Israel’s Strategic Challenge

For nearly two decades, Israel has eschewed making strategic choices in dealing with the terrorist groups that surround it, relying instead on deterrence to minimize their threat while tolerating their presence. That approach failed on Oct. 7. Currently, Israel appears to be prioritizing the operational objective of clearing Hamas from Gaza. But it cannot afford to avoid grappling with the question of what that failure of deterrence means for its future security. 

The most pressing strategic question for Israel, however, is not the one that has seized the attention of Western capitals — who will govern Gaza after Hamas. Instead, determining how to reestablish deterrence against other Iranian-backed groups, principally Hizballah in the north, is the more urgent challenge. Delaying operations or pursuing more minimal goals in the south while tackling the northern threat, by preemption if necessary, could do more to restore Israeli security than a massive ground offensive against Hamas. It would also buy time to develop viable options for the future governance of Gaza. 

Whatever the Israeli government decides, executing twin north-south strategies will require U.S. assistance, even beyond what is being currently discussed, not just in terms of resupply of materiel but particularly political cover and deterrent messaging against Iran as well as Hizballah.

Strategic Non-Strategy

Israel’s “mowing the lawn” approach to counter-terrorism suggests a lack of overarching strategy. As a group of retired U.S. military commanders wrote in a Jewish Institute for National Security of America study of the 2021 Israel-Hamas conflict, “the most telling feature of the Gaza conflict was the strategy mismatch between Israel’s purely military and operational objectives to degrade Hamas’ military capabilities – assisted by impressive advances in identifying and precisely striking targets – and Hamas’ information-based strategic objectives.”

Despite this, Israel did not so much lack a strategy for dealing with terrorist groups like Hamas, as it strategically chose a non-strategy: tolerating the group’s presence and relying on deterrence to control escalation. In Israel’s estimation, there was no viable strategy for achieving victory against the terrorist adversaries dug in to its south (Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad) and north (Hizballah) due to a combination of factors. 

First, the multiplicity of threats facing Israel. Doing anything more than “mowing the lawn” in Gaza, for example, would require diverting capabilities and resources that might open Israel up to a more devastating attack from the north. Second, the lack of good strategic options. If the basis of counter-insurgency is to “clear, hold, build,” the Israeli government has seen any attempt to “hold” and “build” in currently terrorist-occupied territories as a worse strategic outcome than merely focusing on repeated cycles of “clear.” Israel failed at regime change in Lebanon in 1982, it preferred to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza in 2005 rather than keep occupying it, and its 2006 Lebanon war suffered from operational shortcomings and strategic indecision — there has been little appetite in Israel to repeat any of these scenarios. Nor have there been other actors who might replace Hamas in Gaza, as the United States has relied on, for example, the Syrian Democratic Forces to do after clearing Islamic State from Raqqa.

Thus, the Israeli government had chosen, rather than a strategy for dealing with these persistent threats, an approach that sought merely to deter them for as long as possible. 

Deterrence Lost

Before the Oct. 7 attack, Israeli deterrence had been built on three legs.

The first, and most obvious, was denial. The Israel Defense Forces relied on the combination of its operational and intelligence superiority to degrade and destroy Hamas’ capabilities, infrastructure, and leadership, believing that this application of force at regular intervals was enough to force Hamas to reassess the value of attacking, at least until it rebuilt the capabilities Israel had just demolished. 

The second element of Israeli deterrence was its belief in the transitive property of denial. That is, by mowing one terrorist lawn, Israel’s defense leaders believed it was sending deterrent messages to other terrorist organizations. Senior Israelis described to me the logic of recent operations against Palestine Islamic Jihad in (in August 2022 and May 2023) as not only degrading its capabilities but also, through the overwhelming operational effectiveness and shock of military operations, shoring up deterrence against Hamas and Hizballah.

The third piece of Israel’s approach to deterrence was the assumption bought into by senior Israel Defense Forces leadership that its terrorist adversaries were also political entities interested in maintaining the support of their populations and, therefore, susceptible to the use of economic carrots and sticks with which to induce quietude. After the 2021 conflict, for example, Israel began allowing Gazans to enter Israel to work to give Hamas a stake in maintaining peace. Israeli intelligence officials have also made the case that Hizballah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, might be reticent to jeopardize his position as the strongest political actor in Lebanon by entering into large-scale military hostilities with Israel. 

For a decade and a half this Israeli approach to deterrence worked. With the massive air, ground, and naval incursion Hamas launched on Oct. 7, it collapsed. Hamas’ capabilities, it turned out, were significantly advanced, not degraded. Recent Israeli operations against Palestine Islamic Jihad had done nothing to stanch Hamas’ desire for conflict. And, most importantly, its savage slaughter of innocent Israelis and willingness to sacrifice the lives of Gazans to slake its bloodlust put any claims about it being a political organization to the lie. 

