War contains many uncertainties, but there are some things about the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas that seem in little doubt. One is that Israel will deal Hamas a decisive blow. It will kill thousands of Hamas fighters, destroy the organization’s infrastructure, and neutralize much of its weapons stocks.
Another is that Israel will refuse a return to the status quo ante, as it has done in the four other times since 2007 that it has struck out against Hamas in Gaza. Israeli security officials had often called it “mowing the grass,” the unpleasant task that inevitably needs to be done periodically. That strategy has failed.
Yet the things that will determine who ultimately wins this war are entirely uncertain. What politics will emerge in Gaza after the fighting stops and the rubble is cleared? Who will be in control, and who will support them? Will Gazans seek a pathway forward living in peace and increased prosperity, or will the voices of alienation and despair grow even louder and usher in a new cycle of violence?
The United States confronted these questions during long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and longer ago, in Vietnam. In all those places, the U.S. tried but failed to establish durable political systems that advanced U.S. interests. While one can argue that none of these countries can any longer threaten the U.S., some argue that they never did. And even so, the U.S. has an advantage Israel does not: these countries are thousands of miles away. Gaza abuts Israel.
Not surprisingly, Israelis are not discussing these longer-term questions much yet. Israelis are still reeling from the shocking losses of October 7 and the unfolding hostage crisis. They are united in their need to act firmly, to reassert Israel’s deterrent power, and to avenge what appear to be hundreds of acts of cold-blooded murder.
Increasingly, they are also critical of their leadership. They accuse politicians and the military alike of missing the signs of an impending attack and of being distracted from the country’s real security issues. The time for accountability will come. In the meantime, Israelis will need their leadership to make an excruciating decision: when to stop fighting, and on what terms.
This challenge is not unique to Israel. All military operations reach levels of diminishing returns. They start off with robust target sets and frequent advances. Over time, it costs more and more to get less and less incremental benefit.
And public opinion will matter. Periodic video images and newspaper reporting undermined the U.S. war in Vietnam. The impending Israeli assault on Gaza will produce a stream of disturbing images that will capitalize on increasingly lax content moderation by some social media platforms. What Hamas cannot win on the battlefield it will seek to win through information operations. Israeli leaders know they will come under profound international pressure to stop fighting and start negotiating, and that pressure is likely to become overwhelming within a month of beginning ground operations.
The U.S. is likely to play a leading role in the diplomacy surrounding the cessation of hostilities. For this reason, it is smart for President Biden to demonstrate early his full support of Israel. If you want influence on the landing, you need to have been there for the takeoff. But the shape of the diplomacy remains unclear.
Some aspect of it will need to include the Palestinian Authority, which was largely pushed out of Gaza in 2007. Hamas’ leadership is more popular in the West Bank than President Mahmoud Abbas—who is still serving 14 years after the expiry of his term—so finding a way to reunite the two Palestinian entities will take skill—and luck.
Virtually all of the Arab states are hostile to Hamas, whose roots are in the Muslim Brotherhood. Regional governments see the Brotherhood as a threat, and they see Hamas’ Iranian patrons as a major threat, too. They are fundamentally strategically aligned with Israel and the U.S.
There will almost certainly be roles for Egypt and Jordan, two states that made peace with Israel decades ago, and have complicated histories with Palestinians and the Palestinian national movement. There are also potential roles for Gulf Arab States, which can both help fund Gaza’s recovery and help give Arab legitimacy to what comes after.
But ultimately, a better outcome in Gaza requires Gazans to rise to the opportunity of a different kind of leadership. Hamas’ stunning military success on October 7 will prove to be a pyrrhic victory. It has strengthened Israeli resolve to destroy the organization and its capabilities. The destruction of Gaza will be comprehensive, and it needs to provoke some soul-searching among Palestinians.
There also needs to be an Israeli recognition that there is both the possibility and the necessity for a different kind of relationship with Gaza in particular and Palestinian aspirations more generally. This will be hard for an Israeli public that had grown comfortable with the idea that Palestine is not only too hard to solve, but also a problem that doesn’t need to be solved, a problem behind walls. And it will be especially hard for a government that includes a number of strident hardline voices who represent a potent minority of voters, and from whom the public will be insisting on accountability this winter, just as diplomacy is unfolding.
While violence is likely to escalate in the coming weeks, violence will not determine who wins this war. The winners will be determined at the negotiating table. The point of fighting the war is to get there. Even the most ferocious assault cannot alone lead to victory, and as Hamas will soon learn, the most ferocious assault can actually lead to defeat.
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