Israel’s Great Strategic Failure – JINSA

It wasn’t October 7. It’s the continuing avoidance of military action against Hezbollah in Lebanon.

It has become conventional wisdom after Oct. 7 that Israel for years had the wrong policy toward Gaza. While the unfathomable catastrophe of that day has rightly forced a critical examination of all the factors that led to it, it’s arguable that Israel’s broad pre-Oct. 7 policy toward Gaza, in contrast to its strategic conception and military preparation, was at least understandable, if not correct. In contrast, there has been less criticism of Israel’s policy toward Hezbollah in Lebanon over the past two decades. Not only does the policy toward the northern front raise even more troubling questions than Gaza, but also, now more than ever, it looks like a major strategic failure.

Ever since Hamas took control of Gaza by force in 2007, Israel has fought several small wars with the genocidal terrorist organization, in response to rocket attacks from the Strip: in 2008-09, 2012, 2014, and 2021. There were also shorter Israeli military campaigns against the Gaza-based Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in 2022 and 2023. In each of these conflicts, Israel would have been justified to enter Gaza and destroy Hamas in self-defense, but never felt so compelled—until Oct. 7.

It has been frequently reported that Israel, or at least its military intelligence agency, had a faulty strategic conception, the so-called “konceptzia,” that Hamas was deterred for now and more focused on governing Gaza than on attacking Israel. Many pundits in the Israeli and American media, who are overwhelmingly hostile to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, contend he was driven to prop up Hamas over the years with the help of Qatari money in order to divide the Palestinians and reduce pressure for a Palestinian state in the West Bank. Netanyahu, who has waged several wars against Hamas, has repeatedly denied this claim. While there have been plenty of leaks in the media already, Israeli military and government probes are expected to reveal what the military intelligence’s konceptzia was, what was motivating Netanyahu and other Israeli political and military leaders, and what contributed to the IDF inadequately preparing for, and/or ignoring signals of, a major Hamas attack.

In the meantime, it’s worth exploring why Israel did not invade Gaza and uproot Hamas from power years ago, based on the premise that Oct. 7 was not inevitable.

The threat from Gaza, however challenging, appeared increasingly manageable to most Israeli military and civilian leaders, despite the short wars with Hamas and PIJ. This misplaced confidence appears to have been partly driven by an overreliance on technology and missile defense. The 2011 deployment of Iron Dome, Israel’s 90%-plus-effective, short-range air defense system, seemingly minimized the rocket threat. With Iron Beam—a laser version that will be at the very least a powerful supplement to Iron Dome—soon to be deployed, Israel believed it was poised to have an even better counter to rockets fired from Gaza. One Israeli military expert told me a few years ago that once Iron Beam was deployed Israel won’t care what happens inside Gaza.

Hamas’ subterranean (tunnel) threat, which already seemed significant a decade ago, was thought neutralized with the installation along the border of underground sensors and barriers. Israel also believed it had neutralized the threat of a land invasion by installing an expensive fence with sensors and cameras. Moreover, the Israeli Air Force continued to operate at will in Gaza, often successfully killing Hamas and PIJ commanders and destroying terrorist infrastructure with precision strikes.

Secure in the belief that these measures had militarily neutralized the Hamas threat, Israel’s civilian and military leaders were mostly averse to destroying Hamas and removing it from power in Gaza.

Israel remained loath to reoccupy Gaza, which it occupied in 1967 and from which it withdrew in 2005, out of concern that any attempt to do so would result in significant Israeli military casualties. Worse, it would bog Israel down in an unwanted occupation of Palestinians in what was viewed as a secondary or tertiary theater compared to the far more potent and immediate threat of Hezbollah to its north and Iran’s nuclear program. Also, Israel had tried its hand at shaping domestic Arab political arrangements in Lebanon in 1982, where it failed spectacularly, and its leaders opposed trying it again ever since. Further, Israeli leaders understood that such an effort in Gaza would be met by fierce international opposition. Indeed, it faced such opposition every time it launched a military campaign in retaliation for Hamas or PIJ firing rockets.

Moreover, when it comes to who could or would responsibly rule Gaza post-Hamas without threatening Israel, there simply never were serious candidates. Egypt did not want Gaza back after losing it to Israel in the 1967 war. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat wisely sought every inch of Sinai and not one inch of Gaza in Egypt’s peace agreement with Israel four decades ago. After the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) spectacular rout at the hands of Hamas two years after Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, Israeli governments increasingly doubted they could rely on the PA to govern the Strip. The PA’s endemic mismanagement, corruption, and radicalism helped spawn overwhelming support for Hamas among its West Bank populace, and its financial rewarding of terrorism is especially anathema to the Israeli political right.