But if Israel’s theory of deterrence did not hold against Hamas, it can have no confidence it will hold against Hizballah either. Thus, Israel should now articulate a new strategic approach to guide its response not just to the threat from Gaza but to the potentially more dangerous threat from Hizballah or even Iran.

Who Holds Gaza?

In Gaza, the collapse of deterrence against Hamas means that Israel can no longer tolerate the presence of Hamas and hope merely to achieve quiet through episodic airstrikes and economic incentives. As Israel’s security cabinet declared the day after Hamas’ attack, Israel’s goal is now “to achieve the destruction of the military and governing capabilities of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in a way that will preclude their ability and willingness to threaten and attack the citizens of Israel for many years.” 

This is an ambitious objective. The goal of eliminating the group’s “governing capabilities” suggests rooting Hamas out of the Gaza Strip and a refusal to continue accepting the group’s presence on Israel’s border. After Oct. 7, Israel’s security demands nothing less. 

Given Israel’s significant intelligence and precision-strike capabilities — allowing it decapitate Hamas leadership and destroy critical Hamas infrastructure, even underground — airpower would suffice to destroy the majority of Hamas’ military capabilities. But Hamas’ presence in and control of Gaza would probably survive an air war. Israel’s determination to eliminate them has led it to mobilize 360,000 reservists and forces are massing around Gaza in preparation for a ground offensive.

This will almost certainly be a long, grinding, and bloody process. As the Israeli government learned in 2014, and the United States learned in Fallujah in 2004 and then again in Mosul and Raqqa in 2016–2017, clearing an entrenched unconventional force from a dense urban environment is a dangerous task. Unless they can be rescued beforehand, commencing such an operation will almost certainly mean forsaking the chance to negotiate for the return of the over 200 hostages that Hamas has taken. “We will continue the operation,” former Israeli national security advisor Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Amidror said, “as if they are not there.”

Pursuing this objective, however, raises a vary salient question: After Hamas is cleared from Gaza and removed as a governing power, who holds it afterwards? The lack of a good answer to this question had prevented an expansive ground campaign for more than a decade. Merely clearing Gaza and retreating cannot guarantee that Hamas will not reconstitute itself, or another terrorist group emerge, and retake the territory as the Taliban did in Afghanistan — occupying Gaza could risk creating conditions in which extremism seethes and spreads as it does in Syria’s al Hol refugee camp. Turning to Gaza’s principal benefactors in the past — QatarTurkey, and the U.N. Relief and Works Agency — is not viable either given their support or abetting of Hamas.

The Israeli government did not have a satisfactory answer to the question of who, if not Hamas, runs Gaza before Oct. 7. Arriving at a viable solution now, at a moment’s notice, in the fog of war, seems unlikely. That in itself might be a good reason for Israel to proceed deliberately with any ground offensive. Certainly, that is how it increasingly appears to be seen in Washington, where President Joe Biden’s Oct. 19 speech warned Israel against recreating America’s post-9/11 mistakes. But it is not a concern that appears to resonate among Israeli leaders. 

There is, however, another more compelling reason for which Israel might consider delaying or slowing its operations to clear Hamas: the operational limitations that a Gaza offensive might impose on the strategic choices available to Israel in the north.

The North Is Coming

The death and destruction that Hamas dealt is nothing compared to the devastating potential of Hizballah’s 150,000+ rocket arsenal. Israel estimates that Hizballah could sustain a rate of fire of at least 6,000–8,000 rockets per day. That would significantly exceed the 3,000 rockets that Hamas was able to launch on Oct. 7 — already the single largest volume of incoming fire Israel has ever faced. And, after honing its combined-arms capabilities in Syria, Hizballah fighters could stage cross-border attacks more effective than even Hamas’s on Oct. 7. As a Jewish Institute for National Security of North America study of a potential northern war found, the difficulty of intercepting this amount of rocket fire (even for Israel’s highly effective layered air-defense system), Hizballah’s possession of some several hundred precision-guided munitions, and Israel’s lack of strategic depth make it likely that Hizballah would be able to inflict potentially catastrophic damage.

This makes avoiding a northern war — or at least a Hizballah first strike — of paramount strategic importance to Israel, even as it copes with the Hamas threat. Unfortunately, Hizballah escalations prior to the Oct. 7 offensive, recent statements by Hizballah’s leader, and reported Hizballah and Iranian involvement in providing funding and training for Hamas’ attack, if not planning and operational support, all clearly suggest that Israeli deterrence has also eroded on its northern border.

