2023: The revenge of history

  • Themes: Geopolitics

Events in Europe and the Middle East in 2023 shattered the idea that history had reached a stable plateau. The world is a more dangerous place at the year’s end than it was at the start.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Fumio Kishida at the Hiroshima memorial, 21 May 2023.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Fumio Kishida at the Hiroshima memorial, 21 May 2023. Credit: G7 Pool / Alamy Stock Photo

This was a year – 2023 – that found new ways to shatter the End of History hope that the nightmarish spectres of the 20th century had been buried in the 1990s under the promise of peaceful change to political borders, and global material advancement across them. What began with the horrors of Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine – for land catastrophically fought over by Hitler and Stalin – ended with the return of Jerusalem to centre stage as a place for people to take sides in a highly dangerous moral reckoning about the meaning of world history.

For Ukraine, even when bursts of optimism have punctured the gloom it has been wrenched from misery. After visiting the Hiroshima Memorial Park on a trip to Japan for the G7 summit in May, Volodymyr Zelensky compared the pictures on display to the fate of the town of Bakhmut, which the Russian army had, in capturing, destroyed. Despite the hopes that Kyiv could repeat this summer the successful counter-offensives that last year saw Ukrainian troops retake the city of Kherson and significant territory in the Kharkiv Oblast, Russia’s manpower advantages are now exercising their pull. For all of Ukraine’s resilience, its self-defence must rely on poor Russian military performance in relation to its resources. That is why the enormous toll of the lengthy Russian effort for such a small gain in Bakhmut had paradoxically offered brief hope. In the last weeks of the battle, Yevgeny Prigozhin repeatedly raged about insufficient ammunition and massive casualties who were not replaced. There was, he pronounced, ‘nothing left to grind the meat with’ in Bakhmut. The month after Russia seemed to have established control allowing the regular army to replace the Wagner soldiers, Prigozhin marched his loyalists towards Moscow. But while Putin seemed for a few days in late June to be at risk of being overwhelmed by the very men to whom he had entrusted the war to avoid large-scale conscription, the moment also quickly passed.

In moving to a new defensive stance across the existing line that would appear to foreclose a big strategic loss for Russia, Ukraine is now badly exposed to Western indifference. Even providing the military and economic support on which Ukraine depends simply to protect the territory it retains is contested in European and North American domestic politics. Last year, Ukraine largely floated above democratic conflicts, as if asking probabilistic questions about its future and the sacrifices required to support its independence was a taboo that could not be broken without succumbing to the cold realism over Ukraine’s prospects on which Putin had mistakenly gambled in launching the invasion. By the early autumn of this year, Ukraine was mired in the trade-offs of Western politics, before, on 7 October, attention lurched southwards toward Jerusalem and stayed there.

For Israel, Hamas’ pogrom that day brought a reckoning with a prior complacency supposing that transnational economic exchange can eventually ride roughshod over the most bitter territorial conflict. The big prize of the bid to normalise relations with the Gulf Arab kingdoms was expanding Jewish-Arab economic interdependence beyond that already founded over the last decade by Israel’s emergence as a significant regional gas exporter. In this spirit, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government launched a ‘Tracks for Regional Peace’ programme in 2017, the centrepiece of which was a railway running from Haifa to Dubai. Since its construction requires a formal peace between Israel and all the Arab states through whose territory the track would be laid, it became pivotal to the Abraham Accords and to what Israel hoped to gain from the US-Saudi talks on normalisation prior to 7 October. With the Memorandum of Understanding signed in September 2023 to establish an India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor, the Netanyahu government appeared to believe that it had within its grasp a future where Israel would be protected by economic interdependencies flowing from the rapidly growing south-Asian markets through the oil-rich Persian Gulf to Europe via Israel’s Mediterranean coast.

Of course, whatever the economic reward, any land transport route established to bypass the Red Sea and the Suez Canal inevitably had a geopolitical motive. Here, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel, and India have a common interest in containing the threat to freedom of navigation through the Red Sea posed by the Iranian-backed Houthis since the outbreak of the civil war in Yemen in 2014. But that very motivation has unravelled Netanyahu’s bid for an economically-driven peace. An anti-Iranian move could not be made without regard to the Palestinians when the Palestinians in Gaza are led by an Iranian-backed group. Now, the Houthis have closed the Bab al-Mandeb – the entrance to the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aden – to all shipping bearing the flag of a state they deem hostile to the Palestinian cause, starting with Israel, hugely complicating much existing regional trade.

Rather than successfully detach the Palestinians from the conditions for peace in the Middle East, Netanyahu only intensified Israel’s predicament. His ‘peace’ project rested on a division of labour in stopping major Palestinian violence, whereby Hamas – with Israel facilitating the transit of Qatari money – ruled in Gaza, technology in the form of the Iron Dome and the Gaza Barrier protected Israel from rocket attacks, and the IDF prevented an uprising in the occupied West Bank. Instead under this folly, on 7 October, Israel found its southern border was less secure than ever.

Behind Netanyahu’s spectacular misjudgement lay two ahistorical conceits. The first assumed that the cause of Palestinian nationhood was politically defunct when the singular history of Palestinian nationhood is its resilience. As the likely fate of the 100,000 Armenians expelled this year from the Azerbaijani region of Nagorny-Karabakh will testify, those dispossessed by conflicts over territory are generally forgotten. During the long middle of the twentieth century, the Arabs of British-ruled Palestine were one of many peoples forcibly displaced from their ancestral lands. But alone among all the millions of people across Eurasia who suffered this fate, the Palestinians have never accepted defeat in claiming back the land that they lost, even during periods when their fate has seemed hopeless. Indeed, since the 1960s they have constructed such a potent idea of Palestinian nationhood that it is strengthened externally at the very times the Palestinians suffer most from their political weakness. It is, this year has emphatically demonstrated, far too late for the Palestinian claim to Israel’s territory in the name of the Palestinian nation to disappear into the history of those other peoples who were in the same time period forced to detach their national or religious identity from their homelands. This does not mean that the Palestinians will one day secure what they want, but rather that Israel cannot make remotely prudent choices as if Palestinian nationhood has been defeated by the long-term absence of a Palestinian state.

