Israel could win this Gaza battle and lose the war

Stephen Walt

Foreign Policy  /  October 9, 2023

An all-out effort is again underway to maintain an unsustainable regional status quo.

Another bloodletting is underway between Israel and Hamas. Hamas started the latest round by launching a well-coordinated missile and ground attack on Israel, including the kidnapping of some number of Israeli soldiers and civilians and the temporary seizure of several border communities. To say Israel was caught off guard is an understatement, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared that Israel is now “at war,” and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are retaliating, just as they have done on previous occasions.

Predictably, each side blames the other. Israel and its supporters portray Hamas as nothing but a brutal gang of Iranian-backed terrorists who have deliberately attacked civilians in particularly disturbing ways. Palestinians and their supporters acknowledge that attacking civilians is wrong but blame Israel for imposing an apartheid regime over its Palestinian subjects and subjecting them to systematic and disproportionate violence over many decades. They also point out that international law permits oppressed peoples to resist unlawful occupation, even if the methods Hamas has chosen are illegitimate.

What are we to make of this shocking event? Unlike Paul Poast, I don’t see the fighting as further evidence that the global security order is deteriorating. Why not? Because this is hardly the first time that large-scale violence has erupted between Israel and Hamas. Israel pummeled the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead in December 2008, did it again in Operation Protective Edge in 2014, and then did so once more (on a smaller scale) in May 2021. These attacks killed several thousand civilians (perhaps a quarter of them children) and further impoverished the trapped population of Gaza, but they didn’t bring us any closer to a lasting and just solution. It was, as some Israelis commented, just a case of “mowing the lawn.”

The novel feature of this latest round of fighting is that Hamas achieved near-total surprise (much as Egypt and Syria did 50 years ago, during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War) and has demonstrated unexpected combat capabilities. The attack inflicted more harm on Israel than any of its previous operations; more than 700 Israelis have reportedly been killed, with the death toll expected to rise, and an unknown number have been captured, including some IDF soldiers.

The attack has clearly shocked Israeli society. The government’s failure to detect or prevent the attack may eventually mark the end of Netanyahu’s political career, and like the intelligence failure back in 1973, it is likely to lead to recriminations inside Israel that will reverberate for years. But Hamas is still much weaker than Israel, and the fighting is not going to shift the overall balance of power between them. Israel will almost certainly retaliate harshly, and Palestinian civilians in Gaza and elsewhere—including many who do not support Hamas—will pay a high price.

No one knows for certain where this crisis is headed or what the long-term impact will be, but here are some tentative conclusions.

First, this latest tragedy confirms the bankruptcy of U.S. policy toward the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is not the place for a detailed rehearsal of the ways the United States has mishandled this issue (for excellent accounts, see the books by Galen JacksonJerome SlaterSara RoySeth Anziska, and Aaron David Miller), but suffice it to say that U.S. leaders from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama had repeated opportunities to shut this conflict down and failed to do so. They had plenty of help from misguided or inept Israeli and Palestinian leaders, of course, not to mention the potent political opposition from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other hard-line elements of the Israel lobby, but that’s only a partial excuse. Instead of acting as an evenhanded mediator and exploiting the enormous leverage at their disposal, both Democratic and Republican administrations bowed to pressure from the lobby, acted like “Israel’s lawyer,” pressed Palestinian leaders to make onerous concessions while giving Israel unconditional support, and turned a blind eye to Israel’s decades-long effort to gobble up the lands supposedly reserved for a future Palestinian state.

Even today, the U.S. government continues to shovel money at Israel and defend it in international forums while insisting that it is committed to a “two-state solution.” Given the “one-state reality” that is apparent to most everyone, I’m still surprised that the press corps doesn’t burst out laughing every time some poor State Department spokesperson invokes that obsolete and utterly meaningless pledge. Why should anyone take the U.S. position on this issue seriously when its declared goals are so disconnected from the actual situation on the ground?

As usual, the official U.S. response to the fighting is to condemn Hamas for its “unprovoked attacks,” express rock-solid support for Israel, and studiously ignore the broader context in which this is occurring and the reasons why some Palestinians feel they have no choice but to use force in response to the force that is routinely employed against them. Yes, it was “unprovoked” in the narrow legal sense that Israel wasn’t about to attack Gaza, which might justify preemption by Hamas. But it was surely “provoked” in the commonsense meaning of the term—that is, as a violent response to the conditions that Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere have faced for decades—even if Hamas’s willingness to deliberately attack civilians in particularly brutal ways is cruel, indefensible, and quite possibly counterproductive.

If U.S. politicians from both parties were less craven, they would rightly condemn Hamas’s actions and at the same time denounce the cruel and illegal acts that Israel routinely inflicts on its Palestinian subjects. Israeli military veterans say these things, but U.S. leaders don’t. If you ever wonder why past U.S. peace efforts failed and why many people around the world no longer see the United States as a moral beacon, here’s part of your answer.

Second, this new bloodletting is yet another sad reminder that in international politics, power matters more than justice. Israel has been able to expand in the West Bank and keep the Gazan population in an open-air prison for decades because it is much stronger than the Palestinians and because it has co-opted or neutralized other parties (e.g., the United States, Egypt, the European Union) that might have opposed these efforts and forced it to negotiate a lasting peace.

Yet this event—and the many clashes that preceded it—may also reveal the limits of power. War is the continuation of politics by other means, and powerful states sometimes win on the battlefield and still lose politically. The United States won all the big battles in Vietnam and Afghanistan, but it ultimately lost both wars. Egypt and Syria were badly defeated in the 1973 war, but the losses Israel suffered in that war convinced its leaders (and their American patrons) that they could no longer ignore Egypt’s desire to regain the Sinai. Hamas will never be able to defeat Israel in a direct test of strength, but its attack is a tragic reminder that Israel is not invulnerable and the Palestinian desire for self-determination cannot be ignored. It also shows that the Abraham Accords and the recent efforts to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia are no guarantee of peace; indeed, they may have made this latest conflict more likely.

Where will it lead? It’s hard to say. The smart move for all the parties would be to start with a rapid return to the status quo ante: Hamas would cease its rocket attacks, withdraw immediately from any areas it has seized, offer to return the Israelis it has captured without demanding they be exchanged for Hamas members in Israel’s custody, and both sides would agree to a cease-fire. And then the United States and others would launch a serious, evenhanded, and sustained push for a just and meaningful peace. But that is not going to happen: After all, when was the last time any of these parties did something smart or farsighted?

Instead, Israel will go to great lengths to deny Hamas even the appearance of a tactical success, and it may even try to expel Hamas from Gaza once and for all. The U.S. government will stand firmly behind whatever Israel decides to do. Voices calling for moderation will be ignored, and the cycle of vengeance, suffering, and injustice will continue. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University