In Three Weeks, What Has Changed? (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- October 30, 2023)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. The fog of war is enveloping both the IDF ground invasion of the Gaza Strip and behind-the-scenes contacts over hostages. Perhaps this is the time to step back, take stock, and ask: Is this a different Arab-Israel arena than the one we knew prior to October 7?

A. Yes, the emerging reality is different. How long and in what ways the metamorphosis will prevail is difficult to say. But for now it is clear that both the strategic situation on the ground and the broader international alignment have changed.

Q. Start with the situation on the ground.

A. On two fronts, Gaza and the Lebanon border, Israelis have been evacuated en masse from border settlements. This has not happened since 1948. Equally unprecedented is Israel’s demand that Palestinians in the northern Gaza Strip move south toward the Gaza-Egypt border while Israel concentrates its attack on the north. Israel is in effect engineering the forced migration, within Palestinian territory, of roughly one million Palestinians.

There is growing unrest in the West Bank, where pro-Hamas Palestinians clash with the IDF and Israeli messianist settlers try to exploit the IDF’s preoccupation with the Gaza war and expand their land-grab. The outcome since October 7 has been roughly 100 Palestinians killed and 700 Hamas activists detained (in the West Bank). The situation could deteriorate into a new intifada.

So far, Lebanon and the West Bank remain low-level-conflict arenas, but they hint at the boundaries of a potentially expanded conflict with Islamists. Israel is at war with the Palestinian Islamist movement, Hamas, which is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, a militant Islamist movement with a strong underground presence in Egypt, a parliamentary presence in Jordan, remnants of an anti-regime movement in Syria, strong regime support in Qatar and in Turkey and strong popular support on the Arab and Muslim ‘street’ everywhere, especially the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Hamas rules the Gaza Strip and challenges the Palestinian Authority and the PLO in the West Bank. The war has energized Islamists everywhere, posing a potential threat to non-Islamist Arab regimes, for example in Jordan.

In contrast, the Israel Arab sector is quiescent. One factor of influence is the killing and capture by Hamas of Negev Bedouin and other Arab citizens of Israel on October 7. Hamas, it emerges, did not discriminate between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs (and Thai and other guest workers) during its vicious Gaza periphery rampage.

In Israel, governance has seriously failed. The Netanyahu government, packed with incompetent messianist, ultra-Orthodox and Likud politicians whose support Netanyahu needs to maintain his coalition of 64 members of Knesset, seems incapable of providing efficient services to a country at war. In a dramatic development, a civilian volunteer movement has emerged. It is based on the protest movement that until October 7 challenged Netanyahu’s anti-democratic ‘judicial reform’. It has filled the void, providing vital services to refugees (yes, Israeli refugees!) from the Gaza and Lebanon fronts.

On the political front, a thoroughly traumatized Israel confronts the unprecedented specter of a prime minister who clings to power and makes strenuous efforts to blame everyone but himself and his coalition. The public has, to a large extent, lost confidence in the government, while the security establishment has acknowledged its share of responsibility for the crisis and is striving, unlike Netanyahu and his ministers, to restore confidence.

It is astounding that Netanyahu simply cannot bring himself to state unambiguously that he shares responsibility for the events of October 7. He presumably fears that this admission will be quoted back to him by a post-war commission of inquiry. He is busy gearing up for that inquiry by inventing fake news. On Saturday night he even tweeted that the heads of intelligence were to blame for the war, then erased, then apologized.

This is not leadership. It is cowardice and panic. Yet note: we have not witnessed a single desertion from Netanyahu’s Knesset coalition of 64 sycophants.

Israel’s peace movement, already seriously weakened by the rise to power of Israel’s right-religious sector, suffered a heavy blow with the Hamas attack on October 7. Among the Israeli dead and hostages are peace activists who had reached out to Palestinians in Gaza.

The entry of Benny Gantz’s National Unity party to the coalition, and Gantz’s inclusion in a leadership triumvirate with PM Netanyahu and Defense Minister Galant, has thus far not substantially boosted the public’s confidence. Note how all three have discarded business suits and instead wear open-collar black shirts that seemingly project battle-readiness, Zelensky-style.

This sartorial touch does not seem to make much of a difference. The empty bluster of the Netanyahu-Gantz-Galant trio, backed by high-level officers and ministers in a rhetorical effort to rally the public, inspire national unity and ensure their own post-war survival (“this is Israel’s second war of independence”, “Hamas is ISIS”, “Hamas is Nazi”) is depressing and at times ludicrous. Still, the nation is united behind the war effort in a way not experienced for years.

