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The writer is a former UK Ambassador to Lebanon, author of ‘The Naked Diplomat’ and Principal of Hertford College, Oxford

Most of the world has watched in horror as Israelis and Palestinians lost their lives following the brutal Hamas attack on October 7 and the deadly response. 

Yet three men are preparing to exploit the crisis. The first is Donald Trump, whose vandalism of America’s credibility, encouragement of the Israeli hard right, and orphaning of the rules-based order has made it so much harder for his successor to lead now. The second is Russia’s Vladimir Putin, an opportunist gangster anticipating that the conflict will distract, divide and exhaust the liberal democracies. And the third is Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who hopes the misery on screens across the Muslim world will bury Israeli and US hopes of normalisation with Arab states for another decade and prevent alliances among his enemies.

The task is to prove those three men wrong. Away from the cameras, that is what the Americans have tried to do. In public, US President Joe Biden was able to say to fragile and wounded allies: we feel your pain, we have your back, but take a breath. In private, the messages have been firm. If in doubt, don’t do what Iran wants. Hamas are the enemy, not Palestinian civilians. Don’t act like a monster to defeat a monster. 

The international community must now coalesce around four challenges, all of them tough. First, alleviate the unacceptable suffering of civilians in Gaza. I have never heard the heads of UN agencies so angry. Early on, some equivocated on whether Israel had the right to be judged by different humanitarian laws. That message has steadied, but deep damage has been done. How do we provide Palestinians in Gaza with the same security we want for Israelis?

Second, show Israel that we will work with them to hunt down those responsible for these horrific acts and bring them to account. There are sustained efforts to rescue hostages, using well-worn back channels, including Qatar and Turkey. And the Iron Dome, the best self-defence system in the world, will be strengthened through US support.

Third, prevent an escalation across the Israel/Lebanon border or from the Houthis in the Gulf. The people of Lebanon do not want a conflict: the country has already taken its share of pain. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s strong preference is to dampen down any tension on his northern border. Hizbollah are a potent threat but they have also calculated privately that they should resist Iran’s willingness to fight to the last Lebanese. Two US carrier groups and 2,000 marines can help focus minds.

Fourth, rebuild the sense that there are potential partners for peace on both sides of the table. Pressure is growing in Israel for a more representative cabinet, without the hardliners who failed to protect them. Through a Prince Turki al-Faisal speech in Houston, the Saudis have signalled that normalisation is not off the agenda, if Israel can show restraint. The US and Europeans have recognised that they need to rebuild mainstream Palestinian leadership, having cast them adrift.

It feels too soon to talk of when and how this crisis ends. But we must. Diplomacy is hard in a time of polarisation, anger and nationalist introspection. But show me a better alternative. George Mitchell, the great US peacemaker, said that diplomacy was 700 days of failure and one of success. The starting point must be that both Palestinians and Israelis have the right to security, justice and opportunity in lands they can call their own. And that when a man is pointing a gun at a child, our first instinct should be to protect the child.

Intervene in the Middle East, it bites you back. Fail to intervene, it bites you back. Swing between the two, it bites you back. But we can put in the hard, quiet diplomacy required. We can help our friends avoid mistakes, and see around the next corner. And we can deny Trump, Putin and Khamenei the victories they scent.

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