The appropriate first response to this morning’s attack by Hamas on Israel is, in the words of President Biden’s statement on the subject, to “unequivocally condemn” the assault. The initiator of this latest round of Israeli-Arab warfare is in no doubt. The initial victims include innocent civilians.
The casualties on both sides from just the first few hours of this round make it one of the deadliest episodes in Israeli-Arab conflict in recent years. The casualty count is certain to get far higher. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to retaliate in a way in which "our enemy will pay a price the type of which it has never known." Even if Israel’s response duplicates what its enemy knows well from previousrounds of Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip, this will mean Palestinian casualties, including many innocent civilians, several times higher than Israeli casualties.
And none of this will bring closer anything that looks like peace between Israelis and Arabs.
Hamas is exposing itself to resentment from Gazans who will blame the group — which functions as the de facto government of the Gaza Strip — for bringing about the destruction from Israeli retaliatory attacks. Through previous confrontations with Israel, Hamas has had to balance this hazard with whatever support it hopes to obtain by presenting itself as the staunchest champion of Palestinian nationalism and opponent of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. Understanding why Hamas’s calculations tipped the balance this time in favor of an attack requires multiple explanations.
A Hamas spokesperson gave a broad rationale for the attack, saying, “We want the international community to stop atrocities in Gaza, against Palestinian people, our holy sites like Al-Aqsa. All these things are the reason behind starting this battle.” The Al-Aqsa mosque compound, which Jews know as the Temple Mount, has increasingly been a sore point, with a breakdown of previous understandings restricting Jewish prayer at the site, and an Israeli raid earlier this year against Palestinian worshippers at the mosque. Israeli violence against Palestinians in the West Bank also has seen an uptick, at the hands both of the Israeli army and West Bank settlers.
Many of these aspects of an exacerbated Israeli-Palestinian confrontation have coincided with the tenure, beginning last December, of the current extreme right-wing Israeli government. It is possible the Hamas operation had been in planning stages since earlier this year, after the direction of that Israeli government became clear.
A more specific trigger may have been the U.S.-Israeli-Saudi negotiations aimed at full diplomatic normalization of Israeli-Saudi diplomatic relations — negotiations that in some eyes seem close to bearing fruit. From the general Palestinian perspective, any such three-way diplomatic deal would be a step backwards for Palestinian self-determination, because an Israeli objective is to enjoy such fruit without making peace with the Palestinians. From Hamas’s perspective, it sees the rival Palestinian Authority taking a remarkably complacent posture toward the prospect of upgraded Saudi-Israeli ties, seemingly content to remain in its role of an auxiliary to the Israeli occupation. That leaves it to Hamas to actively oppose this backward step. Disruption of the diplomacy aimed at Saudi-Israeli normalization may have been one of the motivations for the Hamas attack.
Neither the Israeli nor the U.S. government will be deterred from their normalization effort, and the attack may even heighten the Biden administration’s desire to strike such a deal. The key variable is the position of the Saudi regime. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) almost certainly still would like to reach an agreement that meets most of his demands regarding security assurances, arms sales, and nuclear assistance. But any heightened bloodshed between Israelis and Arabs makes it harder for any Arab ruler, even MbS, to reach new agreements with Israel. Regardless of his own feelings on the matter, MbS needs to consider Saudi public opinion and the special interest that his father, King Salman, has in the Palestinian issue.
Today’s attack by Hamas included not only a barrage of rockets but also a ground incursion that resulted in the capture of Israelis whom Hamas brought back to the Gaza Strip. Israel confirms that Israeli citizens, evidently including soldiers as well as civilians, have been taken hostage, with the numbers uncertain but probably numbering in the dozens. Israeli security services undoubtedly will spare no effort to try to rescue its citizens, but Hamas has proven adept in the past at hiding its prisoners.
This implies that once the dust of battle has settled, negotiations will ensue over, possibly among other things, the return of hostages. Acquiring bargaining chips in any such negotiation probably was an additional Hamas motivation for the attack. Freeing Palestinians whom Israel has incarcerated is an obvious quid pro quo. An estimated 4,500 prisoners are in Israeli jails. Past swaps between Hamas and Israel have seen large numbers of Palestinians freed in exchange for far smaller numbers of Israelis. A senior Hamas official boasted that today’s attack had given the group enough hostages to free all Palestinian prisoners currently in Israeli jails.
