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Saturday, October 21, 2023

Israel Is About to Make a Terrible Mistake

Israel Is About to Make a Terrible Mistake

President Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seated in front of American and Israeli flags.
Pool photo by Miriam Alster, via Reuters

This article has been updated to reflect new developments.

“I have great admiration for how President Biden has used his empathy and physical presence in Israel to convince Israelis that they are not alone in their war against the barbaric Hamas, while trying to reach out to moderate Palestinians. Biden, I know, tried really hard to get Israeli leaders to pause in their rage and think three steps ahead — not only about how to get into Gaza to take down Hamas but also about how to get out — and how to do it with the fewest civilian casualties possible.

While the president expressed deep understanding of Israel’s moral and strategic dilemma, he pleaded with Israeli military and political leaders to learn from America’s rush to war after Sept. 11, which took our troops deep into the dead ends and dark alleys of unfamiliar cities and towns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, from everything I have gleaned from senior U.S. officials, Biden failed to get Israel to hold back and think through all the implications of an invasion of Gaza for Israel and the United States. So let me put this in as stark and clear language as I can, because the hour is late:

I believe that if Israel rushes headlong into Gaza now to destroy Hamas — and does so without expressing a clear commitment to seek a two-state solution with the Palestinian Authority and end Jewish settlements deep in the West Bank — it will be making a grave mistake that will be devastating for Israeli interests and American interests.

It could trigger a global conflagration and explode the entire pro-American alliance structure that the United States has built in the region since Henry Kissinger engineered the end of the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

I am talking about the Camp David peace treaty, the Oslo peace accords, the Abraham Accords and the possible normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The whole thing could go up in flames.

This is not about whether Israel has the right to retaliate against Hamas for the savage barbarism it inflicted on Israeli men, women, babies and grandparents. It surely does. This is about doing it the right way — the way that does not play into the hands of Hamas, Iran and Russia.

If Israel goes into Gaza and takes months to kill or capture every Hamas leader and soldier but does so while expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank — thereby making any two-state solution there with the more moderate Palestinian Authority impossible — there will be no legitimate Palestinian or Arab League or European or U.N. or NATO coalition that will ever be prepared to go into Gaza and take it off Israel’s hands.

There will be no one to extract Israel and no one to help Israel pay the cost of caring for more than two million Gazans — not if Israel is run by a government that thinks, and acts, as if it can justifiably exact its revenge on Hamas while unjustifiably building an apartheidlike society run by Jewish supremacists in the West Bank. That is a completely incoherent policy.

Alas, though, a senior U.S. official told me that the Biden team left Jerusalem feeling that while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel understands that overreach in Gaza could set the whole neighborhood ablaze, his right-wing coalition partners are eager to fan the flames in the West Bank. Settlers there have killed at least seven Palestinian civilians in acts of revenge in just the past week.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials told me, the representatives of those settlers in the cabinet are withholding tax money owed the Palestinian Authority, making it harder for it to keep the West Bank as under control as it has been since the start of the Hamas war.

Netanyahu should not allow this, but he has trapped himself. He needs those right-wing extremists in his coalition to keep himself out of jail on corruption charges.

But he is going to put all of Israel into the jail of Gaza unless he breaks with those Jewish supremacists.

Unfortunately, the senior U.S. official told me, Israeli military leaders are actually more hawkish than the prime minister now. They are red with rage and determined to deliver a blow to Hamas that the whole neighborhood will never forget.

I understand why. But friends don’t let friends drive while enraged. Biden has to tell this Israeli government that taking over Gaza without pairing it with a totally new approach to settlements, the West Bank and a two-state solution would be a disaster for Israel and a disaster for America.

We can help, we can even insist, that our Arab and European allies work to create a more effective, less corrupt and more legitimate Palestinian Authority in the West Bank that, after some transition in Gaza, could help govern there as well. But not without a fundamental change in Israeli policy toward the PA and the Jewish settlers.

Otherwise, what began as a Hamas onslaught against Israel has the potential to trigger a Middle East war with every great power and regional power having a hand in it — which would make it very difficult to stop once it started.

In the first week of this conflict, the supreme leader of Iran and Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, appeared to be keeping very tight control of their militiamen on the border with Israel and in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. But as the second week has gone on, U.S. officials have picked up increasing signs that both leaders are letting their forces more aggressively attack Israeli targets and that they might attack American targets if the United States intervenes. They smell the logic of how much an Israeli invasion of Gaza could help their goal of driving America out of the whole region.

On Thursday, a U.S. Navy warship in the northern Red Sea shot down three cruise missiles and several drones, apparently launched by the pro-Iranian Houthi militia in Yemen, that might have been headed toward Israel. More missiles, likely from pro-Iranian militias, were fired at U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria.

So many rockets are now coming from the pro-Iranian Hezbollah militia in South Lebanon that we are one degree away from a full-scale missile war between Israel and Iran’s proxies — and very possibly directly between Israel and Iran.

Israel is not likely to let Iran use its proxies to hit Israel without eventually firing a missile directly at Tehran. Israel has missile-armed submarines that are probably in the Persian Gulf as we speak. If that gets going, it’s Katie, bar the door.

The United States, Russia and China could all be drawn in directly or indirectly.

What makes the situation triply dangerous is that even if Israel acts with herculean restraint to prevent civilian deaths in Gaza, it won’t matter. Think of what happened at Gaza City’s Ahli Arab Hospital on Tuesday.

As the Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea pointed out to me, Palestinian Islamic Jihad achieved more this week with an apparently misfired rocket “than it achieved in all of its successful missile launches.”

How so? After that rocket failed and fell on the Palestinian hospital in Gaza, killing scores of people, Hamas and Islamic Jihad rushed out and claimed — with no evidence — that Israel had deliberately bombed the hospital, setting streets ablaze across the Arab world. When Israel and the United States offered compelling evidence a few hours later that Islamic Jihad accidentally hit the Gaza hospital with its own rocket, it was already too late. The Arab street was on fire, and a meeting of Arab leaders with Biden was canceled.

If people cannot talk openly and honestly about a misfired rocket, imagine what will happen when the first major Israeli invasion of Gaza begins in our wired world, linked by social networks and polluted with misinformation amplified by artificial intelligence.

That is why I believe that Israel would be much better off framing any Gaza operation as “Operation Save Our Hostages” — rather than “Operation End Hamas Once and for All” — and carrying it out, if possible, with repeated surgical strikes and special forces that can still get the Hamas leadership but also draw the brightest possible line between Gazan civilians and the Hamas dictatorship.

But if Israel feels it must reoccupy Gaza to destroy Hamas and restore its deterrence and security — I repeat — it must pair that military operation with a new commitment to pursue a two-state solution with those Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza ready to make peace with Israel.

The hour is late. I have never written a column this urgent before because I have never been more worried about how this situation could spin out of control in ways that could damage Israel irreparably, damage U.S. interests irreparably, damage Palestinians irreparably, threaten Jews everywhere and destabilize the whole world.

I beg Biden to tell Israelis this immediately — for their sake, for America’s sake, for the sake of Palestinians, for the sake of the world.

Thomas L. Friedman is the foreign affairs Opinion columnist. He joined the paper in 1981, and has won three Pulitzer Prizes. He is the author of seven books, including “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” which won the National Book Award. @tomfriedman  Facebook

A version of this article appears in print on Oct. 22, 2023, Section SR, Page 4 of the New York edition with the headline: Israel Is About to Make a Terrible MistakeOrder Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe
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