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The Gaza War Reaffirms America’s Essential Role in the Middle East
Without Washington’s leadership, this war could widen and worsen
The old Washington, D.C., adage is that the city can only handle one crisis at a time. Now it’s facing two, and the Gaza war will call attention away from Ukraine for a while. But this shocking development only underscores how essential U.S. leadership is in both the Middle East and the wider world. So far, although the situation in Israel and Gaza is constantly changing, America appears ready to meet this two-crisis challenge.
The attacks on Israel have pushed the Middle East disengagement plan of prior administrations far to the back burner. On October 10, President Biden gave a speech in which he practically sounded like George W. Bush, calling Hamas’ attack “an act of sheer evil.” His strong rhetoric suggests a similarly strong determination to support our ally, Israel, in crushing Hamas.
Washington is mobilizing support for Israel to manage the crisis. Biden has sent the powerful USS Gerald Ford carrier battlegroup to the eastern Mediterranean, and the USS Eisenhower carrier battlegroup and a Marine amphibious readiness group will soon join it. Emergency military aid to Israel also is on its way. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Israel to ensure Israeli officials of U.S. support and also met with other regional leaders. This week, President Biden will visit Israel and Arab states. To address the significant humanitarian issues in Gaza, this week the White House appointed former Ambassador to Turkey David Satterfield as special envoy.
In his October 10 speech, Biden warned Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran not to get involved in this conflict. So far, it appears they are taking heed. Aside from bellicose public statements, Iran is not directly coming to Hamas’ aid. U.S. intelligence agencies believe Tehran itself might have been surprised by the attack, according to CNN. However, the U.S. has subsequently moved to block Iranian access to the $6 billion it agreed to release in August in exchange for five American hostages. Hamas’ attack with the help of Iran’s military technology probably has shelved for good the Obama and Biden administrations’ controversial policy of relieving sanctions in exchange for placing limits on Iran’s nuclear program. The U.S. has thus demonstrated that it intends to back Israel, and its intervention may prove crucial to resolving the conflict.
A week after Hamas’ cunning and vicious attack, it seems clear that the effects of the group’s stunning blow have quickly diminished. Israelis have responded overwhelmingly to reserve duty—360,000 reservists have mobilized—and its security and intelligence services have refound their footing. Recriminations over who was at fault for this stunning security and intelligence failure can wait for now. However, it is safe to say that the culprit is the age-old failure of imagination. Just as the Imperial Japanese Navy raided Pearl Harbor and al-Qaida brought down the World Trade Center and struck the Pentagon, Hamas succeeded in paragliding, boating and otherwise inserting death squads into Israel because the attacks were so novel. Surprise attacks succeed because the victim hasn’t considered the possibility or otherwise underestimates its foe.
Like many other surprise attacks, the perpetrator, elated by its tactical victory, failed to consider next steps. Hamas’ apparent goal is to enlarge the narrative of resistance and opposition to Israel, thereby adding to the legend of its role in the enemy’s eventual destruction. Hamas’ strategy for capitalizing on its surprise attack is to showcase it on social media: It wants to take and hold “mindshare.” But by showing videos of gleeful murders, rapes and other atrocities committed by its forces—now accessible and archived for history—the international response has changed in a way Hamas and its backers failed to anticipate. It is perhaps a little surprising that some on the American left, including organizations at Ivy League universities, initially joined in the Hamas celebrations. But now many Hamas supporters are backing off their initial exuberance. Hamas’ call for a Global Day of Jihad was a wet squib that garnered little international support.
Tehran must now be concerned about losing its valuable proxy so close to Israeli territory. Unlike in the Yom Kippur War in 1973, which saw a coordinated attack on Israel by neighboring states Egypt and Syria, in the current fighting Hamas, a nonstate actor, is going it alone. Israel claims to have killed 1,500 Hamas gunmen. Hamas’ sponsor, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, cannot help the terrorist group now.
More ominously for the future of Hamas and its allies, the attack further underscores the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of international jihad. Hamas, an offshoot of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood movement, has failed—as other like-minded organizations have failed—to construct a viable and legitimate political order. Instead, they can only offer endless conflict. This week, Hamas’ spokesman’s admission that the group’s recent gestures to focus on governance were only a ruse to fool Israel (and probably the Palestinians too) underscores this point. Brutal and cynical, Hamas—and the broader jihadist terror movement it represents—looks like a rapidly fading force in the Muslim heartland of the Middle East.
