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With this month’s direct military strikes against each other, a war between Israel and Iran becomes not only conceivable but a growing risk. For all Israel’s advantages and determination, with the most sophisticated military in the region and an innovative and resilient economy, it is a small country of less than ten million people. Iran is a large country of over 80 million people whose economy and military capabilities have survived years of crippling sanctions. The outcome would depend on who had the strongest external support.

For the time being, Israel has firm international friends and allies, as Iranian diplomats recognise. But that international support is under strain from the Israeli government’s refusal to consider any negotiations with the Palestinians living in the occupied territories. The time may soon come when the support Israel needs may only be available if that policy changes.

All the more so because the geostrategic context has changed. In 2015, when the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Programme of Action (JCPOA), was struck, the five permanent members of the Security Council (P5) were united in negotiating to limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Iran has now forged a much closer alliance with Russia, based on their mutual need to avoid Western sanctions, and has more tacit support from China, a partner in the BRICS+ grouping.

A war with Iran would be very different from Israel’s previous wars with its Arab neighbours. Victory would not come from conquest, but from one side inflicting unbearable damage on the other. Israel could only achieve that against Iran by using its (undeclared) nuclear weapons – which is why Iran has developed its nuclear capability to become a ‘threshold state’, possessing both the technical capability and fissile material to develop a nuclear weapon, a process accelerated rather than stalled by Trump’s rejection of the JCPOA.

Israel and Iran both fear an attack by the other. Israel’s defence has depended on US support and détente with its Arab neighbours, a process that is not yet complete. Iran’s response over the years has been to form an ‘axis of resistance’ amongst allied groups in close proximity to Israel and arming them to threaten it directly. The fact that Hamas has become the most threatening part of this axis is a result not only of Iranian support but also of Israel’s own policy.

Netanyahu’s peacetime strategy, of containing, marginalising and politically neutralising the Palestinian population in the occupied territories, failed spectacularly with the Hamas attack on 7 October. By failing to offer the Palestinians a political horizon – a viable future – he played into Hamas’s hands and strengthened its narrative that only force would make Israel change. October 7th was not just an intelligence or security failure, but a profoundly political one.

Netanyahu’s wartime strategy is also failing. Israel may be winning the battles but it is losing the war. The government has been unable to achieve its war aims of eliminating Hamas or getting the hostages back, let alone driving the Palestinians from Gaza, as some of his ministers have proposed. And he has no exit strategy from Gaza. As soon as Israeli forces leave, there will either be chaos, or a resurgence of Hamas, or both. So Israel will be condemned to remain in Gaza to ensure its own security for the foreseeable future.

The physical destruction of Gaza was also a fundamental strategic mistake. Far from deterring the Palestinians, it has convinced them that there can be no peaceful co-existence with Israel, only perpetual servitude, exile, or death. It has made peaceful co-existence, the only real long-term solution, whether in one state or two, infinitely more difficult.

But the spectre of a wider regional war, raised by Iran and Israel’s direct attacks on each other, makes a resolution of the Israel-Palestine question all the more urgent for the region and the world. Far from diverting attention from Gaza, it has underlined the risks of not resolving that conflict.

Netanyahu’s strategy has put America, whether Republican and Democrat, exactly where it does not want to be: at risk of being dragged into another unwinnable war in the Middle East. Netanyahu’s repeated rejection of US advice, until the last minute agreement to restrict Israel’s counter-retaliation against Iran and delay the attack on Rafah, has strained US patience to the limit and seriously damaged America’s global image and influence. It has also put Israel’s potential Arab allies at odds with public opinion at home – a risk few of them can afford to take.

But the continuation of the conflict has kept Netanyahu in power. It is clear that there will be no resolution to the Gaza conflict as long as he remains prime minister. Yet that is a change that can only be made brought about by the Israeli people. The question is when a majority of Israelis will come to the conclusion that their long-run security depends more reliably on making peace with the Palestinians than on excluding them. Only when that change takes place in Israel will it be able to loosen the grip of Hamas’s more extreme leaders on the Palestinian public and find a way to a settlement that guarantees Israel’s security.

Until then, the conflict and the risk of war with Iran will continue. That is why Israel’s friends and allies, in the region as well as across the world, fervently hope that such a change will come sooner rather than later.

Note: This article reflects the views of the author and not the position of the DPIR or the University of Oxford. 



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