Time to cut losses?

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Israel can dig in — or declare victory over Hamas and gain advantages

It is becoming clear that the price for the return of the hostages held by Hamas is the end of the Gaza War and the withdrawal of Israeli forces. No amount of death and destruction in Gaza will change this — because, as the Wall Street Journal showed in a fascinating expose last week, the demonic leaders of Hamas obviously do not care.

The Israeli government appears to have come close to accepting the brutal truth. Receiving the hostages in exchange for an end to the war is the logical outcome of the ceasefire framework which President Biden presented on May 31 as an Israeli proposal – and which Israel did not explicitly deny. Yet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s concurrent statements that Israel will not relent until Hamas is destroyed appeared to contradict it, and Hamas now insists on clarity which Netanyahu may not be able, or willing, to provide.

So a pivot point arrives.

There are those hardliners in the Israeli government who argue that Israel should sacrifice the hostages. Theirs is a not-implausible narrative that Israel needs to carry on until Hamas surrenders or is destroyed completely as a military force in Gaza.

This position, which should not be dismissed, holds that in Israel’s dangerous and hostile neighborhood only the decisive projection of power, and only crushing victory in every battle, can deter attack from one’s genuine enemies. It also leans on the Israeli consensus that a replay of Oct. 7 – when Hamas invaded from Gaza and massacred 1,200 people – cannot conceivable be risked.

If Israel pursued this paradigm to the hilt, it would mean many more months of fighting in Gaza; Israel’s National Security Council chief, Tsachi Hanegbi, has estimated it would take at least the rest of the year.

This would almost certainly mean that Hezbollah would continue its attacks from Lebanon, to the north. The constant shelling, since early October, has caused almost 100,000 Israelis to be displaced from their homes, but has killed very few people. It is calibrated, but still an outrage, and unacceptable.

If this insanity goes on for months more, eventually an errant shell will kill a large amount of people and Israel will feel the need to move against Hezbollah decisively, almost certainly with a ground offensive into Lebanon.

That would probably bring massive rocket attacks on Tel Aviv and central Israel – something Israel has not yet really experienced. Israel would then feel compelled to attack Lebanese infrastructure, which is unfair on the one hand, since Lebanon does not control Hezbollah, but is also on the other handthe only thing that may conceivably deter Hezbollah. Though Hezbollah is an Iranian client, they also depend on some support in Lebanon, mostly from Shiites.

History is full of tales that caution against engaging in a two-front war, Napoleon and Hitler’s bad experiences being probably the most famous. Yet Israel is one of the exceptions: Its multi-front war in 1967 was among the most successful military efforts in recent history. Israel might roll the dice.

But such a war may not remain confined to a mere two fronts only for very long, since Iran could get involved. If that occurred, the Americans could be drawn in – they have vulnerable military targets all over the Gulf.  That is why the US (along with France, which has sway in Lebanon) is currently engaged in feverish diplomatic efforts to bring de-escalation.

If escalation happens nonetheless, the Chinese and Russians may want to exploit the distractions for skullduggeries in Taiwan and Eastern Europe, respectively. The fear that a version of World War III looms is not entirely outlandish; look beneath the surface, and you will see that the world order is near a nervous breakdown.

Such are the risks of Israel pressing forward – but the payoff would be that Hamas eventually would probably indeed be wiped out in Gaza. The hostages will also probably be dead. It’s not so clear that this would feel like much of a victory, despite the deterrence idea, especially as Israel itself could be badly damaged in myriad ways.

There is another narrative that says it is time to cut losses after more than eight months of pounding Gaza.

This would, as said, require Israel to agree to Hamas’ terms and pull out of the strip, essentially handing it back to the terrorist group. Hamas is much degraded, so it is not certain they would be able to control it – but they would have something like the right of first refusal.  Infighting may erupt among jihadis and murkiness may for a while prevail; the population might rip them limb from limb. Yet  Hamas would claim victory, perhaps giving tailwind to jihadis everywhere (America and Europe being no exception).

In exchange for assuming such a risk, Israel would expect a series of rewards and advantages.

For starters, it will be expected that Hezbollah will end its attacks in the north. That might not mean that the population could immediately return to their homes, because Hezbollah would face demands to regroup north of the border which it will at first resist. But that front should become calmer.

The United States would be expected to make good on its proposals for a Western-Sunni-Israeli military alliance aimed at holding Iran at bay and featuring a normalization or even peace agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, completing the promise of the 2020 Abraham Accords.

These are not inconsequential benefits for Israel, and for the region as well as the Western world. Considering it is almost certainly the only way to rescue the hostages, the case for breaking in this direction becomes very strong indeed.

Part of the problem is that Netanyahu has set the bar for “total victory” so high; this is generally a bad idea in life, since failure to meet such a goal projects weakness and failure. Better instead, then, to declare victory and move on. Netanyahu’s benighted coalition allies would rebel. Let them.

(A version of this story ran in The Forward).

All eyes on Hamas


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