Foreign Affairs

Wars: Middle East, a glimmer of hope from negotiations; Ukraine, Russia hits Merloni

April 2024
By Giampiero Gramaglia

We had put it behind us, the negotiation and hopes for a truce. Suddenly, the negotiations come to life: there is an Israeli proposal, which Hamas did not immediately reject (“We are studying it”); U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken returns to the region—for the seventh time, so far always without positive results—and describes the Israeli proposal as “generous”; Egypt invites delegations from Israel and Hamas to Cairo to negotiate.

Israel offers a carrot to the Palestinians: a truce, reportedly for 40 days, and the release of prisoners in exchange for the release of still-held hostages, or some of them—on paper, about 130; but the survivors would be far fewer. But Israel also prominently displays a stick: the ground operation in Rafah, in the south of the Strip, where Israeli raids continue to cause casualties (about thirty between Sunday and Monday and as many the next night). Israeli fighters strike along the entire Strip, from north to south.

From Riyadh, his first stop on this Middle Eastern tour, Blinken reiterates U.S. opposition to an Israeli offensive on Rafah, because—as he explains—”we have not yet seen a plan that allows us to believe that civilians can be effectively protected.” In Riyadh, where the World Economic Forum is being held, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani is also present, having meetings and discussions on the Middle Eastern crisis. Egypt also abhors an attack on Rafah, where one and a half million Palestinians live in tents, having left the north and center of the Strip: Cairo fears a mass exodus under the pressure of the Israeli army.

U.S. President Joe Biden contributes to the negotiation phase, discussing the agreement hypothesis over the phone with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, and Emir of Qatar Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani. Biden assures that the United States, along with Egypt and Qatar, “will work to ensure full implementation of all terms” of the agreement and urges all efforts to ensure the release of the hostages, “the only obstacle to an immediate ceasefire and aid for civilians in Gaza.” The president also reiterates the importance of protecting “the lives of civilians and ensuring that Palestinians are not displaced to Egypt or any other place outside Gaza.”

For his part, the president of the Palestinian Authority Abu Mazen warns that Israel is ready to enter Rafah: “Only the U.S. can still prevent it.” But so far, the Biden Administration has never succeeded, in the nearly seven months of this bloody war, in convincing Israel to change its plans. According to Abu Mazen, the Israeli army awaits the government’s go-ahead, which depends on at least two factors: the first is the possibility of an agreement on a truce and hostages; the second is the fear that the International Criminal Court, next week, will issue arrest warrants for war crimes against Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Aluf Yoav Gallant.

Among the crimes that could be attributed to them, there is the disproportionate response to the terrorist attacks of October 7 by Hamas with other Palestinian groups on Israeli territory: about 1200 victims and nearly 300 hostages captured. The conflict in the Strip, triggered as immediate retaliation, has already caused over 34,000 casualties, mostly women and children. Netanyahu and Gallant can also be charged with obstructing the distribution of humanitarian aid, food, and medicine to Palestinian refugees.

On the Ukrainian front, however, there is a change of pace in Moscow, targeting European industries operating in Russia, including Ariston Thermo Rus, of the Ariston Group, temporarily entrusted to a company of the Gazprom group, the Russian energy giant. Italy requests that the measure be revoked; the Russian ambassador Alexei Paramonov, summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, replies that “Rome sacrifices national interests to dangerous anti-Russian adventures.”

The economic-industrial pinpricks with the West, which continues to use sanctions against Moscow, media-wise veil the developments of the conflict, “a slaughterhouse where Russian and Ukrainian losses mount,” observes the Washington Post. The chronicles—now a routine—of nightly cross-attacks with drones and missiles intersect with a somewhat cryptic statement from Blinken from Riyadh: “If Moscow wants to negotiate, we will be there.” Is something moving under the tracks? It’s too early to say.

