A version of this article appeared in Secure American Freedom Foundation’s website.
U.S. President Biden’s speech conveyed unwavering support of Israel, but I would not count on that in the mid- or long-term. Both because the U.S. public sentiment can shift and because, as heartwarming as it is to entertain the possibility of the U.S. waking up and even getting involved, that is not going to happen. Even if it does, it will not really be the strategic feat everyone thinks it would be. In fact, it could be detrimental to Israel’s strategic interests, even when done with the best of intentions.
First, some thoughts about the speech, to be followed by an analysis of Israel’s strategic position after last Saturday’s calamity. Only then will we be able to determine what role the U.S. should play in the coming days and weeks to protect and promote Israel’s security and interests.
As to the Biden himself – his tone will change soon enough, as photographic evidence emerges showing the toll exacted on the other side. This was already hinted at in his speech when he emphasized the need to uphold and adhere to humanitarian laws.
Even if we were to put aside this cynical view and acknowledge that something substantial has changed in Washington’s perception – it should be emphasized that Israel has no use for any more shocked and grieving sympathy. Right now, it would be vital and productive – not to mention justified and natural – for the West to change course and finally readopt the understanding that Israel has cruel enemies seeking to take the lives of its citizens. This simple insight has long been rejected, and Hamas has done nothing to improve the image of Arabs in Judea and Samaria; making this a highly important achievement.
Down the line, what Israel needs is for the West to show understanding and resolve, giving Israel the leeway and moral support required for attaining a victory that would be not merely decisive but overwhelming. Israel’s image right now is of having suffered a severe blow. I hear doubt about Israel’s long-term future even from its most stalwart supporters in the U.S. It is crucial that people start perceiving Israel as being on the cusp of a victory which would usher in a regionwide upheaval, expunging or eclipsing the impression of defeat and weakness.
Accordingly, at this stage it matters less what people say and how much support and empathy is received from abroad. Everything depends on the use Israel makes of its power and on the result the war will achieve down the road.
Israel’s Strategic Position
The war started in Gaza, but it is not about Gaza. The two relevant leaders of Iran, Ayatollahs Khameini and Raisi, have both now said that Israel has suffered in this war an exposure of weakness from which it will be impossible for Israel to recuperate. Israel is on the strategic defensive, and sliding down towards unraveling. This is the fundamental strategic purpose of this war for those who launched it – and make no mistake, this war was launched from Gaza, but ordered from Tehran.
At this moment, it would be foolish to dismiss Khamenei’s and Raisi’s narrative as empty bravado, since many, and not only in the region but globally, are falling prey to it. Even last night, former President Trump – for whom being seen as a loser is a greater criticism than being immoral or even criminal – has said that Israel now is weak. But he is not alone. Americans may sympathize with underdogs and victims, but they like to be associated with winners – and certainly want to base the U.S.’s regional strategic interests on a pillar of strength. Any one who has dealt with the strongest non-Jewish supporters of Israel in the last week have heard the first rumblings of a loss of faith in Israel’s viability among the communities that most anchor U.S. support for Israel. This is perhaps one of the greatest strategic threats Israel has faced since the same calculations led many in 1948 not to support Israel to begin with.
Similarly, across the region many nations that have made peace with Israel had done so because they calculated Israel as a powerful, solid, and rising country, to whom the weaker in the region would do well to attach their carts. In a most basic sense, since the beginning of the Obama administration, nations in the region harbor ever greater fears of American regional abandonment – and even hostility toward allies at times from the U.S. (Mubarak, Crown Prince bin Salman, etc.). Seeing a powerful, rising Israel appeared to them to be the foundation of a replacement alliance that can weather the erosion of the American era. It is precisely this latter stature given Israel that was the engine of regional peace treaties and the greatest threat to Iran’s regional ambitions. As such, on every level, it became a strategic imperative to damage Israel’s reputation for strength, competence and solidity. Launching the war in Gaza had nothing to do with Palestinians, and everything to do with making this one strategic point – Israel is weak and unraveling – around which all regional strategic conditions that Iran seeks will follow.
As such, Israel is currently suffering a regional strategic tide running against it, accelerating exponentially since the catastrophe of the Sabbath/Simchat Torah massacre. Since this is not about Gaza, but about regional strategic trends, the war Israel must fight has to be shaped to answer the strategic challenge and address those trends. Simply, Israel needs to fundamentally reverse the strategic momentum regionally, which accelerated against its favor dramatically following the catastrophe of the last few days. To do so, a thorough exorcism of Hamas from Gaza is necessary. Still, even the destruction of Hamas in Gaza – any victory within the confines of Gaza alone –cannot sufficiently deliver such a tectonic geostrategic shift because it is not about Gaza. While this started in Gaza, it needs to end in Tehran.
Practical steps to strategic victory: What is America’s Role?
Since Israel suffered a blow to the image of strength, which lies at the heart of its long term survival and viability in the region, any U.S. operational and direct involvement to supplement Israeli action only validates the dangerous idea that Israel alone is too weak to defend itself and thus is neither a strong horse to which to attach one’s cart for those who want peace with Israel, nor a solid foundation for western regional interests for America. As such, it is imperative that Israel must own its defense and deliver a victory that exemplifies its independent strength, not tarnishes it yet further. So, it must be the lone operational actor in executing this strategic victory, no matter how comforting having a big brother take part. Israel must resurrect its reputation, which is something only Israel on its own can do.
