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Michael Oren

The brutal syllogism of this war is a deathtrap for Israel

Hezbollah won’t accept a ceasefire unless Hamas does. Hamas will not agree to a ceasefire. Hence, Israel will go to war against Hezbollah.
Fires and smoke rise at houses in the northern Israeli border town of Metula, hit by Hezbollah shelling, as seen from the Lebanese town of Marjayoun, Lebanon, June 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)
Fires and smoke rise at houses in the northern Israeli border town of Metula, hit by Hezbollah shelling, as seen from the Lebanese town of Marjayoun, Lebanon, June 22, 2024. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)

The basis of Aristotelian logic, and arguably of all Western philosophical thought, is the syllogism. It states, simply, that if A equals B and B equals C, then A equals C. And what was foundational for Aristotle in antiquity is for Israelis today nothing short of nightmarish.

We are trapped in a deadly syllogism in which the refusal of one terrorist organization to end its war with Israel means a second terrorist organization will also refuse, pitching Israel into a regional – and potentially existential – conflict.

How did we become so lethally enmeshed? What factors contributed to our syllogistic entrapment? And how, if at all, can Israel escape?

The origins of this syllogism lay in the belief of Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar that, in spite of Gaza’s devastation and the deaths of many thousands of its citizens, time is on his side. The conclusion is far from irrational.

Despite its historic performance under conditions never before faced by a modern army, the IDF has yet to meet its primary goal of destroying Hamas. Abandoning frontal attacks for rearguard guerrilla tactics, the terrorists are embedding themselves deeper into the civilian population while exacting an almost daily toll from the IDF. Much of the world continues to rally around the Palestinian cause and to isolate and criminalize Israel. On many of America’s most preeminent campuses, Hamas is hailed as heroic. Most encouraging for Hamas, though, is the steady fraying of Israel’s initial internal unity as anti-government demonstrators once again take to the streets and block the highways. Our soldiers run low on morale and ammunition.

More emboldening still for Hamas have been the policies of the United States. From an initial position of standing four-square beside Israel in seeking the eradication of Hamas, American decision-makers later determined that Israel’s goals were unrealistic and that, in pursuing them, the IDF was wantonly killing Palestinians. The White House went so far as to delay the supply of munitions vital for Israel’s defense. These measures fueled the global demands for a permanent ceasefire and a total Israeli withdrawal from Gaza – precisely what Sinwar sought.

Composite shows Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah delivering a televised speech on February 16, 2024. (Al-Manar / AFP) and Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip Yahya Sinwar speaking during a rally marking Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day, in Gaza City, April 14, 2023. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

Israel, too, contributed to Sinwar’s self-confidence. In addition to buckling to American pressure to refrain from launching a major incursion into Hamas’s last major redoubt in Rafah, the Netanyahu government agreed to the US administration’s plan for a phased end to the Gaza war. The first stage calls for a six-week ceasefire and a partial IDF withdrawal in return for the release of the female, aged, and infirm hostages, but the second stage provides for the repatriation of all the hostages – living as well as dead – in exchange for a complete Israeli withdrawal and an unlimited ceasefire. Though greatly degraded, Hamas would survive. Sinwar will surely emerge from his tunnel hoisting a V sign, declare a Jihadist victory, and begin preparing for the next October 7th.

The deal could not have been sweeter for Sinwar, yet once again he rejected it. He’s convinced that phase two of the plan – total IDF pullback and permanent ceasefire – can become phase one. And why not? Already, the Biden administration is tweaking the wording and terms of the plan to better assuage Hamas. Hold fast, Sinwar reasonably concludes, prevent humanitarian aid from reaching the people of Gaza, keep using them as human shields, and the terms will get sweeter still.

American criticism and international pressure on Israel, the worsening plight of Palestinian civilians, deepening divisions within the Jewish State – all contribute to Sinwar’s optimism. The syllogism that fatally entraps Israel is almost complete. Missing only is the key to Hamas’s final triumph: War between Israel and Hezbollah.