Wars: Middle East, diplomatic workings and student ferment
In the Middle East, diplomatic workings are evident. Saudi Arabia announces that new bilateral agreements with the United States are ‘very close’, also on the future status of the Gaza Strip after the end of the conflict between Israel and Hamas. The double ‘red line’ of Blinken’s latest mission is to trigger an agreement between Israel and Hamas and to prevent the risks of new escalations and an expansion of the conflict, which seemed imminent after flare-ups between Israel and Iran.

For the Biden Administration, the Middle Eastern crisis has an important electoral component. Indeed, pro-Palestinian ferment is growing in U.S. universities: campuses

occupied, classes suspended, students expelled, hundreds of protesters arrested—even Green Party candidate for the White House, Jill Stein, stopped in St. Louis. Pro-Palestine protests also surrounded, Saturday night, outside the Hilton Hotel in Washington, at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner with Biden.

The common denominator of student demonstrations is the demand that universities relax cooperation with Israeli universities and/or entities and express support for a ceasefire. Most universities have refused to break or suspend existing agreements, expressing doubts about the usefulness and effectiveness of such a move. Over the weekend, in Gaza, Palestinian demonstrations of gratitude and solidarity with American students struggling were seen.

The prolongation of the situation could alienate Biden, in the presidential elections on November 5, both the Arab-American vote, crucial in swing states like Michigan, and the vote of young leftists. Neither Arab-Americans nor young leftists will vote for Donald Trump, but their abstention or the diversion of votes to a third candidate could compromise Biden’s victory.

Wars: Ukraine
In Kiev, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has returned, perhaps for the last time—he is about to leave office. In a joint press conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Stoltenberg admits that “serious delays in sending aid have had serious consequences” for Ukraine’s defense. But, he added, “it is not too late for Ukraine to win,” now that the United States has unlocked its aid and European countries are making further efforts. “The allies have heard your appeal,” Stoltenberg told Zelensky, anticipating “announcements of new aid” by Atlantic allies. For Zelensky, “It is important that aid delivery is faster… We know what our partners can offer us, but the faster the aid is sent, the sooner we can stabilize Ukraine.”

Where the situation has “worsened,” according to the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces, Oleksandr Syrsky, who admits that the Russian army has achieved “tactical successes.” Moscow has indeed announced that it has taken control of the settlement of Novobakhmutovka, in Donetsk, about ten kilometers from Avdiivka. It is the third location to fall in a few weeks; and a Russian advance is underway in the northern region of Kharkiv, where the bombardments are particularly intense.

“The Russian terror is effective because we have defensive capabilities inferior to Russian destructive capabilities,” comments Zelensky. Who receives from the head of European diplomacy Josep Borrell promises of support “until the end of hostilities”: more than words, and visits, Kiev, however, awaits weapons and aid.

However, not always the awaited weapons have the intended effects. If anti-aircraft systems are effective in reducing the impact of Russian attacks with drones and missiles and if the recently supplied U.S. Atacm missiles allow hitting deep Russian reserves, logistics, and bases, the same cannot be said of the U.S. Abrams M1A1 tanks. Ukraine had to withdraw them from the front line because they are vulnerable to the threat of drones. This is revealed by the AP, citing U.S. military sources.

In January 2023, Washington had agreed to send 31 Abrams tanks to Kiev, worth $10 million each, considering them vital for Ukrainians’ ability to break through Russian lines in the spring offensive that was then being prepared and that would later prove a flop. But errors in the use of the tanks by Ukrainians—it is the U.S. version—have made those tanks exposed to the enemy and of little use. Now, they are stationed in the rear, and American and Ukrainian military personnel are working together to improve their use.

Meanwhile, Ukraine is short of soldiers, and adult males living abroad can now be recalled. Consular services will be suspended until May 18, a measure that can affect, just in EU countries, 860,000 men. The date coincides with the entry into force of the new mobilization law, which requires all men of military age to contact draft offices to update their data, remotely or in person, within 60 days. Adults living abroad must do so to continue receiving basic services: from renewing identity documents to marriage certificates.

From Moscow, come embarrassing news for the regime, like the story of Timur Ivanov, deputy defense minister, dismissed on charges of treason: he would have used funds for the reconstruction of Mariupol for personal purposes.