by ian bremmer
Global leaders are gathering in Dubai for COP28, the 28th annual United Nations climate summit, starting tomorrow through Dec. 12. But before the meeting even begins, I can already tell you one thing: Just like every COP that came before it, COP28 will fail to resolve the central debate on “solving” climate change.
At the heart of this failure lies a trillion-dollar roadblock: disagreement between developed and developing countries over who’s to blame for the problem – and who should foot the bill to fix it. The US and Europe blame Chinese and Indian coal plants and call for their immediate phase-down. China and developing countries blame the West’s historical emissions and insist on compensation for their mitigation and adaptation efforts. Africans and Indians assert their right to develop their economies as Westerners did. Vulnerable nations demand reparations to cope with the harmful consequences of the global warming that’s already baked in. Neither side wants to make concessions.
While they bicker, the planet is cooking. Cumulative emissions since 1850 – when humans started burning fossil fuels at scale – have already caused global temperatures to increase by about 1.2 degrees Celsius relative to preindustrial levels. Scientists believe we have nearly reached the point where limiting the planet’s temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius (and therefore the most extreme consequences of climate change) becomes physically – not just politically or economically – impossible. 2023 will be the hottest year on record, and climate-related extreme weather events such as droughts, floods, and heat waves are becoming more frequent and deadlier.
The good news is that we’re already moving in the right direction thanks to technological advancement, demographic changes, and market and geopolitical incentives. Looking out two or three generations from now, the global energy complex will be almost entirely post-carbon: renewable, cheap, decentralized, and abundant.
The bad news is that decarbonization is not happening fast enough to get there sooner. And unless developed and developing nations can bridge the climate finance gap, the path to global warming below 2 degrees Celsius – let alone 1.5 degrees, the current goal – will remain out of grasp. This puts the debate over equity and burden-sharing squarely at the heart of the planet’s ability to curb climate change.
So, who’s right? Who’s wrong? And what will it take to break the stalemate?
Climate justice by the numbers
Carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere. Unlike shorter-lived greenhouse gases such as methane, CO2 doesn’t go away – at least not on a human timescale. This means that all the carbon that we’ve pumped into the air in the past is still heating the planet today and will continue to do so in the future. And because CO2 is a “well-mixed” gas, it doesn’t matter where or by whom it is emitted. Whether caused by an LA traffic jam in 1999 or a Mongolian coal plant last Tuesday, it’s all the same to the atmosphere – and it’s all still up there.
In total, we have released roughly 2,500 gigatons of CO2 (GtCO2) into the atmosphere, mostly in the last 40 years. The United States is responsible for about 25% of cumulative emissions, while Europe (the 27 members of the European Union plus the United Kingdom) contributed 22%. China comes in third with nearly 15% of historical emissions. Many of today’s largest emitters such as India and Brazil have not contributed significantly to global cumulative emissions, with 3% and 1%, respectively. The whole African continent is responsible for less than 3% of historical emissions.
Adjusting for population size, the US has burned almost eight times more carbon per capita than China and over 25 times more than India. This makes it clear that Americans (and, to a lesser extent, other Westerners) are disproportionately responsible for causing climate change.
But while the US is historically responsible for more global warming than any other country, it is no longer the world’s largest polluter. China surpassed it in 2006, and its annual emissions are now more than double America’s and over one-quarter of the global total. India will pass the EU in the short term and the US in the medium term. And even as emissions in the industrialized world have been declining for over a decade, they are still growing in developing countries, which account for two-thirds of global emissions.
Yes, the average American still burns more than twice as much carbon as the average Chinese and 10 times as much as the average Indian. That’s pretty unfair. Not only did rich countries get rich by burning fossil fuels – we are also able to maintain living standards other countries can’t even dream of by continuing to burn much more than them. But just as the atmosphere doesn’t care about where or when carbon gets burned, it also doesn’t care about fairness.
‘Fair’ is off the table
In order to have an even chance of staying below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, scientists estimate that cumulative CO2 emissions cannot exceed 2,900 GtCO2. That’s our carbon budget. The problem is we’ve already used up most of it, meaning global emissions would have to go down by 43% by 2030 to stay on budget – a nearly 10% reduction every year from now until then (for reference, the COVID-19 pandemic caused only a 6% reduction in global emissions in 2020).
Putting aside the question of whether this is even physically possible, who should bear the brunt of this burden?
The obvious answer is developed countries. Most developing countries are well within their fair share of the carbon budget relative to their population size. Conversely, the US and other wealthy nations have long since exceeded their fair share, such that even if they reach net zero by 2050 (a big if), their emissions will still overshoot their fair share by three or four times. In fact, Americans used up their fair share of the carbon budget in 1944 (!). Whatever little budget space remains belongs entirely to developing nations.
Beyond the fact that they’ve been living on borrowed emissions since D-Day, there’s another compelling reason why rich countries should be expected to do more than poorer nations to curb climate change: They can. Developed nations are, well, developed, so they have more than enough resources to meet their citizens’ needs already (even if these are unevenly distributed). That means that they can afford to engage in aggressive decarbonization without compromising their economic development. By contrast, for developing countries, paying for decarbonization out-of-pocket at the needed pace would require condemning much of their population to poverty.
Expecting wealthy nations to take on more than poor ones is not just about retribution, then. It’s also about not depriving billions of people of the right to develop – a right that industrialized countries exercise to this day. Had rich countries not emitted (so much) more than their share, developing nations would have plenty of room left to develop like industrialized nations did.
