What Israel Needs
Israel needs time, ammunition, and the continued support of the United States to win its war with Hamas.
After the events of the last month and a half, what does Israel need now, and where does it go from here? That’s what I sought to learn on a trip to Israel last week, where I met with senior civilian and defense officials and leading outside experts.
Israel’s most pressing need is time. Israeli leaders believe their campaign to destroy Hamas is going well, proceeding faster and incurring fewer IDF casualties than visiting American generals expected. But the IDF needs time to maintain its deliberate, meticulous pace of rooting out Hamas terrorists hiding behind civilians and below ground in the dense urban Gazan environment. If the IDF went faster, it could risk more IDF and Palestinian casualties. Israeli defense officials insisted a ceasefire would be harmful since Hamas is on the run and must not be allowed to regroup and rearm,
Israel also needs a great deal of ammunition. To maintain its campaign against Hamas and to be ready should Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based terrorist Iran proxy, increase the severity of its already daily attacks, Israel needs more bombs. Israeli officials were very appreciative of the steady American supply of weapons, but they made it clear they needed more. For instance, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) requires thousands more MK-84s, or “dumb” bombs, and many more Boeing-made Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) kits to maximize battlefield effectiveness and limit collateral damage. My organization, JINSA, has for years urged the positioning of thousands of JDAMs in the U.S. arms depot in Israel, WRSA-I, which would have reduced the scrambling for them now. Israel also needs more helicopters—Boeing Apaches and Sikorsky CH-53Ks—and Boeing F-15 jets.
With enough time and ammunition, which the Biden administration needs to do its utmost to provide, Israel can accomplish what senior officials made clear are their two main goals in Gaza. First, the IDF must destroy Hamas so Israelis can again feel safe to live in its southern towns (over 100,000 have been evacuated since the October 7 massacre). This will include the creation of a demilitarized buffer zone a few kilometers deep within Gaza to help ensure the border is secure.
Second, the IDF must restore deterrence. Hamas’ October 7 invasion severely undercut the Israeli security establishment’s vaunted reputation. In a region where adversaries ruthlessly exploit any whiff of weakness or incompetence, Israel must demonstrate its determination and power. Iran and many other Islamists have long believed Israel is in decline and will eventually disappear. Despite Hamas triggering this war and the great care the Israeli military takes to avoid Palestinian civilian casualties (even as Hamas facilitates them by hiding in mosques, schools, and hospitals), Israel’s fierce retaliation has created immense destruction in Gaza. That has damaged Israel’s international position and triggered anti-Semitic rhetoric and attacks in the West, but it has had a positive side effect: it must give pause to Hassan Nasrallah, head of Hezbollah, as he ponders what would happen to him, his organization, and Lebanon if he attacked Israel as Hamas savagely did on October 7. My colleague, former Israeli national security advisor and IDF Major General (ret.) Yaakov Amidror, insists Israel could not survive in the Middle East if Israel did not make a clear example of Hamas—that any actor who conducts an attack on the order of October 7 against Israel will be completely annihilated militarily.
Accomplishing those two goals will entail more than just the ongoing operations in Gaza. The current phase of the war in Gaza, in which Israel is destroying the bulk of Hamas’s fighters, leaders, and infrastructure, is expected to last several months. Then Israel will likely reduce its forces and focus on eliminating pockets of Hamas fighters here and there, in Gaza and abroad. Perhaps some will be permitted to flee the Strip under certain conditions. This second phase might take another nine to twelve months.
During this phase, Israel, in coordination with the United States, Egypt, and likely some Gulf Arab countries, will have to decide on and implement some interim plan for the governance of Gaza within a broader Israeli security overlay, which ensures order and security for Israel’s south. This is perhaps the most perplexing issue, with more obvious questions than practical answers evident. There is no apparent consensus in the Israeli government yet about what exact plan to pursue, but notably, some senior officials viewed the post-Hamas situation as an opportunity to get right what they consider the 1993 Oslo Accords and 2005 Israeli disengagement to have gotten wrong in the West Bank and Gaza Strip—namely, the need to not rely on a Palestinian strongman to keep order but to seek demilitarization and deradicalization of the people, such as occurred in post-WWII Japan and Germany. Whether that’s realistic or not is unclear, but it points to some at least considering a fresh approach to the Palestinian issue.
However Gaza’s governance is resolved, Israel will likely need a respite to heal after the bulk of heavy fighting concludes in 2-3 months, according to current expectations. Israeli society has been dealt a severe blow. Since October 7, Israel has suffered about 1,300 people killed (including 390 soldiers), 6,900 injured, and about 215 hostages still abducted. Its economy has been damaged from the lost economic activity during the war, including the sizeable call-up of over 400,000 reservists in a country of 9 million, to the enormous needs of its 200,000-300,000 citizens dispossessed from the north and south, and the greater defense burden it will now need to shoulder. Its military will need to restock its supplies and revise its strategies. The country will need to investigate and draw conclusions from the colossal failure of October 7, leading to possible changes in the military leadership. The unity embodied in the slogan one sees across billboards in Israel now, roughly translated as “Together We Win,” will certainly dissipate quickly, and new elections will likely be called at some point next year.
The Israeli government will probably try, by the spring of 2024, to conclude normalization with Saudi Arabia, which Prime Minister Netanyahu, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and President Biden all publicly committed to before October 7. It is unclear, however, if the war and the necessities of its aftermath will change the required terms. Such normalization, if pulled off, is not only in all three countries’ interests but would offer a clear rebuke to Hamas and its patron in Tehran, which was so keen to derail that historic peace.