Already, the preludes to a broader northern conflict have begun. Since Oct. 7, there has been daily contact across the Israel-Lebanon border. In response, Israel has conducted repeated airstrikes against targets in Lebanon and evacuated 28 communities that lie within 2 kilometers of the border. Whether these numerous daily engagements are a Hizballah attempt to distract Israel from the southern theater, a probing of Israeli defenses, or just a bid at relevancy while Hamas claims center stage is still unclear. But it all suggests that the deterrence that kept the north quiet for 17 years can no longer be counted on.

Aligning Strategies and Risks

While prosecuting an intense Gaza offensive, therefore, Israel will also have to develop and implement a new strategy to prevent Hizballah from widening the conflict. But how Israel fights in the south will affect the capabilities it has available, and therefore the strategy it can implement, in the north. Pursuing a maximalist ground campaign in Gaza, at least while the northern threat still looms and as the West Bank heats up, might prove risky for Israel. 

Whether it is part of an intentional and coordinated strategy by Iran’s proxy network or mere coincidence, their increasing attacks against Israel on multiple fronts over the past year is part of what enabled the devastating effectiveness of the Oct. 7 attacks. The lack of Israeli response to Hizballah escalations had contributed to slipping deterrence, but it was growing unrest and violence in the West Bank that drew Israeli forces normally assigned to the southern command away from Gaza. 

Already, the same dynamic is unfolding again. As isolated clashes turn to larger protests in the West Bank, Israeli security forces are increasing their presence. The ongoing exchanges along the northern border also demand heavier deployments. With the mobilization of 360,000 reservists, the Israeli military might have the manpower to fight on all three fronts simultaneously, but it might not have the air and air-defense assets to be as effective as it would need to be to eliminate Hamas and defend against a Hizballah onslaught at the same time. Israel’s operational plans for a northern war depend on wave after wave of sorties to eliminate as quickly as possible many of Hizballah’s munitions stockpiles and launch sites. Deploying those assets to the north at a time when ground forces are engaged in Gaza could deprive those units of much-needed air support. Or vice versa. Similarly, a northern war would require re-locating and re-directing at least some of Israel’s air defense batteries away from the south to deal with the large volume of fire from Hizballah. This could then leave southern communities exposed to rockets from Gaza.

These are not risks that Israel should be willing to take following the Oct. 7 attack. Even with incredibly strong backing from the United States, including clear deterrent messaging to Hizballah in the form of two aircraft carriers in the Eastern Mediterranean, Israel will not and cannot trust the security of its northern border to its U.S. partner alone. Iranian proxies are already trying to gauge and erode the power of the U.S. deterrent by attacking U.S. bases in the region — a lack of U.S. response might be interpreted to mean that the United States would be similarly reluctant to act against Hizballah.

Regardless of the strength of the U.S. deterrent right now, Israel cannot count on it in the long term. If only U.S. carriers are keeping Hizballah at bay, then their inevitable departure would prompt renewed attacks on Israel and the deployment of yet another carrier group — an untenable cycle. Instead, the United States should want Israel to have the strength to deter further attacks on its own.

Israel’s ability to defend itself by itself, and defend U.S. regional interests in the process, is one of its chief strategic assets as a U.S. partner. Preserving and, in the aftermath of Oct. 7, rebuilding that capability should be a core objective for Jerusalem and Washington alike. That means Israel, not the United States, taking the lead in confronting the Hizballah threat. And it should likely mean a more proactive Israeli strategy than the current tit-for-tat response to Hizballah attacks.

At the core of Israel’s now-shaken standing as the Middle East’s most capable military is its ability not just to respond to attacks but to take the initiative, as it has with repeated strikes in Syria or covert action in Iran. Restoring its ability to surprise, not just defeat, its adversaries will be critical to reestablishing Israel’s security, undoing the perception of political weakness or complacence that has built up recently, and rebuilding its deterrence. Short of that, Iran will gladly send further legions of Palestinians, Lebanese, or other proxies to kill and die for its cause. And the Iranian regime would shed what nuclear restraint it still exhibits should its leaders ever stop fearing what Israelis might do should they ever develop a nuclear bomb.

While ensuring Hamas can never again attack Israel is the rightful concern of Israel’s political leaders, all of these factors — the operational and strategic challenges of a Gaza ground offensive, a lack of deterrence against Hizballah, the risks of stretching its resources too thin across multiple theaters, and the need to rebuild its credibility — suggest that Israel should consider delaying its ground offensive in the south, or implementing it in phases, allowing it to adopt a strategy of preemption in the north. A preemptive strike, as reportedly supported by Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, would allow Israel to neutralize, or at least reduce, the risk of a Hizballah first strike while reestablishing the credibility of its deterrent threat against Iran and its other proxies who have been signaling their willingness to enter the conflict. 

U.S. Assistance

Regardless of what strategy Israel pursues, its success in the southern and northern theaters is going to require U.S. military, political, and strategic assistance. 