While Israel thus should reject any offers of operational intervention, that is not to say that moral and even material support for Israel is not essential and should be strongly sought and encouraged. In terms of moral support, the region is still tribal. The certainty that a powerful allied tribe is in your corner – the strong horse – is a major pillar of tribal defense. In turn, the perception of abandonment by your tribal patron or ally is essentially a death sentence, as it was personally even for Muhammad himself when his uncle said he can no longer extend his protection to the future leader, causing him to flee for his life. The Saudis have felt this abandonment in recent years – which is precisely what is driving them to turn to Israel as a replacement –and Israel too has felt it – which is what encouraged Iran to see strategic opportunity and launch such as war as it has. As such, unequivocal moral support remains important.
So too material supply. It is critical because Israel can win this, but it will burn through a lot to get there. It will need to rebuild immediately and extensively in an intensely urgent way as the war progresses and ends. U.S. support for Israel sends a clear signal that Israel is not alone, and supply and restocking is perhaps also the most critical area in which Israel will need help. Moreover, there are areas where Israel clearly had not prepared sufficiently for a mobilization of nearly 400,000 reserves, and an airlift of essential military supplies and equipment is important.
There also are invisible areas in which Israel’s image of independence would not be compromised and in which the U.S. can provide important assistance to Israeli operations that should be put in full gear immediately: intelligence cooperation, support roles for any long-range Israeli strikes, air corridors, immediate communication and counter-cyber assistance, police equipment support and large amounts of small arms, helmets and personal gear required, and so forth. But to be clear: there is virtually no chance that the United States will help Israel in actual combat roles, nor is it in Israel’s interest to accept such help if offered.
What sort of war?
The aim of this war for Israel can be no less than to reverse the dangerous strategic momentum against it that has been created, and instead turn geostrategic conditions against Iran to the point where Tehran, not Tel Aviv, exudes anxiety and foreboding. This war must end with Iran again strategically besieged. The only way Israel can overcome the initial devastation to its image of potency is by such a massive strategic victory that leaves Iran’s regime itself reeling.
The answer to that lies not in Gaza, but in the North. Syria’s regime is the gateway of Iran’s regional ambitions. Hezbollah and the IRGC’s presence in Syria is what lends Iran access to the region from its strategic heart in Iran and now sadly in Iraq. At the same time, Assad’s Syria cannot survive alone any more. Hezbollah and the IRGC in Syria are essentially now the security foundation of the Syrian regime. Destroying Hezbollah and the IRGC in Syria is not only a threat to Assad’s regime, but Iran’s Achilles heel – hence the hesitation right now in Hezbollah’s joining the war. It prefers to fight it in Gaza – which is precisely why Israel must carry it to Hezbollah.
Simply, Iran’s regional position cannot survive a destruction of Hezbollah.
Moreover, even if somehow a severely weakened Assad regime survives, within that context for Israel to establish a corridor to the Suweida Druze, who are in revolt already, as Ehud Yaari has suggested in recent articles, can add to the blow to the Syrian regime and set up a long-term profound change in the north by creating an Israeli contiguity to a Druze entity. If the Syrian regime falls and a corridor to the Druze established, the ripples of this immense strategic blow to Iran can shake the foundations of the Iranian regime itself.
The destruction of Hezbollah, and the destabilization of Assad’s regime, thus can administer a devastating blow that begins to seize the geostrategic momentum and turn the tide from last weekend’s disaster into anxiety in Iran’s regime. In turn, the political defeat that laying strategic swift to Tehran’s regional structure would produce regime anxiety and uncertainty, which can encourage Iranians to escalate their efforts to secure their own freedom, thus devastatingly exacerbating Tehran’s anxiousness and resulting image of besieged weakness. The Iranian people would then smell the weakness and give the regime a good run. In the very least, the region perception will have shifted from a sense of Israeli weakness to the smell of fear gripping the Iranian regime.
Naturally, on the tactical level we must prevent warfare on two fronts simultaneously, which requires an initial containment posture on one front, and an aggressive advance on the second, followed by returning and addressing decisively again the originally contained front. Striking Hizballah suddenly and decisively first would leave the enemy bloc stunned and cut off from the strategic sinkhole that is Iran, even before the IDF is forced to take up urban warfare in the alleyways of Gaza. Indeed, it could be expected that one would see Gazans sensing the weakness of the Iranian bloc if it suffers such a strategic defeat, and many may start matters in their own hands and turn on Hamas – making Israel’s occupation of Gaza in conditions of urban warfare just a bit easier.
The final outcome must be a geopolitical strike so traumatic to Iran that it ends up not just rattling Gazans, but the Iranian regime, which must be shocked to its core. An attending strike on Iran’s nuclear program might drive that point home even further – as well as reset the bar on that program at a much lower level of tolerance, if at all. For one of the conceptual lessons of this war is that one should take the stated homicidal intentions of the enemy seriously and ensure that he does not amass means to execute his murderous plans at the beginning – not at the end – of his buildup.
It is in the wake of this sort of strategy that the Iranian people will discern its government’s weakness and launch its resistance. Even if Iran’s government survives the turmoil, it will clearly be hemmed in. Only a reversal of the regional strategic momentum could help convince the world that Israel is stronger and a better ally to strategically deter the future enemy. Only such a victory can convince our supporters in the west that Israel is no loser nor dependent on the world’s good graces.
Thus, an overwhelming victory must be achieved in Gaza, and the entire territory must be occupied and purged for months. This course of action is necessary, but no longer sufficient. Hezbollah must be destroyed and shaken to its core, even to the point of toppling the Syrian regime, in order to critically injure Iran’s geopolitical standing; so that Russia, too, realizes that being an enemy of Israel doesn’t pay. And at this stage, it might be better to start with Hizballah first.
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