After the events of the last month and a half, what does Israel need now, and where does it go from here? That’s what I sought to learn on a trip to Israel last week, where I met with senior civilian and defense officials and leading outside experts.
Discussing with @NewsNation's @MarniHughesTV his recent piece in @TheNatlInterest and visit to Israel, JINSA President & CEO @MichaelMakovsky argues that Israel needs "the time and the [U.S.] support to be able to finish their job of getting rid of Hamas." pic.twitter.com/XqcOgMLj08
— JINSA (@jinsadc) December 1, 2023
Israel’s most pressing need is time. Israeli leaders believe their campaign to destroy Hamas is going well, proceeding faster and incurring fewer IDF casualties than visiting American generals expected. But the IDF needs time to maintain its deliberate, meticulous pace of rooting out Hamas terrorists hiding behind civilians and below ground in the dense urban Gazan environment. If the IDF went faster, it could risk more IDF and Palestinian casualties. Israeli defense officials insisted a ceasefire would be harmful since Hamas is on the run and must not be allowed to regroup and rearm, though, of course, it would be tolerated for the release of a substantial number of the 240 hostages held in Gaza by Hamas and other terrorist entities.
Israel also needs a great deal of ammunition. To maintain its campaign against Hamas and to be ready should Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based terrorist Iran proxy, increase the severity of its already daily attacks, Israel needs more bombs. Israeli officials were very appreciative of the steady American supply of weapons, but they made it clear they needed more. For instance, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) requires thousands more MK-84s, or “dumb” bombs, and many more Boeing-made Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) kits to maximize battlefield effectiveness and limit collateral damage. My organization, JINSA, has for years urged the positioning of thousands of JDAMs in the U.S. arms depot in Israel, WRSA-I, which would have reduced the scrambling for them now. Israel also needs more helicopters—Boeing Apaches and Sikorsky CH-53Ks—and Boeing F-15 jets.
With enough time and ammunition, which the Biden administration needs to do its utmost to provide, Israel can accomplish what senior officials made clear are their two main goals in Gaza. First, the IDF must destroy Hamas so Israelis can again feel safe to live in its southern towns (over 100,000 have been evacuated since the October 7 massacre). This will include the creation of a demilitarized buffer zone a few kilometers deep within Gaza to help ensure the border is secure.
Second, the IDF must restore deterrence. Hamas’ October 7 invasion severely undercut the Israeli security establishment’s vaunted reputation. In a region where adversaries ruthlessly exploit any whiff of weakness or incompetence, Israel must demonstrate its determination and power. Iran and many other Islamists have long believed Israel is in decline and will eventually disappear. Despite Hamas triggering this war and the great care the Israeli military takes to avoid Palestinian civilian casualties (even as Hamas facilitates them by hiding in mosques, schools, and hospitals), Israel’s fierce retaliation has created immense destruction in Gaza. That has damaged Israel’s international position and triggered anti-Semitic rhetoric and attacks in the West, but it has had a positive side effect: it must give pause to Hassan Nasrallah, head of Hezbollah, as he ponders what would happen to him, his organization, and Lebanon if he attacked Israel as Hamas savagely did on October 7. My colleague, former Israeli national security advisor and IDF Major General (ret.) Yaakov Amidror, insists Israel could not survive in the Middle East if Israel did not make a clear example of Hamas—that any actor who conducts an attack on the order of October 7 against Israel will be completely annihilated militarily.
Accomplishing those two goals will entail more than just the ongoing operations in Gaza. The current phase of the war in Gaza, in which Israel is destroying the bulk of Hamas’s fighters, leaders, and infrastructure, is expected to last several months. Then Israel will likely reduce its forces and focus on eliminating pockets of Hamas fighters here and there, in Gaza and abroad. Perhaps some will be permitted to flee the Strip under certain conditions. This second phase might take another nine to twelve months.
