On the morning of the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur war, October 6, Israel appeared to be on the verge of a diplomatic coup – a peace treaty with Saudi Arabia. Mohammed Bin Salman, the latter’s Crown Prince, hinted as much in an interview on Fox News a month or so ago. An agreement would follow those with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan – furthering the work of the Abraham Accords.
These, driven and shaped by the Donald Trump presidency, followed Israel’s earlier deals with Jordan, reached almost 30 years ago, and with Egypt, over 40 years ago. A treaty with Saudi Arabia, following that country’s easing of relations with Iran, would deliver peace in the Middle East – and, potentially, prosperity.
Hamas would then have no alternative, given the Riyadh-Tehran rapprochment, but to recognise Israel’s legitimacy as a state – de facto if not de jure. Border controls between Gaza and Israel would ease. Palestinians would be issued with work permits to move from one to the other. Hamas would put pragmatism before ideology, cracking down on Islamic Jihad and its other armed rivals.
It will take years for analysts to unearth the motives for Hamas’ atrocities on Israel on October 6 – other, of course, than the lust of its operatives for kidnapping, rape, atrocity, murder, terror and Jewish blood. But a plausible reading of events suggests a desparate bid, long planned with Iranian equipment, to make a peace agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia impossible, and to collapse the Abraham Accords altogether.
Whoever is calling the shots in Hamas will surely have hoped that Israel’s response to its own 9/11, as the people of that country see it, would be to launch an immediate invasion of Gaza. Since Hamas’ operatives are distributed among the population and, like Al Qaeda’s in 2001, are not bound by military conventions, the rules of war, and state laws, the mass slaughter of innocent Palestinians would follow.
This could suck in Hezbollah in Lebanon, leaving Israel fighting a two-front war. The West Bank might rise. Jordan, destablised by the consequences of Syria’s barbarous civil war, could collapse. America might not be able – or ultimately willing – to prevent the destruction of Israel itself.
Jo Biden will have warned a weakened Benjamin Netanyahu, during his flying visit to Israel, of the consequences of a fully-fledged land invasion of Gaza. Beware being lured in to a trap that Hamas has set, the President will have told the Prime Minister. At worst, you will find Israel fighting Hezbollah in your north as well as Hamas in your south, amidst a West Bank intifada and a full-scale regional war.
At best, you will lose many more Israeli lives – and for what? What replaces Hamas’ leadership if you have destroyed it, and your forces have returned to Israel? (Provided, that is, they don’t find themselves stuck in the place from which they withdrew in 2005) A new generation of Hamas leaders? Islamic Jihad? Al Qaeda, ISIS – or some new variant of both?
What would Israel do in the event of mass disease and starvation? What about the potential consequences for Egypt? The response to 9/11 began narrowly enough with the destruction of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, but beware of the law of unexpected consequences – Guantanamo Bay, the Iraq War, troop surges, the Mahdi army, nation-building, Abu Ghraib, Iranian resurgence in Iraq and, ultimately, retreat in Afghanistan.
Those are some of the “tough questions” that Biden will have put to his host. He will also have drawn a moral from the deaths of scores of people at Al-Ahli al-Arabi hospital in Gaza. The Dean of St George’s Hospital in Jerusalem rushed onto Twitter to blame Israel. The BBC projected Hamas’ claims that the Israeli Defence Force had killed hundreds of civilians.
A single civilian death is one too many – but it seems that the death toll may have been lower and that the missile is likely to have been a misfired Palestinian rocket. Nonetheless, the incident was enough to rush Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian authority, into cancelling his meeting with the President – fearful of association with a man seen on the Arab street as Israel’s uncritical friend.
Elsewhere, America’s embassy was besieged in Beirut, Israel’s consulate was breached in Istanbul, a synagogue was burnt down in Tunisia and, no less shockingly, molotov cocktails hurled at one in Berlin. If a single disputed explosion was enough to provoke these riots, Biden may have told his host, on what scale would others take place in the wake of a full-scale ground incursion?
Netanyahu may have replied: what would you do, then – were America to be assaulted as we have been? How would you respond, with a terrified, furious electorate raging for reassurance and protection? How would you feel, were you lectured on international law by countries without an independent judiciary, let alone the free press, minority rights and fair elections that we have in Israel?
Then again, he may not have done. For although Hamas’ invasion took place over a fortnight ago, and Israel’s massed ground troops have not yet entered Gaza. Why? Because of negotiations over the fate of hostages? Can Israel’s makeshift government not agree a plan? Why did it give civilians in parts of Gaza a 24 hour deadline to leave last Friday, but not then take the action expected to follow?
Or has Netanyahu simply been waiting until after Biden’s departure? (And Rishi Sunak’s: the Prime Minster arrived in Israel earlier today.) At any rate, the President won’t break with Israel’s Government, for all his administration’s reservations about a Gaza ground war, and will stress to the Arab world that Netanyahu has now agreed that the Egypt-Gaza border be opened for deliveries of food, water and medicines.
The pessimistic take on what will happen next is that the IDF will find itself enmeshed in a long ground war against a well-prepared enemy, which will inflict high casualties on it as a second front opens up in Lebanon, while riots bring the West Bank to a standstill, followed by turbulence in Jordan and Israel’s very existence in peril.
The optimistic one is that Iran, whose involvement in the events of October 6 is disputed, keeps Hezbollah out of a potential war. Israel then degrades Hamas’ leadership and establishes a buffer zone in Gaza, while America, its Arab allies in the region and the United Nations assemble a force to run the rest of it, prevent a humanitarian catastrophe, and ultimately hand most of Gaza over to the Palestinian Authority.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu would be encouraged to broaden his new, centrist coalition and he – or more likely his successor – would activate talks with the PA about a peace agreement not unlike that envisaged by the Clinton parameters over 20 years ago. The Abraham Accords would survive, the Israel-Saudi deal would come and Iran’s influence would be curtailed. You must judge for yourself which outcome is more likely.