As Israel debates what to do next in Gaza, I hope Israel’s political-military leadership will reflect on the adage often attributed to Confucius: “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves” — one for your enemy and one for yourself.
Wise man, Confucius.
The reason I was so wary about Israel invading Gaza with the aim of totally eliminating Hamas was certainly not out of any sympathy for Hamas, which has been a curse on the Palestinian people even more than on Israel. It was out of a deep concern that Israel was acting out of blind rage, aiming at an unattainable goal — wiping Hamas from the face of the earth as one of its ministers advocated — and with no plan for the morning after.
In doing so Israel could get stuck in Gaza forever — owning all its pathologies and having to govern its more than two million people amid a humanitarian crisis, and even worse, discrediting the very Israeli military that it was trying to restore Israelis’ trust in.
Quite honestly, I thought back to America after 9/11. And I asked myself, what do I wish I had done more of before we launched two wars of revenge and transformation in Afghanistan and Iraq for which they and we paid a huge price?
I wish I’d argued for what the C.I.A. calls a “Red Cell” or “Red Team” — a group of intelligence officers outside the direct military or political chain of command, whose main job would have been to examine the war plans and goals for Iraq and Afghanistan and stress-test them by proposing contrarian alternatives for achievable goals to restore U.S. security and deterrence. And to have that Red Team’s recommendations be made public before we went to war.
As a retired senior U.S. intelligence official said to me: The role of the C.I.A.’s Red Cell on other thorny problems “was to help the U.S. government make decisions with eyes wide open and to buy down, but not eliminate, risk. It’s not a sign of weakness to make fully informed decisions and I think the Red Cell is a great tool for weighing alternative options and potential second- and third-order effects. Israel’s leaders need to be rigorous and not only passionate at this moment in time.”
So it’s with that in mind that I am proposing Israel create not only a Red Team for how to deal with Hamas in Gaza but also a Blue Team to critique the Red Team. Israel needs to have a much more robust internal debate because it has clearly rushed into a war with multiple contradictory goals.
Israel’s stated aim is to get back all its remaining hostages — now more than 130 soldiers and civilians — while destroying Hamas and its infrastructure once and for all, while doing it in a way that doesn’t cause more Gazan civilian casualties than the Biden administration can defend, and without leaving Israel responsible for Gaza forever and having to pay its bills every day. Good luck with all that.
Here’s what an Israeli Red Team might point out and advocate instead.
For starters, because the military and cabinet rushed into Gaza in this war and seemingly never game-planned for any endgame, Israel now finds itself in a difficult predicament. It has pushed well over one million civilians from northern Gaza to the south to get them away from the fight as it has attempted to wipe out all Hamas fighters in Gaza City and its environs. But now, the only way that Israel can take the ground war to southern Gaza — around Khan Younis, where Hamas’s senior leadership is suspected of hiding in tunnels — is by moving through this mass of displaced people and by creating even more.
Facing this predicament, the Israeli Red Team would suggest a radical alternative: Israel should call for a permanent cease-fire that would be followed by an immediate Israeli withdrawal of all military forces in Gaza on the condition that Hamas return all the hostages it has left, civilians and military, and any dead. But Hamas would get no Palestinian prisoners in return. Just a clean deal — Israeli withdrawal and a permanent cease-fire in return for the 130-plus Israeli hostages.
There would be an Israeli asterisk, though, which wouldn’t be written in, but everyone would understand it is there: Israel reserves the right in the future to bring to justice the top Hamas leaders who planned this massacre. As it did after the Munich massacre, though, Israel will do that with a scalpel, not a hammer.
What might be the advantages of such a strategy for Israel? The Red Team would cite five.
First, it would argue, all the pressure for a cease-fire to spare Gazan civilians more death and destruction will fall on Hamas, not on Israel. Let Hamas tell its people living out in the cold and rain — and the world — that it will not agree to a cease-fire for the mere humanitarian price of returning all the Israeli hostages.
Moreover, Israel would have ensured that Hamas got no big political victory out of this war like forcing Israel to free all the more than 6,000 Palestinians in its jails in return for the hostages Hamas is holding. No, no — it would just be a clean deal: permanent cease-fire for Israeli hostages, period. The world can understand that. Let’s see Hamas reject it and declare that it wants more war.
Second, some, maybe many, in Israel would complain that the military did not achieve its stated objective of eliminating Hamas, therefore it was a Hamas victory. The Red Team would respond that, for starters, the objective was unrealistic, especially with a right-wing Israeli government unwilling to work with the more moderate Palestinian Authority in the West Bank to build an alternative to Hamas to run Gaza.
What Israel will have achieved, the Red Team would argue, is to have sent a powerful message of deterrence to Hamas and to Hezbollah in Lebanon: You destroy our villages, we will destroy yours 10 times more. This is ugly stuff, but the Middle East is a Hobbesian jungle. It is not Scandinavia.
And think smart about it: In the wake of such a permanent cease-fire, Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s leader, would have to come out of his tunnel, squint into the sun, and face his own people for the first time since this war started. Yes, the morning after he comes out, many Gazans will carry him on their shoulders and sing his name for dealing such a heavy blow to the Jews.
