U.S. in a quandary over Israel’s war on Gaza

Israel needs to come terms with the new reality that they are no longer invincible or the dominant power in the West Asian region, writes M.K. Bhadrakumar, Indian Ambassador and prominent international observer.

The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s press conference concluding his visit to Israel conveyed three things. 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.

Blinken was non-committal about any direct US military involvement, and the chances are slim as things stand.

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.

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.”

These disclosures would embarrass the Israeli government, as Saturday’s surprise attack can be viewed as a catastrophic failure for Israel’s intelligence services. In a brutally frank statement, the Chief of General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces General Herzi Halevi admitted, “The IDF is responsible for the security of our nation and its citizens, and we failed to do so on Saturday morning. We will look into it, we will investigate, but now it is time for war.”

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.

Israel knocked out of service the airports in Damascus and Aleppo in Syria in missile strikes simultaneously , presumably to prevent reinforcements reaching Lebanon. Iran’s foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian was due to travel to Syria and Lebanon in the weekend.

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.

Certainly, the speech by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on the conflict situation, which was translated into Hebrew by the Iranians and disseminated in an unprecedented move, conveyed a subtle message in three parts to both Israel and the US, signalling essentially that Tehran does not intend to get involved in the conflict.

In turn, the US has signalled that it has intelligence showing that key Iranian leaders were surprised by the Hamas attacks on Israel. Equally, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s phone conversation with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Wednesday — their first ever conversation which Tehran initiated — harped on efforts to “halt the ongoing escalation.”

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.

Gaza has an average of 5,500 people per sq. km, and there is bound to be heavy civilian casualties caused by Israel’s advanced American weaponry, which would lead to an international outcry, including in Europe, and lead to condemnation of not only Israel but the US as well. However, Israel is in defiant mood and Netanyahu needs at least some of the operation’s goals achieved before agreeing to a ceasefire.

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.

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.

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, concludes M.K. Bhadrakumar.