columnU.S.-Israel Relations

Israel’s strategic game of survival

If the government remains politically stable, if the military continues its brilliant fight in Gaza and if U.S. opinion remains supportive, Jerusalem can flip Hamas’s machinations on its head.

Israeli troops operating in the Gaza Strip, March 4, 2024. Credit: IDF.
Israeli troops operating in the Gaza Strip, March 4, 2024. Credit: IDF.
Caroline B. Glick
Caroline B. Glick is the senior contributing editor of Jewish News Syndicate and host of the “Caroline Glick Show” on JNS. She is also the diplomatic commentator for Israel’s Channel 14, as well as a columnist for Newsweek. Glick is the senior fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs at the Center for Security Policy in Washington and a lecturer at Israel’s College of Statesmanship.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer’s obscene call on the Senate floor on Thursday for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ouster from power was the latest sign that Hamas’s strategy is working.

On the “Caroline Glick Show” this week, U.S. Military Academy professor Col. John Spencer, who chairs West Point’s Urban Warfare Studies Program, explained that the terrorist organization’s plan for victory is a concerted political-military strategy.

Hamas, he said, knew that the Israeli Defense Forces would respond in force to its Oct. 7 assault on southern Israel. “They wanted Israel’s counterattack, and then they wanted to hold in the tunnels and use the hostages just to buy time for the international community—namely, the United States—to stop the IDF in their operations.

“Their only goal is to survive. … It’s all about time. They want to survive Israel’s attack against them, which gives them immense political power. If they survive in any way, they have strategically won the war,” said Spencer.

Hamas didn’t invent this approach. This has been the Palestinians’ strategy for defeating Israel since at least the 1982 First Lebanon War. In that conflict, the PLO relied on the United States to force Israel to permit the PLO to survive to fight another day, by leaving Lebanon for Tunisia.

The Palestinians clearly identified Israel’s greatest strategic vulnerabilities and built their strategy around them.

Its first vulnerability is its Jewishness. Israel is the Jew of the international community. As such, it is continuously scapegoated, just as Jews have been scapegoated throughout history. The United States is the only powerful nation that has ever been willing to stand up to international bigotry against the Jewish state. So the only thing needed to collapse Israel’s international position is for America to turn against it.

This goes double for military capabilities. Since 1973, Israel’s ability to keep its military operating during a war has been dependent on U.S. resupply. The Palestinians reason that if their many friends can convince Washington not to supply Israel with weapons in wartime, then their terrorist forces will survive.

Since all the Palestinian terrorists need to do to win is survive, their strategic aces in the hole are antisemitism and time.

Today, all aspects of U.S. policy regarding the Hamas war against Israel in Gaza and the larger Iranian-directed war to destroy the Jewish state are aligned with the Palestinian strategy.

The Biden administration’s insistence that Israel permit unlimited quantities of food, water, fuel, medicine and other goods to enter the Gaza Strip ensures that Hamas will maintain its control over the population.

America’s threats to end its military resupply have forced Israel to slow down its operations in Gaza in the interest of conserving ammunition.

Biden’s demand that Israel not conquer Rafah—Hamas’s last conventional holdout, where a quarter of its original forces and its military leadership are holed down—is a demand that Israel allow Hamas to survive with its leadership and that part of its “army” intact. In other words, it is a demand that Israel not only allow Hamas to survive but that Israel permits it to end the war with a victory parade.

Likewise, the administration’s obsessive focus on building a Palestinian state—one that under all circumstances will be dominated by Hamas—and its opposition to continued Israeli military control over Gaza after the war indicates that not only is the administration opposed to an Israeli victory, it seeks a Palestinian victory.

As Spencer explained, in prosecuting the war to date, Israel has managed to do the impossible. It has waged the war successfully on the tactical level despite the massive obstacles the Biden administration has placed against its operations at every turn.

Israel’s tactical prowess owes to the fact that the IDF is a citizens’ army. As such, it is able to tap into the unique skills of all sectors of Israeli society. For instance, in the weeks leading up to the ground invasion, the so-called Hilltop Youth—young men who live in isolated communities in Judea and Samaria—appeared at the mobilization base outside Gaza with their welding tools and metal beams. They fitted APCs and tanks with steel canopies that protected them from RPGs and other armor-piercing projectiles. No one called them up to help. They just arrived. And their efforts saved the lives of countless soldiers.

Similarly, a high-tech engineer called up to reserve duty developed a drone capable of operating inside the tunnels. Cross-industry collaboration with the IDF led to the immediate production of the drones for deployment in the tunnels—to great effect. One of the IDF’s tactical innovations that most impressed Spencer was its success in turning Hamas’s tactical advantage—its tunnels—into a disadvantage by learning to fight inside them.

‘This is a conventional war’

Since Israel first bore out the accuracy of the Palestinians’ strategic assessment of its weaknesses by standing down in the face of U.S. pressure in Beirut in 1982, Jerusalem has opted to avoid the strategic contest altogether and focused on achieving tactical advantage across time. Its tactical successes enabled life to go on in Israel as the Palestinian war against it festered.

The situation wasn’t desirable. Over the decades, the Palestinian-led political war in the international arena against Israel’s right to exist constantly escalated in scale and destructive capacity.

But on a day-to-day level, Israel prospered. Given the sharp differences of opinion among Israelis over the strategic goals vis-à-vis the Palestinians, by limiting the battle to the tactical arena, Israeli society remained unified sufficiently to fight limited wars in Gaza, as well as limited operations in Judea and Samaria.

