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4 July 2024

Israel’s two-front war

The presumption of inevitable war can be self-fulfilling.

By Lawrence Freedman

“With war, if you don’t try it, you can’t know how it will turn out” — Japanese prime minister Hideki Tojo, 1941

We tend to rationalise the decision to go to war according to a rational cost/benefit analysis. This calculation sets the gains from resorting to armed force against the costs of the fighting. As war always comes with high costs, it can only be justified if there is some confidence in the likely gains. When it comes to a defensive war, the issue is whether the costs prevented will be greater than those incurred.

Yet even those who try to take these decisions as rationally as possible face great uncertainty when trying to assess how a war will turn out. They might hope that the dispute is resolved when it is over – that land will have been grabbed, people better protected, long-term security ensured. But they cannot be sure, and doubts may hold them back.

Sometimes, however, the doubts, even if well-founded, have little influence. States go to war even when they know the odds are against them. They do so in a mood of defiance, or perhaps of fatalism. They are caught in a historic moment that leaves little choice. Their sense of conflict is so deep – such a Manichaean struggle between good and evil – that a final reckoning is bound to come, so even a promised path to peace still ends up with war. There can be no concessions for the sake of peace, for there is no true peace to be had. Every conciliatory gesture risks emboldening the enemy just as every truce provides them with an opportunity to regroup. The only choice is to accept the inevitable and then hope that through will and skill they can defy the odds.

One example of this approach is Japan’s attack on the large and powerful US in December 1941, a country it could not conquer. It had yet to complete the occupation of China and had no serious plan for a complete defeat of the Americans. At best Japan hoped that a string of military victories would strengthen its political hand in negotiations. In a revealing conversation with the chiefs of the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy in September 1941, a sceptical Emperor Hirohito recalled that he was told when China was invaded in 1937 “that we could achieve peace immediately after dealing them one blow with three divisions”. There was still no peace. Would not the United States be even more challenging?

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The navy chief Admiral Osami Nagano acknowledged that there was no 100 per cent probability of victory. He then offered a metaphor: “Assume, however, there is a sick person and we leave him alone; he will definitely die. But if the doctor’s diagnosis offers a 70 per cent chance of survival, provided the patient is operated on, then don’t you think one must try surgery? And, if after the surgery, the patient dies, one must say that was meant to be. This is indeed the situation we face today… If we waste time, let the days pass, and we are forced to fight after it is too late to fight, then we won’t be able to do a thing about it.”

This satisfied Hirohito. If bad things were going to happen anyway, and war with the US and UK was inevitable, best they happen on Japan’s terms.

In the event the patient died. The war ended in August 1945 with Japan’s comprehensive defeat and occupation.

This sort of thinking has long been evident in the Middle East, with wars occurring because there are no tolerable compromises in sight. It can be found to varying degrees in the rhetoric of both Hamas and Israel, with neither side able to identify a form of peaceful coexistence that could possibly last.

With this mindset, the best that can be hoped for is mutual deterrence. It may not be possible to overcome the antagonism but at least taking a big military initiative can be made to seem too risky. Better to look for other, more indirect, means to undermine the opponent. And there is always the chance that the opponent will weaken in some way or experience regime change. A long period of calm might allow both sides to concentrate on more peaceful and productive pursuits, easing the war fever and steadily lowering tensions. We have seen that in the Middle East too, once Arab countries realised that Israel was not going to go away and could not be removed by force.

In the 1990s, the mainstream Palestinian leaders also took this view. One of the reasons a final settlement – the “two-state solution” – failed to materialise is the opposition of groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad to any accommodation with Zionism, which led to acts of terror that undermined negotiations. Another was the deep hostility shown by the Israeli right to any accommodation, spurred on by the settler movement and finding vindication in the Palestinian terror attacks. They believed they had a historic mission to occupy all the land to the Jordan River, including the West Bank taken from Jordan during the 1967 Six-Day War, which they know as “Judea and Samaria”.

This century, these rejectionist movements have fed off each other and gained in strength among both Palestinians and Israelis. The constituencies on both sides for a two-state solution have shrunk. Neither trusts the other. The extremists are part of the governing coalition in Israel and, even during the current war in Gaza, as they oppose efforts to address the humanitarian situation, they have continued with their expansionist endeavours in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

What makes the situation today even more dangerous is the role of the Iranian regime, with its slogan of “Death to Israel”. It is the Iran factor that turns a conflict which was already difficult but containable, into something that has already gone much wider. Iran has done its utmost to ensure that Hamas can sustain and develop its military capabilities, works with the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and promotes radical Shia groups throughout the region. The Arab monarchies have always been fearful of Iranian-inspired radicalism. This is one reason why they have drawn closer to Israel. Prior to the Gaza war they had also been trying to find some modus vivendi with Iran. The same was true with the Biden administration, as it tried to rescue the nuclear deal with Iran which had been agreed under Barack Obama but then abandoned by Donald Trump. However, the clerical Iranian regime has become more, not less, hard line, including supporting Russia in its aggression in Ukraine. The government there is pressing on with its nuclear programme. It presents itself as a key player in an anti-Western coalition. Its other slogan is “Death to America”.

