel’s counterstrike in Gaza the “height of barbarianism in this world.” Sometimes yelling, he also threw in a couple of decisive sentences in English: “Malaysia is a fiercely independent country. We decide what is right. We understand the meaning of freedom and we are with the Palestinians in their struggle, yesterday, today and tomorrow, inshallah

. Malaysians were there from the days of Yasser Arafat, struggling for an independent Palestine until today, and we will continue without fear. Don’t ever threaten Malaysians!”

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim speaking in a stadium in Kuala Lumpur: "We are with the Palestinians in their struggle, yesterday, today and tomorrow."

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim speaking in a stadium in Kuala Lumpur: “We are with the Palestinians in their struggle, yesterday, today and tomorrow.”

Foto: Vincent Thian / AP

Not that anyone actually did. But what if the number of civilian victims in Gaza begins rising even higher as a result of the Israeli ground offensive and the almost unconditional support of Israel from the West continues? Then, such would seem to be the message from the Malaysian prime minister, the West could lose an important partner in the region.

Perhaps it is appearances by politicians like Anwar Ibrahim that have contributed to the tense atmosphere  within the U.S. State Department that the online news outlet HuffPost described in a recent article. According to the piece, there is widespread frustration in the State Department that foreign policy leaders are not apparently paying sufficient attention to opinions that deviate from established Middle East policy.

Many of the sources used for the piece are anonymous, but it does quote former State Department official Josh Paul, who quit last week. The Hamas attack on Israel, Paul told the HuffPost, was “a monstrosity of monstrosities.” But, he continued, “I believe to the core of my soul that the response Israel is taking, and with it the American support both for that response and for the status quo of the occupation, will only lead to more and deeper suffering for both the Israeli and Palestinian people.” Paul says he has received plenty of support for his decision to resign.

A Vetoed Resolution

Criticism of U.S. Middle East policy is also coming from other quarters. On October 18, Brazil – which currently holds the rotating chairmanship of the UN Security Council – introduced a cautiously formulated resolution calling for a “humanitarian pause” in military operations to allow for aid deliveries to the Gaza Strip. It failed because of a single veto, from the U.S. Washington argued that the resolution did not sufficiently respect Israel’s right to defend itself.

“If Western states want to convince the rest of the world to believe what they say about values, human rights and international laws governing armed conflict,” the organization Human Rights Watch said in a statement, “the universal principles they rightly apply to Russian atrocities in Ukraine and to Hamas atrocities in Israel also have to apply to Israel’s brutal disregard for civilian life in Gaza.” Not doing so, the Financial Times quotes a high-ranking G-7 diplomat as saying, puts at risk the diplomatic successes that have been achieved with countries of the Global South following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “Forget about rules, forget about world order. They won’t ever listen to us again.”

The new global dividing lines from the Middle East conflict do not run precisely parallel to those produced by the war in Ukraine. Western support for Ukraine and the sanctions imposed on Russia displeased many governments in the Global South – but in this iteration of the Middle East conflict, reactions have been more emotional and have spilled out onto the streets, particularly in Muslim countries.

At the same time, though, India’s government, which found its place among the critics of the West following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, has now thrown all of its support behind Israel in this conflict. There are also differences in South America. Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who is friends with his Israeli counterpart Isaac Herzog, nevertheless spoke last Wednesday of a “genocide” that is taking place in the Middle East. Another politician from the region, admits Brazilian political scientist Matias Spektor, even praised Hamas: Colombian President Gustavo Petro. “But in the wake of the horrific terrorist attacks by Hamas, the majority of Global South countries came out in outright condemnation of Hamas while calling on Israel to exercise proportion and self-restraint in its response,” says Spektor. That is one reason, he adds, why the U.S. veto against the resolution introduced by Brazil was received with such dismay in the region.

