Who’s Running This War? (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- December 4, 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. Israel has a war cabinet, a loyal security establishment, and clear war aims: to dismantle Hamas and rescue the hostages. So why ask this question?

A. The question ‘who’s running this war’ reflects a growing sentiment in Israel and elsewhere that a host of additional actors are dictating or at least influencing the course of the war. They are doing so in ways that the Israel Defense Forces increasingly must take into account.

One obvious candidate is the Biden administration. Hezbollah, Iran and the Houthis also seem to have a say. So do Egypt and Qatar, who together with the US are handling both hostage and humanitarian issues that clearly affect the course of the war.

Q. Hold on. Don’t we first have to ask whether Israel or Hamas is running the war?

A. It is certainly clear that Hamas has not been dismantled and is still functioning as a terrorist army, even if there are signs of growing anarchy on the Gaza street. Hamas is succeeding in winning over public opinion in the West Bank, among the Arab masses and in many places in the world, to Israel’s detriment. By using the Gazan population as human shields it has generated a huge humanitarian crisis that seriously hampers Israel’s freedom of maneuver in the Gaza Strip along with Israel’s international standing.

Hamas just manipulated the hostage issue to gain a weeklong pause in the war, during which it resupplied its terrorist army and bought time to generate more international pressure on Israel. Evening after evening last week, it looked to many Israelis like Hamas was calling the shots by delaying, manipulating and elaborately escorting the hostages on their way back to Israel.

So theatrical was last week’s hostage drama, so high the tension among Israelis glued to their TV screens, that Yediot Aharonot columnist Sima Kadmon was moved to ask, “who has lost control, they or us?” At the time of writing on Monday, were it to produce 20 more women and children to exchange with Israel, Hamas could probably stop the war again.

To most of the world, incidentally, the pause in the fighting and the return of close to half the hostages made Israel look good for a change after weeks of bombing, endless lines of Gazan refugees and a Palestinian non-combatant death toll of at least 10,000. Meanwhile, Hamas diversionary terrorist attacks in East Jerusalem and the West Bank have had little effect.

Hamas may have lost many of its senior commanders and thousands of its fighters, but this does not seem to have crippled its fighting capability the way a normal, sovereign state army would be crippled. Judging by the tenor of Israeli media commentary, the sense of confidence displayed a month ago that the IDF would wipe out Hamas in the northern Strip is absent when it comes to discussing the outcome of the impending battle in the southern Strip. Many Israelis have a creeping feeling that Hamas leader Yihya Sinwar knows us all too well . . .

Q. All these may indeed reflect efforts by Hamas to affect the course of the war. Yet Israel is still on the offensive . . .

A. Israel can claim that pressure by its military has been freeing the hostages, and could again. It can claim to have taken control over the northern Strip even though there are still pockets of Hamas control, including in Gaza city. While doubts have arisen as to the likelihood of a clear-cut victory over Hamas in the south, Hamas is on the defensive.

Even if international pressure obliges the IDF to conclude its ground offensive in the southern Strip within two or three weeks (depending on the scale of civilian casualties there), it still intends to cripple Hamas there just as it did in the northern Strip. At a minimum, that would leave Israel in a good bargaining position. On the other hand, once again as in previous wars against Hamas and Hezbollah terrorist armies, we have encountered the limitations of the Israel Air Force. It can inflict huge material damage and extensive human casualties. But it cannot win a war.

Meanwhile the IDF, with the backing of the US Navy in the eastern Mediterranean, has deterred Iran and Hezbollah from joining the war at any sort of strategic level that might affect Israel’s ongoing fight in Gaza.

Q. Yet Hamas’s residual fighting capability is hardly Israel’s only constraint as the war moves to the southern Strip. . .

A. The biggest potential constraint is the Biden administration, whose outspoken support for Israel is itself increasingly under pressure from US politics: an impending election year, protests within the Democratic Party, etc. Here, in looking at the Israel-US relationship, we encounter an alarming dissonance.

On the one hand are the Israelis, who are still thoroughly traumatized and energized to fight by the Hamas October 7 pogrom and the abject failure that day of the Netanyahu government and the security community. On the other hand are the US and much of Europe who are increasingly appalled over the growing humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza: thousands of civilians dying, perhaps a million already homeless.

