The fear of contagion and threats of a wider, potentially cataclysmic conflagration setting the Middle East on fire have been ever-present since October 7. They have been repeated again and again from various platforms, including the highest offices of global governance, academic discourse and editorial pages (including here), and even the voices on the street.

Yet close to 110 days since that stunning attack on Israeli soil by Hamas, where we stand today is exactly what we sought to avoid. As the Israeli state's response to the worst terrorist attacks on its soil was allowed by world powers to exceed the bounds of acceptability, whatever still held our humanity together was being torn asunder.

At the start of 2024, a spate of equally disparate yet connected events, marked a period when tensions ratcheted up with a sudden and irresistible force. They included the killing of senior Hamas official Saleh al-Arouri in Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, stepped up attacks by the Houthis of Yemen on ships - no longer distinguished by their connections to Israel - in the Red Sea, the re-emergence of the death cult ISIS, or Daesh, in a deadly terror attack on Iran through its Khorasan unit that is based in Afghanistan, and the killing of an Iran-backed militia leader in Iraq clearly marked a ratcheting up in tensions.

The slippery slope we had entered did not go unrecognised, as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken flew in for a tour of the Arab capitals, and diligently held meetings with all the important leaders in the region, including Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. But governments across the region are under immense popular pressure as their populations rally in support of the Palestinians in Gaza, where Israeli brutality has shocked the world's conscience. There was very little Blinken had for any of them in this regard, before heading to Tel Aviv to wind up his fourth such mission to the region since October 7.

Speaking in Tel Aviv after meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior officials, Blinken stressed the US was "fully committed" to finding a diplomatic solution, and that an escalation was "in no one's interest".

"No one is seeking it," he said. "No one wants to see other fronts opened in this conflict."

Blinken also warned the Houthi militants for carrying out attacks on shipping in the Red Sea, and Iranian proxies in Iraq and Syria, which targeted US forces in the region, that they would face consequences if they continued their actions.

"If our forces are threatened or attacked we'll take appropriate steps."

In his departing press conference, Blinken said that despite the hostilities, there was still a "clear interest in pursuing" the normalisation of ties between Israel and other countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia.

"But it's equally clear that that's not in substitute for or at the expense of a political horizon for the Palestinians, and ultimately a Palestinian state.

"On the contrary, that piece has to be part of any integration efforts, any normalisation efforts. That was very clear in my conversations during the course of this trip, including in Saudi Arabia."

Israeli officials have been insisting they are moving to a less intense phase of warfare in Gaza, but Blinken in Tel Aviv stressed the civilian death toll, particularly among children, was still "far too high", and that Israel needed to do more to allow humanitarian aid into the strip.

He added Israel had agreed to a UN assessment mission to Gaza to determine what needed to be done to allow Palestinians displaced by the Israeli assault to return to their homes in the north of the territory.

"This is not going to happen overnight," Blinken said. "There are serious security, infrastructure and humanitarian challenges, but the mission will start a process that evaluates these obstacles and how they can be overcome."

Blinken said he had made "crystal clear" to Israeli officials that Palestinian civilians should be allowed to return to their homes as soon as possible, and reiterated Washington's opposition to any attempts to pressure them to move elsewhere.

"I told the prime minister: the US unequivocally rejects any proposals advocating for the resettlement of Palestinians outside Gaza," he added.

"The prime minister reaffirmed to me today that this is not the policy of Israel's government."

We need to talk about Bibi

The faith Blinken seemed to invest almost preternaturally in Netanyahu, who is accused in Israel over the last five years of having hollowed out its democracy, does not sit well with the Arabs. Or Muslims, who have observed him through the lens of the conflict over the years. Today, his machinations would seem only to avert US eyes. Almost every other interlocutor, domestic or otherwise, sees through him. And they see a man clearly fighting more for his own political career than the collective, long-term interests of the Israeli people as a whole.

Over the last five years, this has been the story in Israeli politics, since Israel's attorney general decided to indict him in three separate corruption cases in 2019. And it is almost universally acknowledged in the Israeli body politic, that the end of the current conflict must be the end of the road for Netanyahu. This grave conflict of interest in allowing him to execute that very war has been conveniently papered over.

