Israel phobia hampers Red Sea naval coalition

Bab el-Mandeb strait  credit: Shutterstock
Bab el-Mandeb strait credit: Shutterstock

European countries are reluctant to join the US led Prosperity Guardian force, partly because they fear being seen as siding with Israel in the Gaza Strip.

Two weeks after it was formed, the coalition that the US has been trying to build to protect freedom of navigation in the Red Sea is stuttering. Of the many countries that the US approached, only ten have publicly announced their willingness to participate, and few have stated what their participation will consist of, in the very broad range between a liaison officer on the bridge of a coalition ship, and dispatching a warship or aircraft to the area. No country with a Red Sea coastline of any significance has joined the coalition so far, despite the fact that frameworks for protecting freedom of navigation that include them already exist.

As far as Israel is concerned, what should be most worrying is the fact that one of the reasons that the coalition is faltering is that joining it has become a sign of indirect support for Israel’s campaign in the Gaza Strip.

Condemnation of terror - yes; military force - no

No European leader has said so publicly, but the assessment among political commentators in Europe is that the Israel-Palestinian issue is playing a major role in the decision on whether or not to join the maritime coalition.

Spain, whose government has a pro-Palestinian stance, has stated categorically that it will not join the new task force. France, which conducts a largely independent defense policy, has announced that "French ships will remain under French command," and Italy has announced that it will reinforce another US-led international maritime force (CMF - the Combined Maritime Forces headquartered in Bahrain), but will not take part in the new Prosperity Guardian force. Even Germany, which up to now has been a firm supporter of Israeli security, is "still considering" whether to contribute to the force.

The feeble response so far has helped Israel to understand better what Europe means when it promises to stand by Israel in its hour of need. Condemnations of Hamas terrorism - yes. Refraining from calling for a ceasefire - also. Humanitarian aid to reconstruct the Gaza Strip when it’s all over - certainly. But involvement in a military force meant to protect maritime traffic that is vital even to Europe? No.

Particularly in Germany, where politicians talk almost daily about "commitment to Israel’s security" and about this being "part of the raison d’etre of the German Federal Republic", the contradiction between grand words and deeds on the ground arouses a sense of dissonance.

There are plenty of mitigating circumstances. The US initiative was launched towards the end of the year when European countries are on vacation and national parliaments (which sometimes need to approve such military moves) are in recess. Furthermore, European navies are small, and in part have been sent to the Baltic Sea to try to protect infrastructure critical to the continent, such as gas and electricity, against Russian sabotage, or to patrol the Mediterranean to guard against illegal immigration.

Western weakness exposed

But while Europe’s naval power may not be enormous, in the case of Prosperity Guardian the cold shoulder given the US by European countries signifies not just the fear of being seen to side with Israel, but the weakness of the Western alliance, the strength of which was supposed to lie precisely in being a broad and diverse front of participants.

It may be that the experience of failed operations in Afghanistan and Libya is making European countries wary of starting a military adventure where the chances of success are unclear, such as against the Houthis. They may also be waiting for the fighting in the Gaza Strip to die down, for the end of the first two stages of Israel’s campaign and for the beginning of stage three, of pinpoint operations, in which civilian casualties should be lower. Whatever the reasons, the fact is that, at present, the only ships in the area are American, British, and French, and there are not many of them.

The US force is of course the main one, but the resounding message that emerges from the Bab el-Mandeb strait to the whole world is that the US is pretty much on its own in this effort, despite the huge importance of this sea lane to Europe (about 30% of trade between Asia and Europe goes via the Red Sea).

Meanwhile, the confrontation in the Red Sea is escalating. This week, Houthi boats fired on US Navy helicopters sent to assist a giant Maersk container ship. The Americans sank three of the four boats; the fourth escaped. This was the second time that the ship, the Maersk Hangzhou, had reported an attack, after being hit by a shore-to-sea ballistic missile.

A British naval ship reported that it had intercepted a UAV launched at it, and not at a cargo vessel. So far, Britain is the only country to have declared a determined stance alongside the US. At the weekend, Britain’s Defense Secretary Grant Shapps published an open letter warning the Houthis of a broad and imminent attack. The assessment is that the British government will want to obtain approval for such an operation from Parliament, which will reconvene only on Monday.

The US cannot show signs of weakness. There are already those who have recalled how the Sinai Campaign, the attempt by France and Britain to regain control of the Suez Canal with Israel’s help in the 1950s, signified the end of their empires. The role of the US in the emerging Western axis, which is meant to replace its role as the world’s policeman, is at stake. From the Israeli angle, it has once again been demonstrated that its most reliable ally is Washington, and perhaps Britain, but, for now, the list ends there.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - - on January 3, 2024.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2024.

Bab el-Mandeb strait  credit: Shutterstock
Bab el-Mandeb strait credit: Shutterstock
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