What it’ll take
Unless scientists figure out a way to suck carbon out of the air at scale, the only way that the world can ever reach net zero is if all countries – poor and rich alike – reach net zero. Forget right and wrong – that’s simple math.
So, to answer the earlier question: Should developing nations pay for the sins of much wealthier countries? Absolutely not. Must they? Barring a breakthrough in negative emissions technologies, unfortunately yes. They cannot pursue the fossil-fueled path to development rich countries enjoyed and keep the planet from warming much further.
But for developing nations to ever agree to get on board with the program, industrialized countries will first have to credibly commit to doing four things in return. First, accelerate their own decarbonization to maximize the carbon budget available to the rest of the world. Second, invest whatever it takes to develop and deploy technologies that exponentially reduce the cost of decarbonization abroad. Third, aggressively fund the large upfront costs of decarbonization and adaptation in developing countries. And fourth, compensate vulnerable nations for the losses and damages they’re already experiencing due to climate change they didn’t cause.
Mustering the political will to make these things happen in wealthy nations is a huge challenge. We have consistently failed to meet our 2009 promise to shuttle $100 billion a year in climate finance to the developing world by 2020, a puny amount compared to the estimated $1 trillion price tag to decarbonize emerging economies. We are also still off-track to meet our own decarbonization goals. If we want developing countries to pony up, there can be no more empty promises and unmet pledges.
Unless we’re willing to put our money where our mouths are, we’re going to see not 1.5 C warming, not even 2 C, but rather closer to the 2.7 C the planet is currently on pace for – not an existential scenario for life on Earth, but certainly a life-changing one for billions of people around the world and especially in the Global South. We need to do better.
It has now been over a month since the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas on Oct. 7, when Hamas terrorists infiltrated southern Israel from Gaza and brutally murdered or kidnapped over 1,400 men, women, and children. And frankly, the war is not going all that well for Israel, which is finding itself increasingly – and dangerously – isolated.
Israel certainly had the right to defend itself after such a horrific attack against its civilians. However, I believe Israel’s leaders made a strategic mistake in how they chose to respond. The all-out assault on Gaza surely felt like the right response – maybe even the only response – in the heat of the moment, but it has predictably led to mounting international criticism against the Jewish state and played into Hamas' hands. This was not inevitable.
What else, you might ask, could Israel have done?
In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks, Israel had a golden opportunity to build a broad multilateral coalition to combat Hamas, much as the United States built a "coalition of the willing" after 9/11 to go into Afghanistan and eradicate al-Qaida. By leveraging the enormous outpouring of international sympathy it had in the wake of the Oct. 7 assault, Israel could have convinced key allies and partners to join forces in an anti-Hamas alliance. The goodwill was there: The US instantly deployed troops and advisers to the region. French President Emmanuel Macron signaled France’s willingness to combat Hamas alongside Israel. Other European nations like the United Kingdom and Germany likely would have followed suit. Even Arab and Gulf states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which loathe Hamas and its Iranian backers, could have been brought into the fold.
But instead of capitalizing on its unprecedently strong geopolitical position, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his war cabinet opted to go it alone. Israel swiftly launched massive bombing campaigns across Gaza, targeting Hamas militants and military infrastructure but also killing thousands of innocent Palestinians (many of whom were used by Hamas as human shields) and decimating civilian infrastructure (some of which was used by Hamas to store weapons, hide militants, and launch rockets). This airborne destruction was followed up with a full-scale ground invasion.
Now, over a month later and with the Palestinian death toll exceeding 10,000, any international sympathy Israel initially gained has all but dissipated and is being replaced by backlash. The Gulf states held three summits over the weekend to discuss solutions to the Gaza crisis, without inviting Israel or explicitly condemning Hamas. As the humanitarian crisis has grown more dire, even normally sympathetic nations have begun speaking out against Israeli excesses. France is calling for a cease-fire. The US, Israel’s strongest ally, is privately threatening to limit military aid if the offensive does not wind down soon, even as publicly it continues to stand very strongly with Israel. And members of the Israeli Cabinet believe that the diplomatic pressure is only going to intensify over the next few weeks as the ground offensive grinds on and the civilian death toll mounts.
Wouldn’t acting with a multilateral coalition have constrained Israel’s response? Wouldn’t it have taken longer to get started, show progress, and achieve its objectives? Wouldn’t it have meant forgoing a ground war in favor of more targeted strikes? Probably so, on all counts. But that all would have been in Israel’s best interest.
The fact is that Israel does not and did not face an existential threat from Hamas – or, for that matter, from anybody in the region. Israel possesses nuclear weapons, cutting-edge missile defense systems like the Iron Dome, and the most capable conventional military in the Middle East by an astonishing margin. It was never in serious danger of being militarily overrun, let alone annihilated, by Hamas’ 30,000-strong militia or its relatively crude rocket arsenal. It defies credulity to say that Israel had to strike back with overwhelming force within days and then launch a ground war to head off a nonexistent existential threat from Hamas.
There's no question that Israel has every right to defend its borders and destroy (or, at the very least, decapitate and seriously degrade) Hamas. No one could expect Israel to accept living next to a territory governed by a genocidal death cult bent on its annihilation. But this could have been accomplished at a time of Israel’s choosing, with the support of a broad multilateral coalition, through more focused strikes on discrete military assets, leadership targets, and tunnels. Such a strategically restrained response would have limited civilian casualties while accomplishing Israel’s key security and geopolitical objectives.