So Israel resigned itself to what some of its leaders call “managing the conflict.” That has meant “mowing the lawn,” or periodic military campaigns to degrade Hamas and PIJ after they conducted—or planned to conduct—rocket barrages, and facilitating economic assistance, in recent years from Qatar, when necessary. This wasn’t really a strategy, but a policy of making lemonade out of the available lemons. If Israel had no clear endgame it’s because none existed, beyond perhaps waiting for Hamas to collapse one day. Still, the success of this approach depended on a basic, eminently achievable condition: the IDF’s ability to defend the 32-mile Gazan border. Of course, on Oct. 7, the IDF utterly failed to do just that, for reasons reported and to be determined.

Nevertheless, events since Oct. 7 largely corroborate Israel’s previous reluctance to topple Hamas from power in Gaza.

First, international support for Israel even after the savagery of Oct. 7 has cratered. Consider, for example, how President Biden has sought for months to prevent Israel from going into Rafah and finish off Hamas. Other Western leaders lost patience with Israel’s military campaign long before.

Second, Israel’s caution over casualties has been borne out. Israel has lost over 280 soldiers in its seven-month ground incursion into Gaza, with over 1,700 wounded. Those numbers are lower than expected but still remain a very heavy toll for a small country of 9 million. IDF deaths are the equivalent of almost 10,000 Americans, more than twice the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq over eight years and more than three times those killed in Afghanistan over 20 years.

Third, Israel will need at least an additional year to continue to kill or imprison Hamas fighters once the intense fighting ends following a Rafah campaign. It also will need to maintain overall control of security of the Strip for an indefinite period.

Fourth, there’s no consensus or agreement on who should rule Gaza. Israeli leaders have been mum about who they think should govern the Strip, and have spoken of a long period of “deradicalization” before any putative non-Hamas Gazans can take greater control. Some, such as my colleague IDF Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Yaakov Amidror, former national security adviser to Netanyahu, attribute that partly to the “day after” not yet having arrived. As for Washington, although the Biden administration reportedly wants Gulf Arab states to be involved in the reconstruction and maybe even the security of postwar Gaza, it is unclear, assuming it goes anywhere, if the plan even intends to exclude or suppress Hamas.

Perhaps Israel could have pursued a middle course between acceptance and expulsion of Hamas governance in Gaza. It might have conducted more proactive actions against Hamas over the years to further degrade its military capabilities and prevent its smuggling activities. That would have required Egyptian help to halt, or at least minimize, the smuggling—to which Cairo clearly had turned a blind eye and from which it apparently has benefited financially. Perhaps Israel could have better controlled how international funding for Gaza was spent, to minimize Hamas using it for its terror infrastructure. It is unclear if any of these steps would have been realistic in light of U.S. policy toward the Palestinians (the exception of the Trump administration’s term, which paradoxically reinforced Israel’s inclination to stick with the status quo), and the IDF brass’s attachment to its technology-centered defensive posture.

In contrast, what is far more strategically problematic, yet less discussed, has been Israel standing by as Hezbollah vastly augmented its arsenal from about 10,000 rockets at the end of the 2006 war to today’s 150,000-200,000, plus several hundred precision-guided munitions and an array of Iranian-made attack drones. Few if any countries can match this arsenal, and it’s an order of magnitude greater than Hamas’ estimated 20,000 rockets and missiles stockpile on Oct. 7. Indeed, it is the more powerful Hezbollah in Lebanon, whose border with Israel had been generally quiet from 2006 until Oct. 7, that poses the far more potent strategic threat to the Jewish state, both in the damage it can inflict and the protection it offers Iran’s nuclear program.

A 2018 report by the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, an organization I head, stated that a vast majority of Hezbollah’s rockets are unguided and short-range, intended to be used “indiscriminately against northern Israeli towns and cities. But, unlike in 2006, Hezbollah now also has several thousand medium-range rockets and several hundred precision long-range missiles capable of striking targets throughout Israel.” At the outset of a conflict with Israel, Hezbollah would be capable of firing at least 3,000 rockets per day, and then settling in on 1,000-1,500 per day. In the 2006 war, Hezbollah fired 200 rockets per day.

