A Big War That Won’t Inevitably Get Bigger

At a house damaged by Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip, October 2023. Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters
At a house damaged by Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip, October 2023. Ibraheem Abu Mustafa / Reuters

“We are at war”, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced as his country struggled to make sense of the ghastly surprise attack by the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas on October 7. In the wake of the killing of over 1,000 Israeli citizens, Israeli forces pushed south, and Netanyahu called up 300,000 reservists. The Israeli military has now cleared the towns and villages assailed by Hamas fighters and has set its sights on the Gaza Strip, the enclave ruled by Hamas since 2007. Whereas in the past, Israel threatened punitive strikes against the group’s leaders and its infrastructure, many officials have now articulated a more uncompromising goal: the outright defeat and destruction of Hamas. Gaza is already under relentless bombardment, and an Israeli land offensive into the densely packed enclave seems in the offing.

These developments are grim. Even if Israel metes out to Hamas its just deserts, the fighting could lead to a tremendous loss of life and push a peaceful settlement to the 75-year-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict even further out of reach. But events could turn even worse. The new war occasioned by Hamas’s horrific attack on Israel could escalate to include other countries and actors. Some analysts have even speculated that the current fighting could trigger a regionwide war.

For several years, I have tried to sound the alarm that the Middle East is moving toward a period of greater conflict, not an era of diminishing tensions and peace. The new war certainly fits that calculus, just as it raises the odds of escalation.

A bloody Israeli offensive could invite the opportunist interventions of Iran and its allied Lebanese militant group, Hezbollah. It could lead Israel to up the ante and proactively go after its foes—on October 12, Israel struck the airports in the Syrian cities of Damascus and Aleppo, in part to send a message to Syria’s ally Iran. But at least for now, the risks of escalation from the Israel-Hamas war are actually quite limited. Israel, Iran, and Hezbollah are all wary of taking such big gambles. Israel needs to focus on Hamas, which will be a hard enough task on its own, and Iran and Hezbollah know that even a wounded Israel could hurt them. A wider war is possible but at this point still appears unlikely.

THE LOGIC OF RESTRAINT

One can posit all kinds of scenarios in which the current fighting sucks in other regional actors, but the only two candidates that could plausibly broaden the war are Iran and Hezbollah. Both have already signaled that they are not looking for a fight with Israel. If either really felt that its defenses were formidable enough to repel the inevitable Israeli response to its intervention, it would have joined the initial Hamas attack.

The Hamas offensive in southern Israel was terrible, but the country would have fared much worse if it had faced a simultaneous attack in the north, as it did during the Yom Kippur War, in 1973, when Egypt and Syria launched coordinated surprise attacks. Israeli casualties would have been several times greater, and Israel’s response would have been considerably weaker because the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) would have had to battle across multiple fronts.

The mere fact that Iran and Hezbollah did not participate in the initial Hamas assault—when Israel was most vulnerable and least able to defend itself—is not just the strongest evidence that neither is looking to fight Israel. It is incontrovertible evidence. The Islamic Republic has merely issued vague threats, and Hezbollah has lobbed a handful of missiles at northern Israel. Both entities may hope to mitigate the Israeli counteroffensive against Hamas, but their strikes to date are only minor attacks meant to complicate Israeli operations by raising the specter of a northern front without actually opening one.

Moreover, both Iran and Hezbollah’s behavior so far in this war is consistent with their behavior in the past. Escalation cuts against the grain of their interests. Iran’s deeply unpopular clerical regime presides over a moribund economy and environmental catastrophes. It has always been wary of Israeli military power and has shown no desire to bring down the wrath of the IDF on Tehran. Mossad, Israel’s chief intelligence agency, has pulled off a series of jaw-dropping assassinations and sabotage operations in the heart of Iran that doubtless also stokes Iranian fears of Israeli retaliation. For its part, Syria, Iran’s proxy and a longtime Israeli foe, has little capacity to strike Israel as it has a meager air force and limited numbers of rockets, drones, and missiles.

Hezbollah has its hands full running its own basket case of a country in Lebanon. Its leaders have not forgotten the debacle of the second Lebanon war of 2006, when an ambush gone awry set off a massive Israeli military operation. The war was a humiliating fiasco for the IDF, but it also did enormous damage to Hezbollah. And Hezbollah has watched how Israel assiduously learned the lessons of 2006, reformed its forces, and put those lessons into action in swift, efficient operations against Gaza in 2006, 2010, and 2014—all while both Iran and Hezbollah once again did little more than threaten and harass exactly as they are doing now.

None of this is to suggest that Iran and Hezbollah would never buck their interests to join a war against Israel. But they opted not to participate in the surprise Hamas assault, when Israel was least able to defend itself, a decision that indicates that at least for now, other considerations continue to govern the choices made by Iran’s and Hezbollah’s leaders.

THE SPECTER OF ESCALATION

Of course, escalation is not out of the question. Several developments could trigger a bigger war. For one, if Israel does tremendous damage to Hamas during the counteroffensive in Gaza, either or both Hezbollah and Iran might be tempted to intervene to try to prevent Israel from finishing off their militant ally. Because neither has air or ground forces capable of effectively attacking a mobilized IDF within Israel, such intervention would come largely in the form of drones, rockets, and missiles.

