Increasingly strident voices both within and outside Israel demand that Israeli leaders outline the endgame in Gaza after the destruction of Hamas as a political and terrorist force. President Joe Biden, as well as former Israeli generals, many of whom have acknowledged the mistaken doctrines and concepts they held before the slaughter of Oct. 7, have joined forces to demand answers to this question.
Focusing on Gaza as a standalone Israeli problem that demands redress in the near future is a grievous strategic error that threatens not only Israel’s very existence but the well-being of democratic states far beyond the borders of the conflict.
Three ominous developments have emerged since the Oct. 7 attack and the subsequent Israeli military campaign in Gaza aimed at dismantling the Hamas threat. These developments leave Israel facing a precarious predicament, the likes of which it has not faced since the 1967 Six-Day War.
For the first time since the renewed emergence of Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt 50 years ago and its ensuing proliferation, Sunni and Shi’ite fundamentalism have joined forces operationally against Israel, and indirectly against the broader alliance of democratic states.
Hamas’ attack on the Gaza border region was followed by Hezbollah’s acts of war on Israel’s northern border. And acts of war they are, from the number of missiles launched at civilian and military targets, to the heavy mortar bombardments along the border and the use of both armed and intelligence-gathering drones. As a result of Hezbollah’s attacks, greater numbers of Israeli civilians have been evacuated from the north, or have left the area of their own accord, than have evacuated from the south.
This Sunni-Shi’ite unity did not prevail during or after the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks or the Islamic State onslaught that saw the movement occupy most of northern Iraq and southern and eastern Syria, erasing the border between these two states—two events that were rightly perceived as strategic threats to the West and elicited a commensurate response from the United States and its allies.
In both encounters, Shi’ite and Sunni forces were pitted against each other. After the 9/11 attack, Iran came down hard on its Sunni minority as well as suppressing Sunni jihadist groups.
The Shi’ite response was even more pronounced and decisive: With the expansion of ISIS, Iran and its major proxy, Shi’ite Hezbollah, rushed to Assad’s Syria to prevent the regime’s downfall and the potential ISIS takeover of the country. In Iraq, Tehran established the Shi’ite terrorist proxies currently attacking U.S. forces to save Baghdad from the fate of Iraq’s third largest city, Mosul, which fell easily to ISIS.
Houthi cruise missile and UAV attacks from Yemen on Eilat, Israel’s southernmost port, are the second development that contributes to Israel’s precarious predicament. As a Shi’ite proxy of Iran, the Houthis are a reflection of Sunni and Shi’ite fundamentalist unity, but also represent a threat that goes far beyond that.
Eilat is Israel’s only gateway to South and East Asia. This trade route, essential to Israel’s economic well-being and growth, has been threatened by the recent Houthi hijacking of a commercial vessel partially owned, but not run, by an Israeli company. It echoes the closure of the Straits of Tiran at the mouth of the Red Sea to Israeli shipping in May 1967. This act was one of the reasons behind Israel’s preemptive strike against Egypt and was part of the noose tightening around Israel’s neck prior to the Six-Day War. Today, a similar noose is threatening Israel.
Finally, both these threatening developments are being orchestrated by a regional power, Iran, which is fast becoming a nuclear power with ballistic capabilities to strike at Israel and beyond.
This devastating triangle, with a fundamentalist, imperialist state at its apex, flanked by Sunni-Shi’ite fundamentalist unity on one side and far-flung terrorist Iranian proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen on the other, has no parallel in the Al Qaeda threat of 2001 or the ISIS threat in 2014. Both Al-Qaeda and ISIS faced a world arrayed against them, including rivals such as the United States and Russia.
Israel must not be made to address Gaza’s future before first cutting the ever-tightening noose around it. This is not only obviously in Israel’s interest. If Israel is prevented from cutting itself free of this noose, not only will its very existence be threatened, but so will that of all U.S. allies in the region.
Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait in 1990 proved how vulnerable some of these states are. It took Iraq just one day to take over Kuwait. One can hardly believe that Iran, emboldened by a weakened Israel forced to focus on Gaza — hardly Israel’s major front — will not be tempted to do the same as Saddam Hussein in 1990. Or perhaps far more.
We are in a strategic tempest. A wise strategy of allowing Israel to deal with its immediate and more threatening fronts as the endgame to the war with Hamas might mean the difference between a stable Middle East led by U.S. allies, or a region controlled by Iran, a country strongly embedded in the global axis of states operating against the U.S. alliance.
Hillel Frisch is a professor of political studies and Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University and an expert on the Arab world at The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.