Gaza’s agony: Theses 7–10

Helena Cobban
11 min readOct 31, 2023

Last Friday, I set out (with a slight excess of ambition) to compile ten theses that might help guide analysts and policymakers through the uncharted waters of the coming weeks of the Gaza-Israel crisis. As it happened, I was able only to complete the first six of these, which can be read here. I attempted a first draft of Thesis 7, but had to stop midway through. I have now rethought and redrafted Thesis 7 and added in Theses 8–10, as shown below. (You can also read the whole unified list of ten theses, here.)

7. Israel’s decisionmaking is mired in chaos

I wrote some about the crisis of Israel’s leadership decisionmaking early last week ( 1, 2.) Since then, a lot more evidence has emerged about the depth and many different dimensions of this crisis, including in the NYT, in Haaretz, and elsewhere. What all these accounts point to is the following:

  • The Hamas breakout of October 7 caused a stunningly deep shock to the whole of the Israeli military/security leadership, indicating that much of the “strategic doctrine” on which they had based their work over recent years, and against which they had been training their commands and their troops, had been quite unfit for purpose. On 10/7 the IDF Southern Command lost a non-trivial number of its leaders, who were either killed or taken hostage. They thereby lost a large proportion of their ability to do realistic battle-planning in this space; and those losses were parallelled by significant losses to all forms of the Israelis’ intelligence capability. The chaos into which the October 7 attack had thrown the IDF at both the national and the regional level was clearly evidenced by the chaotic, excessively violent, and and protracted nature of the counter-offensive they mounted, just to regain control of the 1948-Israel lands that Hamas had seized.
  • The IDF’s ability to do rational operational planning to counter-attack against Hamas in Gaza also appeared to be extremely limited in the chaotic days after October 7. For three weeks after 10/7, just pounding all of Gaza with stand-off bombing from air, land, and sea, seemed to be the only thing they could plan for, or do. A limited and uncertain-looking ground attack was finally launched on the night of 10/27–28. It has been massively destructive, but it has also been plagued by lack of clarity over the strategic goals it is intended to achieve.
  • There has been much evidence of serious frictions both between the political and military leaderships, and within the political leadership itself. These frictions have been increasingly widely reported in the Western and Israeli media. In one such report, the NYT’s Isabel Kershner noted on 10/29 that, “Opinion surveys since Oct. 7 have indicated overwhelming public trust in the military and plummeting faith in government officials.” (And here’s my periodic reminder that everything reported in or from Israel is subject to tight military censorship, especially in times of war… )
  • The families of the Israeli hostages (and also to some extent the families who lost family members on October 7) have been coalescing into a number of networks of growing political power. Initially, the government may have been happy to see the emergence of these networks, which helped keep aloft the “bloody shirt” with which it sought to rally world support for its very tough counter-attack against Hamas/Gaza. However, it has become increasingly clear that these networks have themselves become a powerful rallying point for criticisms of the government and have started to put their own political/strategic pressure on the government. For example, this from Amos Harel in Haaretz today:”Former senior defense officials — including Shaul Mofaz, who formerly served as both defense minister and IDF chief of staff — have expressed support for an ‘all for all’ deal, in which Hamas would free all the hostages and Israel would release all Palestinians jailed for security offenses and send them to Gaza”… Plus, of course, the demands of hostage families to give top or high priority to the wellbeing of the hostages places severe operational constraints on what the military might be able to do in Gaza…

What has been the upshot of this high degree of decisionmaking dysfunctionality in Israel? It has had a number of consequences, including these:

  • It has led both the political and military leaderships to choose-it seems almost blindly-to lob amounts and kinds of ordnance into Gaza that may be intended to “project strength”, to “exact vengeance”, or simply to sow terror… and to do this in ways that quite predictably led to very high rates of death and destruction of civilian families, that clearly violate international law, and that have sparked increasingly widespread global condemnation of Israel. Nearly all the international sympathy that Israel enjoyed immediately after October 7 has thus been drowned under the torrent of reporting, horrifying statistics, and images from Gaza. And for what strategic purpose?
  • The unpredictability of the Israeli leaders’ actions across a wide range of possibilities is a factor that responsible decision-makers worldwide now clearly need to take into account. And given the very deep entanglement of the U.S. government in Israel’s current campaigns in Gaza and elsewhere in West Asia, there is clear potential for the decisions of PM Netanyahu or other portions of the Israeli leadership to draw the U.S. military directly into a range of conflicts within or even far beyond the region.