Instead, the bloody scorched-earth campaign in Gaza will fail to deliver security for Israelis while inflicting horrible suffering on Gaza’s civilians, providing Hamas with an invaluable propaganda victory and recruitment tool, and fueling anti-Israel sentiment across the world. This strategic miscalculation will leave Israel weaker, not stronger, than it would have been if it had taken a more measured, deliberate, and internationally coordinated approach.
As Hamas surely knew on the eve of Oct. 7, the real threat to Israel was always that its response would alienate its allies and partners, push the Palestinians (and the Arab world, the Global South, and parts of the left in advanced industrial democracies) further into Hamas’ corner and away from the two-state solution, and ultimately undermine Israel’s long-term security. No doubt, that’s exactly what Israel’s enemies were counting on. And so far, they appear to be getting their way.
Aaron started at Walmart as a part-time cashier after serving in the Marine Corps, and now he's a store manager. Since 2013, Walmart has promoted more than 60,000 veterans and military spouses. At Walmart, veterans and their families have the unique opportunity to build successful, meaningful careers after serving their country.
A year out, the 2024 election looks like a coin flip.
National polling averages from 538 and RealClearPolitics currently have President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump – the two major parties’ presumptive nominees – in a statistical dead heat. Because of the Electoral College, though, the outcome of US elections is determined not by the national popular vote but by the states – and, increasingly, by a very small number of voters in a handful of swing states. Trump carried most of these in 2016, and Biden flipped most of them in 2020. The former was decided by about 78,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin; the latter, by about 44,000 voters in Wisconsin, Arizona, and Georgia.
The 2024 election is likely to be just as close. Polls consistently show that most Americans dislike both Biden and Trump and would rather not have to choose between them. That both candidates will have a narrow path to victory is guaranteed. The only surprise at this point would be a landslide for either.
Momentum is against Biden
Trump is still just as unpopular as he was in 2020 (if not a bit more), but Biden is significantly weaker than he was then. The president’s approval rating and performance in head-to-head polling against Trump are trending in the wrong direction, driven by growing concerns about Biden’s age and brewing discontent about the direction of the country under his watch.
A New York Times/Siena College poll of registered voters in battleground states released over the weekend found that Biden trails behind Trump in five of the six closest states (Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia, Arizona, and Nevada). This is largely driven by a massive – almost implausible – erosion in Biden’s support among young and nonwhite voters, who were core components of the coalition that put him in the White House. While this result (and all individual polls) should be taken with a grain of salt given normal polling errors and the very small samples of less politically engaged minority groups surveyed in each state, Biden’s growing weakness with these demographics – which make up a growing share of the electorate – has been confirmed time and again in multiple surveys.
Interestingly, the poll also shows that Biden the candidate is substantially less popular than Democrats in general. An unnamed, generic Democrat leads Trump by eight points in swing states, whereas Biden trails by five. Meanwhile, the deeply unpopular Vice President Kamala Harris outperforms Biden in horse-race matchups against Trump by two points (!). Democrats’ strong performance in Tuesday night’s off-year, state-level elections seems to confirm that their biggest problem is having Biden at the top of the ticket.
The NYT/Siena poll does suffer from a key flaw in that it did not poll either of the two potential spoiler candidates, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Cornel West, by name. With both major parties’ candidates deeply unpopular, 2024 will be the most favorable environment for third-party candidates in a generation. Kennedy is currently polling in the teens; West pulls in mid-single digits. While the far-left West will likely siphon off a few Biden supporters, particularly in the wake of the Israel conflict, polling so far suggests that Kennedy will draw significantly more from Trump’s voter base than from Biden’s – and at a larger scale. This could shift margins in closely contested swing states in Biden’s favor.
The election is also a full year away; much can (and will) change between now and then. That’s why early polls have tended to be not very informative, even if they have gotten a bit more predictive in recent, more polarized times. Voters aren’t giving much thought to the election this far in advance, when the general campaign hasn’t even gotten underway. At this point in 2011, President Barack Obama faced a similar polling gap to Biden’s, and he went on to win reelection a year later.
Still, even if the poll overstates the extent of Biden’s troubles, this is all pretty bad news for the president.
Trump’s unpopularity is Biden’s saving grace
Despite his low approval ratings and current polling headwinds, Biden still retains a slight edge over Trump. For starters, Biden is the incumbent president; even weak incumbents like him benefit from being able to drive the national agenda and shape media coverage to their advantage. Moreover, Biden already beat Trump once – and that was before he incited the Jan. 6 insurrection and the conservative Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, which made democracy and abortion winning issues for Democrats. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Trump is a uniquely unfit candidate who will assuredly take the spotlight from Biden over the next year. Let me explain why that will help the president.
Recently, Biden has been driving the news far more than Trump has, and not for good reasons. Although from personal experience I can tell you that mentally he’s still pretty solidly there, Americans (and even Democrats) nearly universally believe Biden is too old for a second term. Although the economy is doing well (yes, really) and most voters report feeling positively about their own financial situation, Americans’ perceptions of the US economy as a whole are extremely negative. And although few Americans actually vote on foreign policy, it has gone from a major strength to a weakness for the president on account of a stalemated and divisive war in Ukraine and an expanding war in the Middle East. These are vulnerabilities the president can do little to nothing about.