This explains why, last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken reportedly told Israeli decision-makers that “I don’t think you have the credit” to fight for months more. Lest we forget, the US is constantly supplying Israel with strategic ordnance that is increasingly vital as this war becomes--by Israeli standards--a long conflict. Then too, Washington is energetically pursuing efforts to effect additional hostage-for-prisoner exchanges (including American citizens) that could have the effect of delaying the war further.

The Biden administration’s support for the Israeli war effort has thus far been extraordinary. In view of the humanitarian situation, its patience is amazing. Yet these very factors now potentially give it far-reaching strategic leverage over the course of the war: its duration and its conduct in populated areas.

This is particularly important if and as the US buys into the argument that Prime Minister Netanyahu wants to extend the war because when it ends, his government is likely to be brought down by Likud rank and file who blame him for it.

At the risk of stating the obvious, there is no love lost between Biden and Netanyahu.

Q. You mentioned Iran and Hezbollah. They may be deterred for the moment, but could a threat of IDF success in decapitating Hamas--for example, killing Sinwar--prompt them to come to Hamas’s rescue?

A. Hezbollah is still capable of unleashing its large missile arsenal on all of Israel’s major cities, at least temporarily overwhelming Israel’s anti-missile defenses and distracting Israel from the Gaza war. Yet the leaders of both Hezbollah and Iran have made a point of denying any prior knowledge of Hamas’s barbarous October 7 attack on Israel. This appears to be their way of explaining why their support for Hamas is relatively minimal: border attacks against northern Israel and Red Sea attacks by the Yemeni Houthis, an Iranian proxy.

It looks like Iran and Hezbollah are sufficiently deterred, including by the US naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean, that their influence on the prosecution of the Gaza war is limited. Note that last week Hezbollah observed the pause in the fighting and thereby caused Israel too to cease its fire along the northern border.

Q. Qatar and Egypt are involved in mediating hostage-for-prisoner exchanges. Egypt, in addition, is involved in the release of hostages and in channeling humanitarian aid into the Strip. How much leverage does this give them?

A. Qatar and Egypt are two totally different actors. Qatar, which shelters Hamas leaders and supports Hamas’s patron the Muslim Brotherhood, has a strong interest in salvaging Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip. Qatar’s only leverage over Israel is in facilitating the hostage-for-prisoner exchanges. Egypt, in contrast, sees the Brotherhood as the enemy of the Sisi regime and views Hamas in Gaza as, at best, a troublesome neighbor to be kept at arm’s length.

Egypt also, by resolutely refusing to allow Gazan Palestinians on its territory, declares that it will not be a party to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: it is Israel’s problem. Nor will it be drawn into conflict with Israel instigated by Palestinians--were they to be allowed into Egyptian Sinai, bordering Israel’s Negev. This position has, thankfully, frustrated not a few right-racist and otherwise naïve Israeli backers of Netanyahu who had earlier proposed transferring hundreds of thousands of Gazans to Sinai.

Egypt, then, is limiting the Gaza War to Gaza, thereby radically constraining Israel’s freedom of maneuver.

Q. Where are the less easily definable factors: Israeli public opinion and politics, the Palestinian issue in general?

A. The Israeli public, still traumatized by October 7 and its aftermath, supports the war effort and has moved further to the political right as a senior Hamas leader, just last Thursday, vowed to attack Israel “again and again and again”? But by and large the public is against Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is blamed for the war, though many of the calls for his resignation are tagged “after the war”.

There is dissonance here, just as the growing tension between Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Galant sends a dissonant message to the IDF and the Israeli public.

Neither the prime minister nor most of the public has had, for years now, a credible and viable strategy for dealing with Hamas in Gaza. One consequence is that Netanyahu has good reason to proceed slowly with the war, even if this puts him on a collision course with Biden.

The longer the war, the less immediate the Israeli public’s pressure on Netanyahu to resign. The longer the war, the more American pressure will be applied to Netanyahu to explain what--besides refusing Palestinian Authority rule--he intends for the Strip after the smoke clears and Hamas is, if not defeated, then at least badly beaten. More dissonance.

Q. Bottom line?

A. Meanwhile, Biden and Blinken repeat again and again that after the war the region must witness renewed moderate and “revitalized” Palestinian Authority rule over both Gaza and the West Bank, and a renewed two-state solution-oriented peace process. They and many Europeans insist that Israel may continue to dismantle Hamas, but only if it stops killing so many civilians. They are running out of patience.

As the dissonances grow, something has to give. This war may be going south in more ways than one.