8. There are large problems of decisionmaking capability in the United States, too

Washington’s leadership dysfunctionality on the current Gaza-Israel crisis is a part-indeed, now a nodal part-of a much broader dysfunctionality that’s been evident in its engagement with numerous other international issues, too. Indeed, we could say that for many years now, Washington has been engaged in multi-year process of massive over-reliance on the military accompanied by diplomatic self-immolation. Here are some of the elements of Washington’s dysfunctionality that have been particularly evident during the current crisis:

  • The extreme strategic ineptitude (and decrepitude) of the president, including his apparently unquestioning acceptance-and public retailing-of the Israeli government’s talking-points and the series of speedy and little-studied decisions he took after 10/27 to throw weighty elements of U.S. power behind Israel’s assault on Gaza
  • The extreme shortsightedness of the president in having inserted the United States so deeply into the whole of today’s West Asian conflict vortex, not just through all the forms of support it has given directly to Israel’s assault on Gaza but also by sending additional US military assets to the region… which have further escalated tensions throughout (and far beyond) West Asia.
  • The very strong support that Israel continues to enjoy in Congress and nearly all the rest of the American political elite. This factor-allied to the relative imminence, in American terms, of the November 2024 presidential and congressional elections-makes it almost impossible to think of Pres. Biden voluntarily deciding to step back and start to “put the brakes on” Israel absent a major new intervening factor such as: Israel suffering a serious setback on the battlefield (in which case Israel’s military push would be self-braking, not braked from Washington); a new, serious political upheaval in Israel; a new explosion of violence in the Holy Places of occupied East Jerusalem, or an even more serious escalation of violence than has already been seen, elsewhere in the occupied West Bank; or a rapid escalation of Israel’s long-simmering conflicts with other, non-Palestinian foes, in some other part of West Asia…

If any of these “new intervening factors” (or others of equal impact) do occur, then the United States could almost immediately be thrust directly into a vortex of international conflicts that would require strategic smarts and decision-making in Washington that is calm, well-informed, and intelligent.

As of now, I’m not holding my breath for an American response like that to happen…

9. The Gaza-Israel conflict comes at a time of rapidly eroding U.S. power in world affairs and little experience anywhere of how to handle these big shifts

I found it symbolic that the Hamas breakout of October 7, 2023 came exactly one year after the decision Pres. Biden made to slap very tight restrictions on China’s access to advanced chip-making equipment. That decision was part of the much broader campaign that Biden-stepping enthusiastically along a trail earlier blazed by Pres. Trump-has been pursuing, to try to severely curtail China’s power in the strategically important field of electronics supply chains and R&D. (Indeed, Biden slapped yet another set of even tighter sanctions on China’s access to chip-making machinery on October 17 this year.)

Tight and punitive sanctions have been, along with demonstrations of military muscle, the other major tool of Washington’s engagement in international affairs for many years now; and in many cases, the American sanctions or tariffs imposed against China have been in clear violation of the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO.) The latest rounds of U.S. restrictions on China’s access to chip-making machinery have almost certainly been counter-productive: they stimulated China’s development of its own indigenous design and production capabilities, as shown with the extremely impressive roll-out of Huawei’s Mate 60 Pro phone back in August… But the fact remains that at a time when when U.S. power has anyway been declining for many years, the sanctions against China have quite gratuitously caused further distrust and rifts into the relationship between Washington and Beijing.

Why is this relevant to developments in Gaza/Israel? Primarily because the terrifying conflict that the IDF is waging against Gaza is going to require at some point-and I hope this comes sooner rather than later-some very skillful and far-sighted diplomacy by all the world’s leading powers, including these two. As I noted in Thesis 5 that I formulated earlier, the United States has now lost the ability it had long enjoyed, to exercise near-hegemonic control over all the strands of Arab-Israeli peacemaking. I noted there that the intense pro-Israeli partisanship that Washington has demonstrated in the present conflict has meant that it, “ has completely disqualified itself in the court of global public opinion from any claim that it might continue to “lead” the negotiations for a final-status peace between Palestinians and Israelis that so very desperately needs to happen …” But it is not only the United States’ partisanship that disqualifies it from exercising that earlier “leadership.” It is also the raw fact that Washington no longer enjoys anything like the degree of hegemonic power it enjoyed on the world scene back in the 1990s and early 2000s.