In one sense, the Hamas attack brings some clarity to the intractable peace problem: It permanently removes that group from the picture on any forthcoming post-conflict settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.
It is tempting to conclude, just as many Americans did after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, that this attack represents an existential threat to Israel. In terms of proportional lives lost, the estimated 1,300 Israelis killed by the recent Hamas terror attacks and rocket strikes would be the rough equivalent of 40,000 Americans being killed by the al-Qaida attacks.
Although understandable from an emotional perspective, this view underestimates Israel’s inherent strength and ability to rebound: Israel just absorbed the worst Hamas had to offer. Islamic jihad is about to meet a far more powerful “democratic jihad.” Certainly, Hamas will suffer many times over for its misdeeds, if it avoids total destruction.
After the Celebrations
Israel has cut off water and electricity to Gaza, demanding that Hamas free the nearly 200 hostages taken in the raid. Unlike in the past, when Israel negotiated prison swaps with Hamas, it is doubtful such a deal will be offered now. Iran announced its intention to broker a hostage deal, but Israel won’t take that offer seriously. Although Israel has bombed Hamas positions in Gaza—Palestinian casualties are mounting—it has not yet launched a ground assault on Gaza, but it most likely will soon.
Israel withdrew its military and civilian presence from Gaza in 2005 but continued controlling the territory’s borders and air space. In past crises, such as in 2008 and 2014, Israel demonstrated it will send ground troops into Gaza for limited periods. This time, with its pledge to destroy Hamas for good, it likely is considering a protracted occupation of the densely populated territory. This will be no “mow the grass” operation; it will be a difficult and costly campaign, with many military and civilian casualties inevitable.
Especially difficult will be sparing the civilian Palestinian population, because there is simply no good place for evacuees to go. On October 13, Israel ordered 1.1 million Gaza residents to evacuate to the south of the strip in 24 hours. Relief services already are overwhelmed, and the United Nations warns of a major humanitarian disaster. Still, Israel will carry out its security objective without regard for international opinion. Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz recently captured their sentiment: “We don’t need ethics lessons from other countries.”
The U.S. likely will continue giving Jerusalem its unwavering support, at least for the immediate future. Certainly, this unequivocal stance has boosted Israeli morale. How long the U.S. will stay the course in the face of mounting domestic protests about the humanitarian plight of Gazan civilians caught in the middle of this war remains unclear. In past Israeli military operations in Gaza such as in 2014, the U.S. sought to negotiate a quick end to the fighting. On October 15, President Biden cautioned Israel not to occupy Gaza militarily but acknowledged that eliminating Hamas and its allies was necessary. Strong U.S. support for Israel will inevitably come under pressure as Israel’s attacks on Gaza intensify.
Also unclear is whether even a protracted operation and occupation can finish off Hamas. America’s experience in Afghanistan suggests the remarkable staying power of terrorist groups, even when they no longer seem capable of conducting any serious operations. As the history of Israeli offensive operations has shown, sometimes the result is the creation of a new and more formidable enemy, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon. These are probably experiences that Israeli leadership doesn’t want to consider right now, but might need to soon.
In addition to giving military and political support to Israel and holding off potential intervention from Iran or its Hezbollah proxy, the U.S. will need to convince its Arab allies to stick to the Abraham Accords on normalization with Israel. Although Arab countries will be concerned about Palestinian casualties—the Gaza war will likely defer an Israeli-Saudi rapprochement—they won’t mourn the defeat of the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Hamas. The U.S. will remind them of the importance of focusing on the bigger picture to roll back Iran’s regional influence.
Fifty years ago, the U.S. demonstrated its leadership in the Middle East during the Yom Kippur War. Secretary Blinken, a keen student of history, probably will seek lessons in Kissinger’s famous shuttle diplomacy during that period. He will also remember the airlift of weapons and supplies sent to Israel by the Nixon administration that helped ensure an Israeli victory. The U.S. needs to be firm in backing its ally while ensuring regional stability and managing the conflict’s severe humanitarian fallout. U.S. skill and resolve will be required to manage this crisis, which might result in establishing a new foundation for peace in the region. But right now is the season for war.