Made by History

History Tells Us How the Israel-Hamas War Will End

9 minute read

The Hamas terrorist attack on Oct. 7 killed some 1,200 people in Israel. Since then, a fierce Israeli military campaign has destroyed much of Gaza, with more than 22,000 dead and untold numbers injured, buried under rubble, or wasting away from disease and malnutrition, as Israeli troops continue to blockade much-needed humanitarian assistance.

Israel has declared an ever-expanding list of war aims that includes the obliteration of Hamas, the return of all hostages, assurances that Gaza will never again threaten Israel, the banning of the Palestinian Authority from any role in governance of the territory, prevention of any “element” that “educates its children for terrorism, supports terrorism, finances terrorism and calls for the destruction of Israel,” and creation of a wide buffer zone within Gaza separating Israel from the Strip’s population.

Yet, no Israeli leader has explained how “Operation Swords of Iron,” as their military campaign has been dubbed, could possibly achieve these objectives. That’s because it can’t—and they know it. This very situation has existed in almost every Israeli war since 1948 because the country’s problems are political in nature, not something military force alone can solve. This reality means that instead of “Operation Swords of Iron” ending upon completion of Israeli objectives, it will end —as other Israeli wars have—when leading nations (often the U.S.) determine that its military has gone too far.

This dynamic is rooted in the history of Israel and the revolutionary, if partial, success of Zionism. Inspired by other nationalist movements and a tide of antisemitism in Europe, Zionists in the 19th and 20th centuries sought to construct a Jewish country in the largely Arab-Muslim Middle East, which fiercely opposed its creation and expansion. They understood that a Jewish state, or homeland, would eventually require peace with the Arab and Muslim Middle East. Yet, as Revisionist Zionist leader Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky famously admitted in 1923, anyone with their eyes open could recognize “the complete impossibility” of transforming “Palestine from an Arab country to a country with a Jewish majority" by voluntary agreement.

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Jabotinsky is key to this history because he made clear what Zionists across the political spectrum understood: their movement’s success would require the use of force to ensure survival and convince their neighbors of the Jewish polity’s permanence. But there was a paradox: while force was necessary to survive, it would be insufficient to gain peace and mutual recognition. 

His solution was the “Iron Wall strategy,” to which mainstream Zionists—and later, Israeli political parties—more or less subscribed. This strategy involved using crushing levels of violence to force Arabs to accept that a Jewish state was here to stay. That would create the conditions for successful negotiations, which did not exist as long as Arabs had a “gleam of hope” of ending the Zionist project altogether. After that hope was extinguished, Jabotinsky stressed, Israelis would be ready to imagine a future for “two peoples in Palestine.” As he wrote, “I am prepared to swear, for us and our descendants, that we will never violate this equality and we will never attempt to expel or oppress the Arabs.”

In the 1930s, after Britain had declared its support for the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine and the League of Nations endorsed the declaration, Zionists began implementing this vision of creating negotiating opportunities by inflicting crushing defeats. They hoped to split Israel’s opponents into diehard extremists and moderates willing to negotiate. In Nov. 1947, in the wake of the Holocaust, the United Nations passed a resolution recommending the end of British Mandate Palestine and the creation of two independent states: one Arab and one Jewish. A civil war between Jewish and Palestinian forces and a chaotic abandonment of Palestine by British forces soon ensued.

When Israel declared independence in May 1948, its Arab neighbors attacked. Israeli forces were victorious on almost all fronts, displacing roughly 750,000 Palestinians—and the war only ended when Israel's leaders became fearful of British military intervention and agreed to withdraw their forces from Sinai and cancel operations to conquer the West Bank.

In 1956, after Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal and struck an arms deal with the Soviet Union, Israel, along with Britain and France, invaded Egypt and occupied the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip. Israel left the territories it occupied only when President Dwight Eisenhower threatened direct and painful retribution if it failed to do so.  

The pattern of crushing military defeats of Arab forces that began in 1948, and was repeated in reprisal raids in the 1950s and in the 1956 war, continued in June 1967: Egypt, Syria, and Jordan threatened to attack. Israel responded with a devastating preemptive strike. The U.N. Security Council ordered a ceasefire, but Israel did not stop fighting until the U.S. and the U.N. pressured Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan into an abrupt ceasefire.