Netanyahu’s second fatal mistake came from the assumption that Hamas could be treated as something other than a millenarian sect for whom genocidal violence against the Jews is redemptive and the suffering of Palestinians a tool to realise an Islamic universal history. Hamas’ territorial ambition of overthrowing the Israeli state is inseparable from a religious conviction, evident in parts of all three of the world’s Abrahamic faiths, that divine providence makes Jerusalem the place where this earthly world will end. This apocalyptic obsession was made manifest in Hamas naming its terror on 7 October after the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. It also grounds the alliance between Hamas and the present Iranian leadership beyond geopolitical convenience. It was the new revolutionary regime in Tehran that proclaimed in 1979 that a Quds (Jerusalem) Day would be held on the last Friday of Ramadan to oppose Zionism. The religious fervour that sees Iranian leaders regularly call on Quds Day for the ‘Death of Israel’ also marked the extra-territorial Quds force created by General Qassem Soleimani to support Iranian proxies from Yemen to Lebanon to Gaza. Of course, there may be reasons to doubt whether Iranian politicians mean what they say about Jerusalem and the end of Israel: after all Iran did covert oil business with Israel through the first years of the revolution while instigating Quds Day and Israel’s nuclear arsenal deters any direct Iranian attack. Yet this rhetoric, allied as it is to Iran’s attempted geopolitical encirclement of Israel from Gaza to southern Lebanon to Syria to the Iranian-backed groups in the West Bank, keeps alive Jerusalem’s bloody history over three millennia where every once religious victor in time has lost the city and can only encourage Hamas’ faith that eventually it will prevail.

While seemingly shattered, each illusion remains alive. Netanyahu still has no vision of the future that can accommodate any political manifestation of Palestinian nationhood and his failure here only reinforces the unwillingness of many outside Israel to recognise Hamas’ purposes and their relation to Iran for what they are. But these last months of 2023 have also made clear that this ongoing blindness goes far deeper than anything that can be explained by what the Israeli government has done by killing thousands of civilians in Gaza or what Netanyahu misjudged prior to 7 October. This is especially true in those Western countries whose democratic political discourse rests on historical amnesia about the violence in which most states originate. Here, an ideal of political life has been separated from all past historical experience, including the curse of centuries of antisemitism. The evident impulse to sacralise the terrible suffering of Palestinian civilians and detach it from all the other moral disasters inherent to the conflict places, yet again, the world’s collective burden of historical evils on the Jewish people. Since this urge has most clearly arisen in the very state that must act as Israel’s primary external guarantor and where a bloc of other voters are in thrall to Christian prophecies about the end times occurring in Jerusalem, this year has ended on a terrifying note.

Seen this way, 2023 was the year when the horror inflicted by Hamas in the name of Jerusalem on Israel to invite unbearable suffering back on the Palestinians in Gaza most viciously mocked the End of History narrative. Only Germany could ever be deemed an End of History state, reunified as it was with Berlin as its capital entirely by peaceful consent, and willing, after Helmut Kohl’s initial temptation to reopen old territorial grievances, to accept the Oder Neisse line, leaving the 12 million Germans expelled from the lands over which Hitler and Stalin fought to historical memory. To generalise from this moment even about Europe was strange, especially when the Soviet Union’s dissolution reworked state borders overnight in line with a federal polity worked out by Lenin in the early 1920s to advance a now defeated alternative historical vision. But in the Middle East, any idea that events in Germany in 1990 marked an end to territorial conflict was quite delusional. During the first years of the post-war world, Jerusalem, just like Berlin, was severed across an East-West axis by an international border. By the end of the 1990s, the status of a still divided Jerusalem was the biggest single obstacle to Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation reaching a peace settlement on the basis of the Oslo Accords. Indeed, for Jerusalem, the very idea that there was ever an End of History – in the liberal sense – seemed absurd, when for many people it remained the place where the meaning of religious history would be played out.

The millenarian turbulence refired in late 2023 need not mean that the world is heading towards more wars over territory. The Russian mobilisation problems that drove Prigozhin’s rage over Bakhmut raise a profound question of just what people are willing to sacrifice for issues around land and identity. If Putin ever had any confidence that millions of Russian men were willing to kill and die to wreck Ukraine, he would not have put so much of the Russian war effort in the hands of men who could threaten the regime. Meanwhile, many Iranians loath the regime’s territorial expansionism, especially that directed against Israel, as reflected in the opposition slogan ‘Neither Gaza, Nor Lebanon; My Life for Iran’. Even in wars of self-defence, as Ukraine has discovered, human fighting power is hard to sustain. Tellingly, those in Israel who were most worried before 7 October that Netanyahu was courting disaster in relying on technology for military protection, like the former IDF general Yitzhak Brick, charged that the state’s weakness was that its army was too weak to deter the kind of terror Hamas launched.

But however hard land wars are for twenty-first century states, the world is undeniably a more dangerous place at this year’s end than it was at the start. People across the globe have once again been drawn towards the conflict in the long contested, and still divided, city of Jerusalem. They are bringing to what they choose to see and ignore in Israeli and Palestinian suffering a scarcely understood desire for religious struggle, not least in those societies once deceived by the End of History illusion.


Helen Thompson