Middle East

Israel-Hamas war: Conflict scenarios, US diplomacy, and shoring up regional stability

Nine days after the Hamas attack inside Israel, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is massing troops for a large-scale ground incursion into Gaza. For now, the outlines and endgame of Israel’s military action are not entirely clear. Meanwhile, escalation is rising along the Israel-Lebanon border and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is crisscrossing the Middle East communicating both deterrence and diplomacy.

War scenarios

One can describe two scenarios for Israel’s invasion of the Gaza Strip. The first would hew closely to its declared intention of destroying Hamas; this would presumably entail a full-scale invasion and occupation of the entire Gaza Strip and an attempt to fully root out Hamas. Such a full-scale invasion would not be easy. Hamas, and its backers in Hezbollah and Iran, certainly must have predicted a large-scale ground incursion in response to the Hamas attack inside Israel, and at a minimum Hezbollah would have provided Hamas with what it learned from facing down and beating back an Israeli invasion of south Lebanon in 2006. In other words, Hamas would not be unprepared for such an invasion. And while civilians have little place to run and hide, Hamas fighters have readymade tunnels and escape routes to use.

Such a full-scale invasion would also likely include high Israeli casualties as well as very high Palestinian civilian casualties. How Israeli public opinion would measure the cost and benefit of losing many more Israeli lives, and how world and regional opinion would pressure Israel to limit the loss of Palestinian lives, would have to be factored in. And if the invasion succeeded, the main question would be what to do afterward; an extended occupation of hostile territory — as the U.S. and Israel have both learned before — is unsustainable. The idea that the Palestinian Authority (PA), or some third power, would agree to take control of Gaza on the heels of an Israeli invasion is unrealistic.

The second scenario would resemble previous Israel invasions of Gaza but on a much larger scale. The Israeli bombardment and ground incursion would proceed. As the human toll mounted and Israel built a wider “buffer zone” for itself inside Gaza, and if it felt that Hamas had been degraded and chastened “enough,” the situation could pivot toward looking for a ceasefire and negotiation. Israel might conclude that fully and permanently rooting out Hamas is not a realistic or achievable goal, or that it’s too costly. Also, Israel — and the U.S. — have to contend with the fact that Hamas holds around 200 hostages that they want back.

Escalation to other fronts

In either scenario the loss of life on all sides would be enormous and the end state would remain unstable and fraught. And in either scenario there is a real risk of the war spreading to other arenas. Tension and conflict have already spread to parts of the West Bank, where violence between Israeli settlers and Palestinians has resulted in the killing of over 50 Palestinians. Tension in mixed communities inside Israel is also running high.

But the real risk is of Iran encouraging Hezbollah to open a second front across the Lebanese-Israeli — and Syrian-Israeli — border. Exchange of fire across the Lebanon-Israeli border has already exceeded anything seen since the war of 2006. For Iran and Hezbollah, the concern is that they don’t want to lose Hamas as a strategic asset. Hezbollah has already raised tensions along the border to divert some Israeli military resources and attention away from the Gaza front. As mentioned above, the “Axis of Resistance” surely had factored in a large-scale Israeli response to the Hamas attacks. If Hamas is able to survive the Israeli onslaught and maybe fight the Israeli forces to a bloody standstill in the middle of Gaza, then perhaps Hezbollah would not up the ante to a full-scale second front; however, if Iran and Hezbollah observe that Israel is making rapid progress and that Hamas is at risk of fully and finally going under, then opening a major second front may become a reality.

Blinken’s deterrence and diplomacy

As he crisscrosses the region, the U.S. secretary of state has a complex challenge on his hands. Moving two aircraft carrier strike groups into the eastern Mediterranean is a strong show of support for Israel and aims to communicate a message of deterrence to Iran and Hezbollah. The challenge will be to communicate that the U.S. has the will to follow through. Iran does not doubt the U.S.’s military capabilities, but Washington has been largely disengaged from the region recently, and observers in Tehran might bet that President Joe Biden is not going to embroil the U.S. in another Middle Eastern war right before an election year. Secretary Blinken will have his hands full clarifying what the “red lines” are for the U.S. in this crisis, and what it might do credibly if they are crossed.

Blinken has also been busy trying to square the circle of standing fully in support of a strong Israeli military response to the Hamas attacks, while at the same time being mindful of the humanitarian costs of the war in Gaza, the violations of international law that are likely being committed, and the need to care for more than 2 million civilians trapped in a locked Gaza that currently has no water or supplies of fuel and medicine incoming. Blinken’s visit to Cairo and progress with the Egyptians on opening a humanitarian aid corridor might be one of the results of these efforts.

Blinken’s visit to Qatar likely has three main purposes: messaging through Doha to Iran about red lines and deterrence; opening a line via the Qataris to Hamas, to explore pathways for the release of hostages and to prepare for possible endgame negotiations; and lining up the Qataris to play a large humanitarian aid role during this crisis, and a reconstruction role after this latest round of conflict is over.

The secretary of state’s stops in Saudi Arabia might also be partially aimed at messaging to the Iranians, as the Saudi crown prince and the Iranian president are now in direct contact. But Blinken also wants to keep the idea of peace alive, and might want to pivot, after this latest conflagration comes to an end, toward a wider reinvigoration of peace talks between Saudi Arabia and Israel, and to find ways to bring the PA into that process.

Blinken is also positioning the U.S. to play a central role once there is a need for a negotiated end to the conflict — and that need will be there no matter what the military outcome is. It is heartening to see that Blinken is well aware that part of the response to this latest eruption of bloodshed is the need to redouble efforts to restore hope in an Israeli-Palestinian pathway — at least through the PA and the West Bank — other than renewed conflict or open-ended occupation. The extinguishing of hope for a positive political pathway for Palestinians is what fuels despair, desperation, and violence.

Priorities, and the Iranian dimension

For the immediate future, attention must be focused on protecting civilians in Gaza as much as possible from the next phase of the Israel-Hamas war: a continuing large-scale bombing campaign and a ground incursion. In the medium term, the regional and international community must help figure out what the new status quo will be in Gaza, how to rebuild stability and security, and how to revive life in the strip for its 2 million inhabitants. In the longer term, efforts must be redoubled — as mentioned above — to revive a realistic diplomatic process between Israelis — maybe with a new Israeli government after this war — and the PA. The fact that most major Arab countries have, or want, peace with Israel should provide such renewed efforts with a supportive backdrop.

That brings us to the Iranian element of the current conflict. Indeed, as the “Arab-Israeli” dimension of the conflict has been winding down in recent years, the Iranian-Israeli dimension has been on the rise. The previous major Israeli war was with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the current one is with Hamas — both groups that are now squarely in Iran’s Axis of Resistance. Hezbollah and Hamas are part of Iran’s “forward defense” strategy to deter Israel — and its U.S. backer — from any direct or large-scale attack on Iran. They are also useful in exacting a price from Israel for what Iran perceives as Israeli threats to its own security: Israel has a presence in Azerbaijan on Iran’s border, and has conducted covert operations inside Iran for several years. In any wider attempt to rebuild greater stability in the Middle East, there would need to be some efforts at de-escalation between Israel and Iran. The U.S. is not a position to undertake that, but other regional capitals, and/or China, might be able to help. Iranian-Israeli tensions are already fueling today’s conflict; unmanaged, they could lead to a much wider conflagration tomorrow.


Paul Salem is president and CEO of the Middle East Institute. He focuses on issues of political change, transition, and conflict as well as the regional and international relations of the Middle East.

Photo by Mustafa Hassona/Anadolu via Getty Images

The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.

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