What Friends Owe Friends

Israeli soldiers near the Gaza Strip, Israel, October 2023. Violeta Santos Moura / Reuters
Israeli soldiers near the Gaza Strip, Israel, October 2023. Violeta Santos Moura / Reuters

Israel’s desire to destroy Hamas once and for all is entirely understandable. The terrorist group’s October 7 attacks resulted in the deaths of more than 1,300 Israelis, injuries to thousands more, and the seizure of some 150 hostages; most of those killed, injured, or abducted were civilians. The attacks also raised the question of how Hamas can be deterred from carrying out similar attacks in the future.

But just because an objective is understandable does not mean that pursuing it is the optimal or even advisable path, and Israel’s apparent strategy is flawed in both ends and means. Hamas is as much a network, a movement, and an ideology as it is an organization. Its leadership can be killed, but the entity or something like it will survive.

Israel has begun airstrikes on Gaza, and there is a good deal of evidence that it is preparing for a large-scale land invasion. This puts Washington in a difficult position. The Biden administration is correct in supporting Israel’s right to retaliate, but it must still try to shape how that retaliation unfolds. The United States cannot force Israel to forgo a massive ground invasion or to curtail one soon after launching it, but U.S. policymakers can and should try. They should also take steps to reduce the chances the war will widen. And they must look beyond the crisis, pressing their Israeli counterparts to offer Palestinians a viable peaceful path to statehood.

The case for the United States working to shape Israel’s response to the crisis and its aftermath rests not just on the reality that good if tough advice is what friends owe one another. The United States has interests in the Middle East and beyond that would not be well served by an Israeli invasion and occupation of Gaza nor by longer-term Israeli policies that offer no hope to Palestinians who reject violence. Such U.S. aims are sure to make for difficult conversations and politics. But the alternative—a wider war and the indefinite continuation of an unsustainable status quo—would be far more difficult and dangerous.

ENDS AND MEANS

The first argument against a large-scale invasion is that its costs would almost certainly outweigh any benefits. Hamas does not present good military targets, as it has deeply embedded its military infrastructure in civilian areas of Gaza. An attempt to destroy it would require a large-scale assault in a densely populated urban environment, which would prove costly for Israel and lead to civilian casualties that would generate support for Hamas among Palestinians. Israel would also suffer extensive casualties, and additional soldiers could be abducted. If there is a historical analogy, it is closer to the U.S. experience in Afghanistan and Iraq than to what Israel accomplished in its 1967 and 1973 wars.

Employing massive force against Gaza (as opposed to more targeted action against Hamas) would also prompt an international outcry. Further normalization with Arab governments, above all Saudi Arabia, would be stalled; Israel’s existing relationships with its Arab neighbors would be put on hold or possibly even reversed. A large, prolonged military undertaking could also lead to a wider regional war, sparked either by a conscious decision by Hezbollah (urged on by Iran) to launch rockets against Israel or by spontaneous outbreaks of violence in the West Bank aimed at Israelis or at the Arab governments (especially those in Jordan and Egypt) long at peace with Israel.

Even if Israel crushed Hamas, what would follow? There is no alternative authority available to take its place. The Palestinian Authority, which oversees the West Bank, lacks legitimacy, capacity, and standing in Gaza. No Arab government is prepared to step in and take responsibility for Gaza. Hamas or a facsimile would soon emerge, as happened after Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

None of this is to argue that Israel should not act against Hamas. To the contrary, it must. Like any country, Israel has the right of self-defense, which allows it to strike terrorists who have attacked or are preparing to attack wherever they are. In addition, Israel must demonstrate the price to be paid by those who conduct such horrific attacks. How the Hamas attacks are answered, however, is a separate question. A different option would be to eschew a large-scale invasion and occupation of Gaza and instead carry out targeted strikes against Hamas leaders and fighters; Hamas’s military potential would be degraded, and Israeli military and Palestinian civilian casualties alike would be kept to a minimum. Israel should also reestablish military capabilities along its border with Gaza, which would help restore deterrence and make future terrorist attacks less likely.

The Biden administration has banked enormous goodwill with the Israeli government and people as a result of the president’s extraordinary October 10 speech, Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Israel last week, and the decision to supply Israel with what it needs militarily. Mario Cuomo, who served as the governor of New York, once remarked that a politician campaigns in poetry but governs in prose. President Joe Biden’s speech was poetry, but the time has come for prose, best delivered in private. Both the United States and Israel should want to avoid an outcome that involves Israel being pressured into a cease-fire amid broad condemnation regionally and globally. Arab governments, including Saudi Arabia, could reinforce that message as well as help to facilitate the release of Israeli hostages and signal to Israel that normalization could proceed after the war ends if Israel is seen to have acted responsibly.

