From Iran to Israel, the Mideast Faces a Leadership Crisis

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Rescue team members search an area near the crash site of a helicopter carrying Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Varzaghan, in northwestern Iran, on May 20, 2024. Credit - Azin Haghighi—MOJ News Agency / AFP / Getty Images

If the Middle East is a puzzle, it’s one that grew even harder to imagine ever clicking together as the evening of May 19 gave way to May 20. In the space of 24 hours, the President of Iran was killed, and the Prime Minister of Israel learned that a warrant for his arrest for war crimes and crimes against humanity were sought by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), who also wanted warrants for leaders of Hamas. Even before Saudi Arabia announced its elderly King was gravely ill, the point had come home: nearly eight months after Oct. 7, the essential question in the Middle East is leadership.

Iran's status quo

In Iran, more than fog obscured the helicopter crash that left President Ebrahim Raisi and seven others dead. Though the default explanation traced the cause to an aviation fleet stunted by decades of U.S. sanctions, conspiracy theories regarded that as a handy cover for either Mossad­­—in retaliation for Iran’s April 13 assault on Israel—or bloody-minded rivals of Raisi in the competition to succeed 85-year-old Ali Khamenei in in Iran’s top job. His title, Supreme Leader, says it all.

Unlike Gen. Qasem Soleimani, whose popularity across Iranian society made his 2020 assassination by U.S. drone a profound loss to the regime, Raisi left no void. Khamenei will decide which hardline apparatchik appears on the ballot to replace him. He vowed “no disruption in the country’s work.” Iran will continue waging war on Israel by arming Hamas in Gaza and Hizballah in Lebanon.

Netanyahu besieged

Israel’s conviction that not only those enemies but also the world is against them feeds a bristling solidarity that may have been the only comfort to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after the news that, with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, his arrest was sought by the prosecutor of the ICC. The charges, which await approval by a panel of judges, allege deliberately killing civilians and starvation as a weapon in Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, where 35,000 have been killed, per the count of the Hamas-run health ministry, which is accepted by the U.S. and the U.N.

Prosecutor Karim Khan also seeks the arrest of Yahya Sinwar, who organized the Oct. 7 attack; Mohammed Deif, who leads Hamas’ armed wing; and Ismail Haniyeh, its political chief, based in Qatar. Sinwar and Deif are thought to be in Gaza, where Israel has been trying to kill them. The charges—including rape, torture, taking hostages—serve to reinforce Israel’s efforts to direct global attention to the 1,200 Israelis killed in the worst attack on Jews since the Holocaust. But Hamas made its name with suicide bombings and has little to lose from the ICC’s accusations, whereas Israel—a society built around what it calls “the most moral army in the world”—has historically sought to claim the high ground. The ICC move was a body blow to a state that, despite defiant statements about going it alone, relies heavily on the support of Western allies, especially the U.S. To wit: As many as half of those 300 Iranian missiles and drones knocked out of the sky in April were downed by the U.S. and others.

Read more: What ICC Arrest Warrants Would Mean for Israel and Hamas Leaders

The risk to Netanyahu is both personal—he might be arrested if he travels to any of the 124 nations that signed the treaty creating the court—and political. Already blamed by Israelis for the security lapses that allowed Oct. 7, he also owns all that has followed, including the fate of the remaining 128 hostages. Days before the ICC news, Gallant berated Netanyahu for refusing to formulate a “day after” plan for Gaza, beyond leaving troops there indefinitely. Former military chief of staff Benny Gantz, the only other member of Israel’s war cabinet, then gave Netanyahu a June 8 deadline to come up with an endgame, arguing that progress was impaired by Netanyahu’s “personal interest” in refusing to defy the far right, which he brought into the mainstream in order to win office. “If you choose the path of the zealots and lead the whole state into the abyss, we will be forced to leave,” Gantz said, threatening to force an election.

The Saudi question

Saudi Arabia, of course, makes no pretense of democracy. Even King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, 88, routinely defers to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who on May 20 delayed a foreign trip as the monarch’s health took a turn. Along with the execution of Jamal Khashoggi, MBS might be best known for his keenness to establish relations with Israel. To confront rival Iran, the Saudi was prepared to let Israel have its way with Palestinians. A pact on those terms was getting closer when Oct. 7 returned the matter of a Palestinian state to center stage.

To much of the world, such a state seems inevitable. Spain, Norway, and Ireland declared May 22 that they would recognize one. But in Israel, the debate is whether to establish what Gantz termed “an international civilian governance mechanism for Gaza, including American, European, Arab, and Palestinian elements.” What exactly the “Palestinian elements” would be was not identified, and so qualifies as a missing piece. But hardly the only one.

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