During this phase, Israel, in coordination with the United States, Egypt, and likely some Gulf Arab countries, will have to decide on and implement some interim plan for the governance of Gaza within a broader Israeli security overlay, which ensures order and security for Israel’s south. This is perhaps the most perplexing issue, with more obvious questions than practical answers evident. There is no apparent consensus in the Israeli government yet about what exact plan to pursue, but notably, some senior officials viewed the post-Hamas situation as an opportunity to get right what they consider the 1993 Oslo Accords and 2005 Israeli disengagement to have gotten wrong in the West Bank and Gaza Strip—namely, the need to not rely on a Palestinian strongman to keep order but to seek demilitarization and deradicalization of the people, such as occurred in post-WWII Japan and Germany. Whether that’s realistic or not is unclear, but it points to some at least considering a fresh approach to the Palestinian issue.
However Gaza’s governance is resolved, Israel will likely need a respite to heal after the bulk of heavy fighting concludes in 2-3 months, according to current expectations. Israeli society has been dealt a severe blow. Since October 7, Israel has suffered about 1,300 people killed (including 390 soldiers), 6,900 injured, and about 215 hostages still abducted. Its economy has been damaged from the lost economic activity during the war, including the sizeable call-up of over 400,000 reservists in a country of 9 million, to the enormous needs of its 200,000-300,000 citizens dispossessed from the north and south, and the greater defense burden it will now need to shoulder. Its military will need to restock its supplies and revise its strategies. The country will need to investigate and draw conclusions from the colossal failure of October 7, leading to possible changes in the military leadership. The unity embodied in the slogan one sees across billboards in Israel now, roughly translated as “Together We Win,” will certainly dissipate quickly, and new elections will likely be called at some point next year.
The Israeli government will probably try, by the spring of 2024, to conclude normalization with Saudi Arabia, which Prime Minister Netanyahu, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and President Biden all publicly committed to before October 7. It is unclear, however, if the war and the necessities of its aftermath will change the required terms. Such normalization, if pulled off, is not only in all three countries’ interests but would offer a clear rebuke to Hamas and its patron in Tehran, which was so keen to derail that historic peace.
Israel will also likely resume discussions toward a U.S.-Israel mutual defense treaty. If such a treaty had been in place already, it might have helped serve as a deterrent to Iran, which is badly needed now. President Biden’s staunch support of Israel, in contrast to some very vocal opponents of Israel in his own party and even some more civil critics (such as former President Obama), demonstrate that now might be the best time to cement such a pact.
Then, at some point, Israel will need to address the Hezbollah threat to its north. After October 7, Israel believes it can no longer tolerate another highly armed, Iran-backed, genocidal terrorist organization on its border. Indeed, tens of thousands of Israelis on its northern border have evacuated their homes and moved elsewhere.
Israeli officials make clear that United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 needs to be enforced, either through U.S. pressure or by Israeli force. That resolution, unanimously passed after the Second Lebanon War in 2006, mandated the disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon outside the Lebanese Armed Forces and the establishment of a zone from south of the Litani River to the Israel border “free of any armed personnel, assets and weapons other than those of the Government of Lebanon and of UNIFIL [United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon].” Neither mandate has been enforced, not by the Hezbollah-dominated Lebanese government, the UN, the United States, nor even Israel.
Indeed, a little-mentioned, grave Israeli strategic failure has been allowing Hezbollah to augment its rocket and missile arsenal from 10,000 following the Second Lebanon War to over 150,000 today, including several hundred precision-guided munitions. (For reference, Hamas had an estimated 20,000 rockets and missiles before October 7.) Israel implicitly and belatedly recognized this utter failure by initiating its “campaign between the wars,” in which it proactively attacked Iran and Iran-backed forces to minimize their footprint in Syria and block their transfer of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
In contrast, Israel’s approach to Hamas, which obviously has been a target of heavy criticism post-October 7, was relatively more defensible. That threat appeared more manageable. Israel had neither interest in reoccupying Gaza nor a clue who could or would rule it responsibly instead of Hamas, and it did not want to get bogged down in the south with Hezbollah in the north and Iran’s nuclear program posing a far larger existential challenge. Of course, that approach depended upon the IDF’s ability to defend its southern border.