Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks with a dual U.S.-Israel citizen and her boyfriend, who both survived the weekend attack by Palestinian militants on a music festival in southern Israel, at a donation center in Tel Aviv for victims of the attack, on Oct. 12, 2023.JACQUELYN MARTIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
The article originally appeared in The Messenger on Oct. 14, 2023
One week into the war between Israel and Hamas, many observers are speculating about the future of the Middle East. The Wall Street Journal’s chief foreign-affairs correspondent, Yaroslav Trofimov, wrote in an article, titled “Hamas Invasion Rewrites Rules in the Middle East,” that “Israel’s expected land operation against Hamas in Gaza, and the reaction to it by Iran and its group of allied Islamist militias around the region, could determine the new balance of power in the Middle East and the new set of understandings about the region’s future.” At the Washington Institute, Nadav Pollak, a former analyst for the Israeli government, said, “I don’t think anyone is thinking about the day after right now.”
That would be a mistake.
During the past week in Israel, I met with several experts in Israel’s leading think tanks, diplomats, and former political and military leaders — not with the intent of looking back or pointing fingers, but to look beyond today’s horrors, to understand what Israel needs to do, where it wants to position itself after the war, and how American interests might be affected in the new regional landscape.
A week ago, there was an Israeli consensus that only Iran’s nuclear aspirations presented an existential issue. Now, almost everyone with whom I spoke said the war with Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad, as well as Hezbollah, threaten Israel’s existence. And there is no difference of opinion about who is ultimately responsible for this war: Iran. Only naive Westerners give Iran plausible deniability for its complicity in the past week’s massacres by Hamas militants. The State Department has labeled Iran a state sponsor of terror for decades, so why do we ignore the obvious?
Former Israeli Defense Minister Bogie Ya’alon told me there are also Russian fingerprints, part of Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine and the West. In all likelihood, Putin knew in advance what Hamas was planning; radical Palestinian and Iranian leaders have traveled to and from Moscow during the past year. Ya’alon, a former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), said Iran and its proxy army Hezbollah in Lebanon, may wait until Israel is entrenched in the Gazan war before fully unleashing a northern offensive. For years, many Israeli security officials have referred to Israel’s northern border with Lebanon and Syria as “Iranian.”
There was an operational consensus in these discussions that Israel needs months to disarm Hamas completely, through urban warfare. That could cost the lives of scores of IDF soldiers and Palestinian civilians, whom Hamas will use as human shields for political leverage. Civilian deaths are the currency of terrorists — meant to turn the West against Israel within weeks. Everyone I interviewed was resolute that Israel will ignore its critics and do what it needs to do to end Hamas’s military capabilities and restore deterrence.
There was division of opinions on whether Israel should reoccupy Gaza; no one really desires that responsibility. Israel would be obligated to manage 1.5 million people who are profoundly hostile to Jews. Ya’alon told me that, in 2014, he offered the Palestinian Authority an opportunity to take over the Gaza border-crossings into Israel, but Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas refused.
The unwritten rule of the Middle East dictates that if Israel is not perceived to be strong at the end of this conflict or willing to exact a high price, achievements such as the Abraham Accords could collapse, said Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. “We have a problem understanding the power of religious zealotry. Hamas is Daesh,” Inbar said, another name for the Islamic State or ISIS. Regarding the question of occupying Gaza, he said, “The Gazans are pro-Hamas and Israel shouldn’t stay there.”
In Israel’s north, there is concern about whether Israel can carry out a ground offensive of the scale needed for a more entrenched and sophisticated Hezbollah terror network. Israel has not invested in ground forces; its strategy has focused on high-tech, cyber and special forces. This is a lesson for American politicians and military planners who have underinvested in our military, steadily reducing military expenditures.
Israel prides itself on being able to defend itself. But what if Israel is overwhelmed by Hezbollah rocket fire? Hezbollah has more than 150,000 missiles, sophisticated and precision-guided, dwarfing Hamas’s firepower. Should Israel ask America for help from our carrier fleet that’s parked in the eastern Mediterranean? Will America be viewed as a paper tiger if it refuses Israel’s request? There was debate among those to whom I posed these questions, even among like-minded leaders of different think tanks. Just weeks ago, this debate about a U.S.-Israel defense pact as part of a proposed normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia was hotly contested in Israel.
As for the root causes of the war, some blame the disunity of the Israeli people, who have been fighting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial reforms. Tehran likely interpreted this as weakness and vulnerability. Others believe Iran wanted to thwart Israeli-Saudi normalization, which certainly would have rewritten the Middle East script. Another explanation is that Israel has tolerated all sorts of kinetic provocations from Hamas over the years, without imposing consequences, also creating a perception of weakness. There was a belief that Hamas and Hezbollah preferred quiet at this time, so Israel remained unprepared.
As much as this is a decisive moment in Israeli history, with survival of the Jewish state hanging in the balance, it’s also a moment in American history. This war may be regional, but it has implications worldwide. Among the questions we should be asking are these:
• Will we finally acknowledge that Iran is the main problem of the Middle East, and if its regime changed, many of the region’s problems would be manageable?
• Will we finally support the Iranian people, who are begging us to help them free themselves from this oppressive Islamist regime?
• Will we limit Iran’s cash flow by fully enforcing sanctions so they cannot sell oil to China, and create secondary sanctions to punish nations that violate our primary sanctions?
• Will we start investing in our military again, since perceived strength decreases the chance of future wars?
And there’s one key question for the coming weeks: What should America do when the Israel-bashers regain their footing and turn the media’s attention to Palestinian casualties and the miserable living conditions for civilians? The answer, in part, is that the Allies didn’t call off their mission to rid the world of the murderous Nazi regime until that terrible work was finished — that’s how Israel feels today.
Dr. Eric R. Mandel is director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network, and Mandel Strategies, a consulting firm for business and government officials in the Middle East. He is the senior security editor for the Jerusalem Report.