Shortly after October 7, in a show of solidarity with Hamas, Hezbollah began shelling Israel’s north. Since then, the Iranian-backed terrorists have fired thousands of rockets and launched countless drones against Israeli soldiers and civilians. Dozens have been killed and wounded, some 10,000 football fields worth of crops and orchards reduced to ash, and close to 100,000 Israelis rendered homeless. In doing so, Hezbollah has realized Israel’s worst-case scenario of a war of attrition that each day creeps southward, with rockets falling on southern Galilee and the Israeli cities of Safed, Tiberias, and even Nazareth. If one of those projectiles hits an army base or a school, the Israeli government, already under intensifying pressure to act, will order a massive counterstrike. Israel, Lebanon, Iran and its Iraqi and Houthi proxies, and potentially even the United States, will all be at war.

And Sinwar would not be happier. Hezbollah’s headman, Hassan Nasrallah, has said that his forces will not accept a ceasefire unless Hamas does. But Sinwar, of course, won’t. He knows that even if it prevails in a showdown with Hezbollah, Israel will be devastated by tens of thousands of missiles, its army exhausted and logistically depleted, and further isolated in the world. The US will make more far-reaching concessions to Hamas, perhaps even including it in Gaza’s postwar government – anything to achieve the ceasefire essential for averting Armageddon.

Here, then, is the syllogism: Nasrallah says no ceasefire without Sinwar, Sinwar says no ceasefire, period, and Israel goes to war with Hezbollah. So a mind game for Aristotle becomes a deathtrap for Israel.

How can we break free of it? Diplomacy, certainly, would be preferable. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to see what leverage the US could bring to bear on Hezbollah to get it to retreat from the Israeli border in accordance with the 2006 UN resolution that Nasrallah violated the day it was enacted. No alternative course seems viable other than the military.

As such, the Biden administration must stop holding Israel back – and the Israeli government must cease letting itself be reined in – from destroying what remains of Hamas’s military capabilities in Gaza and rescuing the hostages. At worst, this will increase the pressure on Sinwar. At best, it will kill him. A vastly degraded and leaderless Hamas will be far more disposed to accept a ceasefire.

At the same time, the United States must put teeth into ‘Don’t.’ That was the single word that President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken flung at Hezbollah and Iran last October. Back then, the meaning was clear: don’t either of you dare to take advantage of the fighting in Gaza by opening a second front in the north. The warning was reinforced by the dispatch of two aircraft carrier groups, each one capable of inflicting massive damage on Israel’s enemies.

US President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the war between Israel and Hamas after meeting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, October 18, 2023, in Tel Aviv. (AP/ Evan Vucci)

Since then, though, the ‘Don’t’ appears less aimed at Iran and Hezbollah and increasingly directed at Israel. “Even though you’re getting pummeled every day,” the White House seems to say, “Don’t think about mounting a counterattack. Sit there, rather, and take it until your Iron Dome interceptors run out.” Purportedly, the delays in munitions shipments to the IDF not only reflect US opposition to Israel’s current tactics in Gaza but also to its future operations in Lebanon.

The US Navy may nevertheless assist Israel passively, taking down Hezbollah’s rockets much as it did those fired by Iran at Israel last April. Still, no team ever won a game solely by playing defense. Iran and Hezbollah will not be deterred unless ‘Don’t’ means they will both pay a prohibitive price, exacted by the United States, for attacking Israel.

Without concluding the principal battle against Hamas, without securing a ceasefire in Gaza either by pressuring Sinwar or eliminating him, and without effectively deterring Iran and Hezbollah, Israel will remain trapped in the brutal syllogism. Brave and concerted action will be required to break that equation and replace it with a radically different one: ceasefire in Gaza equals ceasefire in Lebanon, equals an end to the fighting on both the northern and southern fronts. Israel, the United States, and the world will have averted an incalculably devastating war.

About the Author
Michael Oren, formerly Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Knesset Member, and Deputy Minister for Diplomacy, is the founder of the Israel Advocacy Group and the Substack, Clarity.