He has increasingly used his perch as wartime leader to test campaign slogans, appease his coalition partners and shirk responsibility for the calamity - all, critics say, with an eye on buying time and notching up his shrinking poll numbers. Netanyahu - who's served longer than any other Israeli leader, after 17 years in power - has found a formula for success. He appeals to his nationalist base, crafts a catchy political message, and pits his rivals and opponents against one another.

He's maintained that instinct for political survival even through the deadliest attack in the country's history and as many Israelis view him as responsible for creating conditions for the violence.

Critics say his aspiration for political redemption is clouding his wartime decision-making and dividing a nation striving for unity.

"It is no longer the good of the country Netanyahu is thinking about, but his own political and legal salvation," wrote military commentator Amos Harel, in the liberal daily Haaretz. has delayed any decision about Israel's post-war plans, to Washington's chagrin. Netanyahu also has moved ahead on contentious budgets for his ultranationalist coalition partners, even as the country braces for the economic aftershocks of the war.

Aviv Bushinsky, a former Netanyahu aide, said the leader's moves appear intended to set him on better political footing ahead of elections.

Yet this is the man Washington is partnering for a 'just' and 'lasting' peace in the region.

Abraham must wait

Hamas's attack upended the regional trend towards de-escalation and reducing tensions that had prevailed in the Middle East since 2019-20. The notion that governments in the region could agree to put their differences aside, rebuild diplomatic relations and focus on shared interests in economic development - all while leaving the root causes and underlying conflicts that led to instability and tensions in the first place unaddressed - has been exposed as untenable.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict - or, for that matter, the ongoing conflicts in Libya, Syria and Yemen, or the socio-economic cleavages in many other countries in the region - cannot be ignored or put in boxes, no matter how much governments in the region and beyond may want to focus on more positive agendas.

President Joe Biden's administration has refrained from demanding a halt to the Israeli military campaign and vetoed a UN Security Council demand for a ceasefire put forward by the UAE in December.

Netanyahu's government has vowed to pursue its offensive and rejected a US-backed proposal by five Arab nations including the UAE for post-war Gaza reconstruction because it's conditional on Israeli support for a Palestinian state.

Since the start of the war in Gaza, there have been almost daily skirmishes on Israel's border with Lebanon between Israeli forces and Hezbollah, the Iranian-supported Shiite militia. Regional tensions have increased dramatically since late last year with Israel mounting a series of assassinations of Hamas, Hezbollah and Iranian commanders and Iran openly going on the offensive in its proxy war with the Jewish state.

Iran accused Israel of a deadly rocket attack on a building in the Syrian capital Damascus serving as a residence for Iranian military advisers, killing at least five people. The strike followed an attack by Iran earlier in the week on what Tehran said was an Israeli spy base in Iraq.

US Central Command also said multiple ballistic missiles and rockets were launched by Iran-backed militants in Western Iraq, targeting the al-Assad Airbase. While most of the missiles were intercepted, some impacted the base. A number of US personnel are being evaluated for traumatic brain injuries and at least one Iraqi service member was wounded, according to a post on X.

Meanwhile, Iranian-armed Houthi rebels in Yemen are disrupting global trade by attacking cargo ships moving goods across the Red Sea, despite US-led military punitive action. Attacks by Iran-linked groups on US bases in Iraq and Syria are also intensifying.

According to the UAE's ambassador to the UN, Lana Zaki Nusseibeh, who has consistently raised her voice in UN forums on behalf of the Palestinians: "If the objective is not to increase extremism and terrorism in our region, this would be described as the case study for how not to do it."

No honest broker?

Whether it's due to incompetence, incapacity or intentions, what is clear by now is that Washington, despite its repeated insistences that its goal was to prevent a widening of the conflict, has failed quite miserably at this objective. The entire region is today truly on fire. The only available objective now is to contain it. Many now openly question Washington's ability to deliver even on its own publicly-stated priorities.

