January 19, 2024 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 564

Who Will Blink First In The Gaza War?

January 19, 2024 | By Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
Palestinians | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 564

The war launched by Hamas on October 7, 2023, not only caught Israel by surprise, it caught the Americans unaware as well. The Americans have since then tried to balance a variety of priorities, supporting Israel against Hamas, preventing a wider war in the Middle East, defending its military presence in the region, and, most recently, securing vital international waterways.

Now well into its fourth month, the war has only grown in complexity (a smaller war in 2006, between Hezbollah and Israel, lasted only 32 days) as Iran has activated its broad network of proxies from the "Axis of Resistance" to fulfill various tasks. Both Hezbollah and the Houthis in Yemen have fired rockets at Israel while Iranian-supported militias have targeted American bases in Syria and Iraq. Israel has responded in kind, hitting high value targets in Lebanon and Syria and even Yemen. And not content to work through its proxies, Iran recently used ballistic missiles launched from bunkers in its own territory against targets in Syria, Iraq, and Pakistan while a one-way attack drone from Iran targeted a chemical tanker in the Indian Ocean, only 200 miles off the Indian coast.

While the U.S. has slowly ratcheted up the pressure on the defiant Houthis in Yemen and eventually responded to provocations in Iraq and Syria, the looming American political confrontation is not with its many adversaries but with the government of Israel. Relations between Biden and Netanyahu were already poor and have gotten worse and the Americans are increasingly frustrated that Israel may not transition to lower-intensity warfare in Gaza by the end of January. And whatever happens in Gaza in the next few weeks, the possibility of a war with Hezbollah in Lebanon looms as a distinct possibility. Biden and company also know that an end to the war may signal the fall of Netanyahu's government, an outcome Washington really wants to see. The gap between Washington's intentions and those of Jerusalem seem to be growing wider the longer the war continues.

Who will blink first in this sub-rosa political confrontation over Gaza between America and Israel? The Biden Administration has provided both weapons and international political cover for Israel, both very valuable commodities, but neither is absolutely essential in the short run as a strong majority in Israel considers this to be an existential fight for its own survival. It is not so surprising that trying to dismantle 15 years' worth of a deeply rooted Hamas military-industrial terror complex in Gaza, while trying to minimize both your own and civilian losses, was going to take much more than three or four months. On January 18, Netanyahu promised "many more months" until victory is achieved, but the Biden team's patience is wearing thin.

In the unlikely eventuality that the war essentially ends in the next few weeks in Gaza (with no war in Lebanon) it will codify what can only be seen as a strategic defeat for Israel. Yes, the IDF has on the battlefield likely "won" Israel a few years of precious breathing space from terrorist threats in Gaza, that is something tangible. But the severe battering Hamas has suffered militarily contrasts with the political success it has secured both regionally and in its competition with its PLO rivals in the West Bank.

Worse yet than Hamas, its two main patrons in the war, Qatar and Iran, may emerge from the conflict completely untouched and even emboldened. This was a conscious decision taken by the Biden Administration early on to avoid pressuring Qatar or provoking Iran. Another negative development will be the emergence of Houthi Yemen as a new strategic player, an enhanced weapon in the Iranian regional arsenal. Here are all the seeds of the next war.

If Israel faces some daunting new strategic equations, the Biden Administration faces both domestic and international political challenges of its own. Bizarrely, the Biden Administration needs for war to stop in the Middle East and for it to continue in Ukraine for domestic political reasons. The Gaza conflict tears at the fabric of the Democratic Party (the home of the majority of both "Free Palestine" leftists and of American Jews) and so it needs leave the front pages sooner rather than later. Conversely, Ukraine has become Biden's signature conflict, symbolizing the much-hyped fight against "authoritarianism" both at home and abroad. If Ukraine cannot defeat Russia, it needs to at least look like it is steadfast and still gallantly fighting until Election Day 2024.

Internationally, the Biden Administration needs this war to end because it is one too many a conflict to contemplate as Washington handles the current confrontation with Russia and a coming one with China. It exacerbates an already dire supply chain challenge. Israel has taken weapons and ammunition intended for Ukraine while Ukraine has taken weapons and ammunition intended for Taiwan. The U.S. Navy has, so far, used 94 Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles (costing over a million dollars per missile) against the Houthis. That is the equivalent of two to three years' worth of Tomahawk purchases from Raytheon for the Navy.

But perhaps almost as dangerous as supply and readiness is the international perception of American power. The chaos and tumult in the region make the United States look overwhelmed and confused, daunted by its allies and taunted by its adversaries. The rollout of Operation Prosperity Guardian against Yemen was a diplomatic disaster. South Africa is reportedly contemplating dragging the United States before the World Court, after doing the same with Israel. Arab states like Saudi Arabia already viewed this administration with suspicion and disdain even before the war. And while the U.S. definitely remains the strongest single player on the field, perceptions do matter even if they are mistaken.

Perceptions drawn from the debacle in Afghanistan almost certainly influenced policy-making in Moscow in 2021-2022. Perceptions of the last three years of the Biden Administration are coloring policy decisions now in Tehran, Beijing, and Pyongyang. All four of these capitals are not only weighing American policies and motives, they are also, no doubt, learning valuable lessons from American and Israeli weapons – and from those weapons and tactics used against them – for the next war, looming in the Middle East or elsewhere.

*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.

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