The human bargaining chips may also give Hamas the leverage to extract other concessions, including various forms of relief from the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Any wins that Hamas manages to score in that vein, in addition to the freeing of Palestinian prisoners, may help to offset whatever resentment the group suffers from Gaza residents over the destructive Israeli response to its attack.
The political consequences in Israel are more predictable than those in the Gaza Strip. Although there will be the usual recriminations over an “intelligence failure” and whether the government should have been better prepared for the attack, the blood-stained escalation of conflict between Israelis and Arabs will, at least in the short term, intensify the extreme right-wing course of the extreme right-wing Israeli government and help to squelch any thoughts about meaningful concessions to the Palestinians. The new war will be a unifying distraction from the government’s controversial judicial overhaul and the corruption case against Netanyahu. In this respect Hamas may have done a political favor for Netanyahu with this attack.
Taking a longer and broader perspective, today’s events and the ensuing war will demonstrate once again that, notwithstanding the efforts to de-emphasize the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and to sideline the issue through “peace” agreements with Arab states, the conflict and its destabilizing consequences will not go away. Frustrating nationalist aspirations do not cause the aspirations themselves to disappear, nor do they remove resentment over oppressive treatment of a people. This time the violent response was orchestrated by Hamas; next time the violent response may take some other form. Even before today’s events, many informed observers were seeing a high chance of a new intifada, or popular uprising, in the West Bank.
Paul R. Pillar is Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies of Georgetown University and a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He is also an Associate Fellow of the Geneva Center for Security Policy.
DPA / Picture Alliance via Reuters Connect. Israeli officers secure the area following the attacks of Hamas. Palestinian militants in Gaza unexpectedly fired dozens of rockets at Israeli targets early on Saturday, the Israeli army said, 10/7/23
Senator Lindsey Graham had two options walking into the Doha Forum in Qatar this weekend: find a way to triangulate his full-throated support for Netanyahu policies in Israel for the largely Palestinian-supportive Muslim audience Sunday, or wave his own flag without reservation. He went with the latter.
The South Carolina Republican made it clear he was no stranger to the region — he touted a long friendship with his host the Emir of Qatar and lauded the kingdom's role as international mediator and host to America's Fifth Fleet. But he didn't bat an eye to tell this audience — thousands of Muslims assembled from across the Gulf and the broader Middle East, plus attendees from Global South nations and Europe — that the U.S. veto of the ceasefire was one of the few things he thought the Biden Administration got right.
"President Biden ...You have risen to the occasion after October the seventh," he said, addressing the audience Sunday. "I have a world of difference with President Biden on many things. But when he vetoed the ceasefire resolution, he did the right thing and let me tell you why. Every ceasefire Hamas has ever entered has been broken and we're not going to do a ceasefire until hostages begin to be released like promised and would give the Israeli military the time and space they need to make sure that Hamas ceases to be a threat to Israel and the Palestinian people."
"So as a Republican, I am standing behind President Biden's decision, that resolution and the one that comes next."
He also said the only way there will be peace in the Middle East and to get the real culprit — Iran — and to start building a state for Palestine, was for the normalization process between Arab States and Israel to continue, with the Israel-Saudi deal the icing on the cake.
"I pledge in front of the world to help President Biden secure the votes in the United States Senate to make it possible for Saudi Arabia to have a defense agreement with us, which would then make it possible for Saudi Arabia, to recognize Israel," he declared. "Before the world I pledge my support, to help reconstruct a new Palestine but none of this is possible until you have a less corrupt younger Palestinian Authority, replacing the one we have. And a Hamas can no longer wreak havoc on Israel, on their own people.”
