Conflict and Fragility


Israel's strategic peril

28 May 2024 - 13:35
Source: Israeli flags wave as smoke rises in Gaza / Reuters

The ongoing offensive on Rafah suggests that Israel is on the cusp of emerging victoriously from its eight month-plus rampage to destroy Hamas, as well as the Gaza strip. However, despite the rough estimate of 30-40,000 deaths and sky-high piles of rubbles that the World Bank estimates at USD 18 billion in reconstruction cost, the movement remains resilient. It keeps firing rockets at Israel and fighting continues apace throughout Gaza. But Israel’s predicament is far worse than gradually being sucked into a low-level, permanent insurgency. As it happens, the destruction of Gaza has exposed Israel to a series of strategic risks that will be difficult to mitigate. Together, they will make it impossible for Israel to market itself as a secure and liberal democracy once the guns fall silent.

Four strategic risks threaten Israel

The first peril are Israel’s paramilitary settlers in the West Bank. The Israeli government did not hesitate to bolster this group during its campaign in Gaza, but the increase in violence that has ensued also exposed them for what they are: extremists with a messianic worldview that use violence to achieve their aims under the protective cover of Israel’s security forces. The UK, US and EU have cautiously imposed limited sanctions with, however, the potential to multiply. Meanwhile, the settlers themselves have already become a powerful bloc in Israeli politics that will fuel extremism for years to come. The acceleration of annexation makes greater Palestinian resistance only a matter of time. And Iran will be happy to help Palestinian militant groups, just as it has done in Gaza for Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

If Israel’s policies to occupy the Palestinian territories created their own ‘demons’ in the West Bank, they produced an immovable object in the north: Hezbollah represents Israel’s second peril. The terrible attack of 7 October raised the movement’s threat profile in Israeli eyes from serious to existential. If Hamas was capable of wreaking such havoc, what might Hezbollah achieve? But Israel has no effective military remedy against the movement as its prior invasions of Lebanon in 1982 and 2006 have shown. Hezbollah is an integral part of the social texture of south Lebanon, which is why withdrawal to the Litani river - located 30 kilometer north of the border - as Israel demands, will not resolve much. The alternative, another ground invasion, will be tough going and likely trigger regional conflict. 

Despite such strategic predicaments, prime minister Netanyahu and his political allies have added a third risk to the mix by purposefully polarizing the very society they are meant to govern. Trying to push a controversial judicial overhaul through, continuing to exempt the ultra-orthodox from military service in times of war and prioritizing the destruction of Hamas over efforts to release Israel’s hostages have produced social rifts, created popular distrust of Israel’s political leadership and even reduced confidence in the conduct of the war against Hamas. In time, national cohesion might unravel as external threats keep growing. 

If this was not enough, Israel’s moral standing in the world lies in ruins that are ultimately likely to reach as high as the rubble of Gaza. A fourth strategic risk for Israel lies in the generational shifts in activism and political leadership that will make it increasingly difficult to use the guilt linked with one wartime atrocity – the Holocaust – to justify another – the violent repression of Palestine – in the name of national security. Except perhaps in Germany. Simply put, Israel’s national narrative is foundering. Revising it will hurt, if it is possible. 

Meanwhile, Israeli society lives in a parallel reality with regards to the conduct of its politicians and forces in Gaza. A survey by Tel Aviv University in November 2023 reported that nearly 60% of Israeli Jews thought the IDF used too little firepower in Gaza. A poll by Channel 12 in January 2024 suggested that over 70% of Israeli’s favored cutting all humanitarian aid to Gaza until the hostages are freed. Extremist settler groups like Tsav 9 have actually blocked aid convoys under the approving eye of Israeli security forces. A January 2023 poll by a Palestinian research center and Tel Aviv University even indicated that over 80% of Israeli Jews view themselves as exclusive victims of Palestinian violence and as rightful heirs to all land between the Mediterranean and Jordan river (note that Palestinians consider themselves as victims and proprietors by the same percentages in this January 2023 poll).

A train crash is coming

But a reckoning looms. Israel stands accused in several courts of law as well as in the court of international public opinion. The International Criminal Court prosecutor’s request for arrest warrants against Benjamin Netanyahu, Yoav Gallant and several Hamas leaders are only the tip of the iceberg. The International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court may not matter in Israel, but they do influence how the world sees the country. Years of legal wrangling are likely to unearth every dirty trick used during occupation and war. At least some legal condemnation is likely to follow. Student protests across Western countries and the Eurovision song festival controversy are also harbingers of Israel’s growing social isolation. Spain, Norway and Ireland just recognized the state of Palestine after the UN general assembly voted in favor of its accession as a full member. Even Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates have started to distance themselves from Israel. It is fast becoming a pariah in large parts of the world.

It is a mistake to think that the departure of Benjamin Netanyahu, Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich is sufficient to turn the ship of state because none of Israel’s political elites - except the marginalized left - want an equitable resolution of the Palestinian issue. But if Israel as a nation wants peace and democracy, it will have to undo major elements of occupation given the risks outlined above. As this will not happen anytime soon, the most peaceful alternative is likely that the international community imposes a two-state solution. Cynically put, Yahya Sinwar - Hamas’ leader in Gaza - could not have strategized it any better.