“Acts of Pure Terror”

Israeli President Isaac Herzog with European Parliament President Roberta Metsola (left) and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen

Israeli President Isaac Herzog with European Parliament President Roberta Metsola (left) and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen

Foto: European Union / Polaris / laif

Many people in the emerging and developing world were also unnerved by recent statements made by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who unreservedly threw her support behind Israel during her visit to the country. Exactly one year ago, von der Leyen labeled Russian attacks on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure as war crimes. “Cutting off men, women, children from water, electricity and heating with winter coming – these are acts of pure terror,” she said. The message now coming from Brussels, says Spektor, is essentially that “Ukrainians possess a humanity that Palestinians lack. This is impossible to swallow – not only for leaders, but for the publics of much of the post-colonial world.”

Russia’s attack on Ukraine confronted the West with a new reality – a self-confident Global South. Europeans, said Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, are faced with the need to jettison the idea that “Europe’s problems are the world’s problems, but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problems.”

The war in Gaza, it appears, is now confronting the governments of the Global South with a new reality. Whereas they had previously claimed the moral upper hand relative to the elites in the north, they are now themselves coming under pressure from their own populations, particularly in the Arab world.

Neither side can claim to hold the moral high ground. It simply isn’t possible in the face of the more than 1,400 Israelis slaughtered by Hamas and the, according to Hamas, more than 7,000 Palestinian victims as of last week. “The hypocrisy is pretty much evenly distributed between the north and the south,” says Spektor, the Brazilian political scientist. That also likely applies to empathy and sympathy, he says.

The Security Council vote on October 18 on a resolution introduced by Brazil calling for a humanitarian pause to the fighting in Gaza

The Security Council vote on October 18 on a resolution introduced by Brazil calling for a humanitarian pause to the fighting in Gaza


U.S. President Joe Biden during his visit to Israel on October 18

U.S. President Joe Biden during his visit to Israel on October 18


The fault lines running through the world are also reflected in who emphasizes which part of the current reality. Whereas supporters of Israel place the emphasis on the brutal terror attacks launched by Hamas on October 7 and on Israel’s right to defend itself, supporters of the Palestinians want to talk more about the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory and the events leading up to this most recent flare-up of violence. Finding a balanced position that reflects both aspects of reality has become – as Guterres demonstrated – increasingly difficult. And the West, which used to play the role of mediator in this conflict, is seen by the South to a greater degree than ever as a party to the violence.

A “Final Nail in the Coffin”

For Spektor’s colleague Sultan Barakat of the Doha Institute in Qatar, the war in Gaza is the “final nail in the coffin” of the Western-dominated world order that emerged out of World War II. From the former Yugoslavia to Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, he says, this world order has left behind death and destruction. With few exceptions, none of those countries are home to peace and prosperity, he says, with conflicts remaining largely unresolved.

There may be some truth to that. But who out there is promoting a different, better world order? Who has a credible vision for how the war in the Middle East can be brought to an end? Russia, which continues to wage its illegal war of aggression in Ukraine? China, which has adopted a position of feigned neutrality in the Ukraine war and in Gaza, but which in reality offers support to both Russia and Iran – even as it robs Muslim Uighurs of their human rights in the autonomous region of Xinjiang? Or the Arab and Muslim countries which, almost without exception, have said nothing about these crimes committed by Beijing, and which would prefer to completely forget about the Palestinian question?

Former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb, who now teaches in Florence and is running for his country’s presidency in January, sees the current conflict in the Middle East and the Global South’s broad solidarity with the Palestinians as part of a “larger geopolitical struggle for power.” The withdrawal of the U.S. from the Middle East, he says, resulted in a regional power vacuum that countries like Iran in addition to Islamist groups sought to fill. “That’s what happens when the global police leave the stage,” Stubb says.

The West, he says, can only react to the current situation with humility. It must conduct a “more coherent, more dignified foreign policy if it wants to win the fight for hearts and minds in the new world order.” The countries of the West, Stubb says, experienced an era of peace and prosperity that was denied to the Global South and the Middle East.

In the current crisis, how Israel responds to the terror attack is decisive, Stubbs believes. “It would be smart of Israel to refrain from a sharp response and try to achieve a cease-fire,” says Stubb. “Israel should find a strong response to the terror, but avoid the death of innocent civilians.”

Humility, dignity, prudence. They are terms that could also be part of the United Nations Charter. That document came into force almost exactly 78 years ago. In a completely different world.



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