Israel needs an exit strategy, if past experiences in Lebanon and Gaza gave any lessons, writes M.K. Bhadrakumar, Indian Ambassador and prominent international observer.
One, the Biden Administration will be seen as backing Israel to the hilt by way of meeting its security needs but Washington will not be drawn into the forthcoming Gaza operations except to arrange exit routes in the south for hapless civilians fleeing the conflict zone.
Two, Washington’s top priority at the moment is on engaging with the regional states who wield influence with Hamas to negotiate the hostage issue. Fourteen US citizens in Israel remain unaccounted for. (White House confirmed that the death toll in the fighting now includes at least 27 Americans.)
Three, the US will coordinate with the regional states to prevent any escalation in the situation to widen the conflict on the part of Hezbollah. Although the US cannot and will not stop Israeli leadership on its tracks apropos the imminent Gaza operation, it remains unconvinced.
That is to say, despite the massive show of force off the waters of Israel, with the deployment of two aircraft carriers along with destroyers and other naval assets and fighter jets off the waters of Israel, the Biden Administration is profoundly uneasy about any escalation of the conflict into a wider war. If the US senses that this is a catastrophe that Israel allowed to happen, that remains a strictly private thought.
Even as Blinken was heading for Tel Aviv, US House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul told reporters in Washington on Wednesday following a closed-door intelligence briefing that “We know that Egypt has warned the Israelis three days prior that an event like this could happen. I don’t want to get too much into classified, but a warning was given. I think the question was at what level.”
That said, the US cannot afford to watch passively. Washington has no choice but to limit the expected fighting in the coming days and weeks in Gaza to ensure that it does not spread to other areas. Thus, the US force projection specifically serves as a deterrent to Hezbollah, which possesses a vast armoury of 150,000 missiles that can be launched at major cities in Israel, potentially leading to a broader war not only in Gaza but also in Lebanon, drawing others into the conflict.
Through the past four decades, the US and Iran have made a fine art of communicating with each other in dangerous times to set ground rules to avoid confrontation. This time around too, it is happening.
Yet, the big question is, how far the Biden Administration would be confident about the success of any Israeli military incursion into Gaza. During the press conference in Tel Aviv, Blinken underscored in a subtle way the importance of “lessons” learnt from past experiences. The point is, Israel will be involved in urban warfare in a densely populated area with a population of 2.1 million people.
More importantly, Israel needs an exit strategy, if past experiences in Lebanon and Gaza gave any lessons. Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn rule comes into play — ‘You break it, you own it.’
An extended occupation of Gaza will be an extremely dangerous outcome fraught with great risks, given the deep economic, religious, and social roots that Hamas enjoys. Suffice to say, the Israeli military will be hard-pressed to show “success” and head for the exit door.
Besides, if other Palestinian groups and organisations in the West Bank make decisions that advance Hamas’s strategic goals, all bets are off, as Israeli military will face a two-front war. In fact, the conditions for a third intifada do exist in West Bank.
Again, in a worst case scenario, it cannot be ruled out that the Arab Israeli population may draw inspiration from Hamas, and if their violent eruption in 2021 is anything to go by, the long-term viability of the state of Israel will be put to test.
Suffice to say, the best solution lies in a paradigm shift in the Israeli statecraft away from its primacy on coercion and brutal force. Blinken’s remarks suggested that the US hopes that when the dust settles down, with the helping hand of friendly Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Jordan, a turnaround to calm the situation and reach a ceasefire might be possible.
Of course, the longer that takes, the greater the strain it will put on the US-Israeli ties and the harder it will become for the Biden Administration to maintain an equilibrium in what is already a troubled relationship with Netanyahu. Fundamentally, Israel needs to come terms with the new reality that they are no longer invincible or the dominant power in the West Asian region, M.K. Bhadrakumar stresses.