If Biden were running against almost any challenger other than Trump, the election would be a referendum on him and his first term. With the current environment as bad as it is, the president would be a significant underdog. Yet Trump’s unrivaled baggage, deep unpopularity with independent voters, and pathological compulsion to make himself the center of attention is Biden’s saving grace. As the campaign gets underway, Trump’s legal troubles, refusal to shy away from his unpopular efforts to overturn the 2020 election, and his own age-related mental decline (underrated in my opinion) will weigh on the former president and make Biden look comparatively better.
Indeed, if there’s a silver lining for Biden in the New York Times/Siena poll, it’s that the young and nonwhite voters who have soured on him since 2020 nonetheless dislike Trump and seem to be fairly open to Democrats other than Biden, maybe even more than they were in 2020. If Biden can win back those traditionally Democratic-leaning voters by reminding them of just how much they dislike Trump, he’ll go a long way toward recreating the coalition that elected him in 2020.
That said, it is far from guaranteed that Biden will be able to pull this off. And it’s not entirely (or even mostly) up to him. An economic slowdown in 2024, further age-related decline for Biden, deeper fractures over Israel among Democrats, or early mistrials or acquittals for Trump would reduce Biden’s slim advantage. Conversely, a soft landing of the US economy (aka no recession), clearer signs of age-related decline for Trump, more abortion overreach from Republicans, or an early criminal conviction in one of Trump’s several trials would tip the scales further in the president’s favor.
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President Joe Biden woke up on Oct. 7 to find himself thrust into the middle of the second major foreign-policy crisis of his term. His response since has been guided by two conflicting imperatives: support Israel and prevent the crisis from escalating into a broader regional war.
Biden’s strong embrace of Israel is principled and non-negotiable. It reflects the longstanding bipartisan consensus in Washington as well as current public opinion across America. Polls show that most Americans side with Israel in the conflict and approve of both Israel’s retaliation against Hamas and US support for it. While Republicans tend to be more supportive of Israel than Democrats, who have become more sympathetic toward Palestinians over the past several years, majorities of both parties are broadly supportive of Israel.
But Biden’s unconditional support for Israel increases the risk of regional escalation. Despite Washington’s (largely private) efforts to convince the Israeli government to limit the scope and scale of its military response to Hamas’s attack and consider a “humanitarian pause,” Israel launched its long-anticipated ground invasion on Oct. 27. This offensive will inevitably inflict large-scale Palestinian casualties (especially since Hamas will continue to put civilians in harm’s way), stoke violence between Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank, fan the flames of radicalism among Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, and lead to a marked escalation in attacks on Israel and US interests across the Middle East that will destabilize the wider region. Through it all, the US will continue to stand with Israel.
As a result, unlike the war in Ukraine, where the US and its NATO allies have worked hard to ensure their support of Kyiv doesn’t risk direct military confrontation between them and Russia, the US will become directly involved in this war. And for better or worse, Biden will own it. As the war expands and the US becomes further involved, the president’s handling of the crisis will grow more politically fraught.
Biden is vulnerable from left and right
While most voters are aligned with Biden’s stance on the war, and foreign policy is rarely a defining issue in US elections, this crisis still poses two political challenges to Biden’s 2024 prospects.
From the right, Biden will be accused of projecting weakness on the global stage. His all-but-certain 2024 rival, former President Donald Trump, is already making the case that the two major wars of Biden’s term happened only because Biden’s weakness emboldened US adversaries. Trump and his supporters argue that the relative global calm during the Trump administration was due to his strategy of “peace through strength,” particularly on Russia and Iran, and claim that neither would have dared test the US had Trump been in office.
This could be compelling for many of the Republican-leaning swing voters who might decide the 2024 presidential election. Never mind that Trump’s own Abraham Accords – which normalized diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan – ignored the Palestinians and helped sow the seeds for the Oct. 7 attack. Or that Trump’s constant threats against NATO would have been a gift to Putin. Or that Trump’s response to the Middle East war would probably be quite similar to Biden’s. Regardless of what happens next, Biden will always be the president on whose watch these two wars – which the US is funding and partially fighting – started.
From the left, Biden will be accused of enabling Israel’s killing of innocent Palestinians. Even before Oct. 7, young voters in the Democratic Party were far more progressive, pro-Palestinian, and skeptical of Biden than the average Democrat, let alone the average voter. A CNN poll from earlier this month shows that just 27% of 18-to-34-year-olds view Israel’s military response to the Hamas attacks as “fully justified,” compared to 81% of those 65 or older. Then there’s Muslim and Arab-American voters, around two-thirds of whom backed Biden in 2020. Recent polls show that very few of them will vote for him again in 2024.
Faced with the choice of Biden vs. Trump, these voters – an important part of the Democratic coalition in 2020 and 2022 – would have no choice but to stick with Biden as the lesser evil (or stay home and benefit Trump). But the third-party candidacy of progressive Professor Cornel West, who has been strongly critical of Israel throughout his entire career, gives them an alternative that could still hurt Biden. A USA Today poll shows West already picking up between 4-7% of the vote nationally, primarily from Biden. It would only take 2-3 percentage points for West to be a spoiler in a swing state like Wisconsin, potentially tipping the balance to Trump in a close election.
The war is all downside, no upside for Biden
Despite these risks, Biden is not going to back away from Israel. Doing so would run counter to his personal convictions, buck the strong pro-Israel bipartisan consensus in Washington, and alienate centrist voters who are otherwise likely to vote for him. Indeed, Biden’s handling of this crisis has thus far been one of the president’s few polling bright spots: His average net approval rating on Israel is significantly higher than his poor overall approval rating. There’s no reason for him to jeopardize that by pivoting away from supporting Israel.