But this, too, is unlikely. Both Iran and Hezbollah know full well that Israel can hammer them while it throttles Hamas. Moreover, both know that even if Hamas gets savaged by the IDF and driven out of Gaza altogether, the group can still reconstitute itself abroad. That is exactly what the Palestine Liberation Organization did after it was crushed and driven from Gaza by Israel in 1967, ousted from Jordan by Jordanian forces in 1970–71, and expelled from Lebanon by Israel in 1982. The PLO now rules the West Bank as the Palestinian Authority. Defeat has not necessarily proven fatal for Palestinian armed groups.

If the Israeli counteroffensive goes badly, by contrast, Hezbollah and Iran might see their adversary as weak and vulnerable and opt to join the war, perhaps even hoping to destroy Israel altogether. But that possibility is also remote. Even a battered Israel will still have the ability to pummel Hezbollah and Iran, and, in its agony, might be willing to employ far more lethal tools to do so. Iranian officials and Hezbollah’s leaders are well aware of Israeli military might and have generally exercised great prudence before deliberately provoking the country. They are far more likely to crow about Israel’s misfortunes and encourage other Israel-hating terrorist groups to attack than they are to do so themselves.

The success or failure of Israel’s counteroffensive could also produce scenarios in which the Israelis choose to escalate. Say Israeli operations go well and the IDF crushes Hamas’s forces, kills and captures its leadership, and rescues Israeli hostages while managing to do all this at low cost to Israelis and Palestinian civilians alike. Galvanized and with the wind at its back, Israel might choose to expand the war to try to eliminate the threats from Hezbollah and even from Iran.

Here, the appropriate analogy is not the 1973 war, but the 1967 Six-Day War. Then, after Israel defeated Egyptian and Jordanian forces, it decided to take out Syria as well. Syria had launched a number of minor attacks on Israel after the war broke out, but it had mostly sat on the sidelines and tried to avoid suffering the same fate as the Egyptians and Jordanians once the Israeli offensive kicked into gear. But Israel still turned on Syria, routed its army, and overran the Golan Heights.

In this case, however, rather than the Six-Day War, such an Israeli escalation would more closely resemble the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, where the United States—emboldened by its quick victory over the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001—made what proved to be a calamitous decision. In part because of the U.S. example, Israel will probably act with greater restraint. Crushing Hamas will almost certainly be enough of a victory for Israel for now. Doing so will restore the strength of the Israeli deterrent. If neither Hezbollah nor Iran intervenes, the Israelis will likely see such an outcome as having considerably improved their situation by comparison with the one that prevailed before Hamas’s October 7 attack. Israelis will want to end the fighting, release the mobilized reservists, and pick up the pieces of their lives.

THE NETANYAHU WILD CARD

But if the IDF does badly in Gaza, getting bloodied and bogged down, there is some chance that Netanyahu could choose to escalate in the hope of gaining a victory somewhere else.

This is where another potential driver of escalation enters the equation: the political and legal future of Netanyahu himself. Although the prime minister is no doubt just as outraged as every other Israeli at Hamas’s horrible and utterly unjustified attack, he is a very political animal. And this is his war: it happened on his watch, and it is the most important thing that has happened during his many years as prime minister. It will define his legacy and determine his political future.

It will also determine his legal future. Netanyahu still faces the serious risk of going to jail on the corruption charges that have bedeviled him for years. He hopes to remain prime minister for as long as possible to use both the power and the potential legal immunity conferred by the office to avoid conviction. And if he loses against Hamas, he might decide that escalating outward is his best shot at preserving his authority.

Netanyahu will deny that his wartime choices are self-interested and evince outrage and indignation at the mere suggestion of ulterior motives. But it would be foolish and ahistorical to assume that he has not calculated the effect the war will have on his political and legal future. He doubtless believes that a big victory could protect him from prosecution and incarceration. Who, after all, is going to imprison a war hero? But he may well fear that the opposite is also true: if he is the architect of Israel’s worst defeat—and if Israel does poorly in Gaza after enduring Hamas’s devastating surprise attack, it would constitute a far worse defeat than did the Lebanon war in 2006—his government would collapse. A former general, such as the opposition leader Benny Gantz, could sweep into office, and Netanyahu would lose the ability to claim executive immunity. Nobody would be able to save him from prison. Many Israelis might even see his imprisonment as just reward for his failures as a war leader, never mind the seriousness of the actual corruption charges.

Even here, however, the odds of escalation are small. Netanyahu does not seem so delusional as to embark on such a risky gambit. He will know that attacking Hezbollah or Iran could invite even more death and destruction on his own people. And he will most likely come to the conclusion that it is better to cut his losses than to double down.

The actors who could most easily inflame the current conflagration all have strong reasons to avoid escalation. Hamas’s slaughter in Israel and the mounting civilian toll in Gaza are bleak developments, and still more horrors loom. But as awful as this new war is, it seems unlikely at this point to explode into a wider one that engulfs the entire region.

Kenneth M. Pollack is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of Armies of Sand: The Past, Present, and Future of Arab Military Effectiveness.

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