When The Times’s Israel correspondent Isabel Kershner recently asked an Israeli army tank driver, Shai Levy, 37, to describe the purpose of the looming Israeli invasion of Gaza, he said something that really caught my ear. It was “to restore honor to Israel,” he said. “The citizens are relying on us to defeat Hamas and remove the threat from Gaza once and for all.”
That caught my ear because, over the years, I’ve learned that four of the most dangerous words in the Middle East are “once and for all.”
All these Islamist/Jihadist movements — the Taliban, Hamas, ISIS, Al Qaeda, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, the Houthis — have deep cultural, social, religious and political roots in their societies. And they have access to endless supplies of humiliated young men, many of whom have never been in a job, power or a romantic relationship: a lethal combination that makes them easy to mobilize for mayhem.
And that’s why, to this day, none of these movements has been eliminated “once and for all.” They can, though, be isolated, diminished, delegitimized and decapitated — as America has done with ISIS and Al Qaeda. But that requires patience, precision, lots of allies and alternatives that have legitimacy within the societies from which these young men emerge.
And so let me say loudly and clearly what I have been saying quietly in my past few columns: I am with President Biden when he told “60 Minutes” that it would be a “big mistake” for Israel “to occupy Gaza again.”
I believe that such a move could turn Israel’s humiliating tactical defeat at the hands of Hamas, which included unimaginable barbarism, into a long-term moral and military strategic crisis. It’s one that could entrap Israel in Gaza, draw the U.S. into another Middle East war and undermine three of America’s most important foreign policy interests right now: helping Ukraine wrestle free of Russia to join the West; containing China; and shaping a pro-American bloc that includes Egypt, Israel, moderate Arab countries and Saudi Arabia, which could counterbalance Iran and fight the global threat of radical Islam.
If Israel goes into Gaza now it will blow up the Abraham Accords, further destabilize two of America’s most important allies (Egypt and Jordan) and make normalization with Saudi Arabia impossible — huge strategic setbacks. It will also enable Hamas to really fire up the West Bank and get a shepherd’s war going there between Jewish settlers and Palestinians. Altogether, it will play directly into Iran’s strategy of sucking Israel into imperial overstretch and in that way weakening the Jewish democracy from within.
Iran’s No. 1 strategic objective with Israel has always been to ensure that Israel remains enmeshed in the West Bank, gets drawn into reoccupying southern Lebanon and, in its most fevered dreams, reoccupies Gaza. Such an Israel would be so morally, economically and militarily enfeebled, it could never threaten Iran’s nuclear program and hegemonic ambitions.
What should Israel do to ensure that an attack like the one launched by Hamas never happens again? I don’t know right now. I just know that whatever the answer is, it’s not mobilizing 360,000 traumatized Israeli reservists to launch into an urban war in one of the most densely populated places in the world. This will crush the Israeli economy and its international standing.
All these dilemmas must push President Biden to sharpen his stance on the crisis.
Biden must realize that Benjamin Netanyahu is unfit to manage this war as a rational player. After such a colossal defeat, the most powerful and unifying thing Netanyahu could have done was call new Israeli elections in six or nine months — and announce that he would not be running. He is ending his career in politics, and therefore Israelis can trust that whatever decisions he makes about Gaza and Hamas now will have only the Israeli national interest in mind. He will not have in mind his own interest in staying out of jail on corruption charges, which requires his holding onto the right-wing crazies in his government (who actually fantasize about Israel reoccupying Gaza and rebuilding the Israeli settlements there) by chasing some big, short-term military victory that he can take to the Israeli electorate as a compensation for the debacle that just happened.
As one of Israel’s best military writers, Amos Harel of Haaretz, wrote on Friday: “There is an unusual combination of people at the top in Israel. On one hand, there is an unfit prime minister, a nearly Shakespearean figure who is facing the personal danger of an ignominious conclusion to an arguably brilliant career. Facing him are a military brass who are smitten and consumed with guilt feelings (and if only Netanyahu would bother displaying a smidgen of that). That’s not a perfect recipe for considered decision-making.”
If Israel were to announce today that it has decided for now to forgo an invasion of Gaza and will look for more surgical means to eliminate or capture Hamas’s leadership while trying to engineer a trade for the more than 150 Israeli and other hostages that Hamas is holding, it would not only avoid further traumatizing its own society, as well as Palestinian civilians in Gaza, it would also give Israel and its allies time to think through how to build — with Palestinians — a legitimate alternative to Hamas.
Such a move would earn Israel a lot of support globally and enable the world to see Hamas for what it is: the ISIS of the Palestinian territories.
“In today’s world, whatever happens on the battlefield can be overturned in the information realm, so the battle of the story matters as much as the battle on the ground,” said John Arquilla, a retired professor of strategy at the Naval Postgraduate School. “If Israel overreacts in Gaza, it will drain out whatever residual good feelings toward Israel exist, and that is Hamas’s big bet. Israel has built so much, enjoys so much and contributes so much to the world, and has so much more to contribute. To risk all that in an act of revenge or rage that will not fundamentally alter its strategic dilemmas is exceptionally unwise.”
But, as I said, if Israel still decides it must enter Gaza to capture and kill Hamas’s leadership, it must only do so if it has in place a legitimate Palestinian leadership to replace Hamas — so Israel is not left governing there forever. If that happens, every day that the sun doesn’t shine in Gaza, the water doesn’t flow, the electricity doesn’t operate and hunger or disease becomes widespread, will be the fault of every Israeli and even every Jew in the world. Is Israel ready for that burden?
While Biden is right to support Israel, he must get clear answers from Netanyahu now, before it’s too late: Once Israel topples Hamas, who will govern Gaza? If Israel intends to govern Gaza, will it pay for the rebuilding of the infrastructure that it is destroying? And if not, who will? How long does Israel intend to allow the humanitarian crisis to unfold in southern Gaza? Does Israel plan to build settlements in Gaza? Does Israel respect Gaza’s borders? Does it have a plan to help rebuild the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank?
The West Bank Palestinian Authority, under President Mahmoud Abbas, is weak, corrupt and increasingly illegitimate; it can’t manage the West Bank, let alone Gaza — which is how Netanyahu wanted it, so he could always say he did not have any partner for peace.
But this is not all on Netanyahu. Believe it or not, folks, Palestinians have agency, too, and the corruption that the Palestinian Authority has tolerated, and the fact that Abbas banished the most effective leader it ever had, the former prime minister Salam Fayyad, is also a huge factor — something every friend of the Palestinians should be saying loudly, not just blaming Israel.
But all that said, Israel has to completely rethink how it relates to the Palestinians in the West Bank — and therefore the whole settler movement as well — if it wants to replace Hamas in Gaza. If the settler movement continues to set the terms of what is permissible in Israeli politics, another disaster is looming in the West Bank.
My bottom line? Just ask this question: If Israel announced today that it was forgoing, for now, a full-blown invasion of Gaza, who would be happy and who would be relieved and who would be upset? Iran would be totally frustrated, Hezbollah would be disappointed, Hamas would feel devastated — its whole war plan came to naught — and Vladimir Putin would be crushed, because Israel would not be burning up ammunition and weapons the U.S. needs to be sending to Ukraine. The settlers in the West Bank would be enraged.
Meanwhile, the parents of every Israeli soldier and every Israeli held hostage would be relieved, every Palestinian in Gaza caught in the crossfire would be relieved and every friend and ally Israel has in the world — starting with one Joseph R. Biden — would be relieved. I rest my case.