At the same time, a Middle East crisis that Biden can’t fix will eventually weigh on the president, particularly if the war escalates, US involvement deepens, and the US economy starts to pay the toll through higher oil prices. A Morning Consult poll showed Biden far behind Trump in seven key swing states on his handling of the economy, which is likely to be the top issue in the 2024 campaign. Biden will also bear the burden of any terrorist and antisemitic attacks against Americans that emerge because of heightened tensions surrounding the war and growing US involvement in it, which could further sour voters’ mood on the president.
For now, 2024 is still a very close race. Biden remains the narrow favorite to win reelection, largely because of Trump’s extraordinary and unique weaknesses. But a Middle East crisis that is still dominating headlines in November 2024 will only compound the structural factors and weak economic outlook that have already created a bad environment for an incumbent president seeking re-election.
Unless he emerges as a peace broker (unlikely), an escalating and politically divisive war in the Middle East can only hurt Biden.
An Israeli ground incursion into Gaza has been inevitable from the moment Hamas launched its shocking Oct. 7 surprise attack into southern Israel, where it brutally massacred more than 1,400 Israeli citizens and took over 200 to Gaza as hostages. Israel’s objective: to destroy Hamas once and for all, ensuring it can never pose a threat to Israeli security again.
This long-anticipated offensive has thus far been delayed by international efforts to reduce the humanitarian impact, ongoing negotiations to release hostages, divisions within Israel’s unity government about what to do next, and pressure from Washington to wait until both Israel and the US are prepared to handle any resulting escalation. But the invasion will take place in short order.
This will be a terrible mistake for Israel, graver even than the one the US committed in Iraq and Afghanistan in response to 9/11. To be clear, I fully understand and share Israel’s desire to destroy the terrorist organization that is Hamas. Israel has every right to defend itself and retaliate against attacks on its citizens. But just because this objective is understandable, legitimate, and desirable, it does not mean it is feasible or strategically wise.
A large-scale invasion of Gaza would be counterproductive
There is no military way for Israel to fully destroy Hamas without killing tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians and radicalizing even more. An invasion of Gaza would be a humanitarian, moral, and strategic catastrophe, not only inflicting unfathomable human costs but also badly undermining Israel’s long-term security. Nothing it can hope to achieve – beyond satisfying Israeli demands for revenge – can outweigh the harm it is certain to do even in the best of scenarios.
Because Hamas’ military infrastructure is embedded in civilian areas and its 30,000-40,000 fighters hide among noncombatants, any attempt to destroy Hamas in Gaza would have to be conducted block by block, building by building, and door by door in one of the most densely populated and urbanized environments in the world, amid a uniquely hostile population and against a highly motivated enemy that has been preparing for this fight on their home turf for a long time. This slow and grinding urban battle would be tactically harder to prosecute and costlier in terms of Israeli military casualties than Fallujah was for the US. Even if Israel takes every precaution to protect civilian lives, many innocent people will inevitably be killed, injured, and displaced. Before Oct. 7, 50% of Palestinians in Gaza faced chronic hunger and 90% didn’t have access to clean water; under siege and without a way out of the territory, this will only get worse for them.
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The death and suffering of innocent civilians will in turn radicalize many more Palestinians in Gaza and elsewhere, increasing support for Hamas and multiplying the threat to Israel. At a minimum, widespread anti-Israel demonstrations will occur across the region, with terrorist attacks more likely. More social unrest will also emerge in the West Bank, Egypt, and Jordan, potentially destabilizing the broader region and sparking wider conflict beyond Gaza, with retaliation from Hezbollah in Lebanon or even Iran.
At the same time, the more damage Israel’s offensive inflicts, the more its own moral legitimacy and international standing will suffer. Western support for Israel will be tested, and Israel’s relations with Arab states and much of the Global South will become untenable, as will normalization with Saudi Arabia. Popular anger toward Israel among Arab populations could cause trouble for even the most repressive Arab regimes, lead them to distance themselves from the US and Israel, and drive a surge in extremist violence in the US and Europe.
Perhaps the biggest problem with a ground invasion is that even if Israel succeeded in eliminating Hamas, it has no plan for what to do with Gaza the “day after.” This is the same problem that befell the US after toppling the ruling regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Israel can’t install the Palestinian Authority, which is too weak and unpopular to take Hamas’s place. And it’s hard to imagine Egypt or the Gulf states would step up to administer Gaza after decades of washing their hands of the Palestinian problem. Yet if Israel simply pulls out, a reconstituted Hamas or another militant group like it would no doubt fill the power vacuum. Which means that once started, an invasion would lead to an indefinite occupation and an unwinnable counterinsurgency.
What’s the alternative?
Ultimately, there is no military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Hamas is as much an idea as it is an organization made up of specific people: Israel can kill its entire leadership and destroy its infrastructure, but the movement and ideology will survive in one form or another so long as the political conditions that underpin its support continue to fester. The only way Israelis can achieve lasting security is by offering Palestinians a credible pathway to realize their legitimate aspirations for self-determination by peaceful means.