This is a far greater challenge for Israel than Hamas, and Jerusalem has had no easy answer to this Hezbollah threat. In a war, Hezbollah could overwhelm the air defense capabilities of Israel, a small country with little strategic depth, causing unimaginable damage to strategic targets and population centers. Israel would have to determine which strategic sites and cities to protect and which to leave vulnerable and evacuate.

In fact, even short of a full-blown war, since Oct. 7, Israel already has been forced to evacuate tens of thousands of Israelis living near the Lebanon border. To prevent or mitigate such a catastrophe, Israel would be compelled to attack Hezbollah with tremendous force by land and air. Israel’s defensive posture in the north since 2006 has led to what had been unthinkable: Hezbollah imposing a depopulated zone inside Israeli territory.

The magnitude of Hezbollah’s capability has helped deter Israel, or give it pause, from attacking Iranian nuclear facilities. Indeed, Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal exists precisely to defend Iran and its most valuable nuclear assets by threatening to let loose against Israel should it ever target them. And now Iran is on the verge of becoming a nuclear threshold state, which is an unmitigated strategic disaster for Israel that could threaten its very existence. By playing it safe in Lebanon, Israel ended up in a worse situation on both fronts.

Years ago Israel could have launched a military campaign, not to destroy Hezbollah but to materially degrade its military capabilities. Israel would likely have needed to use ample ground forces and air power. It could have legitimized such an initiative upon enforcing United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1701, which marked the end of the Second Lebanon War in 2006. UNSCR 1701 prohibited “armed personnel, assets and weapons other than those of the Government of Lebanon and of UNIFIL,” and called for “disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon, so that … there will be no weapons or authority in Lebanon other than that of the Lebanese State.” Those words—“the Lebanese State” and “the Government of Lebanon and UNIFIL”—should have made it clear from the get-go that an Israeli offensive campaign would be necessary not long after 2006. Instead, UNSCR 1701—and the accompanying U.S. policy of strengthening Lebanese state institutions—became a fig leaf for Iran to boost Hezbollah’s rocket and missile capability on Israel’s border.

The civil war in Syria, which started five years later, solidified Israel’s strategic blunder in Lebanon. As Israel’s other neighbor to the north disintegrated, opening the door to an even larger Iranian footprint in the country than had already existed prior, the Israeli Air Force began targeting Iranian assets either in Syria or en route to Hezbollah in Lebanon. The IAF had virtually a free hand in Syria, an operational freedom that has continued even after Russia, with the Obama administration’s acquiescence, established a military footprint in the war-torn country in 2015.

In August 2015, a few weeks after the signing of the Iran nuclear agreement, which seemed to some senior IDF leaders to take a war over Iran’s nuclear program off the table for a number of years, the IDF, under Chief of the General Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, took the unusual step of publishing what the IDF called the “campaign between the wars” strategy. As Eisenkot wrote in 2019, after he retired, the new strategy “strives for proactive, offensive actions” intended to: “Delay war and deter enemies by constantly weakening their force buildup processes and damaging their assets and capabilities,” and “[c]reate optimal conditions for the IDF if war finally does come.”

This proactive strategy, of attacking Iran and Iran-backed forces to minimize their footprint in Syria and block their transfer of advanced capabilities to Hezbollah in Lebanon, was an implicit recognition of Israel’s huge failure in Lebanon. The IDF did not want Syria to become a much larger version of Lebanon. So Lebanon was put on hold, even as Hezbollah’s capabilities grew—along with U.S. investment in the country. The IDF’s “campaign between the wars” has been successful. Through hundreds of actions over the past decade, the IDF has prevented many transfers of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah in Lebanon, destroyed significant Iranian capabilities to manufacture weapons in Syria, and materially restricted the footprint in Syria of Iran and its militias. As an illustration of Iran’s ambitions in Syria, Tehran sought to amass 100,000 militia fighters in the country, but reportedly has only a fraction of that.

Israel didn’t apply to Lebanon the approach it took in Syria, where many outside actors were involved in a generally chaotic and conducive theater torn by a vicious civil war. While it would have certainly faced U.S. and international opposition, it would have been far less costly for Israel to conduct against Lebanese Hezbollah a version of a “campaign between the wars” shortly after 2006. With every passing year, the risks and costs of Israeli military action against Hezbollah have grown.

