Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.
BEIRUT — “Once you break it, you are going to own it,” General Colin Powell warned former United States President George W. Bush when he was considering invading Iraq in the wake of 9/11.
And as the invasion plan came together, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld blocked any serious postwar planning for how Iraq would be run once the country’s ruler Saddam Hussein had gone. As far as he was concerned, once “shock and awe” had smashed Iraq, others could pick up the pieces.
British generals fumed at this. And General Mike Jackson, head of the British army during the invasion, later described Rumsfeld’s approach as “intellectually bankrupt.”
That history is now worth recalling — and was likely on U.S. President Joe Biden’s mind when he urged the Israeli war cabinet last week not to “repeat mistakes” made by the U.S. after 9/11.
Despite Biden’s prompt, however, Israel still doesn’t appear to have a definitive plan for what to do with the Gaza Strip once it has pulverized the enclave and inflicted lasting damage on Hamas for the heinous October 7 attacks.
Setting aside just how difficult a military task Israel will face undertaking its avowed aim of ending Hamas as an organization — former U.S. General David Petraeus told POLITICO last week that a Gaza ground war could be “Mogadishu on steroids” — the lack of endgame here suggests a lack of intellectual rigor that disturbingly echoes Rumsfeld’s.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told lawmakers Friday that the country didn’t have plans to maintain control over Gaza after its war against Hamas had concluded, saying Israel would end its “responsibility for life in the Gaza Strip.” Among other minor matters, this raises the issue of where the coastal enclave of 2.3 million people will get life-sustaining energy and water, as Israel supplies most utility needs.
Israeli and Western officials say the most likely option would be to hand responsibility to the West Bank-based Palestinian National Authority, which oversaw the enclave until Hamas violently grabbed control in 2007. “I think in the end the best thing is that the Palestinian Authority goes back into Gaza,” Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid said last week.
But it isn’t clear whether Mahmoud Abbas — the Palestinian Authority president and head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is dominated by his Fatah party — would want Gaza on those terms, or whether he has the power to do much of anything with the enclave in the first place.
Abbas is already struggling to maintain his authority over the West Bank. He’s an unpopular leader, and his government is seen to be not only appallingly venal, but is perceived by many as ceding to the demands of the Israeli authorities too easily.
Israel now controls 60 percent of the West Bank, and its encroaching settlements in the area — which are illegal under international law — haven’t helped Abbas. Nor have Israeli efforts to hold back the West Bank from developing — a process dubbed “de-developing” by critics and aimed, they say, at restricting growth and strangling Palestinian self-determination.
In West Bank refugee camps, Abbas’ security forces have now lost authority to armed groups — including disgruntled Fatah fighters. “It is unclear whether Abbas would be prepared to play such an obvious role subcontracting for Israel in Gaza. This would further erode whatever domestic standing the PA has left,” assessed Hugh Lovatt, a Middle East analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
But it isn’t only Gaza — or the West Bank — that risks breaking in the coming weeks.
Neighboring countries are watching events unfold with growing alarm, and they fear that if more thought isn’t given to Israel’s response to the savage Hamas attacks, and it isn’t developed in consultation with them, they’ll be crushed in the process. If Israel wants the support of these countries — or their help even — in calming the inevitable anger of their populations once a military campaign is launched, it needs their buy-in and agreement on the future of Gaza and Palestinians, and to stop using the language of collective punishment.
Lebanon, where the Iran-backed Hezbollah — Hamas’ ally — has been intensifying its skirmishes along the border with Israel, is currently the most vulnerable. And Lebanese politicians are complaining they’re being disregarded by all key protagonists — Israel, the U.S. and Iran — in a tragedy they wish to have no part in.
Already on its knees from an economic crisis that plunged an estimated 85 percent of its population into poverty, and with a barely functioning caretaker government, the Lebanese are desperate not to become the second front in Iran’s war with Israel. Lebanon “could fall apart completely,” Minister of Economy and Trade Amin Salam said.
But the leaders of Egypt and Jordan share Lebanon’s frustrations, arguing that the potential repercussions for them are being overlooked. This is why Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi called Saturday’s Cairo summit of regional and international leaders.
El-Sisi focused the conference on a longer-term political solution, hopefully a serious effort to make good on the 2007 Annapolis Conference’s resolution to set up a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Egypt has much to lose if the war escalates — and the country’s officials are fuming at what they see as a careless attitude from Israel toward what happens to Gaza after Hamas is subjugated, potentially leaving a cash-strapped Egypt to pick up some of the pieces.
More than that, Egypt and Jordan harbor deep suspicions — as do many other Arab leaders and politicians — that as the conflict unfolds, Israel’s war aims will shift. They worry that under pressure from the country’s messianic hard-right parties, Israel will end up annexing north Gaza, or maybe all of Gaza, permanently uprooting a large proportion of its population, echoing past displacements of Palestinians — including the nakba (catastrophe), the flight and expulsion of an estimated 700,000 Palestinians in 1948.
This is why both el-Sisi and Jordan’s King Abdullah II are resisting the “humanitarian” calls for displaced Gazans to find refuge in their countries. They suspect it won’t be temporary and will add to their own security risks, as Gazans would likely have to be accommodated in the Sinai — where Egyptian security forces are already engaged in a long-standing counterinsurgency against Islamist militant groups.
And both countries do have grounds for concern about Israel’s intentions.
Some columnists for Israel Hayom —a newspaper owned by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s close friend, American casino mogul Sheldon Adelson — are already calling for annexation. “My hope is that the enemy population residing there now will be expelled and that the Strip will be annexed and repopulated by Israel,” wrote Jonathan Pollard, a former U.S. intelligence analyst who served 30 years in prison for spying for Israel before emigrating.
And last week, Gideon Sa’ar, the newly appointed minister in Netanyahu’s wartime government, said that Gaza “must be smaller at the end of the war . . . Whoever starts a war against Israel must lose territory.”
Given all this, there are now signs the Biden administration is starting to take the risks of the Gaza crisis breaking things far and wide fully on board — despite widespread Arab fears that it still isn’t. By not being fast enough to express sympathy for ordinary Gazans’ suffering as Israel pummels the enclave, Biden’s aides initially fumbled. And while that can easily be blamed on Hamas, it needs to be expressed by American officials loudly and often.
In the meantime, the unexplained delay of Israel’s ground attack is being seen by some analysts as a sign that Washington is playing for time, hoping to persuade the country to rethink how it will go about attacking Hamas, prodding Israel to define a realistic endgame that can secure buy-in from Arab leaders and help combat the propaganda of Jew-hatred.
Meanwhile, hostage negotiations now appear to be progressing via Qatar, after two American captives were freed Friday. There have also been reports of top Biden aides back-channeling Iran via Oman.
So, despite Arab condemnation, the Biden administration’s approach may be more subtle than many realize — at least according to Michael Young, an analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center. He said it was always inevitable that Washington would publicly back Israel but that a primary aim has been to “contain Israel’s reaction” to the Hamas attacks, while seemingly deferring to the country.
And time will help. The longer Israel thinks, the more opportunity Washington has to reason, to calm, and to explain the trail of cascading wreckage Israel risks leaving behind if it is unrestrained and fails to answer — as Biden put it — “very hard questions.”
But that might not be sufficient to prevent everything spinning out of control. Israel morally and legally has the right to defend itself from barbaric attacks that were more a pogrom, and it must ensure the safety of its citizens. There are also others — notably Iran — that want the destruction of the Jewish state, and even a scaled down response from Israel may trigger the escalation most in the region fear.
#longer #Israel #thinks #time #Washington #calm #wrath