Zugzwang is one of the ultimate challenges for a chess player. In zugzwang, a player is in a situation where any move can only weaken one’s position and carries the risk of checkmate—but not moving isn’t an option. Beyond the intrinsic horror of Hamas’s October 7 massacre, it is now obvious that the attack was designed to provoke Israel into reacting. The extent of the zugzwang is increasingly clear, and Israel has few good options. Nor does the United States.
No one should have been surprised by the attacks on Israel by Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ). Over the last year, there have been more than a dozen public meetings between Iranian officials and the leaders of Hamas, Hezbollah, and PIJ. Enormous quantities of men and matériel have moved from Iraq into Syria, with other matériel arriving by land and air to Lebanon. Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the common thread of the region’s so-called “Axis of Resistance,” have worked to build and consolidate enormous bunkers and fortifications across Syria along with Hezbollah. Some anticipated another Lebanon War, others expected another Gaza War, and others expected a Third Intifada. The only thing few—if any—expected was a design to drag Israel into all these battles and several more at once.
The Imperative to Act
In the aftermath of October 7, Israel must strike back. Propelled by nationwide rage, a new government of national unity in Jerusalem has vowed to destroy Hamas. If that is the true goal, a ground operation in Gaza is necessary. Such an operation began in Israel on Friday night. The very nature of urban warfare means that it will have an enormous human cost and an uncertain duration. And this is not just urban warfare: there are two Gazas—the aboveground and the underground network of tunnels where Hamas’s men and weapons are stored.
And time is not on Israel’s side. International support is already waning, and nowhere more than in the Arab world. Egypt and Jordan, Israel’s most important security partners in the region, have already accused Israel of planning the ethnic cleansing of Gaza. Worse still, the operation will tie down a significant portion of Israel’s manpower and assets. Israel will, as a result, be especially vulnerable to the risk of overextension.
Gaza isn’t the only problem. There is also the West Bank, where unrest is already growing and where the Palestinian Authority is at risk of collapse. Then, to the north, Hezbollah has its vast arsenal of rockets, drones, men, and missiles in Lebanon, while on the Syrian border tens of thousands of Iraqi militants have amassed with the goal of “liberating” the Golan. Thousands more Iranian-made drones and ballistic missiles are spread out across dozens of bases in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. For that reason, Israel now relies on American support. Jerusalem is likely waiting for the last of American reinforcements—including another carrier strike group—to arrive in the region prior to launching its attack. But is there an alternative?
The Cost of Inaction
Israel cannot not move—the essence of zugzwang. Those calling for a cease-fire do not seem to understand the existential implications of October 7, or the fact that 224 people, including many children, have now been held hostage by Hamas for three weeks.
Allowing Hamas to maintain its Islamist dystopia in the Gaza Strip after the October 7 massacre would leave Israel in a state of permanent fear. Several hundred thousand Israelis are already internally displaced from the north and the south. They will not return to their homes until it is truly safe to do so. Worse still, inaction would grant Iran’s Axis of Resistance a proof of concept, emboldening their belief that Israel’s days are numbered. Talk of a cease-fire or “pause”—already the favorite term at the United Nations and among European social democrats—is equally delusional. Despite the enormous humanitarian disaster that is unfolding in Gaza, inaction would allow Hamas and its allies to regroup and reorganize, all the while worsening an already damaged image of Israeli deterrence.
Since Israel’s founding in 1948, its enemies have relied on attrition tactics to stretch the country’s capabilities and intensify periods of political crisis. Since Egypt-backed Palestinian militants raided the Sinai in the 1950s, the goal has been to undermine Israeli domestic confidence, to drain the country economically, and to wear out its military resources. Five out of Israel’s nine biggest wars began as wars of attrition and ended with large-scale reprisal operations. In all but one of these cases, Israel sought to break a pattern of near-daily attacks through a decisive offensive action. The same pattern is repeating itself today.
Yet decisive action is difficult when the goal is effectively a regime change in Gaza, the possible destruction of Hezbollah, and retaliation against attacks from Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Even with complete American support, Israel must wage a campaign of months, possibly even years, to achieve such an ambitious objective.
Aron Nimzowitsch, one of history’s greatest chess players, famously quipped that “the threat is stronger than the execution.” The concern is that the coming Israeli response—when the threats of the last three weeks have to be executed—will lead to a loss of control and ultimately defeat.
The Cost of Action
The prospect of a multifront war means that Israel would be hard-pressed to attack Iran itself. The United States has the ability to attack Iran. The question is if it has the will to do so. Right now, it seems the answer is no.
It is telling that the Biden administration did not meaningfully retaliate to more than a dozen attacks by Iranian proxies in a single week, causing over 30 American casualties. Only on Friday did U.S. forces launch two air strikes against facilities used by the IRGC and its proxies in eastern Syria. But these were billed by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin as “precision self-defense strikes” because, in Austin’s words, “The United States does not seek conflict and has no intention nor desire to engage in further hostilities.”
