Editor’s Note: DJ Rosenthal is a visiting fellow with the National Security Institute at George Mason University’s Antonin Scalia Law School. Rosenthal previously was the director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council in the Obama administration. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
After the horrendous attacks against Israeli civilians on October 7, Israel is rightly pursuing a campaign to eliminate Hamas. In doing so, it is imperative that Israel not lose sight of long-term strategic national security objectives but instead seek to wipe out Hamas within a broader military and diplomatic strategy.
For the long-term security of Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government must recognize that the extremism that fueled Hamas is part of a broader constellation of issues that are interconnected and that must be addressed for there to be a lasting peace in the region.
Israel should avoid acting in isolation but rather develop a strategy that serves its larger regional and international objectives. These include securing the safe release of more than 230 hostages, protecting nearby alliances, building partnerships with additional nations (most notably Saudi Arabia) and working cooperatively and collaboratively with the United States and other countries as it seeks to eradicate Hamas.
Netanyahu’s creation of a war Cabinet was widely celebrated as a prudent step from a military point of view, but this entity, by design laser-focused on a military objective, risks being blind to the regional security imperatives vital to Israel’s near and long-term survival. The Israeli people must demand that Netanyahu create a mechanism that ensures the government adequately weighs other regional cross currents.
Specifically, the Israeli government must seek ways to eliminate Hamas without undermining its relationships with its Arab neighbors. Over several decades, these efforts have created vital relationships between Israel and Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Sudan.
And at least until October 7, significant diplomatic headway was being made toward a normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, it is likely that a central aim of Hamas’ attack was to fuel an unrelenting Israeli response to undermine their Arab alliances, all of which contribute to regional stability and threaten the terrorist group’s legitimacy.
For this reason, Israel must do all it can to minimize outrage on the Arab street. While this might seem unfair, the fact is that Arab leaders cannot long ignore the protests from their outraged citizens and will be forced to take increasingly hostile diplomatic positions with Israel.
As Dennis Ross, a former US envoy to the Middle East, noted last week in The New York Times, many regional leaders eager for a partner in Israel to help crush radical Islamism privately support Israel’s effort to eliminate Hamas. But these Arab leaders are facing increasing domestic political pressure to respond to reports of civilian casualties in Gaza, first through words of condemnation and ultimately through action, such as pledging to part ways diplomatically with Israel.
Moreover, in eliminating Hamas, Israel must ask itself, to borrow a phrase from former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, whether it is creating more terrorists than it is killing. If so, its near-term goals to eliminate Hamas will do nothing to advance its long-term security interests in preventing the next generation of terrorists determined to strike at Israel.
Israel must ensure that its pursuit of its objectives against Hamas are conducted with the utmost care to minimize civilian casualties. While it is true that Hamas uses civilians as human shields to create a significant tactical complication for Israel’s mission, Hamas’ inhumanity does not form a basis upon which Israel can depart from its obligations to minimize civilian casualties. To fail to do so is to risk undermining Israel’s security interests in the region, Western support and its legitimacy.
In a lengthy statement posted on the online site Medium, former President Barack Obama was right to emphasize that how Israel prosecutes its war against Hamas matters. It matters not only for the reasons Obama stated — consistency with international law and efforts to avoid death and suffering of civilians — but also because failing to do so likely constitutes a red line of sorts (though not one that President Joe Biden or other officials in the administration have publicly articulated) as to what the US government will be willing to stomach as the suffering of civilians mounts. And it likely represents a pragmatic line as well for broader international support.
Take, for example, the Israel Defense Forces strike on Gaza’s Jabalya refugee camp on Tuesday. While the IDF said that it was targeting high-level Hamas leadership, which might make the strikes legal under international law, Israel must not ignore the realpolitik implications. Bolivia, Chile and Colombia have taken drastic diplomatic steps against Israel, and Jordan recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Antony Blinken is again visiting Israel, no doubt to put private pressure on the Israeli government to avoid civilian casualties. The diplomatic impacts to Israel will only continue to mount if these types of strikes persist.
Indeed, taking extreme care to minimize Palestinian civilian causalities is not only unquestionably the right, moral and lawful thing for Israel to do, but is inextricably linked to its own national security interests in building and maintaining vital partnerships that it will need long into the future.
Israel must also take meaningful steps to provide immediate relief from the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Gaza. While it is true that Egypt, which controls a border with Gaza, and other regional actors have a part to play, Israel must take a leading role, given its blockade and aerial campaigns, both to abide by its obligations under the laws of war and to minimize regional and international condemnation.
Moreover, Israel must sharpen its rhetoric with respect to the enemy it faces and the nature of its objectives. It must be relentlessly precise that its enemy is singularly Hamas, and it must avoid rhetoric that demonizes the Palestinian people or the broader Arab community.
It should make clear that Hamas not only poses an existential threat to Israel but also has long victimized the Palestinian people and deprived them of a chance at a better future. Doing so hopefully can shift the prevailing narrative from one where Israel and the Palestinians are in conflict to one in which Israel and the Palestinians (along with other nations in the region and around the globe) must defeat a common enemy in Hamas.
And Israel must broaden its statement of purpose. Currently focused only on eradicating Hamas and the safe return of the hostages, Israel should instead articulate comprehensive strategic objectives that seek to advance (or at least not undermine) other interests, including regional stability and normalized diplomatic relations with its neighbors.
Absent broader strategic goals and action to further them, Israel could easily fall into the trap set by Hamas and Iran — seeking to decimate Hamas but, in so doing, undermining the prospect for the return of the hostages, alienating regional partnerships, strengthening Iran’s influence and fomenting a new generation of Arab youths to sustain the cycle of violence between Israel and its neighbors.
Israel has every right to defend itself from the heinous attacks by Hamas. But it must not allow anger and a desire for retribution at all costs to undermine its long-term goals of regional stability, security and peace.
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