Israel is facing a strategic defeat in Gaza

The Palestine question is back in West Asia’s geopolitics, with an emphasis on the two-state solution, marking a defeat for Israel

Updated - July 02, 2024 11:23 am IST

Published - July 02, 2024 12:16 am IST

‘Israel is facing global isolation for its conduct of the war’

‘Israel is facing global isolation for its conduct of the war’ | Photo Credit: AFP

When Israel declared its war on Gaza, following a cross-border attack by Hamas on October 7, 2023, killing at least 1,200 people, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his forces would “crush” the Islamist militant group. Since then, Israeli leaders have said, several times, that “eliminating” Hamas is the top objective of the war. Gaza, the tiny Palestinian enclave sandwiched between Israel proper and the Mediterranean Sea, has practically been under an Israeli blockade since 2007. After the October 7 attack, Israel imposed a total siege on Gaza. It first pounded the enclave with heavy air strikes before launching an all-out invasion.

The war has destroyed much of Gaza. Just look at the numbers. Gaza’s pre-war population was 2.3 million. Almost all of them have been displaced. More than 37,000 people, that is roughly 1.7% of the enclave’s population, have been killed, and over 86,000 people, that is roughly 3.7% of the population, wounded. Did this massive onslaught on the Palestinians help Israel meet its objective? On June 19, after 256 days of fighting, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, a spokesperson of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), said Hamas cannot be eliminated. “Hamas is an idea, Hamas is a party. It’s rooted in the hearts of the people — any one who thinks we can eliminate Hamas [read Netanyahu] is wrong,” he said.

Lack of victory

Israel wanted a quick and decisive victory against Hamas. It wanted to destroy Hamas’s governing structures, defeat its highly-trained brigades, destroy its vast tunnel networks and kill its top leadership. Israel also wanted to free the over 240 hostages in Hamas custody, and bolster its deterrence that was weakened by the Hamas attack. However, after more than eight months of fighting, even the IDF questions the achievability of the objectives set by Mr. Netanyahu. But that is not the only bad news Israel is dealing with.

When Israel attacked Gaza, Hezbollah, Lebanon’s powerful Iran-backed Shia militia, launched controlled attacks from southern Lebanon to Israel’s Upper Galilee region on the northern border. Hezbollah’s rocket attacks and shelling have displaced some 60,000 Israelis. Israel has carried out dozens of strikes in Lebanon targeting Hezbollah, but has stopped short of launching an all-out war. Israel faces a dilemma in the north.

The controlled aggression does little in deterring Hezbollah. The displaced cannot return to their homes unless there is a ceasefire. And, Hezbollah has made it clear that it will not cease fire unless there is a ceasefire in Gaza. Another option Israel has is to invade Lebanon. The last time Hezbollah and Israel fought a full-fledged war was in 2006, which did not end well for Israel. And if, after eight months, Israel is still fighting Hamas in a besieged enclave of Gaza, a war with Hezbollah, which is deeply enmeshed into Lebanon’s state and Shia society, will be a lot more dangerous and difficult.

The Iran challenge

The second problem is Iran. Israel had adopted a two-pronged military approach when it launched the Gaza war. The first was to pound Gaza, while the second was to attack Hamas’s allies across the region. Besides Hezbollah, Israel carried out air strikes targeting Iranian military officers in Syria. But Israel miscalculated Iran’s response when it attacked the Iranian embassy complex in Damascus on April 1, killing senior generals. Iran launched an unprecedented barrage of missiles and drones. So, if one of the key objectives of Mr. Netanyahu’s war on Gaza was to bolster Israel’s deterrence against non-state actors, one of its outcomes was to weaken Israel’s conventional deterrence, which had been solid at least since 1973.

Moreover, Iran has signalled that it has been dramatically expanding its nuclear programme, with higher production of enriched uranium at two of its facilities, at Fordow and Natanz. Israel has always seen Iran’s nuclear programme as its number one security threat.

Yet, Israel does not have any practical pathways to slow Iran down at this point. Israel itself is mired in Gaza and is stuck with a slow-burning war with Hezbollah. After Iran’s attack on Israel on April 14, the Jewish nation has not attacked Iranian officers in other countries. It does not want an open war with Iran, at least for now. The United States, Israel’s main ally, has made it clear that it does not want a war with Iran either. This gives Tehran a window of opportunity to fast track its nuclear programme. And Iran is at it.

The third problem is the setback to the Arab normalisation process. Before the October 7 attack, Israel was set to expand its regional cooperation with the Arab world. In 2020, it had already reached a breakthrough normalisation agreement with four Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates. The U.S. was mediating talks between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which, in the words of the Kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, were in a very advanced stage in September 2023. But today, the Saudi normalisation plan has been shelved. Riyadh says there will not be peace with Israel unless there is a clear path towards the creation of a Palestinian state “based on the 1967 border with East Jerusalem as its capital”.

Fourth, Israel is facing global isolation for its conduct of the war. There have been two United Nations Security Council resolutions that called for a ceasefire in Gaza — which Israel has ignored. There is a genocide case against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The ICJ, which in January had ordered Israel to take steps “to prevent a genocide in Gaza”, asked the Jewish state, in May, to stop its offensive in Rafah. This was also ignored.

A prosecutor at The International Criminal Court (ICC) has sought arrest warrants against the top leadership of Israel and Hamas. The war has also seen student protests across universities in the West, piling up pressure on their governments to take a stronger position towards Israel. Though the U.S. President Joe Biden keeps supporting Israel’s war, dissenting voices are rising in Washington.

The Palestine question

Finally, Israel has always wanted to keep its occupation of Palestine as a non-issue when it deals with the rest of the world — occupation without consequences. A key message of the 2020 Abraham Accords was that the Palestine question had become immaterial even for Arab countries when it comes to engagement with Israel. But Hamas’s attack on October 7 and Israel’s subsequent war on Gaza have brought the Palestine question back to the centre of West Asia’s geopolitics. Now, there is an added emphasis on the two-state solution. In May 2024, three European countries, Ireland, Norway and Spain, recognised the state of Palestine, and more countries are to follow. This is a long-term setback to Israel’s policy of perpetual marginalisation of the Palestine question.

So, the war in Gaza remains unfinished and the crisis with Hezbollah is escalating. Iran has put an end to Israel’s attacks on its officers, for now, and is expanding its nuclear programme. The Houthis are keeping the Americans busy in the Red Sea. Israel is facing international rebuke for the conduct of the war, while the Palestine issue is back centre stage. Mr. Netanyahu wanted a strategic environment in which Israel’s primacy is reinforced, but he is getting one that is more hostile to Israel than it was before October 7. There is no quick and easy way out of this mess which Mr. Netanyahu has led his country into. Maybe that is why he keeps fighting because once the war is over, the spectres it has unleashed will come to haunt the Jewish state. If the war continues without clear objectives, it will turn the strategic environment even more hostile. This is Israel’s dilemma. No country can advance its interests permanently only through wars. Israel’s leaders should have a comprehensive review of its strategies (if any) and tactics. If Mr. Netanyahu is unable to do this, Israelis should start looking beyond him.

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