US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference, Tel Aviv, Oct. 12, 2023
The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s press conference on Thursday concluding his visit to Israel conveyed three things. One, the Biden Administration will be seen as backing Israel to the hilt by way of meeting its security needs but Washington will not be drawn into the forthcoming Gaza operations except to arrange exit routes in the south for hapless civilians fleeing the conflict zone.
Two, Washington’s top priority at the moment is on engaging with the regional states who wield influence with Hamas to negotiate the hostage issue. Fourteen US citizens in Israel remain unaccounted for. (White House confirmed that the death toll in the fighting now includes at least 27 Americans.)
Three, the US will coordinate with the regional states to prevent any escalation in the situation to widen the conflict on the part of Hezbollah. Although the US cannot and will not stop Israeli leadership on its tracks apropos the imminent Gaza operation, it remains unconvinced.
Blinken was non-committal about any direct US military involvement, and the chances are slim as things stand. Most important, even as Blinken could hear the war drums, he also cast his eye on a future for Israel (and the region) where it will be at peace with itself, would integrate into the region and concentrate on creating economic prosperity — metaphorically put, beating its swords into plowshares in a Biblical Messianic intent.
That is to say, despite the massive show of force off the waters of Israel, with the deployment of two aircraft carriers along with destroyers and other naval assets and fighter jets off the waters of Israel, the Biden Administration is profoundly uneasy about any escalation of the conflict into a wider war. If the US senses that this is a catastrophe that Israel allowed to happen, that remains a strictly private thought.
Even as Blinken was heading for Tel Aviv, US House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul told reporters in Washington on Wednesday following a closed-door intelligence briefing that “We know that Egypt has warned the Israelis three days prior that an event like this could happen. I don’t want to get too much into classified, but a warning was given. I think the question was at what level.”
Shortly after McCaul spoke to reporters in Washington, an anonymous Egyptian official confirmed to the Times of Israel that Cairo’s agents did warn their Israeli counterparts about a planned Hamas attack, but that this warning may not have made it to Netanyahu’s office.
These disclosures would embarrass the Israeli government, as Saturday’s surprise attack can be viewed as a catastrophic failure for Israel’s intelligence services. In a brutally frank statement on Thursday, the Chief of General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces General Herzi Halevi admitted, “The IDF is responsible for the security of our nation and its citizens, and we failed to do so on Saturday morning. We will look into it, we will investigate, but now it is time for war.”
This failure will impact the decision-making in Tel Aviv. Gen. Halevi described Hamas as “animals” and “merciless terrorists who have committed unimaginable acts” against men, women and children. He said that the IDF “understands the magnitude of this time, and the magnitude of the mission that lays on our shoulders.”
“Yahya Sinwar, the ruler of the Gaza Strip, decided on this horrible attack, and therefore he and the entire system under him are dead men,” the general added, vowing to “attack them and dismantle them and their organisation” and that “Gaza will not look the same” afterward.
Make no mistake, the Israeli objective will be to use overwhelming force with its most advanced weapons, including powerful bunker-busting bombs, to inflict crippling losses on Hamas formations so that the movement cannot wage an armed struggle for many years. A ground operation is to be expected any day.
It is improbable that Blinken would have even tried to dissuade Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from going ahead with a brutal operation. He told the media that the US would rather leave it to Israel to do what needed to be done. Meanwhile, the US deployment will not only aim to enhance surveillance, intercept communications, and prevent Hamas from acquiring more weapons, but also act as deterrent.
That said, the US cannot afford to watch passively. Washington has no choice but to limit the expected fighting in the coming days and weeks in Gaza to ensure that it does not spread to other areas. Thus, the US force projection specifically serves as a deterrent to Hezbollah, which possesses a vast armoury of 150,000 missiles that can be launched at major cities in Israel, potentially leading to a broader war not only in Gaza but also in Lebanon, drawing others into the conflict.
Israel knocked out of service the airports in Damascus and Aleppo in Syria in missile strikes simultaneously on Thursday, presumably to prevent reinforcements reaching Lebanon. Iran’s foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian was due to travel to Syria and Lebanon in the weekend.
Through the past four decades, the US and Iran have made a fine art of communicating with each other in dangerous times to set ground rules to avoid confrontation. This time around too, it is happening.
Certainly, the speech by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday on the conflict situation, which was translated into Hebrew by the Iranians and disseminated in an unprecedented move, conveyed a subtle message in three parts to both Israel and the US, signalling essentially that Tehran does not intend to get involved in the conflict. (See my blog Iran warns Israel against its apocalyptic war.)
In turn, the US has signalled that it has intelligence showing that key Iranian leaders were surprised by the Hamas attacks on Israel. Equally, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s phone conversation with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Wednesday — their first ever conversation which Tehran initiated — harped on efforts to “halt the ongoing escalation.”
The ‘known unknown’ scenario
Yet, the big question is, how far the Biden Administration would be confident about the success of any Israeli military incursion into Gaza. During the press conference in Tel Aviv, Blinken underscored in a subtle way the importance of “lessons” learnt from past experiences. The point is, Israel will be involved in urban warfare in a densely populated area with a population of 2.1 million people.
Gaza has an average of 5,500 people per sq. km, and there is bound to be heavy civilian casualties caused by Israel’s advanced American weaponry, which would lead to an international outcry, including in Europe, and lead to condemnation of not only Israel but the US as well. However, Israel is in defiant mood and Netanyahu needs at least some of the operation’s goals achieved before agreeing to a ceasefire.
More importantly, Israel needs an exit strategy, if past experiences in Lebanon and Gaza gave any lessons. Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule comes into play — ‘You break it, you own it.’
An extended occupation of Gaza will be an extremely dangerous outcome fraught with great risks, given the deep economic, religious, and social roots that Hamas enjoys. Suffice to say, the Israeli military will be hard-pressed to show “success” and head for the exit door.
Besides, if other Palestinian groups and organisations in the West Bank make decisions that advance Hamas’s strategic goals, all bets are off, as Israeli military will face a two-front war. In fact, the conditions for a third intifada do exist in West Bank.
And in such a scenario, the advantage goes to Hamas, which would position itself as potentially the appropriate and perhaps the sole alternative after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is now 87 years old.
Again, in a worst case scenario, it cannot be ruled out that the Arab Israeli population may draw inspiration from Hamas, and if their violent eruption in 2021 is anything to go by, the long-term viability of the state of Israel will be put to test.
Suffice to say, the best solution lies in a paradigm shift in the Israeli statecraft away from its primacy on coercion and brutal force. Blinken’s remarks suggested that the US hopes that when the dust settles down, with the helping hand of friendly Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Jordan, a turnaround to calm the situation and reach a ceasefire might be possible.
Of course, the longer that takes, the greater the strain it will put on the US-Israeli ties and the harder it will become for the Biden Administration to maintain an equilibrium in what is already a troubled relationship with Netanyahu. Fundamentally, Israel needs to come terms with the new reality that they are no longer invincible or the dominant power in the West Asian region.