A number of factors are coming together to create a potentially dangerous year in Israel. The humanitarian situation in Gaza continues to deteriorate, increasing the likelihood of an explosion in the south, while in the north tensions between Israel, Iran, and its proxies are growing. Meanwhile, some of the traditional restraining factors may not be in place to stop a conflict. The end result could be catastrophic.
In Gaza potable drinking water is dangerously scarce with 95 percent considered undrinkable. Electricity crises have racked the Strip for the past year. A financial crisis is getting worse as the Palestinian Authority dramatically cuts the salaries it pays to civil servants – many of whom get paid for no work – but whose salaries still are essential for purchasing power in Gaza, which has dropped dramatically in the past year. Egypt has tried thus far unsuccessfully to facilitate a political agreement between Fatah and Hamas but has also, since 2013, cut off Hamas’s smuggling tunnels – a key source of income that once propped up the Strip.
We have seen this show in the past, though not usually at this level of intensity. As the economic pressure rises inside Gaza, Hamas (or more extreme organizations) let off political steam by launching some rockets into Israel. Israel responds with airstrikes in Gaza. This scenario played out again in the past few days.
The problem is that while neither side wants another war, it only takes one stray rocket to provoke one. If a rocket kills Israeli civilians, Israel will respond with escalatory strikes. If an Israeli strike inadvertently takes out high value Hamas targets or causes serious civilian casualties Hamas will respond with significant force. This is precisely what happened in 2014 in the leadup to the last Gaza conflict. Tensions rose around the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers, the subsequent Israeli crackdown in the West Bank, and the murder of an Arab Israeli teenager. All of this led Hamas to try to take advantage of the situation politically by launching rockets into Israel. Israel responded with a sortie against a tunnel, where, unbeknownst to Israeli officials, six high ranking Hamas members were located. Before either side knew it, they were off to the races on a 50-day war that left more than 2,000 Palestinians and 70 Israelis dead. This, despite the fact that nobody actually wanted the conflict.
Even as the Gaza situation simmers so too do tensions in the north. Iran is increasingly entrenched in Syria and Lebanon as Islamic Revolutionary Guards Officers are embedded all over Syria with regime forces and are building out a permanent presence. Iranian trained and supported Shia militias have become the backbone of Bashar al Assad’s ground forces. Iran continues to arm Hezbollah and, most worryingly, has begun to help it build out its own domestic weapons production capability so that the Lebanese group no longer relies on shipments from Iran. Israel has long conducted military strikes into Syria and Lebanon to interdict Iranian weaponry. But these strikes are becoming bolder and deeper in response to this Iranian encroachment, and Israel has also elevated its public posture as it raises the alarm internationally to try and apply some pressure on the United States and, more importantly, Russia to restrain Iran near Israel’s border.
The incident last week was a preview of what we may see in the future. Iran launched a drone into Israeli territory from Syria, testing the nature of Israel’s response. Israel disabled the drone and launched major strikes deep into Syrian territory aimed at the base from which the UAV was launched in an effort to deter such activities in the future. An Israeli jet was shot down by Syrian air defenses upon its return. Fortunately the situation did not escalate, but that had a lot to do with the fact that the Israeli pilots were able to eject in Israeli territory. Had the plane been downed over Syria or Lebanon and the crew taken prisoner or killed, we might be looking at a different situation today. The bottom line is that the risk of real escalation is substantial.
Perhaps most alarming in this environment is that a conflict that begins in either Israel’s north or in its south could set off a fight in the other. If Israel enters a major war in Gaza and Arab media is full of images of homes destroyed in Gaza and civilians killed, pressure may build for Hezbollah or Iran to escalate in the north or Tehran may calculate that it presents a strategic opportunity with Israel vulnerable and distracted. Alternatively, if a major conflict starts in the north especially if it starts to involve strikes in and around Beirut, Hamas may feel politically pressured to enter or see a chance for easy hits against Israel.
Another problem is that some of the usual brakes on the system are not there. Prime Minister Netanyahu certainly talks very tough about Israel’s enemies. But when it comes to fighting wars he has been wisely cautious even when it is politically unpopular. In 2014, for example, he resisted pressure from his own coalition for an all-out ground invasion of Gaza, at first trying to avoid it altogether and eventually launching only a limited intervention, which at the time was not popular with an Israeli public that broadly sought a harsher response.
But in today’s environment, with the prime minister staring down an imminent indictment, it remains uncertain whether he can muster the political strength to resist getting drawn in. This is not to say that Netanyahu will purposely provoke a conflict for his own political benefit. I do not believe that he will. But when faced with a conflict and overwhelming clamor from his coalition and from the Israeli public to escalate, he may not have the same tenacity that he did four years ago when his position was much more secure.
Meanwhile, the United States also has an important role to play. It has always supported Israel in these conflicts and reiterated its commitment to Israel’s security, but it has also tried to quickly end past conflicts – sometimes successfully, as in 2012 when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton helped negotiate a quick ceasefire in Gaza after only seven days. Sometimes, efforts are fruitless, as when the Gaza War went on for 50 days in 2014 despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to stop it.
Will the Trump administration play that moderating role? Or will hardliners like Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, and David Friedman essentially encourage further escalation, not recognizing that sometimes being pro-Israel requires playing this restraining role instead of just providing complete and unmitigated support to right wing Israel policies?
There is also a real question about the effectiveness of the current administration. The recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital threw more fuel on the flames, triggering protests and inspiring anger amongst the Palestinians. Since then, Washington has only escalated, cutting off half of its support to UNRWA, sending the vice president to Israel at a time when Mahmoud Abbas would obviously not be in a position to meet with him, and ending up in a war of words with the Palestinian president at the UN Security Council. Now there is talk of publicly releasing a U.S. peace plan, which in this environment would be rejected out of hand by the Palestinians and further inflame the situation. Palestinian officials have not met with Americans since December. Under these circumstances, how can the U.S. be taken seriously as a mediator?
A two front war is far from a guaranteed outcome. None of the actors want a major war so perhaps they can all avoid one. For years, the situation in the north has looked tenuous and yet we have not seen a conflict since 2006, and Hezbollah has managed to stay out during the last three rounds in Gaza. Trump’s positive ratings with the Israeli public and good relations with Bibi give him meaningful leverage should he choose to play the role of restrainer. And Netanyahu is still at his core a risk averse leader who, despite a long tenure as Israeli prime minister, has for the most part managed to avoid major wars.
Let’s hope these factors can mitigate the possibility of conflict. Unfortunately, more factors now seem to be pointing in the opposite direction. The very real possibility of an explosion at some point in the near term should worry us all.