Israeli generals seemed convinced, or convinced themselves, that they could postpone facing this dilemma. They cited the mostly quiet Israel-Lebanon border as evidence that Hezbollah was in fact deterred. They often pointed to Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah admitting right after the 2006 war that had he known a Hezbollah operation against Israel, which killed three IDF soldiers and abducted two more, would “lead to a war at this time and of this magnitude … would I do it? I say no, absolutely not.” Maybe Hezbollah was deterred, or maybe Iran simply restrained its key proxy as it built it up to become critical dry powder in case Israel attacked Iran nuclear facilities—or both. Either way, the net result was still a drastic spike in Hezbollah’s military capabilities over the years. Hezbollah’s enhanced lethality, coupled with increased American opposition to the “destabilization” of Lebanon—a de facto U.S. protective umbrella—in turn succeeded in forcing Israel to avoid launching campaigns inside its northern neighbor. At the very least, then, it can be said that the deterrence was mutual, which meant a net loss for Israel.

The current war of attrition which Hezbollah started with Israel after Oct. 7 possibly suggests Israel might have taken action against Hezbollah years ago without triggering a major war. Still, aside from the assassination of Hezbollah (and Hamas) commanders, Israel’s current efforts are mostly limited to destroying Hezbollah fighters and infrastructure within a few kilometers of the Israeli border. A major effort to degrade materially Hezbollah’s wider and more extensive capabilities would involve a far larger battlefield.

Apparently, there was no serious intention among Israeli civilian or military leaders over the past two decades to conduct such a campaign in Lebanon. Amidror attributes this partly to Israel losing its preemptive instinct.

Of course, Israel can’t go to war all the time, despite the myriad threats it constantly faces. Political leaders in this democratic country always need to balance addressing threats and ensuring security over the long term with the near-term need to maintain social stability, economic vitality, and growth. Indeed, Israel’s economy and wealth grew substantially since the Second Lebanon War; GDP was $158 billion in 2006, and more than tripled by 2022 to $525 billion, while GDP per capita grew from $22,494 to $54,930. That growth, while welcome, brought with it more complacency.

Until Oct. 7, Netanyahu, who has served as prime minister for most of the time since 2009, took pride in his keeping Israel mostly at peace and growing its prosperity. The opposition parties weren’t pushing for a preemptive campaign to degrade Hezbollah in Lebanon either. In fact, when a left-right coalition government ruled in 2021-22, it signed a maritime deal with Lebanon, with its then-Prime Minister Yair Lapid lauding the deal saying it “staves off” war with Hezbollah.

Since Oct. 7, Israel has sought to restore its shattered deterrence and security against the Iran-led axis, in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Gaza (for now), with Lebanese Hezbollah and its massive arsenal its chief guardian. Iran is on the verge of crossing the nuclear threshold as it advances its weaponization program. Israel will soon face the decision whether to initiate a major military action to degrade Hezbollah in Lebanon and remove it as a strategic threat, and whether to attack militarily Iran’s nuclear program. Israel will need some American backing—politically at the U.N., and militarily by supplying it with some of the weapons it will need for such campaigns, and to help mitigate the scope and intensity of the blowback. Of course, Israel will need to take into account that the Biden administration, whether it lasts another eight months or five years, will oppose such an endeavor. Indeed, the administration has been very vocal against any conflict with Iran or Hezbollah.

Despite some similarities, the Hamas and Hezbollah challenges to Israel were not the same prior to Oct. 7 and required different policies.

In Gaza, Israel opted not to destroy Hamas but to “manage the conflict,” whereby it degraded Hamas’ military capabilities occasionally during military operations or limited wars. This strategy helped lull Israel into a false sense of security that resulted in the deadliest terrorist attack in Israel’s history. With Hezbollah, which controlled a larger area in Lebanon than Hamas did in Gaza, and is far more essential to Iran’s security and regional strategy, Israel did not even try, in the years after 2006, to degrade its capabilities through a significant military campaign, or campaigns. Instead, Israel chose to do little inside Lebanon, mostly focusing on limiting the growth of Hezbollah’s capabilities through a decadelong campaign in Syria.

Oct. 7 will go down as a catastrophic intelligence and military failure. However, Israel allowing the Hezbollah threat to metastasize over the past two decades appears to have been a colossal strategic blunder, the cost of which could even dwarf that of Oct. 7. For Jerusalem, the Lebanon bill is past due.

Michael Makovsky, PhD is the President and CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), and a former Defense Department official.

Originally published in Tablet Magazine.