The Gaza war began with a breakdown of deterrence. Israel believed that Hamas to its south and Hezbollah to its north understood that however much they hated Israel they could not do much about its continuing existence. But Hamas was not deterred and found a way through Israeli defences. Having concluded that Hamas cannot be either appeased or deterred, the only option left was, from the Israeli perspective, its elimination. But it also can’t be eliminated.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah joined in out of solidarity with Hamas. This has led to regular exchanges of fire in northern Israel. Even more than Hamas, it can’t be eliminated but perhaps it can be pushed back. As Israel tries to do that it must also weigh the potential costs. Currently, it is Hezbollah that is seeking to deter Israel by warning of how much punishment they can inflict. It too may fail.

The last big operation of Israel’s Gaza campaign – in Rafah – is close to completion. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared that Israel is approaching “Phase C”, which appears to involve moving its forces away from the population centres to the “barrier” areas at the edge of the Strip. This will enable it to mount occasional raids when necessary to remove active groups of fighters. With a buffer zone now established, the evacuated residents of southern Israel will be hoping to return home. There are however still up to 120 hostages unaccounted for, of which 41 are confirmed dead and 50 are believed to be alive, with the fate of the rest uncertain – though most are assumed to be dead.

Israel has done considerable damage to Hamas, destroying infrastructure – including tunnels, some of which were used for smuggling from Egypt – degrading its military capabilities, and killing many of its fighters, including senior commanders. This has been done against the backdrop of many civilian casualties and great humanitarian distress, which has led to intense international pressure for a ceasefire. Israel pressed on despite this, and in the end was helped by Hamas’s demands for a complete Israeli withdrawal as part of a ceasefire agreement, judging that whatever Israel was gaining militarily it was losing politically.

Once Netanyahu declared that Israel’s objective was its “elimination”, Hamas could claim victory simply by surviving. The group’s survival is confirmed by its engagement in ceasefire negotiations. It survives militarily by no longer operating as a regular army and instead resorting to guerrilla warfare. The head of Hamas’s military wing in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, whose capture or killing is a key objective, has yet to be found. Recent opinion polling in Gaza and the West Bank suggests that Hamas has gained in popularity. The population of Gaza is young. It will get more recruits.

For now aid is getting into Gaza, and this should increase. Although it is hard to see how much of a start can be made on full reconstruction and recovery while its future governance remains uncertain. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is already responding to Hamas’s return to places where they had supposedly been ejected, such as northern Gaza and Khan Yunis. It can only have a limited awareness of what is happening inside Gaza – enabling Hamas to reconstitute. The Israeli position has not been helped by its difficulties in describing what it wants for Gaza other than Hamas not being in control. The lack of an agreed postwar plan, combined with the continued presence of Hamas, is why it is premature to say that the Gaza campaign is close to being over.

[See also: The Israel-Iran endgame]

Nonetheless, Israel is gearing up for an incursion into Lebanon, to push Hezbollah back from its current positions. To this end it is redeploying forces from the south to the north. Netanyahu has dismissed the idea that an unfinished war in the south makes it unwise to take on a new one in the north, saying “We can fight on several fronts. We are prepared for this.”

The reason for the urgency is that the 70,000 citizens evacuated from the area bordering Lebanon want to go home, especially before the start of the school year in September. In addition to the risk to the population from missiles and drones, the authorities have been worried that Hezbollah’s elite “Radwan” brigade might try to follow Hamas and mount raids to kill or capture civilians. The objective for Israel is therefore to force Hezbollah back – if possible through diplomacy, or if necessary through a ground invasion.

The US envoy Amos Hochstein, who has been touring the region trying to end the conflict, has been using as his starting point United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. After this, Hezbollah was supposed to stay behind the Litani River. But it gradually moved forward, despite the presence of a UN force (UNIFIL, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) to stop it. Hochstein’s proposal is that Hezbollah would go back to the Litani and be replaced by the Lebanese Army in the border area and for UNIFIL to be strengthened. In return, Israel and Lebanon would sort out a long-standing border dispute, presumably in Lebanon’s favour.

Whether or not a new agreement would last, it might at least calm things down. But Hezbollah does not want to agree to a ceasefire until there is one in Gaza, lest it seem to be letting down its ally. This is despite the loss of hundreds of its fighters and the displacement of tens of thousands of people on the Lebanese side of the border.

