The war on Hamas is not over, but certain lessons already seem very clear.
The United States has displayed great support for vanquishing Hamas, and this has enhanced Israel’s position as a valued American ally. Yet, the American motives are suspect. The Biden administration’s support is predicated by an obsession with the two-state paradigm, which requires eliminating Hamas from Gaza and restoring the moribund and corrupt Palestinian Authority there. Moreover, the American embrace aims to restrain Israel from attacking Iranian proxies, a move that could lead to a regional escalation—something Washington is eager to avert. This has been the major motive for sending aircraft carriers to the region.
The United States has no appetite to take on the main culprit for the Hamas, Hezbollah, and Houthi aggression against Israel—Iran. Washington, which had pressured Saudi Arabia to stop fighting the Houthis, even warned Israel not to take independent action to defend the freedom of navigation of its ships in the Bab el Mandeb Strait. It is not clear how determined the international flotilla that the United States has initiated will be against the Houthi threat. So far Washington has preferred a defensive posture.
The war has proved also that the two-state paradigm is still the Pavlovian international response to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, even though the war shows clearly that the Palestinians cannot become a good neighbor—not even in the next generation. The P.A. refused to condemn the Hamas atrocities and even called upon Hamas to join the P.A. as a junior partner in ruling over the Palestinians.
Palestinian hatred towards Israel has reached incredibly high levels. A September 2023 poll showed that the Hamas candidate for prime minister has a 60% support rating in the Palestinian territories. A June 2023 poll indicates that two-thirds say Israel will not celebrate the centenary of its establishment, and the majority believes that the Palestinian people will be able in the future to recover Palestine and return its refugees to their homes. Polls taken after Oct. 7 show immense support (around 80%) for the barbaric Hamas attack.
Unfortunately, this ideology has many adherents in the Muslim world. Moreover, Hamas has established kindergartens, schools, social services and mosques, ensuring that it is firmly entrenched in Palestinian society. Its messages are popular and fall on responsive Palestinian ears. The antisemitic wave engulfing many Western states reinforces the current high level of Palestinian hostility toward Israel. Much of the world refuses to see the unpleasant facts that defy a widely-held paradigm.
The war also facilitates the continuation of the global ostrich syndrome concerning Iran’s nuclear advances. Despite the worrisome November report by the IAEA about further growth in Iran’s breakout capabilities as a result of the continued growth of enriched uranium stockpiles, the United States appears to have paid scant attention. Moreover, Iran, in a continuation of its strategy to reduce transparency regarding its sensitive nuclear programs, withdrew the designation of European inspectors with experience in enrichment technology, thus further handicapping attempts to inspect its nuclear programs. This elicited no Western response. Israel is busy with its war on Hamas, without a clear effective strategy to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
On the bright side, the Abraham Accords seem to have overcome a difficult test. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain maintained their diplomatic relations with Israel, and even Saudi Arabia signaled its intention to continue with the normalization process. Similarly, Egypt and Jordan cooperate with Israel in providing humanitarian aid to the Palestinians in Gaza. All these Arab states relish the fact that Israel is doing the dirty job of administering a serious blow to the Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Israel needs a quick, decisive victory over Hamas, primarily to restore lost deterrence. It cannot survive in the Middle East if it is not feared. Fear is the best political currency in this region. In addition, it must meet several immediate challenges.
Jerusalem cannot change the asymmetric nature of its relations with Washington, which will always act upon its perceived interests. Yet, it is imperative to lower the dependency upon the United States for ammunition and weaponry. It is largely a question of allocating enough money to have a larger storage capability, and more investment in R&D. Israel’s military industries probably need compensation for a quick transition to an emergency mode to supply the Israel Defense Forces. The goal is not to free Israel of the need to rely on the United States, but to increase Israel’s freedom of action for longer periods in emergencies when the two states do not see eye to eye.
Indeed, Israel must increase its defense budget. It needs a larger standing army that can better protect Israel’s borders and a stronger military able to fight at least on two fronts simultaneously. Shortening the period of compulsory military period is no longer an option, and increasing the pool of available conscripts is necessary.
Hezbollah’s joining the fray could have been an opportunity to defeat another Iranian proxy, but Israel did not capitalize on this because of a shortage of adequate available military might. In the future, an opportunity for a preemptive strike should not be missed. Deterrence requires maintenance, and the use of force is one of its lubricants.
A nuclear Iran is an existential threat that the international community, and primarily the United States, refuses to deal with. Israel is on its own, and it is naive to believe that anything but a preventive Israeli military strike will eliminate this challenge. Israel has to refocus and prepare to end the nuclear threat.
Dealing with the Palestinian challenge requires patience because there is no ending to the conflict in sight. There is little chance of the dysfunctional Palestinian national movement evolving into a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority of the kind the Americans dream about. Any Palestinian entity will continue to constitute only a marginal security risk as long as Israel is determined to “mow the grass” as often as needed.
Originally published by The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.