That's not to say Israel shouldn’t retaliate militarily against Hamas for the horrific Oct. 7 attacks. In fact, it must: Israel has a right to self-defense, and its government has an obligation to protect citizens from harm. Insofar as Hamas continues to pose a threat to Israelis, a (non-temporary) ceasefire and de-escalation is both politically impossible and morally unacceptable. In addition to physically preventing Hamas from attacking Israel in the near future, Israel must also reestablish deterrence both to prevent a bloodier assault down the line and to make diplomacy conceivable in the distant future. If its enemies believe Israel is weak, they will have no incentive to eventually work toward a peaceful solution.
So how can Israel achieve these aims without worsening the growing humanitarian crisis and causing more problems for itself? In other words, how can Israel fight a monster without becoming a monster? Instead of a full ground invasion that would inflict collective punishment on innocent Gazans and inevitably lead to a forever occupation, Israel should employ targeted strikes against Hamas leaders, fighters, and infrastructure to degrade the terrorist organization’s capabilities while minimizing Israeli military and Palestinian civilian casualties.
This counterterrorism campaign (as opposed to the regime change and counterinsurgency campaign that’s about to begin) should be paired with more pressure on Qatar to end its hosting of Hamas’s political leaders, negotiations and special forces operations to rescue hostages, and immediate (and sufficient) humanitarian aid for Gaza civilians. And it should only start once far more civilians have been able to get to safety. After all, Hamas is not going anywhere; no one in Gaza is. There’s no real reason not to take the time to set up the requisite safe zones and refugee camps, deploy humanitarian aid, evacuate greater numbers of northern Gazans, and negotiate the release of more hostages.
The heart wants what the heart wants
Alas, all signs point to Israel still going ahead with the ground incursion – and soon. This retribution campaign, which the White House has characterized to me as “emotional rather than strategic,” is supported not just by Netanyahu but by his entire war cabinet and most Israelis across the political spectrum. The military and intelligence services understand the difficulty and danger of a long-term occupation, but the leadership and citizenry are intent on going in hard and going in now, consequences be damned.
Despite the enormous leverage the US has on Israel, the Biden administration doesn’t believe it can forestall the invasion for much longer and is instead focused on limiting the consequent damage. They have accordingly privately advised the Israeli government to “go in quick, get out quick,” minimize areas of operation, and create safe zones inside northern Gaza where civilians can take shelter and access water, food, medicine, and fuel. Several relief trucks did finally get to civilians in southern Gaza over the weekend, but not nearly enough to meet Gaza’s minimum humanitarian needs. And there’s little hope Israel will agree to the ”humanitarian pause” the White House has been advocating.
To reiterate, Israel has a sovereign, inalienable right to security. But a ground invasion into Gaza does not accomplish that; it does the opposite, playing straight into the hands of Israel’s enemies and undermining regional stability without fundamentally solving any of Israel’s strategic dilemmas.
I truly hope cooler heads prevail to save Israel from itself, but absent a miracle, it’s going to get much worse before it gets better.
Hamas’ unprecedented terrorist attack on Israeli soil on Oct. 7 left many with two burning questions: Was Tehran behind it? And if so, would the war between Israel and Hamas expand to include Iran?
Iran had a lot to gain but even more to lose
So far, the answer to the first question appears to be no.
The day after the Hamas attack, citing Hamas and Hezbollah sources, the Wall Street Journal reported that Iran not only gave Hamas the green light but in fact helped the terrorist group plan the operation. However, a few days later the New York Times reported that Tehran was actually surprised by the attack, citing US intelligence. Washington and Jerusalem, meanwhile, have denied having hard evidence of direct Iranian involvement in the Oct. 7 operation.
The strongest argument in favor of Iranian complicity is that Iran has backed Hamas for decades, supplying it with an estimated $70 million a year in funding along with weapons, training, and logistical aid. There’s no doubt that Hamas wouldn’t have been able to carry out an operation of this magnitude without Iranian military and financial support. It’s also likely that members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had a hand in training the terrorists who carried out the attacks. So it’s not like Iran had nothing to do with it.
However, as of now, there is no evidence tying Iran directly to this specific Hamas operation. Yes, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei celebrated Hamas’ success, but that was to be expected irrespective of direct Iranian involvement, and he unambiguously denied Iran’s participation. The Wall Street Journal report has been broadly disputed, with certain details — such as the alleged involvement of Iran’s foreign minister, who normally has no role in coordinating military operations with regional proxies and who is under close American and Israeli surveillance — casting doubt on its accuracy. By contrast, US intelligence showing that Iranian leaders were themselves caught off guard by the attack is credible.
While it’s true that Hamas’ capabilities rely on Iranian support, the group operates with a broad degree of autonomy and has its own agenda independent of (albeit usually aligned with) Tehran’s. In fact, plausible deniability is a design feature of the proxy relationship between Hamas and Iran, allowing the latter to pressure Israel without becoming involved.
To be sure, Tehran stands to benefit from the ensuing chaos in three ways. First, the attack will keep Israel distracted and focused on domestic security concerns, temporarily limiting its ability to project power regionally. Second, the attack has for now scuttled negotiations for a Saudi-Israeli normalization deal that would have included an implicit commitment to containing Iran. And third, the attack undermines Israel’s image as a military power, while the humanitarian toll of Israel’s devastating response in Gaza will turn global public opinion against the Jewish state.
But Tehran benefitting from the attacks is a far cry from Tehran orchestrating the attacks and risking a war with Israel — and, potentially, the US — at a time when the strategic environment was getting somewhat more constructive for them. Israel had been deterred by the US from attacking Iran, and Netanyahu was distracted by domestic politics. Commercial and diplomatic ties with Beijing and Moscow were booming. Oil exports were flowing again. They had just signed a China-brokered breakthrough agreement to restore full diplomatic relations with their longtime foe Saudi Arabia. They were even days away from receiving $6 billion in frozen funds as part of a prisoner exchange with the US amid a broader de-escalation effort over the past six months. None of these actions and developments implied a desire on the part of Iran to destabilize the region.
