BY ANTHONI van NIEUWLERK
South Africa took Israel to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over the latter’s military operation in Gaza, which South Africa calls acts of genocide.
The excessive bombing campaign and willful destruction of property, life and limb is hardly in dispute. Israel calls it legitimate acts of self-defense, following Hamas’s murderous incursion from Gaza on Israeli terrain on 7 October 2023. Hamas, shorthand for the Islamic Resistance Movement, is a Palestinian Sunni Islamist political and military organisation founded in 1987. It has governed the Gaza Strip of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories since 2007.
Except for the US and members of the European Union, most countries have expressed disquiet at the blatant slaughter of thousands of Palestinians and the levelling of Gaza.
In its ruling of 26 January 2024 the ICJ instructed Israel to conduct its war in accordance with internationally accepted rules of the game. The court did not pronounce on South Africa’s call for a ceasefire, nor was it asked to pass judgement on whether Israel is committing genocide in Gaza. Its interim relief measures cannot be enforced by the ICJ.
So does the ruling change anything? Does it give momentum to the search for a durable peace between Israel and the Palestinians? And could it lead to stability in the wider Middle East?
Based on my study of international relations since the late 1980s, and having observed peace processes succeed (South Africa) and fail (DRC, Sudan), it’s my opinion that it won’t. This is because war remains a source of income and control by superpowers. And that is unlikely to change any time soon.
Sadly, in my view, the ICJ ruling on Israel’s behaviour in Gaza will become a hollow victory because global power politics will affect its impact. Below I set out three reasons why countries backing the Palestinian cause, like South Africa, will need to consider alternative strategies for bringing peace and justice to the Holy Land.
Instability in the Middle East is a consequence of a reset of world order. A process of great power contestation is underway. America’s influence as the world’s leading power is in decline and forcefully contested by an emerging alliance of rising powers in the global South led by China.
At the 2023 Summit of alliance partners Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (Brics), it decided to expand membership to include Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, giving rise to the shorthand reference Brics+.
This process of resetting became evident with the confrontation between Russia and members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) in Ukraine. Nato went out of its way to reduce the power and influence of Russia on European political and economic affairs, and Russia perceived this as an existential threat to its security.
European Union enlargement to include a nuclear-enabled Ukraine on Moscow’s border was the trigger for a vicious war of attrition. Relations between members of the union and Russia are marked by a growing trust deficit. Indeed, there is little evidence of a de-escalation of global tensions in coming months, as states follow the logic of realpolitik: survival of the state and the pursuit of elite self-interest.
Prospects for peace in the Middle East are receding in the light of these dynamics.
The second victim of this process is the the so-called rules based liberal world order.
The west has dominated global affairs since the end of the Second World War in 1945. In the aftermath of the war it established self-serving institutions such as the United Nations (UN) system to oversee global governance, the G7 and G20 to oversee economic governance, and Nato to oversee military governance.
Even the UN Security Council, conceivably the only instrument to enforce compliance with the ICJ ruling, will be found wanting, as the permanent members persist in the cynical abuse of the veto to block decisions they perceive as unfavourable to their interests.
The prospect of a shift of power from west to east and south is affecting the West’s ability to maintain international peace and promote development through the UN. The war in Ukraine and now in the Middle East, not to mention ongoing wars in several settings in Africa, are demonstrations of the inability of the UN system to make and keep the peace.
Against this background, the integrity of the UN system – including its international legal frameworks – are in great danger of being undermined, ignored, or cynically abused. Even the UN Security Council, conceivably the only instrument to enforce compliance with the ICJ ruling, will be found wanting, as the permanent members persist in the cynical abuse of the veto to block decisions they perceive as unfavourable to their interests.
This has happened in the case of the ICJ’s ruling against Russia in the case of Ukraine. There is little prospect of the Nethanyahu regime, bent on survival at all cost, giving effect to the interim relief measures demanded by the ICJ. Instead, a war of attrition is likely.
PROSPECTS OF PEACE IN MIDDLE EAST
The third victim of this global recalibration is the valiant efforts of the UN to promote peace. This includes the work of organisations such as the ICJ, which run up against the realpolitik of the superpowers.
Because of the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous nature of the international system, it is unlikely that Israel and its sponsors, in particular the US’s Biden administration and prominent European Union members such as Germany, will allow a peace process that will bring justice for the Palestinians.
There is, nevertheless, a small chance of de-escalation. The prospect of fighting a war in Ukraine and the wider Middle East including in the Red Sea, with the possibility of a tense standoff with China over Taiwan, not to mention the perceived threat of violent extremism in Africa, is not attractive. It is therefore conceivable that de-escalation might become a preferred option.
Anthoni van Nieuwkerk is Professor of International and Diplomacy Studies, Thabo Mbeki African School of Public and International Affairs, University of South Africa
This article was first published in The Conversation