The clash in Israel revolved around Israelis’ perception of Palestinian goals. Israelis on the left believed Palestinian demands were limited, and therefore, it would be possible to peacefully coexist if Israel appeased them by withdrawing from Judea, Samaria and Gaza, and giving them a state.

Israelis on the right believed Palestinian demands were unlimited, and that therefore, Israel must have the national and strategic means to defeat them as a military and political threat by retaining perpetual control of Judea and Samaria, and granting the Palestinians limited autonomy.

The military scope and genocidal nature of Hamas’s assault on Israel on Oct. 7 did two things. First, it settled the argument between left and right. Domestic support for Palestinian statehood dried up. Depending on the poll, between two-thirds and 85% of Israelis (including Israeli Arabs) now oppose Palestinian statehood.

Oct. 7 also ended Israel’s ability to suffice with tactical successes and avoid a strategic victory. Hamas’s strike was strategic. The dimensions of its slaughter and the jubilation with which it was greeted across Palestinian society mean that nothing short of total victory will suffice to ensure Israel’s survival.

Unfortunately, the Biden administration and its Democratic Party refuse to understand the strategic stakes. Spencer explained that the West—and specifically, the United States—will not acknowledge two fundamental facts about the war. First, this is a conventional war, not a counterterror operation. Hamas is not merely a terrorist organization. It is a large, fortified army that began the war with 30,000 soldiers organized in specialized, well-trained units operating under a unified command.

To understand the nature of the armed conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, “you really have to go back to World War II-style battles,” said Spencer.

“Defense is always the strongest form of warfare. … Hamas has had 15-plus years to build defensive positions. … Yes, they don’t have an air force. They don’t have armor and tanks. They’re mostly light infantry. But they’re in probably the most defensive terrain that could ever be created. They’re in literally bomb-proof bunkers underneath every house. … It’s 400 miles of tunnels that range from 15 feet to 300 feet underground where no military munition can reach.”

The IDF, Spencer noted, “has lots of drones and things above, but you can’t see through concrete. You can’t see underneath the buildings. It’s an immense defensive capability, but also the rocket supply. The fact that Hamas has launched over 12,000 rockets at Israel’s civilian sites—every one of them a war crime—is part of their combat power. … The fact that they’re sitting in their defensive positions, waiting for attack and have been planning for that for 15 years means it doesn’t really matter how big the IDF is or how powerful they are.”

The second fundamental feature of Hamas’s war against Israel that the United States refuses to acknowledge is that Hamas’s Oct. 7 operation was not a terrorist attack. “They did terrorist things, but that was a full division-level invasion of a nation, of Israel,” and “while Hamas is a terrorist organization, it’s also an army.”

The terrorists that carried out the slaughter that day didn’t “penetrate” Israel, like a suicide bomber who explodes himself in a crowded cafe. Hamas operatives invaded Israel with thousands of well-trained, heavily armed terror forces organized as light infantry and artillery units. Their goals were to seize whole communities, military bases and villages, and enact a pre-meditated plan of sadistic slaughter, gang rape, seizure of hostages of all ages, seizure of strategic targets, and, if possible, the holding of territory within Israel. The ground invasion was synchronized with a massive missile and drone strike, in addition to a cyberattack against first-response systems and other critical infrastructure.

Three things Israel must do to win

Israel’s mini-war (“Operation Protective Edge”) against Hamas in 2014 ended with a tactical victory and strategic stalemate. Ten years ago, Netanyahu was able to withstand the Obama-Biden administration’s demand that Israel capitulate and enable Hamas to win a strategic victory by mobilizing the support of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which opposed Hamas.

Fearing Hamas’s mastermind Iran—and in light of the U.S.’s determination to enable a Hamas victory to empower Iran—today the moderate Arab states are unwilling to stick their necks out. In the absence of Sunni support, Israel is compelled to stand alone against the United States.

To win, Israel must do three things. First, it must remain politically stable. Schumer’s broadside from the Senate floor was just the latest salvo in an all-out effort by the administration to destabilize Israel politically and replace Netanyahu with his chief rival Benny Gantz, whom they believe will agree to capitulate and accept the formation of a Palestinian state. Minister-without-Portfolio Gideon Sa’ar’s decision on Tuesday to ditch Gantz’s party and take his faction’s four Knesset seats into the coalition speaks to the near-consensus view in Israel that Netanyahu is the only leader that will fight to victory despite U.S. opposition. On Wednesday, a Direct Polls survey showed that U.S. hostility has strengthened Netanyahu and the right. Netanyahu leads Gantz 47% to 37% in public support. His right-religious bloc of parties (including Sa’ar) is polling a 62-seat Knesset majority to Gantz’s leftist bloc of parties’ 48 seats.

The second thing Israel must do is mobilize U.S. public opinion on behalf of its goal of achieving strategic victory by eradicating Hamas and maintaining its security control over Gaza for the foreseeable future. According to last month’s Harvard-Harris poll. Americans support Israel against Hamas 82% to 18%. Netanyahu opened a campaign this week to secure public support with a slew of interviews to the American media and his speech to AIPAC’s annual convention.

Schumer’s hysterical attempts to walk his remarks back amid a furious storm of criticism from all quarters revealed that pro-Israel public opinion remains a factor in American politics.

Finally, Israel must conquer Rafah in defiance of Biden’s red line and do so as quickly as possible.

As the weeks and months pass, and Election Day in America draws nearer, if Israel remains politically stable, if the IDF continues its brilliant fight in Gaza and if U.S. opinion remains supportive, just as Israel has turned Hamas’s tactical advantages into its own, it will turn the Palestinian U.S.-centered strategy on its head. For once, time will work in Israel’s favor, and Israel will win the strategic victory it needs to secure its survival.

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