‘A Very Slow Game:’ Why the Pace of Israel’s Ground Operation Counts

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In the 23 harrowing days since Hamas attacked Israeli civilians and soldiers, Israel’s Western allies have had to perform a delicate balancing act: expressing steadfast support for the country during its darkest hours, while navigating the growing public anger on their streets over the intensifying bombardment of Gaza.

Israel’s neighbors in the Middle East have walked a different tightrope: managing outraged populations and, in some cases, proxy militant groups, which threaten to drag them into a broader war with Israel that they may not seek.

For both, Israel’s unfolding ground invasion of the densely populated Gaza Strip has complicated their calculations.

The phased nature of the operation has lacked the thunderous impact of an all-out infantry and tank assault, something Israel’s rivals had warned against, given the likelihood that it would cause untold civilian casualties. And yet the growing Palestinian death toll — more than 8,000, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry — and the prospect that the fighting might go on for months, has already drawn thousands of protesters into the streets from London to Istanbul, demanding a cease-fire.

Israeli officials said their planning was being driven by military, not diplomatic, imperatives: the need to prepare troops for a prolonged campaign; a desire to avoid harming the more than 200 people held by Hamas as hostages; and tactical concerns, like searching for mines and other defenses laid by the militants.

Yet the deliberate pace of the operation may nonetheless affect the response of allies and enemies, from the United States, which has offered Israel public support as well as private pleas for restraint, to Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militant group, which has peppered it with rockets from Lebanon but threatened to inflict more damage.

On Sunday, President Biden reaffirmed his support for Israel in a call with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But he urged Mr. Netanyahu to “immediately and significantly increase the flow of humanitarian assistance to meet the needs of civilians in Gaza,” according to a White House readout of the conversation.

While military considerations are driving Israel, “in the front of the minds of the planners was also the question, ‘Can something we do tip the scale in the Tehran-Beirut calculations?’” said Nimrod Novick, a former adviser to Israel’s late prime minister, Shimon Peres, referring to Iran’s capital and Hezbollah’s base in Lebanon.

Hezbollah fired almost 20 rockets into Israel on Sunday, setting a house ablaze in Kiryat Shmona, near the Lebanese border, and prompting an Israeli response. But the attacks, an Israeli official said, were within a predictable range and did not suggest that Hezbollah was on the verge of joining the war.

Iran’s foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, said on Sunday that his government does not want the war to “spread out.” Two weeks ago, he had declared that Israel would face a war on “multiple fronts,” waged by a network of militias across the region, if Israeli forces did not stop killing civilians in Gaza.

“Israel hasn’t made the decision that it wants to test its foes,” said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator who now runs the U.S./Middle East Project, a think tank based in London and New York. “Both sides have that in their calculations. There’s a very slow game of chess that could quickly pick up pace.”

Israel’s methodical approach has not prevented some Muslim leaders from hardening their rhetoric. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told a vast pro-Palestinian rally in Istanbul on Saturday that Israel was “behaving like a war criminal.” Israel responded by pulling its diplomats out of the country.

There are other signs of mounting international pressure. On Friday, the United Nations General Assembly passed a nonbinding resolution calling for a humanitarian truce in Gaza. The vote, which passed 120 to 14 with 45 abstentions, was supported by eight European Union countries, including France, which had previously expressed strong support for Israel’s right to defend itself.

The fact that France voted in favor of the resolution is “problematic” for Israel, said Emmanuel Navon, the executive director of ELNET Israel, a nonprofit group that seeks to strengthen ties between Israel and Europe. In the Security Council, Mr. Navon said, “Israel does not want to only rely on the U.S. veto.”

The Security Council has failed to pass any resolution on Gaza, neither condemning the Hamas attack on Israel or calling for a cease-fire. Four attempts to do so have failed because of vetoes of pro- and anti-Israel resolutions by the council’s permanent members, including the United States, Russia, and China.

While Europe’s leaders continue to express public support for Israel, they are facing growing demands for a cease-fire in their own countries. Tens of thousands of pro-Palestinian demonstrators marched through London on Sunday, many expressing outrage that Britain has so far refused to back a truce.

For the leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer, the war has triggered a political mutiny. More than a dozen members of his leadership team in Parliament have broken with the party to call for a cease-fire, fracturing Labour’s show of solidarity with Israel in the days after the Hamas attack.

Mr. Starmer sent his shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, for meetings in Jordan, Qatar, and Egypt this week, while the government is sending the foreign secretary, James Cleverly, to the United Arab Emirates. Both are conferring with Arab leaders about how to prevent the war from escalating into a regional conflict.

Some foreign policy experts contend that the fears of a wider war are overblown. For all their warnings, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf emirates have so far shown little appetite to get drawn into the conflict.

Iran is dealing with water shortages, economic problems and lingering domestic unrest from the case of a young woman who died under suspicious circumstances in September 2022 after authorities arrested her for wearing a hijab improperly. With all those distractions, analysts say, it is reluctant to get drawn into a regional war, even if it wants to show support for Hezbollah.

Iran, they said, also has little interest in a direct confrontation with the United States, which has warned it to stay on the sidelines and deployed two aircraft carrier groups to the eastern Mediterranean to reinforce the message.

“What we always assumed is a geopolitical tinderbox, which explodes into a broader regional war,” said Jeremy Shapiro, a former State Department official who is research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. “It doesn’t seem to have happened, and it doesn’t seem that it’s going to happen.”

Still, Mr. Shapiro said global public opinion would inevitably turn further against Israel as the civilian deaths in Gaza mount. And he predicted it would have little impact on the decisions of Israel’s commanders, who have vowed to destroy Hamas.

For foreign leaders, that could spell an ever trickier balancing act.

Adam Sella contributed reporting from Tel Aviv

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