Why Israel must win this war — and why it cannot


Despite three weeks of bombing and 17 years of siege, Israel has been unable to curb Hamas’s ability to launch missiles deep within Israel.

Israel lacks strategic depth, being one of the smallest countries in the region and with hostile or cold neighbors on all sides.

It has nine power stations, out of which the second largest has been damaged by Hamas rockets.

Further damage to Israel’s electricity production would risk severely harming the Israeli economy, which is already being hit hard by Israel mobilizing 8 percent of its labor force, having 200,000 out of its 7 million population displaced, and losing investments and tourism revenues.

Israel has nine airbases, without which the Israeli military would be ineffective.

These bases are all within range of Hamas and Hezbollah’s rockets, with the latter especially able to target the bases repeatedly and to overwhelm Israel’s missile-defense systems.

Hezbollah can, with its missiles, go a long way towards disabling at least some of Israel’s aerial military capabilities.

Unlike the United States, which can fight through aircraft carriers from a safe distance, Israel lacks the strategic depth for long wars against capable enemies.

That is why it has strived to maintain a top-quality military, an aerial strategic advantage and, until 2006, the ability to win wars quickly.

Israel realizes that its neighbors are its enemies.

If they perceive Israel as weak, they may turn against it.

And that means that every war that Israel faces is, in a real sense, existential.

This is especially the case given that Israel has not decisively won a war since 1982, and that the 2023 Gaza War, more than any other previous war, is fully the army’s war.

If the reputation of Israel’s military is broken, then the perception that peace with Israel is a good bet is broken.

One makes peace with one’s enemy when one believes the enemy to be strong.

Knowing Israel’s weaknesses, Hamas and Hezbollah have prepared for a long war in which they can repeatedly target Israel in depth.

These groups understand that they need to attack in a way that maximizes Israel’s strategic vulnerability.

They have dug tunnels all over Lebanon and Gaza and, probably, through their Iranian-led allies, in Syria and Iraq.

They have been able to fight each conflict with Israel, survive, and enter the next war with greater capabilities than what they had in the previous war, enabled by Iran’s strategic depth and resources.

This would be a major problem even if Israel could sweep in, uproot groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, and push its enemies back permanently. But it cannot.

General Itzhak Brik, the former military’s ombudsman, has been warning that the Israeli armed forces are not ready for all-out war since at least 2018.

Most soldiers’ experience in Israel’s conscript military is limited to policing the West Bank and patrolling outside Gaza.

The forces dedicated to preventing Hamas from breaking out of Gaza fell apart in a matter of hours on October 7; the entire Gaza Division was defeated, shaming Galant’s Southern Command.

Israel has not won a major ground campaign since the Battle of Jenin refugee camp in 2002.

In 2006, Israel failed to advance four kilometers from Israel into Lebanon to capture the Lebanese town of Bint Jbeil.

It even failed to fully capture Maroun El-Ras, a small village two kilometers from the border.

There was much handwringing in Israel over the lessons of the 2006 Lebanon War, with many recommendations supposedly implemented by the IDF.

This, however, did not change the fact that Israel was barely able to enter Gaza City’s Shujaiyya neighborhood in 2014, despite overwhelming firepower. Israel has not attempted a major ground incursion since then.

It is perhaps this uncertainty about Israel’s ability to win the war that is driving the country’s political division and lack of unity in the face of an existential threat.

If there were a clear path to victory, to uprooting Hamas and to establishing deterrence, political leaders would be lining up to join Netanyahu, rather than let him try to win the war on his own, or just with a couple of more generals.

In that sense, the lack of unity is a strong signal that this war will not end in success for Israel — and that, in turn, ensures that there will be another, worse war in the future.