CONTAINING THE WAR

A second American goal must be to discourage any widening of the war. The biggest danger is Hezbollah, which possesses on the order of 150,000 rockets that can hit Israel, entering the fray. Again, the best way to achieve this is to persuade Israel to hold off on doing something large that will be broadly perceived as indiscriminate, as such action could create pressure—and an excuse—for Hezbollah to act.

The United States has a limited ability to keep Hezbollah at bay. Nor, as history suggests, does Israel have good options in Lebanon. But Washington could help by informing Iran that it will be held accountable for Hezbollah’s actions. That would require the United States to signal that it is prepared to inflict pain on Iran if Hezbollah attacks Israel, for example, by reducing Iran’s oil exports (now around two million barrels a day). Since much of that oil ends up in China, U.S. policymakers should consider letting their Chinese counterparts know that Washington is prepared to stop much of this trade by sanctioning those importing Iranian oil or, if necessary, by attacking select Iranian production or refining facilities. Beijing might be prepared to use its leverage with Iran, as the last thing the troubled Chinese economy needs is spiking energy costs. Washington should also put on indefinite hold any further relaxation of sanctions and reiterate the limits of its tolerance when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program.

Reporting thus far suggests that Iran provided strategic rather than tactical support to Hamas—that is, it trained, funded, and armed Hamas over the years, but there is as yet no intelligence indicating it designed or ordered this operation. For decades, U.S. policy has been not to draw a distinction between terrorists and those that support them with sanctuary, arms, or money. If it is determined that Iran was an active party to the Hamas attacks, Washington would have to consider further economic or even military action against it.

THE ONE-STATE NONSOLUTION

If and when the dust settles, there will be a need for sustained U.S. diplomacy, with the aim of resuscitating a two-state solution. American policymakers should point their Israeli counterparts to the lessons of Northern Ireland, where British strategy in the 1990s had two tracks. On one track, British policy was focused on establishing a large security presence and arresting or killing members of the provisional Irish Republican Army and other paramilitary groups; the British objective was to signal that violence would fail, that the IRA could not shoot its way to power.

But it was the second track that accounted for the eventual success of British policy, culminating in the 1998 Good Friday (or Belfast) Agreement, which effectively ended the three decades of violence known as the Troubles. This track gave IRA leaders the chance to participate in serious negotiations that promised to bring them some of what they sought if they would eschew violence. British policy made clear that they would achieve more at the negotiating table than on the battlefield.

This analogy is not meant to suggest that a return to serious negotiations to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is possible now or even soon. The conditions necessary to make a situation ripe for diplomacy are glaringly absent. Hamas has disqualified itself as an acceptable participant in any political process, and no other Palestinian entity has the political strength to compromise (which Hamas ironically does, though without any willingness to use it). The Palestinian Authority is too weak and unpopular; even much stronger PA leaders, such as Yasir Arafat, balked at the chance of peace when far more was on the table. And Israel’s leaders have shown no more willingness to seriously negotiate. Before the Hamas attacks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government had embraced policies that undermined the chance of a good-faith negotiation; the new unity government under his leadership exists to wage war, not negotiate peace. A new government with a new mandate would be needed for the latter.

Yet if attempting a negotiation in the near term would be futile or worse, U.S. diplomacy must still begin the work of building a context for negotiation. A political track involving Israel and Palestinians remains essential. Without it, further normalization between Israel and its Arab neighbors will prove difficult, since Saudi Arabia is more likely now than previously to condition normalization on Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. More important, Israel cannot remain a secure, prosperous, democratic, and Jewish state unless there is, before too long, a Palestinian state alongside it. The indefinite continuation of the status quo—what might be called a one-state nonsolution—threatens all those attributes.

The United States should urge Israel, first in private, then in public if necessary, to orient its policy around building the context for a viable Palestinian partner to emerge over time. By contrast, Israeli policy has in recent years seemed intent on undermining the Palestinian Authority so as to be able to say there is no partner for peace. The aim should be to demonstrate that what Hamas offers is a dead end—but also, just as important, that there is a better alternative for those willing to reject violence and accept Israel. That would mean putting sharp limits on settlement activity in the West Bank; articulating final-status principles that would include a Palestinian state; and specifying stringent but still reasonable conditions that the Palestinians could meet to achieve that aim.

Getting there would require a willingness on Washington’s part to take an active hand in the process and to state U.S. views publicly, even if it means distancing the United States from Israeli policy. U.S. officials will need to speak directly and honestly to their Israeli counterparts. Curiously, the Biden administration has been much more forceful in reacting to Israeli judicial reform and matters of internal politics than to Israel’s approach to the Palestinian issue. But it needs to have the type of conversations with Israel that only the United States, Israel’s closest partner, can have. As significant a threat as the proposed judicial reform was (and is) to Israel’s democracy, events of the past week have revealed that an unresolved Palestinian issue poses a far greater one.

Richard Haass is President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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