All eyes will be on Israel this week.
Concerns of a wider regional conflagration were pervasive following Hamas’s brazen surprise attack which briefly back footed the IDF, conjuring (misplaced) Yom Kippur references and raising uncomfortable questions in the intelligence community, chief among them the simplest: Why did no one see this coming?
One answer might be that Israel was distracted by internal strife tied to an unpopular proposal to overhaul judicial oversight. The effort, castigated both at home and abroad as overtly and unacceptably anti-democratic, prompted stark warnings from foreign governments and ratings agencies. Moody’s described a “deterioration of governance,” which’ll sound familiar to Americans.
More importantly, the judicial overhaul stoked mass protests in Israel plunging the country into a mini-crisis and testing Benjamin Netanyahu’s mettle amid unflattering comparisons to the world’s strongmen and autocrats. Netanyahu would flatter himself a Winston Churchill. Critics might suggest Viktor Orban or Recep Tayyip Erdogan are more apt.
Either way, the optics of Hamas militants rampaging through Israeli settlements and taking hostages (both military and civilian) are disastrous. For someone who fancies himself a strongman (democratic or otherwise) the sweeping incursion into Israel from the Gaza Strip was a grievous reputational blow. The likelihood of Iranian involvement in the planning process, and the failure of Israeli intelligence to thwart the plan, is an embarrassment of almost unfathomable proportions. Gaza was relatively quiet amid turmoil in the West Bank. Too quiet, as it turns out.
Retaliation was, of course, swift, but Netanyahu warned Israel of a prolonged war. The cynical among you would suggest it’s a welcome diversion for Netanyahu. Israel’s allies around the world, including and especially the White House, are compelled to rein in their criticism at least until the situation stabilizes. But the humanitarian toll of what’s guaranteed to be a brutal, unsparing Israeli military campaign will draw international attention to the plight of civilians in Gaza.
Netanyahu promised this weekend to turn Hamas’s operational infrastructure to “rubble.” Almost invariably, that’ll mean the whole of Gaza will be reduced to what may as well be ruins, transforming the enclave’s long-running humanitarian crisis into something entirely apocalyptic. “The enemy will pay a price it has never known,” Netanyahu said. Hundreds are already dead on both sides.
The melee complicates an already murky three-party arrangement with Washington and Riyadh which would’ve seen the Saudis normalize diplomatic relations with Israel in exchange for security guarantees from the US. The Saudis and Netanyahu share a common enemy in Iran.
Joe Biden pledged to stand with Israel, but the US is facing its own internal strife and one chamber of Congress is incapacitated. The US provided $3.3 billion in security assistance to Israel last year. If you don’t count Ukraine, Israel was the largest recipient of US aid.
Unfortunately, Republicans will insist that somehow, funds made available to Iran as part of a recent prisoner swap played a role in the attacks. That’s a distraction. The real concern, obviously, is that Iran is looking to thwart any kind of accord with the potential to undermine its capacity to project influence and power in the region.
On Saturday, there were fireworks and celebrations in Tehran, where several hundred waved Palestinian flags and chanted “Death to Israel.” It’s important international audiences understand that such displays are at least partially coordinated and convened by the IRGC. To call them organic, spontaneous celebrations does a disservice to regular Iranians, for whom this isn’t a black and white issue. Attendees also carried large posters of Qassem Soleimani.
The risk now is that the conflict spirals and that Hezbollah enters the fray. On Sunday, Hezbollah fired rockets at Israeli positions in the north. IDF drones fired back. In Egypt, a policemen shot and killed two Israeli tourists.
This is, without exaggeration, another existential moment for Israel. As ever, Hamas is hopelessly outgunned. Within days (hours, even) the casualty asymmetry will be stark. The death toll in Gaza will mount, and civilians will pay a heavy price.
But the combination of the apparent security failure, the harrowing imagery from the initial hours of the attack (when Hamas reportedly went “door to door” looking for hostages) and the already fraught domestic political backdrop, together represent what some described over the weekend as an “unprecedented” challenge.
There’s no doubt that Netanyahu will make good on his promise to exact a massive toll from Hamas and Gaza. The question is: What then?