No one is interested in a bigger fight … for now
At this point, the likelihood that Iran gets directly involved in the war seems very, very low to me — at least in the near term.
Iran has much to gain from allowing events to play out while keeping its own involvement relatively limited given the risks of disrupting its broader foreign policy strategy, which includes normalization with the Gulf states and a de-escalatory understanding with the US. Case in point: Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi had his first direct call with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on the back of the attack, where they both called for short-term containment and de-escalation.
Iranian officials did warn that a full ground offensive by Israel into Gaza could elicit a response from proxies like Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen, and other groups in Syria and Iraq, with Quds Force commander Esmail Qaani visiting Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq to coordinate among allies. But there are no major drills or troop movements going on among its own forces, so it does not seem like Iran is gearing up for a big fight beyond training or supplying its proxies.
Absent Iranian escalation or conclusive evidence of direct Iranian involvement in the Oct. 7 operation, neither Israel nor the US will take action to expand the crisis with an attack on Iran. Israel will be focused on containing the immediate security threat from Hamas and managing the offensive in Gaza, while the US will support Israel but push back in private against any move to broaden the conflict. (The Biden administration did announce on Oct. 12 that it had “re-frozen” the $6 billion in Iranian funds previously released following significant bipartisan political pressure to get tougher on Iran, but this move was intended for a domestic audience and does not signal more escalation to come.)
Both Israel and the US will remain reluctant to broaden the conflict while the crisis in Gaza is ongoing. If Israel does retaliate against Iran, it will likely do so through covert operations (e.g., sabotage, cyberwarfare, assassinations) at a time and place of its choosing. For its part, the US has limited options to escalate beyond slapping additional (largely symbolic) sanctions on Iranian officials short of clamping down on Iran’s oil exports, which would cause a spike in the price of oil (in turn raising US inflation) and provoke a strong response from Tehran and potentially Beijing (because China refines the bulk of Iranian crude). The risk of the conflict turning into a general war between Iran and Israel and/or the US is therefore low.
In the short term, the biggest risk of the conflict escalating comes not from Iran but from Hezbollah, the crown jewel of Iran’s proxy network. For now, the Lebanon-based group — already in a vulnerable domestic position as Lebanon’s economy remains weak and its public support has suffered — seems uninterested in opening a second front in the war beyond some symbolic strikes and skirmishes along the Israel-Lebanon border. But that could change if Hezbollah and Iran become concerned that Hamas will be completely wiped out.
And if Iran feared both its major proxies in the Levant were about to be destroyed … well, there’s no telling what they might do to avert that.
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Four days ago, on Oct. 7, Hamas, the Islamic fundamentalist group that has controlled the Gaza Strip since 2006, launched a surprise invasion of Israel by land, sea, and air, killing over 1,300 Israelis, injuring over 3,000, and taking more than 150 to Gaza as hostages. This was the most significant attack on Jews worldwide since the Holocaust.
For the first time, Hamas managed to attack deep into Israeli territory, overrunning two military bases and terrorizing countless towns and neighborhoods. For a country of under 10 million, the 1,300 killed are the equivalent of over 45,000 in the United States, dwarfing 9/11’s toll. Unlike in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, civilians rather than soldiers accounted for nearly all Israeli deaths.
The trauma is only made worse by the shock that millions of Israelis feel after the worst intelligence and security failure since 1973, when Egypt and Syria simultaneously invaded Israel from the Suez Canal in the south and the Golan Heights in the north without warning. Israel’s national security apparatus, laser-focused on threats to the homeland particularly from Palestinians in the occupied territories, had since come to be seen as the gold standard on surveillance, intelligence, and border security. No one remotely thought something like this could happen there in 2023. Much like America’s before 9/11, Israel’s weakness was to a large extent a failure of imagination. This failure is all the more surprising given the history of the Jewish people, who have been under nearly continuous existential threat since biblical times.
While Israeli society’s fragile sense of security has been shattered, the one solace is that unlike in 1973, Israel’s existence is not threatened today. Yes, Hamas has proven more formidable than anyone thought possible, but it is still a militia, and the IDF is one of the most advanced militaries in the world. Although this will be of no comfort to the families of the hundreds of Israelis already killed and kidnapped, or to those who will be caught in the crossfire from this point onward, Israel’s overwhelming military superiority over its enemies guarantees that it will live to see another day.
Why Hamas attacked now – and why Israel was taken by surprise
There are two big questions to unpack here: why Hamas chose this moment to start a suicidal war that Palestinians will pay dearly for, and why Israel was caught off guard by it.
The answer to the first question is that as carefully planned and deliberately executed as Hamas’ terrorist operation was, the decision to carry it out was a desperate one, driven by an increasingly untenable environment – considerably of Hamas’ own making – that had left the group in a no-win situation.
The Gazan economy was terrible and getting worse. Israeli settlements in the West Bank were expanding. Geopolitics were turning against Palestinians, and even the Arab world had largely moved on from their plight. While Hamas continued to deny Israel’s right to exist and refused to moderate, Israel was in the strongest diplomatic position it’d been in decades, having normalized relations with the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco and being on the verge of doing the same with Saudi Arabia. Well served by the status quo, the Israeli population no longer felt any urgency to engage with the Palestinians. In short, Hamas was fast becoming irrelevant and took a desperate gamble to change that, their own lives and the Palestinian people’s be damned.