But on the morning after the morning after, the Red Team would predict, many of those carrying him around would begin whispering to him: “Sinwar, what were you thinking? My house is now a pile of rubble. Who is going to rebuild it? My job in Israel that was feeding my family of 10 is gone. How am I going to feed my kids? You need to get me some international humanitarian assistance and a new house and job — and how are you going to do that if you keep lobbing rockets at the Jews?”
With Israel out, the humanitarian crisis created by this war in Gaza would become Sinwar’s and Hamas’s problem — as it should be. Every problem in Gaza would be Sinwar’s fault, starting with jobs.
Keep in mind, as Reuters recently noted, that before Oct. 7 Israel was issuing “more than 18,000 permits allowing Gazans to cross into Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank to take jobs in sectors like agriculture or construction that typically carried salaries up to 10 times what a worker could earn” in Gaza. Gaza was also exporting over $130 million a year of fish, agricultural produce, textiles and other products to Israel and the West Bank. That’s now all stopped.
Third, the Israeli Red Team would argue, this will create the same kind of deterrence for Hamas that Israel’s devastating bombardments of pro-Hezbollah communities in the southern suburbs of Beirut did in the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has never dared to provoke a full-scale war with Israel since.
The Red Team would add that not only would the damage Israel has inflicted on Hamas and Gaza create similar deterrence, but so too would the fact that Israel could now reimagine and strengthen its own border defenses. Hamas has shown Israel where all its vulnerabilities were and how it smuggled in so many weapons — and Israel can now make sure this will never happen again.
Fourth, one of the biggest strategic benefits of Israel getting out of Gaza in return for an internationally monitored cease-fire is that it could then devote full attention to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah and Iran would not like that. They want Israel permanently militarily overstretched and forced to keep a good chunk of its 300,000-plus reservists — who drive its economy — permanently mobilized to govern Gaza.
They also want Israel’s economy permanently overstretched to pay for it. And they want Israel morally overstretched by permanently owning the Gaza humanitarian crisis, so that every day the sun did not shine in Gaza, the rain did not fall, the electricity did not flow, the world would say that it is Israel’s fault. Israel’s worst enemies could not design a worse fate for it — and that is what Hezbollah and Iran are praying for.
Finally, the Israeli Red Team would argue, Israel has important healing to do at home. This surprise attack happened because Israel had a prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who had fractured the country by trying to mount an insane judicial coup and who governed Israel for a total of 16 years with a strategy of dividing everyone — religious from secular, left from right, Ashkenazim from Sephardim, Israeli Arabs from Israeli Jews — weakening the country’s immune system. Israel can be healed internally and resume its project of normalizing relations with its Arab neighbors and forging a stable relationship with the more moderate Palestinian leadership in the West Bank only if Netanyahu is removed. If the war goes on forever, that will never happen. And that is exactly what Netanyahu wants.
But now comes the Israeli Blue Team. What would it say about the Red Team?
Well, first, it would ask, what do you do if Sinwar simply says no, I won’t accept just a cease-fire, I need my 6,000-plus prisoners out of Israeli jails and I will pay the price in Western public opinion to hold out for them? Then Israel is stuck again.
The Israeli Blue Team would say: We have a better idea. First, downgrade our objectives. Declare that the military’s objective is not to wipe Hamas off the face of the earth, but to significantly diminish its fighting capacity.
Because, the Blue Team would say, we actually don’t believe in deterrence. Hezbollah has not really been deterred since 2006. That is an illusion. Iran is just saving Hezbollah for the day Israel will threaten its nuclear program. We Blue Teamers believe in constantly diminishing our enemies’ capabilities. Once we have greatly diminished Hamas’s capabilities, we are not going to stay in Gaza forever until we kill every leader.
Instead, we will pull back and create a perimeter and outposts one mile inside the Gaza-Israel border to ensure that our border communities can never again be attacked overland as they were on Oct. 7. And we will do that to emphasize that we have the abilities and intentions to return at will if Hamas keeps firing rockets at us. If Hamas wants to trade our hostages for prisoners, we can talk. As for governance of Gaza, a diminished Hamas can stay in charge if that is what Gazans want. Let Hamas be responsible for the water and electricity.
Finally, the Blue Team would say to the Israeli political leadership: “Stop lying to yourself and the public. If we try to conquer and hold all of Gaza, Gaza will not only swallow us in the end, you politicians will create huge doubts in the public’s mind about the military by giving it an unachievable goal and Israel simply cannot afford more doubts about the military a second longer.”
In sum, Israel needs this kind of internal debate, where an Israeli Red Team and Blue Team can remind the country’s leadership that there is no perfect outcome waiting for Israel in Gaza. Fixing Gaza “once and for all” was always a fantasy.
But here is what is not a fantasy: The true history of Israel-Hamas relations. It is very simple. It is war, timeout, war, timeout, war, timeout, war, timeout …. Hamas thrives in the wars, because that is all it can deliver and all that it exists for. Israel thrives in the long timeouts — in the cease-fires — when all of its societal, economic and innovative strengths come to the fore. Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah want to drag Israel into a permanent state of war. Israel needs a Red Team and a Blue Team to advocate instead for longer cease-fires, a more hardened border and the flexibility to return to Gaza if Hamas forces it to.
Not perfect, but perfect was never on the menu. It’s the Middle East, Jake.