In Thesis 5 I wrote that, “It is time for the grown-ups of the rest of the U.N. Security Council to regain the reins” of Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking. This means that all the members of the UNSC, but especially the five veto-wielding Permanent Members, the P-5,need to find a way to work together on this peacemaking challenge of truly global impact and importance.

The P-5 states are all, of course, nuclear-weapons states-as is Israel, which is not a member of the NPT. Three members of the P-5 are key members of NATO, a military alliance with which roughly 10–12 percent of humankind is affiliated. And the other two are key members of BRICS, which is not a military alliance but an economic grouping, whose five current members encompass roughly 35% of humanity. (BRICS’s membership will shortly grow through the addition of six new states including Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt.)

The world community has for many years now expressed a deep preference for Israel’s withdrawal from all the lands its military occupied in 1967 and for the establishment in the occupied West Bank and Gaza of an independent Palestinian state living in peace alongside Israel (the “two-state outcome.”) The most significant, government-level demurrals from support for the two-state outcome have been those voiced by Israel’s recent governments, which consider the whole area between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean to be “the Land of Israel”, and Iran, which considers the Jewish state in Israel illegitimate and calls for its replacement by a single non-theocratic state in all of historic Palestine.

Apart from those two (non-trivial) exceptions, all the others of the world’s states still express clear support for a two-state outcome in Palestine/Israel. Since 10/7, that position has been expressed very forcefully by China, Russia, and nearly all the European states, and in a much more muted fashion by the United States.

Under both Presidents Trump and Biden, Washington has diverged very significantly from the two-state principle, particularly through the recognition that it has given to Israel’s annexation of occupied East Jerusalem and Golan, acts that are actually grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions. Nonetheless, Washington has maintained a rhetoric of support for the two-state outcome. Now, given the gravity of this Israel-Gaza crisis, it is time for Washington to put that rhetoric into action, to set aside the pro-Israel partisanship it has pursued for so long, and to work with other world powers to end Israel’s occupations of Gaza, the West Bank, and Golan.

10. The Security Council needs to seize control of West Asian diplomacy from the fading but dangerous U.S. hegemon

The leaders of China and other representatives of the Global Majority most likely did not want to be launching an open challenge to Washington’s global power right now. But the intensity of the regional and global crisis that has been sparked by the Israel-Gaza war-an intensity that Pres. Biden has greatly magnified through the strength, partisanship, and hugely escalatory potential of the actions he’s taken since 10/7-is bringing ever closer the point at which the leaders of Global Majority states might need to stage an urgent diplomatic intervention in order to defuse and de-escalate these tensions.

Actually, the sheer horror and devastation that Gaza’s 2.3 million people are currently suffering could well provide the entry-point for a Global Majority intervention that starts with decisive U.N. action on the following agenda:

  1. Force a complete cessation of hostilities between Israel and the Gaza Palestinians, and a pullback of Israeli forces to the 1949 Armistice Line, with that ceasefire (a new Armistice!) to be monitored by U.N. observers.
  2. Organize a massive transportation to Gaza, by land and sea routes that do not run through Israel, of the many humanitarian necessities that Gaza’s Palestinians now so desperately need.
  3. Simultaneously start laying the basis for Gaza’s direct connection to the outside world both via Egypt and by speedily rehabbing Gaza’s long-bustling sea-port, with control over Gaza’s new crossing-points to be organized by a U.N. body.
  4. Simultaneously have the U.N. Security Council organize a new and authoritative international peace conference with the declared aim of finally-56 years after 1967-achieving the full implementation of SC resolutions 242 and 338 on the Israel-Palestine and Israel-Syria fronts, on the basis of establishing a two-state outcome in historic Palestine.
  5. Simultaneously dedicate the Security Council to closely monitoring the situation on the ground in all of the occupied West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and occupied Golan with a view to protecting the rights of those areas’ legitimate residents and preparing plans for the full withdrawal of Israeli forces and settlers from those areas.

Can such an agenda be achieved? Yes, it can, if the states that represent the Global Majority are ready to put all their diplomatic an economic muscle behind it. If it cannot be achieved, and if the U.S. continues to give massive military support and carte blanche diplomatic support to Israel, then who can tell where the world might be headed?

Originally published at https://globalities.org on October 31, 2023.

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Helena Cobban

Veteran analyst of global affairs, w/ some focus on West Asia. Pres., Just World Educational. Writes at Globalities.org.