To be clear, none of the above remotely justifies Hamas’ murderous actions, which are unjustifiable. Nor do I seek to explain the inexplicable. After all, Hamas has always been committed to the destruction of Israel; its foundational documents state those goals explicitly, and their statements and actions to date have been consistent with that agenda. All I’m trying to explain is the strategic logic behind this attack: why they chose to launch an operation of this nature at this particular moment in time.
A separate question is how could Israel let something like this happen to them? The answer is that they got complacent and distracted.
The country’s political and military leaders were lulled into thinking Hamas had been successfully deterred from attacking Israel by “the consequences of further defiance.” Instead of looking for confrontation, they believed Hamas was focused on governance. Sure, there’d be periodic outbreaks of violence, but Israel could always rely on the Iron Dome missile defense system to suppress rocket fire; on border security measures to prevent raids; on targeted assassinations and air strikes (euphemistically referred to as “mowing the grass”) to prevent escalations from spiraling.
Successive Israeli governments got addicted to this relatively quiet status quo, which allowed them to ignore the need for diplomacy. Going back further, Israel’s strategy of avoiding a negotiated solution to the long-running occupation – a solution that would require politically costly concessions – by strengthening the irredentist Hamas and weakening the more moderate Fatah backfired spectacularly last Saturday.
The current Israeli government bears especially great responsibility for the debacle, having taken its eye off the ball due to two domestic preoccupations of its own making.
First, Israel’s domestic political crisis, caused by Netanyahu’s insistence on a controversial judicial reform despite unprecedented mass opposition, had an impact on Israel’s national security readiness. The government ignored and even ridiculed repeated warnings from the IDF that the far-right coalition’s polarizing assault on institutions was eroding social cohesion, fueling public distrust in the government, and undermining the military’s readiness.
Second, the coalition’s hardline annexation policies and coddling of Jewish extremists fueled settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank (which in turn provoked Palestinian retaliation) and led the government to deploy most of the regular IDF forces to that sector. As recently as last week, the IDF transferred three battalions from Gaza to the West Bank to reinforce the troops there over the Sukkot holiday weekend. This left the Gaza border lightly guarded, creating favorable operational conditions for Hamas to pull off its attack.
Hamas is holding more than 150 Israelis hostage and threatening to execute them. As if that wasn’t evil enough, Hamas is also holding far larger numbers of Palestinians hostage.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s immediate declaration of war will mean unrestrained air strikes against Hamas targets in Gaza (population 2.3 million). Given the gruesome nature of the Hamas attack, a ground invasion of the Strip seems inevitable to neutralize the threat posed by the group once and for all. That means Israel will probably have to occupy the densely populated territory until all Hamas leadership has been removed, their operational capabilities dismantled, and their militants disarmed. Such an operation would take months to complete and inflict high casualties on both sides, with no guarantee of success.
Throughout, Hamas will continue to use Palestinian civilians (as well as Israeli hostages) as human shields to maximize the casualties of Israeli retaliation and turn public opinion against Israel. With no way to escape, tens of thousands of people, most of them innocent civilians, will be killed or wounded. Those who are lucky will face unfathomable deprivation under Israel’s and Egypt’s blockade, which will prevent them from getting access to food, fuel, electricity, water, and goods.
In turn, Israel’s response and the ensuing humanitarian disaster will provoke an outcry across the region and the “global South” more broadly. The “Arab street” (aka public opinion in the Arab world) will erupt in fury at the cautious response of their own governments. Violence against Jews will spike around the world. The Saudi Arabia-Israel normalization, which was months away from a breakthrough agreement, will remain off the table.
Domestically, though, Israel will be politically unified to a degree we haven’t seen in decades. Earlier today, Netanyahu agreed to form an emergency unity government with centrist opposition leader and former defense minister Benny Gantz. All of the anger over Netanyahu’s hyper-polarizing judicial reform will be suspended until the security situation is brought under control. Make no mistake: Israeli domestic political polarization will return, and demand for a reckoning for the spectacular failures that led to this debacle will play out for years to come. No matter how hard he tries to shift the burden of blame to the IDF or the protest movement, the self-proclaimed Mr. Security owns this crisis. Just like Golda Meir and her Mapai party after the Yom Kippur War, Netanyahu and the far right will pay a political price for it. But as long as shock and fear continue to grip the country, Israel will shrug off internal division and external criticism and remain as unified as any country in the world.
For now, outsiders, including the Biden administration, will work hard to keep this conflict contained within Israel’s borders. Iran, Hamas’ crucial patron and arms supplier, has celebrated the attack with criminal glee, but it has been careful not to accept any direct responsibility for orchestrating it, which would trigger massive retaliation from Israel. All eyes are now on Hezbollah, the much more capable Iranian proxy to Israel’s north in Lebanon, to be sure they don’t try to open a second front in the conflict. So far, they have been careful not to involve themselves in the fighting beyond limited strikes against an Israeli military outpost, but it’s too early to tell whether this will remain the case. Should the war expand, the consequences could be far-reaching and catastrophic.
This wildfire is raging, and it will take tremendous international effort to put it out. Many innocent people on both sides will find themselves trapped inside the inferno. This war is a tragedy that no one will bring under control for some time to come.