Hezbollah is instead hoping to deter Israel from embarking on yet another major military operation by reminding the country of the difficulties it will face. The Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has said that it is Israel who should be most scared of a war. He has spoken of 100,000 soldiers ready to face the IDF (higher than some independent assessments), many of whom have had experience fighting in Syria on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime, though their operational performance there was mixed. Most ominously Nasrallah also spoke of the barrages of drones and missiles that would rain down on Israeli cities – and not just those close to the border. Israel should be “afraid”, he has said, as “no place will be safe”. To reinforce his threat, a video has been released of footage gathered by surveillance drones over northern Israel, including the port in Haifa (about 30 kilometres from the border). Another video shows a drone striking and damaging an Iron Dome battery on an IDF base in northern Israel.

CNN has reported the concerns of US officials that some of Israel’s air defences, including the Iron Dome system, could be “overwhelmed”. Hezbollah can mount quite sophisticated strikes, and its stocks of approximately 150,000 rockets and missiles include thousands of precision munitions.

Nasrallah also warned that if a war is “imposed” on Lebanon then Hezbollah will fight with “no rules and no ceilings”. He has even threatened Cyprus should it open its “airports and bases to the Israeli enemy to target Lebanon”. This would “mean that the Cypriot government is part of the war, and the resistance will deal with it as part of the war”. This threat has already created a diplomatic incident.

For their part the Israelis have made a big show of the equipment arriving close to the border. They have even begun exercises, describing it as simulating “extreme scenarios, combat in complex and mountainous terrain, activating fire, and urban warfare, as part of increasing readiness in the northern arena”. “Operational plans for an offensive in Lebanon” are reported to have been approved. The foreign minister Israel Katz has warned that his government was “very close to the moment of decision to change the rules against Hezbollah and Lebanon”. He added that: “In an all-out war, Hezbollah will be destroyed and Lebanon will be severely hit.” Benny Gantz, who was in government recently enough to know the plans, has expressed confidence they can succeed. He responded to a report about the Hezbollah threat to bring down Israel’s electrical grid: “We can bring Lebanon completely into the dark, and take apart Hezbollah’s power in days.”

To reduce the risks of Hezbollah inflicting severe hurt, Israel is relying on a relatively quick operation using regular manoeuvre forces. The border area is not as heavily populated as Gaza, and has also been heavily bombarded by Israel which is why much of the population has moved away. But it is hard to see how even a quick operation can prevent volleys of missiles coming Israel’s way, in which case volleys will soon be going in the other direction, into Lebanon. Given that Lebanon is already in a fragile state, the last thing it needs is to become a war zone once again.

Whatever happens in Gaza and Lebanon, and for that matter in the West Bank, Hamas and Hezbollah will still be there, with less capability than before but still able to make their influence felt and determined to rebuild their strength. Meanwhile, the Houthis from Yemen are still attacking shipping in the Red Sea despite the best efforts of the US Navy and the Royal Navy to shut them down.

Over the longer term, the course of these confrontations probably depends on what happens in Iran. The current presidential election, following the death of the previous one in a helicopter crash, is the best guide we have to public sentiment. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is known as the supreme leader for a reason, and his people determine who is allowed to stand for the presidency. To give the process a shred of legitimacy, and to boost turnout, they have allowed a relative moderate, Masoud Pezeshkian, to stand. Pointedly turnout for the first round on 28 June was the lowest ever, at 40 per cent – and still Pezeshkian was ahead, before Friday’s run-off. Iran’s chronic economic and social problems might lead to a big change at some point. Should that happen regional politics will change once again.

For now, if, after all this violence, none of Iran’s proxies have been fully defeated even though they have been hurt, Khamenei’s regime may feel that it is in a stronger position than it was at the start. Equally, if Israel has failed to achieve its objectives, and its enemies remain in place, then it will need to rethink its strategy. Its strategy is always to “restore deterrence”, which assumes it can persuade its opponents that even if the prospect of punishment didn’t deter them this time then next time it should. Nothing in the events of the last nine months suggests this will work any better in the future than it did last October. The presumption of inevitable war can be self-fulfilling.

The simplest way out of this dreadful situation would be for a ceasefire in Gaza to be agreed soon, which would allow Hezbollah to accept one too (although it may still be reluctant to withdraw to the Litani) and hopefully for the Houthis to end their attacks on shipping, while also able to claim a victory of sorts. Gaza will be left wrecked, with a persistent Hamas presence. The question left hanging is whether a different sort of governance for Gaza might have been designed and implemented with an international effort months ago which would have removed Hamas from effective power and allowed reconstruction to begin. The failure even to explore this possibility seriously remains a major strategic error. It is not too late to try.

Lawrence Freedman is a regular contributor to the New Statesman. This piece originally ran on his Substack “Comment is Freed“.

[See also: Elbridge Colby: “I am signalling to China that my policy is status quo”]

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