Analysis & Opinions - Free Press

Israel—and America—Have No Choice but to Act

| Oct. 27, 2023

As Israel begins its ground invasion in Gaza, Niall Ferguson and Jay Mens expound on the hard strategic decisions facing the West.

Zugzwang is one of the ultimate challenges for a chess player. In zugzwang, a player is in a situation where any move can only weaken one's position and carries the risk of checkmate—but not moving isn't an option. Beyond the intrinsic horror of Hamas's October 7 massacre, it is now obvious that the attack was designed to provoke Israel into reacting. The extent of the zugzwang is increasingly clear, and Israel has few good options. Nor does the United States.

No one should have been surprised by the attacks on Israel by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). Over the last year, there have been more than a dozen public meetings between Iranian officials and the leaders of Hamas, Hezbollah, and PIJ. Enormous quantities of men and matériel have moved from Iraq into Syria, with other matériel arriving by land and air to Lebanon. Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the common thread of the region's so-called "Axis of Resistance," have worked to build and consolidate enormous bunkers and fortifications across Syria along with Hezbollah. Some anticipated another Lebanon War, others expected another Gaza War, and others expected a Third Intifada. The only thing few—if any—expected was a design to drag Israel into all these battles and several more at once. 

The Imperative to Act

In the aftermath of October 7, Israel must strike back. Propelled by nationwide rage, a new government of national unity in Jerusalem has vowed to destroy Hamas. If that is the true goal, a ground operation in Gaza is necessary. Such an operation began in Israel on Friday night. The very nature of urban warfare means that it will have an enormous human cost and an uncertain duration. And this is not just urban warfare: there are two Gazas—the aboveground and the underground network of tunnels where Hamas's men and weapons are stored.

And time is not on Israel's side. International support is already waning, and nowhere more than in the Arab world. Egypt and Jordan, Israel’s most important security partners in the region, have already accused Israel of planning the ethnic cleansing of Gaza. Worse still, the operation will tie down a significant portion of Israel's manpower and assets. Israel will, as a result, be especially vulnerable to the risk of overextension. 

Gaza isn't the only problem. There is also the West Bank, where unrest is already growing and where the Palestinian Authority is at risk of collapse. Then, to the north, Hezbollah has its vast arsenal of rockets, drones, men, and missiles in Lebanon, while on the Syrian border tens of thousands of Iraqi militants have amassed with the goal of "liberating" the Golan. Thousands more Iranian-made drones and ballistic missiles are spread out across dozens of bases in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. For that reason, Israel now relies on American support. Jerusalem is likely waiting for the last of American reinforcements—including another carrier strike group—to arrive in the region prior to launching its attack. But is there an alternative?...

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Ferguson, Niall and Jay Mens.“Israel—and America—Have No Choice but to Act.” Free Press, October 27, 2023.

The Authors