Equally revealing is the White House’s continued prevarication about the extent of Iran’s involvement on October 7. The administration’s repeated suggestion that it was little more than an enthusiastic bystander is impossible to reconcile with the evidence that, for example, 500 Hamas terrorists got specialized combat instruction at Iranian facilities as recently as September. This is Iran’s war. But this administration refuses to acknowledge as much for fear that it will be compelled to act.
But even “precision self-defense” action has a cost—namely, that it emboldens rather than impairs the enemy. Should the war nevertheless escalate, the United States could face a massive wave of attacks against its military assets in the region, forcing it to choose between effective capitulation or another “forever war” in the Middle East.
Moreover, given the deep reluctance of the United States to do anything that might be interpreted as escalation, Iran may well seize the moment finally to test a nuclear weapon. That would be a sort of regional “checkmate.” The latest estimates suggest that Iran would need only around four weeks to acquire enough weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear bomb and would only need around six months to prepare a test—just in time for the eve of the U.S. presidential election.
The Failure to Deter
Deterrence is not the Biden administration’s strong suit. The debacle of its withdrawal from Afghanistan was a signal to the world’s bad actors that America was indeed “back”—that is, the America that had abandoned South Vietnam to its fate. Far from deterring Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine, Team Biden lifted the sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, reduced weapons deliveries to Ukraine, and effectively pledged that the most they would do if Moscow stepped up its aggression against Kyiv was to impose more sanctions.
The same can be said of the decision to drop the Trump administration’s quite successful strategy of militarily containing Iran between Israel and the Arab states—the approach which produced the Abraham Accords—in favor of a doomed attempt to resuscitate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. Far from deterring Tehran, this encouraged it to continue funding its malignant proxies in the region and ensured it had more funds available to give them.
No one can read the mind of Xi Jinping, but there should be no doubt that China is watching all this and calculating. With crises afoot in Eastern Europe and now the Middle East, the Pentagon’s nightmare is a third crisis in the Far East, the region where the stakes are highest. It is not hard to imagine a Chinese blockade of Taiwan—perhaps with January’s election there as the pretext. The United States, which no longer has the vast military-industrial complex of the first Cold War, would be torn between three simultaneous conflicts, each making demands on a finite stockpile of weapons and munitions.
The New Axis
More than two decades ago, David Frum dreamt up an “Axis of Evil’’ for George W. Bush’s post-9/11 State of the Union address. It was a fiction. Today’s Axis, by contrast, is real. Without Xi’s approval and substantial economic support, Putin would not have risked his invasion of Ukraine. It was no accident that the two men were together in Beijing just over a week ago, their 42nd meeting in ten years, as Xi proudly pointed out. Iran, which sells weapons to Russia and oil to China, is the third active member of this new Axis. North Korea, also supplying Moscow with munitions, makes four.
While the United States has many more allies in Europe and in Asia, and its alliance network responded well to the attack on Ukraine, there is much less transatlantic unity on the question of Israel and the Palestinians. And in the event of a showdown over Taiwan, it is hard to know how many allies Washington could really count on.
As is painfully clear from the print version of Jake Sullivan’s Foreign Affairs article—which went to press before the October 7 attacks on Israel—the national security adviser was hoping the Middle East would stay “quieter than it has been for decades” while he focused on containing China. Biden’s approach, wrote Sullivan, “returns discipline to U.S. policy. It emphasizes deterring aggression, de-escalating conflicts, and integrating the region through joint infrastructure projects and new partnerships, including between Israel and its Arab neighbors. And it is bearing fruit.” Strange fruit, indeed.
Israel’s zugzwang does not mean its defeat. As in chess, however, sacrifice will be necessary for Israel to escape it. A ground operation in Gaza will likely lead to a Third Lebanon War. Israel will truly find itself “fighting for the homeland,” in the parlance of Israeli commentators. Victory would bring security, at least for a time. But it would come at an enormous human and political cost.
A Concerted Response
A more optimistic view is that with unequivocal and effective support from the United States, Israel may find a way to take advantage of Iranian hubris—Tehran’s growing belief in Israel’s imminent defeat. Iran could end up sending its prized proxies into battle, only to have them crippled by a concerted American and Israeli response. Severing the tentacles of the Islamic Republic’s “octopus” would not only allow Israel to come out stronger, but would go some way toward winning back the long-lost confidence of America’s regional partners, particularly in the Gulf.
The problem for Israel is that, unlike chess, this is a multiplayer game. And the main player on Israel’s side, the United States, does not yet appreciate that it too is under zugzwang. Israel and America have to act. And they have to act together. The alternative is victory not only for Hamas, not only for Iran, but also for the new Axis the Western world confronts.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford and the author of DOOM: The Politics of Catastrophe. Follow him on X (formerly Twitter) @nfergus. Jay Mens is a senior analyst at Greenmantle, a senior fellow at Policy Exchange, and Ernest May Fellow for History and Policy at Harvard Kennedy School.
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