The Bear Scenario for Israel
How did this happen, and where is this going?
“In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more,” Ernest Hemingway wrote in In Another Country. Colleagues around the globe awoke this weekend to find that ignorance and fallibility are the rule.
As of writing, the Israeli government reports at least 900 of its own people dead. Hamas reportedly still holds a hundred or so hostages, whom the Palestinian militants are threatening to murder.
Everything is very uncertain. Benjamin Netanyahu, who some fashion the Winston Churchill of the Middle East, is surely in agony. There are parallels. Both men spent careers embattled. Both were always, seemingly, mounting a comeback. Netanyahu and Churchill rose as intellectual-politicians, militarists, and “free” traders. Now Bibi may lead a unified, wartime government just as his career again approached mortal danger.
There is a less acclaimed comparison to be made, as well. At the end of his career, must the Israeli prime minister also act as Russia’s Vladimir Putin did at the beginning of his, facing the outbreak of the Second Chechen War? Must Netanyahu live up to the mantra never to negotiate with terrorists?
What if Israel in this period ends up being remembered as Russia? As a powerful and fearsome world player, yes, but also as a nation all incorrectly assumed possessed an invincible military and intelligence network.
As an assessment of pure capacity without scruples, the mow-down on the Mediterranean was the “Israel bear” and “Islamist bull” scenario.
No one had it. Certainly not in the Western, English-speaking world. Israel was thought, whatever its domestic travails, to be as strong as ever in the hard power department. The forces of political Islam were said to be totally decimated and beleaguered—perhaps most importantly Iran. The evidence on that front was Tehran’s utter incapability (or fear?) in avenging the death of Qassem Soleimani, dead almost four years now.
So whatever happened to Islamism? That was the quiet thought in many quarters over the summer.
The sadists of Al-Qaeda and Islamic State had long been beyond rehabilitation. But distinctions were made upstream. Whether in the case of Iran or that of the Muslim Brotherhood or Hezbollah, or, yes, even the case of Hamas, some had nursed a tempered optimism over the years for a working solution in a more democratic—as Islamism has been historically popular—and more peaceful Middle East.
There had been a push for an arrangement that allowed Israel to exist in the region and America to get out. As Armin Rosen of Tablet put it this week, “People like me, meanwhile, went to the Gaza Strip, spent a couple days looking around, interviewed people, and decided, eh, these guys are awful, but maybe they’re not psychopaths.” Others, including Murtaza Hussian of the Intercept, had proposed that perhaps hardline Islam was just kind of a Boomer thing.
Aside from the Taliban victory—no small deal—the oddity in recent years has been that the violent actors seemed to almost be leaving the stage. In an appraisal that was basically universal, but will now live in infamy, President Joe Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, had told reporters: “The Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades.”
Even in the Afghan situation, the wretched state of the former Bin Laden vehicle was exemplified by the rather anonymous death of his successor in August 2022. As was written then: “Al-Qaeda is what it was on 9/10: a bad joke. They’re losers. Their leader turned to ash at 6 a.m. on a Sunday, burnt crisp by American-made Hellfire missiles.”
And this had freed up the White House. Team Biden was intent on controlling both oil prices and the wider regional violence ahead of the 2024 election. The forty-sixth president would complete Donald Trump’s Abraham Accords, perhaps stealing the credit. And through next November (when a new Administration could pursue a harder line), conservative opposition to an Iran Deal 1.5 or “Plan B” appeared almost pro forma, at least compared to the furor around the original deal inked under Barack Obama.
But another Sunday morning a year later, it was the turn of the forces of a would-be holy war.
The situation now in 2023 is quite distinct from the First Intifada, in the late 1980s and early 1990s; it’s a different animal from the Second Intifida of the early 2000s as well. These were not protests and riots, which, while gruesome, could be quelled with policing and negotiations with relative pragmatists. It is clear that Hamas has now removed itself from all talks, aside from hostage negotiations, for a ponderable future.
This was the most significant, successful assault by Sunni Arabs against the Israeli state since the Nixon administration. As has been noted by others, this was not so much Israel’s 9/11, as it was its Tet Offensive, a shocking update to affairs. This was a strange merger of Viet Cong–level competence with a Hollywood penchant for gore that is the true terrorist hallmark. But in some ways what went down goes past the plain Jane terrorist playbook. It was redolent, also, of ISIS in that, in addition to conducting lynchings for the smartphone age, Hamas launched a true military assault with coherent, almost conventional aims. It wants a war.
Can Israel win a wider war, including potentially with Iran and Hezbollah? Can it persuade America to get in? What is the endgame here?
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“The final question that must be answered—even if the Israeli counter-offensive is completely and rapidly successful...Hamas rules Gaza because the majority of the population believes in its agenda,” argues Eado Hecht, an Israeli Defense Forces lecturer at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
“Will the IDF have to stay there and conduct a constant counter-guerrilla campaign while attempting to provide administrative services to the population?” says Hecht, prophesying a massive, permanent Fallujah campaign on his country’s border. “No Israel wants that. The alternative [to the status quo] is to withdraw and let the various factions fight each other for control...either Hamas will recover its organization and position or its only strong rival, the more extreme Palestinian Islamic Jihad, might.”
If this is Israel’s 9/11, it raises the disagreeable question: Did America “win” in its own response? The median person in Gaza was born after 2001, but here again their young fighters took inspiration from martyrs of old.