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The Hostage Deal Means Israel Is Fighting the Clock

With a short cease-fire reportedly going into effect Friday, Hamas has seized control of the war’s timetable.


By Dominic Green

With a four-day cease-fire reportedly going into effect Friday, time isn’t on Israel’s side in its war with Hamas in Gaza. Israel already faces challenges unprecedented in the history of war. A terrorist enemy dedicated to its destruction holds hundreds of hostages in a complex tunnel network and uses civilians as human shields. Israeli society, already riven by political infighting, is traumatized by Hamas’s Oct. 7 assault and divided over how to handle the hostage crisis. Further cease-fires mean the recovery of more hostages, but this will slow and eventually halt Israel’s effort to break Hamas’s control over Gaza. That would be a strategic defeat for both Israel and the U.S.


Israel needs time to root out Hamas. But the longer the war goes on, the likelier it is to spiral into a regional conflict drawing in the U.S. Since Oct. 17, Iranian-supplied militias have hit U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria with more than 60 rocket attacks. If a rocket or drone kills American troops, the Biden administration will face a crisis of its own. It could either retaliate against Iran and risk unpredictable military, economic and electoral consequences, or retreat from the Mideast, abandoning Israel and ceding a crucial region in the U.S.’s great-power struggle with China.


Few observers are better placed to understand these dilemmas than Michael Oren. An Israeli-American historian of the U.S.’s relationship with the Middle East, Mr. Oren served in Gaza with the Israel Defense Forces, then advised on several rounds of peace negotiations with the Palestinians. He was Israel’s ambassador to Washington during the Obama years. He held the Gaza brief as Benjamin Netanyahu’s deputy prime minister.


Mr. Oren praises President Biden’s forthright support of Israel. He agrees with the president’s statement that “a ceasefire is not peace” as long as Hamas “clings to its ideology of destruction.” It is war by other means, allowing the terrorists to “rebuild their stockpile of rockets, reposition fighters and restart the killing by attacking innocents again.” Mr. Oren expects U.S. and international pressure for cease-fires to grow “exponentially” in the coming weeks.


A cease-fire deprives Israel of military momentum and transfers the initiative to Hamas. Now that Israel has agreed to a short cease-fire, the Biden administration and its Qatari interlocutors will expect longer cease-fires. Hamas will remain armed and dangerous in Gaza, despite Israel’s war aims and the U.S.’s stated goals, and will use this cease-fire to regroup. The cease-fire’s terms allow Hamas to extend the truce by releasing 10 hostages a day. As the possibility of a permanent truce nears, and as Hamas starts to trade adult, male and military hostages, the group’s demands will rise. The U.S. will pressure Israel to release hundreds of Palestinian terrorists.


The partial hostage release also increases pressure inside Israel for further cease-fires. Israeli society, and Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet, are already split by a real-life “Sophie’s choice”: Who is returned home, and who is left behind? The Israeli government insists its Gaza campaign will resume once the cease-fire lapses, but a combination of domestic and international pressures may prevent Israel from regaining military momentum. The State Department is already refusing to endorse an Israeli move into southern Gaza, citing humanitarian concerns.


A temporary cease-fire that becomes permanent is incompatible with the Biden administration’s commitment to Israel’s security. More than 200,000 Israelis are internally displaced from the southern regions adjoining Gaza and the northern border with Lebanon. This cease-fire with Hamas won’t return those Israelis home. It will, however, embolden Iran and its proxies, none of whom are parties to the cease-fire deal. Hezbollah’s attacks across Israel’s northern border have intensified in recent weeks, as has the pace of rocket attacks by Iranian-sponsored militias on American bases in Iraq and Syria. The Houthis of Yemen, removed from the Foreign Terrorist Organizations list when the Biden administration came into office, have hijacked a cargo ship in the Red Sea and launched ballistic misiles at Israel.


“What’s going to happen when the message gets out that we can be hit more or less with impunity, and when we try to defend ourselves, someone’s going to slap a cease-fire on us?” Mr. Oren asks.


Restoring Israel’s deterrence is a matter of survival for the Jewish state. It’s also an asset that the U.S. is defending by resupplying Israel and sending out two carrier strike groups to the region. Israelis now appreciate the indispensability of American support more than at any time since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. It’s vital the Biden administration uses its leverage wisely.


Mr. Oren endorses reports that after Oct. 7 Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant advised launching a pre-emptive strike on Hezbollah before addressing Hamas’s smaller rocket arsenal in Gaza. Mr. Gallant was overruled in the cabinet partly, Mr. Oren believes, because of “tremendous pressure” from the Biden administration. The president’s one-word warning to Iran and its assets—“Don’t”—also applies to Israel.


Mr. Oren hears several clocks ticking at once. A short cease-fire won’t slow any of them, and it will exacerbate some of their pressures. There is the “ammo clock”: The IDF needs to be resupplied consistently with U.S.-made advanced munitions. There is the “reservist clock”: Israel has mobilized an army equivalent to those of Britain and France combined; its young men and women, he says, form “the backbone of our high-tech economy.” There is the “economic clock”: Foreign investment and tourism have collapsed, and Israel is burning money on the war. There is the “humanitarian clock”: Footage continues to show civilian casualties and more than a million displaced Gazans.


Israel needs to stop these clocks to survive. The Biden administration should create time and diplomatic space for Israel’s forces to break Hamas. That means preventing the terrorists from setting the timetable in the Gaza war, letting Israel strike Hezbollah as necessary, and re-establishing American deterrence against Iranian-sponsored rocket attacks. It also means rethinking America’s Iran strategy.


Israel’s leaders, Mr. Oren among them, made the mistake of believing Hamas could be bought off with Qatari cash and work permits. The Obama administration, he says, “made the same mistake” about Iran. The Biden administration, which transferred $6 billion to Iran to secure the release of five American hostages in September and allowed sanctions on Iran’s missile technology to lapse, is under the same delusion. The Democrats’ long campaign to escape the Mideast by placating Iran has “completely boomeranged” in “abject failure,” Mr. Oren says. The U.S. has been dragged back into the region by Iranian-sponsored aggression.


Two other clocks are ticking: the countdown to Iran’s nuclear breakout and the countdown to what Mr. Oren calls the “crunch” moment when an Iranian missile takes American lives or hits a U.S. Navy vessel. That would also be a direct hit on “the contradictions of American policy.” Time is tight for Israel, but the U.S. is approaching a fateful moment too.


 

Mr. Green is a Journal contributor and a fellow of the Royal Historical

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