In October 1973, after Egypt and Syria waged a surprise assault on Israeli positions in the Sinai and Golan Heights, Israeli forces slowly gained the upper hand and began a drive to isolate and destroy the Egyptian Third Army. It only halted this campaign because the U.S.—in a tense standoff with the Soviet Union—categorically refused to allow it to continue. President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger insisted that Israel abide by the terms of Security Council Resolution 338, requiring Israel to go back to positions it had held on the day the resolution was passed. 

Yet, despite deploying Jabotinsky’s strategy of overwhelming force for 75 years now, Israel has never gotten to the part of his theory in which Israel gains acceptance from its neighbors and the Palestinian people. That’s in part because he failed to foresee that as Israel’s victories over Arab resistance to Zionism accumulated, the political center of gravity within Zionism, and then within Israel, would shift toward territorial expansion and ethnonational exclusivism. 

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This expansion in its ambitions scuttled the potential for peace. Right when the Iron Wall strategy might’ve been reaching its pivot point in the 1970s—when Israel’s use of overwhelming force had finally convinced a moderate faction of the Arab world to accept its existence in exchange for peace, and Israel could’ve shifted from using force to negotiating a political settlement—its goals were changing in ways that made such a deal impossible. In the 1970s, Prime Minister Golda Meir rejected several peace offers from Jordan and Egypt, because they would’ve required territorial concessions. 

Beginning in 1977, Israel's politics have shifted rightward. Elections swung back and forth in the 1980s and 1990s between Labor and the right-wing Likud Party—which trumpeted expansionist policies.

That had major implications in the 1990s when the peace process was finally gaining a foothold with the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords. A far-right Israeli assassinated Labor Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. That enabled Likud’s Netanyahu to win election, and he did everything in his power to destroy the Oslo peace process. After its collapse, the Arab world, led by Saudi Arabia, proposed a comprehensive peace with Israel based on the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but no Israeli government has ever officially responded to this initiative.  

And since 2010, Likud has dominated Israeli politics, making peace all but impossible. Though battered by its attempted overhaul of Israel’s court system and its colossal failures with respect to the Gaza Strip, Likud and other parties that insist on Israeli rule of the greater "Land of Israel" will continue to control Israeli governments for the foreseeable future.

Without peace, wars have regularly broken out. Each time, the Israeli government promises that finally, unlike in the past, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) will be allowed to fight until victory. In reality, however, as Jabotinsky anticipated in the 1920s, the IDF can never deliver real victory because military means alone cannot transform Middle Eastern realities or create the basis for stable political arrangements based on the principle of the equality of nations. 

That explains why Israel has never ended a war without being ordered to do so. The pattern has held steadily into the 21st century, including in 2006, when the Israeli-Lebanon war only ended when the U.S. and France intervened, brokering a UN resolution. Even if an Israeli government wants to stop fighting, it cannot, because that would mean admitting that it never had a chance of keeping its promise to solve Israel’s problems by simply “letting the IDF win.” In effect Jabotinsky’s insight, that crushing military victories were necessary, but only to set the stage for a political compromise—which could bring peace—has been forgotten.

This history exposes that Israel’s current laundry list of war aims isn’t designed to be achievable. Rather, these goals are political statements put in place so that after the U.S. inevitably forces an end to the fighting, Netanyahu and his government can claim they would’ve achieved lofty goals, if only the U.S. had not interceded.  

An American order to stop is not what Israeli leaders fear, it is what they expect, and it is what the country always needs. And history shows it will come—eventually. Like previous presidents, President Biden is learning that there are excruciating trade-offs between the dangers, risks, and human costs of allowing an Israeli military campaign to continue and the domestic political consequences of stopping it. When he decides the former concerns outweigh the latter, he will give the order. Then and only then will this war end.

Ian S. Lustick is the Bess W. Heyman professor emeritus in the department of political science of the University of Pennsylvania. His most recent book is Paradigm Lost: From Two-State Solution to One-State Reality. Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here.

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