Israel will also likely resume discussions toward a U.S.-Israel mutual defense treaty. If such a treaty had been in place already, it might have helped serve as a deterrent to Iran, which is badly needed now. President Biden’s staunch support of Israel, in contrast to some very vocal opponents of Israel in his own party and even some more civil critics (such as former President Obama), demonstrate that now might be the best time to cement such a pact.
Then, at some point, Israel will need to address the Hezbollah threat to its north. After October 7, Israel believes it can no longer tolerate another highly armed, Iran-backed, genocidal terrorist organization on its border. Indeed, tens of thousands of Israelis on its northern border have evacuated their homes and moved elsewhere.
Israeli officials make clear that United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 needs to be enforced, either through U.S. pressure or by Israeli force. That resolution, unanimously passed after the Second Lebanon War in 2006, mandated the disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon outside the Lebanese Armed Forces and the establishment of a zone from south of the Litani River to the Israel border “free of any armed personnel, assets and weapons other than those of the Government of Lebanon and of UNIFIL [United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon].” Neither mandate has been enforced, not by the Hezbollah-dominated Lebanese government, the UN, the United States, nor even Israel.
Indeed, a little-mentioned, grave Israeli strategic failure has been allowing Hezbollah to augment its rocket and missile arsenal from 10,000 following the Second Lebanon War to over 150,000 today, including several hundred precision-guided munitions. (For reference, Hamas had an estimated 20,000 rockets and missiles before October 7.) Israel implicitly and belatedly recognized this utter failure by initiating its “campaign between the wars,” in which it proactively attacked Iran and Iran-backed forces to minimize their footprint in Syria and block their transfer of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
In contrast, Israel’s approach to Hamas, which obviously has been a target of heavy criticism post-October 7, was relatively more defensible. That threat appeared more manageable. Israel had neither interest in reoccupying Gaza nor a clue who could or would rule it responsibly instead of Hamas, and it did not want to get bogged down in the south with Hezbollah in the north and Iran’s nuclear program posing a far larger existential challenge. Of course, that approach depended upon the IDF’s ability to defend its southern border.
The chances that the United States will do anything meaningful to enforce UNSCR 1701 appear close to nil. The Biden administration has only retaliated, and very meekly, eight times for over 150 attacks on U.S. forces in the region by Iran-backed groups since 2021, out of fear of confrontation and greater escalation. So it’s far-fetched to imagine it threatening Hezbollah, let alone its patron Iran, to prompt enforcement of 1701. Congress, however, perhaps could help by refusing to continue authorizing aid to Lebanon; the United States has provided Lebanon with $5.5 billion in assistance since 2006, and Lebanon, anyway, is a Hezbollah-dominated failed state.
Israel will need to be regularly vocal about the need for the United States or the “international community” to enforce UNSCR 1701 to provide justification for it taking the initiative, perhaps in the next year or two—unless Hezbollah attacks first, which it and Tehran seem reluctant to do for now—to significantly push Hezbollah back beyond the Litani to create a buffer zone to ensure the safety of its northern residents. But Israel might have to go further and severely weaken, if not destroy, Hezbollah. Given Hezbollah’s immense capabilities to inflict severe damage on Israeli population centers, such a conflict will likely dwarf in intensity the Israel-Hamas conflict today unless the United States decides to constrain Hezbollah through direct threats or by threatening its Tehran master.
A preemptive attack that defangs Hezbollah, which has served not only as a proxy but a protector of Iran and part of Tehran’s deterrent capability, would also facilitate an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. Such a military campaign grows more inevitable by the day, given the U.S. appeasement of the Tehran regime and Iran’s ever-growing dangerous nuclear program. As if it was necessary, severely damaging Iran’s nuclear facilities just got an extra justification from the Iran-backed October 7 attack.
The United States can help in two distinct ways. First, and most easily, it can expedite the delivery of KC-46 aerial refueling tankers to Israel, incorporated in the House and Senate versions of the current National Defense Authorization Act. The United States has approved Israel’s purchase of up to eight tankers, but they are not slated for delivery before 2025. Delivery of even two tankers soon, which Israel has requested, would not only help prepare Israel for a war with Iran but also send a strong signal to Tehran and help restore deterrence.
Second, the Biden administration needs to abandon its disastrous accommodation of the Tehran regime and cease unfreezing billions of dollars in Iranian assets that strengthen the regime and enable its funding of Hezbollah and other proxies that seek Israel’s and America’s demise. This was a dangerous and obviously mistaken policy before October 7, but outright strategic malpractice afterward.
These issues might not play out in the timeframe and sequence outlined above, and new, unexpected problems and complications will certainly arise. Even after Israel hopefully recovers all of its hostages alive from Gaza, it faces immense social and economic challenges. And while diplomatic opportunities certainly lurk, waiting to be seized, October 7 has dramatically changed the landscape. Israel needs time, ammunition, and continued U.S. support to destroy Hamas. It will then need to maintain security around Gaza while sorting out the Strip’s governance structure. Then, peace with Saudi Arabia and defanging Hezbollah and Iran. The next few years ahead are going to be challenging and eventful.
Michael Makovsky, a former Pentagon official, is president and CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA).
Originally published in The National Interest.