Much of that has already been forthcoming. Biden has just asked Congress to appropriate $14.3 billion in assistance for Israel and, in his speeches and visit, demonstrated staunch support for Israel’s military campaign against Hamas. The challenge for the United States, though, might be sustaining this level of assistance as the conflict goes on. Both the dysfunctional U.S. political system and strained U.S. defense industry might struggle to provide sufficient aid to both Israel and Ukraine.

More important than materiel resupply, however, will be political support from the United States. The already-present accusations of Israeli war crimes will only grow louder as the tempo of Israeli operations grows. Indeed, with this conflict likely to be far more destructive than any Israel has fought in recent history, those calls are likely to grow deafening. The Oct. 17 explosion at the al Ahli hospital in Gaza City, blamed by Hamas on an Israeli airstrike but caused, according to Israeli and U.S. intelligence, by a misfired militant rocket, is a case in point. Israel’s quick publication of intelligence pointing to Palestine Islamic Jihad and Biden’s public confirmation that it was “the other team” is a model for how similar incidents should be handled.

Beyond blaming Israel for individual incidents, political pressure to reach a ceasefire is likely to grow more intense well before Israel’s operations achieve their intended objectives, and particularly if they expand into Lebanon or other theaters. Defending Israel’s right to defend itself, as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield did recently, will be crucial to maintaining the political space Israel needs to conduct and conclude its operations. But it will require the United States buying into and helping execute Israel’s strategy — in both the north, if Israel opens a front there, and in the south. That does not mean, however, that the United States should fight Israel’s battles for it. Instead, it should take steps, and avoid taking others, in order to make it as feasible as possible for Israel to set and achieve viable strategic objectives. 

In the north, that means reducing U.S. insistence on preventing Israeli escalation. The U.S. objective should be to strengthen Israel’s ability to defend itself, not restrain or undermine it. If the deployment of two U.S. carriers becomes as much a “bear hug” meant to constrain Israeli action as a deterrent against Hizballah, it could weaken Israel’s deterrent posture and set the expectation for continued U.S. presence, proving detrimental to both U.S. and Israeli interests in the long term. Instead, U.S. capabilities in the Eastern Mediterranean should be used to facilitate an Israeli strategy for reestablishing security in the north, deterring Hizballah until that strategy is ready and assisting any Israeli operations that follow. Where U.S. presence and strength are needed, however, is in the Persian Gulf in order to stop already ongoing Iranian-backed attacks in the region as well as deter Iran from trying to broaden the conflict if Israel does strike Lebanon. In addition to the A-10, F-35, F-15, and F-16 aircraft the administration has already announced it is deploying to the Middle East, it should consider moving a carrier strike group into the Gulf and strategic bombers and specialized munitions, such as the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, either to the region or to Diego Garcia.

Where the United States should engage Israel is on its southern strategy. Israel will need U.S. assistance in solving its strategic dilemma in Gaza — neither Washington nor Jerusalem should wait until the day after to tackle that challenge. While the Israel Defense Forces have been planning for a potential northern war and will be ready to execute a strategy of denial once the political decision is made, they will have a far tougher time articulating a coherent strategic objective while under fire in Gaza. The United States can and should help Israel to find a viable political solution that will enable the Israel Defense Forces to withdraw after their ground offensive, reconstruction to begin, and governance to resume, all while credibly keeping Hamas from reconstituting. This will likely require calling on responsible U.S. Arab partners to provide not just funding but perhaps even some sort of governing coalition and security presence. The success of such efforts will be directly proportional to two factors: Israel’s military fortunes and U.S. political engagement. 

Despite the Oct. 7 attack’s deliberate setback to Israeli-Saudi normalization, the strategic logic of that process still holds and can extend to settling the future of Gaza. The centripetal forces that were driving Riyadh toward Jerusalem and Washington were the belief that they could better guarantee the security and prosperity of Saudis than Iran, Russia, or China. If Israel regains its reputation for unrivaled regional military strength by demonstrating its ability and will to defeat its enemies, if the United States extends its current deterrent posture to include defending its Gulf Arab partners against possible Iranian escalation, then those partners might be willing to invest the political and financial capital to secure a better future for Gaza. They might even come to see that championing a Hamas-free Gaza positions them to compete with Iran in the Muslim world. To be sure, support from other international partners and organizations will also be needed, but with buy-in from key Arab states, it will be easier to convince other international donors to back a new vision for Gaza.

Providing military, political, and strategic assistance to Israel can help to ensure that as Israeli leaders formulate strategies to address the southern threat from Hamas and the northern risk from Hizballah, they adopt an approach that reduces the risks to this close U.S. partner and rebuilds a viable stability in the region.

Blaise Misztal is vice president for policy at JINSA.

Originally Published in War on the Rocks.