Q. Regionally and internationally?

A. The conflict arena has gradually and marginally expanded beyond Gaza to include, first, Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, and more recently Israel’s Golan border with Syria and a more distant arena, Yemen, from which missiles and drones have been launched in the direction of Israel. Iran is trying to bring additional proxy forces to Syria and armaments to Hezbollah.

Iranian proxies have also attacked US forces in Iraq and Syria. The US has counterattacked in Syria and is beefing up its military deployment in and around the region.

Thus far, all of these additional conflict fronts and arenas remain low-level and, from Hamas’s standpoint, barely symbolic. Now that Israeli ground forces have entered the Gaza Strip, the challenge is to keep the other fronts broadly inactive. The IDF needs to prevent the emergence of additional full-fledged combat zones on Israel’s Lebanon and Syria borders as well as a full-fledged intifada-like civil uprising in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Overt and unprecedented US preparations to evacuate as many as 600,000 American nationals from Israel in the event of an overwhelming Iran-backed Hezbollah missile attack are the elephant in the room that no one talks about. Who knew there were so many American citizens in Israel?

Yet another challenge is to maintain the support of the US and western European governments, which has been extraordinary until now, as they confront the humanitarian impact of heavy Palestinian losses in Gaza and renascent pro-Palestinian movements on their political left. In some cases, Hamas is being recast in the West as a progressive, democratic Palestinian movement and not a murderous Islamist gang.

Here too, Netanyahu’s inept and unprofessional ministers are doing too little, too late to counter the spillover effects.

Q. How central is the Israel-US alliance?

A. It is a key factor. Once again, as in 1973, Israel is discovering just how reliant it is on the United States for both military support and vital backing in the international arena. This is particularly relevant not only to United Nations deliberations but also to the task of buttressing Israel’s standing in the pro-western Arab world.

Then too, once again the United States is discovering that it cannot leave the Middle East or reduce its strategic presence there. It has to stand up both to the Sunni Islamists in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood, and to the Shiite Islamists--Iran and its proxies in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. Note that both strands of militant Islam come together in the Gaza Strip, where Muslim Brotherhood Hamas is financed and armed by Iran.

Strikingly--and paradoxically in view of the blow struck by Hamas to the Israeli peace movement--President Biden and America’s European allies have restored the two-state solution to center stage in the anticipated post-war arena. Biden framed the issue clearly in a statement on October 25: “. . . when this crisis is over, there has to be a vision of what comes next. And in our view, it has to be a two-state solution.”

How this can happen--how the Palestinian Authority/PLO can be restructured and restored to power in the Gaza Strip and how right-religious Israel can either be sidelined or dragged to a peace process--no one seems to know. Radical changes in both Palestinian and Israeli politics will be required. Heavy international and regional involvement will be required. How and when this could happen is at this point a mystery. Some international actors like Turkey’s Erdogan and the UN’s Guterres have seemingly already disqualified themselves as facilitators with their unbalanced rhetoric.

Q. That’s a good segue to the next question: at this very uncertain juncture, what are your best-case and worst-case scenarios from Israel’s standpoint?

A. Best case: in the course of coming weeks or even months, the IDF and the Shin Bet defang and dismantle Hamas in Gaza. Losses, including Israel’s, are huge but are tolerated by Israel, the Arab world and the international community in view of the achievement. Israel is willing to withdraw in favor of a limited IDF security presence balanced by an international or inter-Arab administrative presence.

A rejuvenated PLO agrees to restore Palestinian governance in the Gaza Strip. An internationally-sponsored two-state solution negotiating-process commences.

Q. And worst-case?

A. The IDF gets bogged down in the Gaza Strip, sustaining heavy losses without even beginning to “solve” the Hamas problem. Palestinian losses are huge, the Gaza humanitarian crisis unmanageable. All this, incidentally, is in the eyes of Hamas and its Islamist backers an ideal outcome--precisely because of world reaction to Palestinian suffering.

Israel’s unsuccessful Gaza ground invasion sparks escalated conflict with Hezbollah, whose missile barrages cause heavy Israeli civilian losses and material damage. The IDF response decimates already ailing Lebanon. Iranian proxies and terrorists attack US forces in the region. Massive pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Jordan destabilize the regime, which cuts relations with Israel. Egypt holds fast to its refusal to open its border with Gaza to Palestinian refugees, thereby exacerbating an already disastrous situation.

Israel is internationally isolated and condemned, its economy in crisis.

Q. Bottom line?

A. Neither scenario is likely. Reality will be somewhere in between, with inevitable and totally unpredictable variations.