Meanwhile, South Africa's case against Israel at the International Court of Justice, accusing it of perpetrating a genocide, could be years away from a final verdict. But merely the start of these proceedings, and the televised presentation of each side's argument, has been enough for a large swathe of world opinion to deliver its opinion already, without any need to wait for the judges to deliver their verdict. And if social media is anything to go by, a large segment of the global public seems to come down on the side of a genocide being perpetrated against the people of Gaza. This is another group that has completely lost faith in the US's ability to lead - at least to lead the world to better days.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, at a recent UNSC Ministerial on the Palestine Question called by the new foreign minister of France, said that American diplomacy "oscillates between vetoing resolutions about the ceasefire and at the same time calling for a reduction in the intensity of hostilities in Gaza."

"Without a doubt this serves as carte blanche for the ongoing collective punishment of Palestinians," Lavrov told the council.

It came after Netanyahu's public rejection of the two-state solution that the international community has been committed to for over three decades now. The United Nations chief warned that it would indefinitely prolong a conflict that is threatening global peace and emboldening extremists everywhere.

In his toughest language yet on the Israeli-Hamas war, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the ministerial meeting of the U.N. Security Council that "the right of the Palestinian people to build their own fully independent state must be recognized by all, and a refusal to accept the two-state solution by any party must be firmly rejected."

The alternative of a one-state solution "with such a large number of Palestinians inside without any real sense of freedom, rights and dignity ... will be inconceivable," he said.

Netanyahu's rejection of a Palestinian state in any postwar scenario opened a wide rift with Israel's closest ally, the United States, which says the war must lead to negotiations for a two-state solution where Israel and the Palestinians can live side-by-side in peace. That goal is supported by countries around the world, as ministers and ambassadors reiterated at the meeting.

Uzra Zeya, the State Department's under secretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights, told the council, "A key component of U.S. diplomacy is to pursue a pathway both to a Palestinian state and normalisation and integration between Israel and other regional states."

"The goal is a future where Gaza is never again used as a platform for terror, and a future where Palestinians have a state of their own," she said, reiterating the Biden administration's call on Israel to do more to protect Palestinian civilians.

But Israel's U.N. Ambassador Gilad Erdan again rejected a cease-fire, saying Hamas, which carried out a brutal attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7, is committed to attacking again and destroying Israel, and a halt to fighting will only allow the militants "to regroup and rearm."

He urged the Security Council to "eliminate the root" of the conflict, which he said was Iran.

Erdan strongly criticized the presence of Iran's foreign minister at the council meeting, saying the country provides weapons to Hamas, to Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon and Houthi militants in Yemen, "and soon these acts will be carried out under a nuclear umbrella" and "Iran's terror will reach all of you."

Iran has long denied seeking nuclear weapons and insists its nuclear program is entirely for peaceful purposes. But the U.N. nuclear watchdog has warned that Iran has enough enriched uranium for nuclear bombs if it chose to build them.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian didn't mention its nuclear program, but he warned Israel that it would not destroy Hamas, its stated goal.

"The killing of civilians in Gaza and the West Bank cannot continue on to the so-called total destruction of Hamas, because that time will never come," he said. "Stopping the genocide in Gaza is the main key to security in the region."

Riyad al-Maliki, the Palestinian foreign minister, said Israel is carrying out "the most savage bombing campaign" since World War II, which is leading to famine and the massive displacement of civilians. "This is an assault of atrocities," which has destroyed countless innocent lives, he said.

Al-Maliki said Israel doesn't see the Palestinians as a people and a "political reality to coexist with, but as a demographic threat to get rid of through death, displacement or subjugation." He said those are the choices Israel has offered Palestinians, calling them tantamount to "genocide, ethnic cleansing or apartheid."

Al-Maliki said there are only two future paths: One starts with Palestinian freedom and leads to Mideast peace and security, and the other denies freedom and "dooms our region to further bloodshed and endless conflict."

Yet the choice, or compulsion as it may be, remains uncertain still. And no country or leader appears fit to take the lead on this.

Additional reporting by AP, Bloomberg, FT.

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