Hudson Institute

Three Things about the Israel-Hamas War | January 25, 2024

Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East
Senior Fellow (Nonresident)
Senior Fellow, Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East
An Israeli artillery unit moves along the border with the Gaza Strip on January 19, 2024, in southern Israel. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)
An Israeli artillery unit moves along the border with the Gaza Strip on January 19, 2024, in southern Israel. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

Three Things about the Israel-Hamas War is a series from the Hudson Center for Peace and Security in the Middle East. Every week, Hudson Senior Fellows Michael DoranCan Kasapoğlu, and Jonathan Schachter will join Research Fellow Zineb Riboua to offer an analysis of one thing—and one thing only—that is of particular importance to understand the Israel-Hamas war. Subscribe here.

Read their analysis below.

1. The most consequential fight between Jerusalem and Washington is over Lebanon, not Gaza.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reported rejection of the Biden administration’s demand that a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority take over Gaza is making headlines. But the more consequential disagreement between Jerusalem and Washington is over Israel’s insistence that Hezbollah withdraw its forces from the northern border.

Prevailing in Gaza is proving more difficult than many Israelis expected. Hamas’s tunnel system is so large and sophisticated that there is not enough TNT in all of Israel to destroy it. In addition, the Biden administration has pressured the Netanyahu government to initiate what the Israelis call “Phase Three” of the conflict. This phase calls for replacing full-spectrum combat operations like those used to capture Gaza City with targeted raids and special operations missions aimed at wearing down Hamas cadres over time.

The war against Hamas will therefore drag on for many more months, possibly years. The outcome, however, is foreordained: Israel will win, and Hamas will lose. The inevitability of victory makes the American pressure easier for Israelis to accept.

By contrast, American pressure in the north is impossible for Jerusalem to stomach. Israeli officials have repeatedly stated that the war will not end until Hezbollah’s forces are driven back from the border and evacuated Israeli civilians have returned to their homes and businesses. The Biden administration, for its part, is strongly opposed to any escalation of the conflict that would give Israel a reasonable chance of success. 

The source of this opposition is not difficult to glean. An Israeli escalation in Lebanon would destroy the Biden administration’s effort to reach a modus vivendi with Iran, the centerpiece of its Middle East strategy. The Biden team is therefore attempting to solve the conflict through diplomacy, led by Biden’s special envoy Amos Hochstein.

Israelis are equally divided about Hochstein’s initiative: one half calls it the longest of all longshots, while the other regards it as pure fantasy. When the initiative inevitably collapses, Hezbollah will remain capable of heating up the border at will, a situation no government could allow. The Israelis, focused for the moment on Gaza, are putting off the showdown with Hezbollah. The biggest fight between Washington and Jerusalem is therefore yet to come.

Michael Doran

2. The failure of Operation Prosperity Guardian stems from its ill-conceived political objectives.

Unlike in a video game, in a military campaign victory does not depend on how many tanks you blow up, and no bonuses are awarded for eliminated targets. Combat operations succeed when they serve well-defined political objectives. 

What are the political objectives of Operation Prosperity Guardian in the Red Sea, and has it proved successful so far? 

At the formation of the maritime coalition in late 2023, United States Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced the campaign’s political goals as ensuring freedom of navigation for all countries and bolstering regional security and prosperity. As of late January 2024, US Central Command admits that Houthi forces have been continuously launching Iran-made missiles and drones into the shipping lanes of the Red Sea.

When it comes to air and missile interception rates, the maritime coalition has done well. The assets that have been combat deployed in the area have intercepted the majority of hostile air threats thus far. Nonetheless, the campaign has failed to meet the political objectives presented by Secretary Austin. 

There is no freedom of navigation in the Red Sea. According to the shipping giant Maersk, which has suspended its Red Sea operations alongside other important firms, the disruption could persist for months. For this to occur, the Houthis do not even have to score kills. They just need to turn the Red Sea into a shooting range for their Iranian anti-ship ballistic missiles. No business would sail into a shooting range.

The effects of the crisis are global. Shipping companies are taking longer routes around the Cape of Good Hope, delaying deliveries for up to weeks. Insurance fees are skyrocketing. A months-long disruption could trigger higher inflation and threaten the worldwide availability of goods.

The main reason for the failure of Operation Prosperity Guardian is not its military effectiveness but its flawed geopolitical goals. In its operational design, it is a predominantly defensive effort; the few punitive strikes that have been undertaken in its name have stood little chance of deterring the Houthis or their masters in Tehran. It is time for the West to accept that an offense-dominant regime cannot be deterred by defensive combat operations, and a hostile power cannot be tamed by diplomatic outreach alone.

Can Kasapoğlu

3. In this period of great uncertainty, why have the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations taken a stance that seems certain to fail?

In January 2016, Laurent Fabius, the then foreign minister of France, announced that Paris was seeking to convene an international peace summit to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He declared that if the effort failed, France would recognize a Palestinian state.

For decades, the Palestinian leadership has tried to achieve whatever diplomatic gains it could without making concessions or even negotiating with Israel. An imposed “solution,” therefore, has long been their wish. Hiding behind this desire is a fundamental unwillingness to commit to either the end of the conflict or the end of their claims. By design, a Palestinian state created without these two commitments would not end the conflict but perpetuate it. 

By promising to recognize a Palestinian state if the summit did not bear fruit, the French foreign minister disincentivized Palestinian cooperation and ensured the failure of his own initiative. The conference idea was shelved. 

Now, eight years later, as the war in Gaza rages on, international calls for a Palestinian state have grown louder and more frequent. In just the last week, UN Secretary General António Guterres; the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell; President Biden; and other world leaders have raised the issue. A spokesman for the US State Department summarized the prevailing argument on January 18: 

There needs to be a political path forward for the establishment of a Palestinian state. That is the only way not just to answer the legitimate hopes, dreams, aspirations of Palestinian people, but it is also—and this is critical—the only way to provide lasting security for the Israeli people. 

Since the mid-1990s, there have been two large-scale experiments in Palestinian self-government: the Palestinian Authority (by agreement with Israel) and Hamas’s rule of Gaza (following an election and a bloody intra-Palestinian coup). Neither has provided lasting security for the Israeli people. The Palestinian Authority is a corrupt dictatorship that continues to incite and incentivize terrorism. Meanwhile, Hamas has used its nearly 17 years in power to build a terrorist army that launched the ongoing war after breaking an existing ceasefire and inflicting mass murder, rape, and kidnapping on many hundreds of Israeli civilians in their homes.

The burden of proof in the argument for a Palestinian state, then, should be on the proponents of its establishment. Even putting aside for the moment the disastrous implications of a foreign policy that rewards mass murder with diplomatic gains, what explains the persistent belief that creating such an entity will provide security despite decades of evidence suggesting it will do exactly the opposite?

Jonathan Schachter

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