Breaking Analysis | October 13th, 2023
The journal provides insights into the range of complications that may be unleashed if Israel launches a ground invasion and destroys the governing authority.
With Israel unleashing devastating reprisals on Gaza, reportedly killing more than 1,500 Palestinians, and ordering half of its two million inhabitants to evacuate to the south ahead of a possible ground invasion, the military has declared that its aim is not restoring the status quo ante but “collapsing the governance and sovereignty of the Hamas organization.” How should we make sense of the complexities of this issue, given that the destruction of Hamas as a political entity could devastate society in Gaza and galvanize sympathies for Palestinians across the Arab and wider world?
Middle East Policy has recently published analyses that explore a range of vital issues, from Israel’s conflicts with Hamas and Hezbollah, to its de jure annexation of the occupied West Bank, to the Abraham Accords with Arab states, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hoped to use as an end-run around Israel’s commitment to pursue a two-state solution.
Three articles in Middle East Policy, two in the Fall 2023 issue and one from the summer publication, make clear that Netanyahu, despite his partnering with the far right and his government’s potential annexation of the occupied West Bank, has sought to manage threats from Hamas and Hezbollah instead of trying to destroy those groups and risk wider wars. Gadi Hitman and Alona Itskovich analyze three wars between Israel and Hamas over the last 15 years and show that neither side has made a credible claim to anything more than operational victories. Most notably, Israel has arguably not wanted to achieve strategic wins, as this would “force Israel to consider whether to reimpose control over Gaza and take responsibility for more than two million Palestinians.”
However, Hitman and Itskovich allow that this could change if Hamas alters its approach. Its massacres of more than 1,000 civilians arguably represents such a development.
Jean-Loup Samaan, in his examination of the military’s painful attempts to transform its doctrine toward the evolving threat from nonstate actors, concurs that the Netanyahu government has typically shied from major changes in the political order and focused instead on security threats. However, he notes that the provocative moves by the far-right regime, including encouraging the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, could “incite factions like Hamas and PIJ [Palestinian Islamic Jihad] to respond violently.”
In an addendum to his article, published this week at mepc.org, Samaan shows that his article was prescient about Hamas’s increased capacity to strike inside Israel.
The third of the recent Middle East Policy articles on security issues, by Daniel Sobelman, explores the 2022 maritime deal between Israel and Lebanon, arguing that Hezbollah coerced Netanyahu into accepting far less favorable terms than he would otherwise have accepted. “Netanyahu’s track record has been one of risk aversion and adherence to Hezbollah’s ‘red lines,’” he writes. However, Sobelman anticipates a situation like the one we see today, noting that the stalemate with Hezbollah could rapidly transform if it becomes involved “in a future escalation between Israel and the Gaza Strip.”
On the political front, the most thoughtful voices inside Israel advocate destroying Hamas as a military organization. However, as former intelligence chief Ami Ayalon said this week:
"We should completely change our policy in order to create a Palestinian partner. Before we even attack, we should say that we want to create a reality in which we will talk with the Palestinians, who accept the peace initiatives and who want to discuss with us the reality of two states. But I believe that no Israeli government will agree to do this today."
Indeed, as Fadi Nahhas shows in detail in an article for the Summer 2023 issue of Middle East Policy, Israel has long claimed that it does not have a credible “partner for talks” and uses this as an excuse for the de facto—or, if right-wing factions hold sway—official annexation of the Jordan Valley. “Since Netanyahu's 2009 speech expressing his willingness to accept a Palestinian state,” Nahhas writes, “he has accused the Palestinian leadership of not being capable of negotiations and has thus shut the door on diplomacy.”
Instead, Netanyahu has pursued détente with countries throughout the region through the so-called Abraham Accords, promoted by Donald Trump and Jared Kushner as resetting the terms of the peace process and obviating the need for a two-state solution. Middle East Policy has covered this development from its inception.
As Yoel Guzansky shows in the Winter 2021 journal, Israel is not the only state in the region that criticizes authorities in Palestine. It has found some common ground with the Saudis, who until the Hamas massacres and Israeli bombardment of Gaza were seriously considering normalization. “Saudi Arabia is no longer muting its criticism of both the past and present Palestinian leadership, and, like Israel, blames the Palestinians for the lack of progress in the peace process,” he writes. However, he contends that the Abraham Accords must not be a substitute for seriously pursuing a two-state resolution.
Other analysts have seen some hope in the new initiative. Rami Goldstein, writing in the Summer 2022 issue, argues that the economic incentives and political normalization provided by the accords could help to solve the thorniest obstacle to peace for Israel and Palestine: what to do with the more than six million Palestinian refugees from conflicts since 1948? The deals “can promote a future international mechanism or an international fund to compensate and help rehabilitate the Palestinian refugees,” Goldstein argues. “Israel could promote aid and investment from the Emirates and other Arab states in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, thus improving their economic situation and creating a suitable platform for a future peace agreement, based on a two-state solution.”
However, he explains that the Palestinians, for their part, have been alarmed that the provisions for a state could be undermined by the Abraham Accords if Israel and the Gulf states focus on their own security and economic interests. “The Palestinians have taken steps to curb acts of normalization between Israel and the Arab Gulf states in order to maintain them as a bargaining chip vis-à-vis Israel,” Goldstein notes.
Hamas’s strike is the most devastating and potentially counterproductive realization of such a “curb.”
In addition to these trenchant analyses, check out these important articles on the Israel-Palestine issue:
The EU and Justice in Palestine: An Interview with Grace O'Sullivan,” by Roger Gaess, Middle East Policy, Fall 2023.
“The Iran-Israel Conflict: An Ultra-Ideological Explanation,” by Farshad Roomi, Middle East Policy, Summer 2023.
“Popular Resistance against Israeli Territorial Expropriation: Beita as a Model,” by Oqab Jabali, Middle East Policy, Winter 2022.
“A Middle East Cooperation and Security Process: Has the Time Come?” by Peter Jones, Middle East Policy, Spring 2022.
“The Abraham Accords and Religious Tolerance: Three Tales of Faith-Based Foreign-Policy Agenda Setting,” by Hae Won Jeong, Middle East Policy, Spring 2021.
“Peace Is Relative: Qatar and Agreements with Israel,” by Ariel Admoni, Middle East Policy, Winter 2021.
“The Fadeout of the Pax Americana in the Middle East,” by Chas W. Freeman, Middle East Policy, Summer 2021.