That potential U.S.-brokered Israel-Saudi deal have been deemed all but dead after the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel. Graham contended that aside from hating Jews, Hamas launched the attacks to kill any hope for that deal to go forward. Observers have come to similar conclusions — that the so-called Abraham Accords had left the Palestinians on the cutting room floor, inciting anger among the militant elements in Gaza. But unlike Graham, these critics' hold that the agreements are the problem — that regional leaders' shouldn't have allowed Israel to shunt the peace process to the side in the first place.
Not only did Graham ignore this fatal flaw of the agreements, he reveled in his own blind spots, choosing to ignore any culpability of the Netanyahu government over the decades leading to the violence and what appears today, an endless bombardment and on-the-ground military operation in Gaza with chances for further talks between the two sides dwindling by the hour. Instead, he appeared to blame Iran for everything.
"The biggest fear of the Ayatollah is that the Arab world, in conjunction with Israel, marches toward the light away from the darkness. (Iran hates) the idea that everybody in this room can find a way to work with Israel and live with Israel where everybody makes money and can live in peace. Because let me tell you, their agenda is different than yours. So I believe we cannot let Iran win."
He said he was committed to a two-state solution, and if there was any moment in his talk where he put any responsibility on Israel it was this: "I'm going to Israel soon and here's what I'm telling Israeli friends — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, none of these Arab countries can help you. Unless you make a commitment for a two state solution. ...To my friends in Israel the best thing you can do to beat Iran is to give the Palestinians a life where they're not dependent upon terrorist organizations that they can live and work and be prosperous."
How Israelis could get there, from here, was not explained by Lindsey Graham, or whether he honestly thought that was possible given the "hell on earth" Gaza is becoming today. But we know he doesn't believe that the civilian crisis on the ground now will reduce the chances for peace tomorrow, because of the way he reacted to U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's remarks earlier this month.
Austin said “the lesson is that you can only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians. In this kind of a fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population. And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”
“Strategic defeat would be inflaming the Palestinians? They’re already inflamed,” Graham continued. “They’re taught from the time they’re born to hate the Jews and to kill them. They’re taught math: If you have 10 Jews and kill six, how many would you have left?”
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In half a century of public life, U.S. President Joe Biden has demonstrated unwavering support for Israel. In this photo Biden is welcomed by Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, as he visits Israel amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel, October 18, 2023. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein/File Photo
Of all the foreign policy challenges President Joe Biden faces, most difficult is the war in Gaza. That is not because of the apparent geopolitical stakes; as Biden often says, China poses the most important long-term challenge and Russia is next. But while important, what happens between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as elsewhere in the Middle East, has not been in the same league.
Yet because of the war in Gaza, with its linkage to overall Israeli-Palestinian relations and risks of escalation to other parts of the region, there may soon be an explosion dwarfing all other concerns facing Biden and his team.
There is also another important reason that the war in Gaza now occupies center stage for the Biden administration: America’s attitudes towards and relations with Israel. Since Israel’s creation in the wake of World War II, most Americans have considered U.S. ties with the Jewish state as special, both because of its founding as a democracy committed to values similar to America’s and a shared perspective of “never again” stemming from the Holocaust. Even when Israel has fallen short, as for many years in its treatment of Palestinians, most Americans have given Israel the benefit of the doubt. Except on a handful of occasions, Washington consistently “has had Israel’s back” in Middle East crises and conflicts.
For both interests and values reasons, therefore, it was natural that immediately following the horrendous October 7 Hamas assault on southern Israel, in which some 1,200 people were killed and 240 more taken hostage, Biden declared total support for Israel’s military retaliation. His position was initially supported by most Americans, largely on a bipartisan basis.
But then the toll of destruction in Gaza mounted — as of this past week, more than 16,000 Palestinians have been killed, at least 40,000 more wounded, and more than 85 percent of the Strip’s population of more than two million has been rendered homeless with no safe place to go. All of this has been vividly displayed on U.S. television and cable media. Thus, the Biden administration began to rethink its hands-off support for Israel’s military campaign — but only with respect to its tactics, not its overall policy of destroying Hamas.
Washington worked through intermediaries, principally Qatar, to obtain a ”pause” in the Gaza fighting in order to get Hamas to release some hostages and increase the flow of humanitarian assistance from Egypt into Gaza. Following the end of the pause, however, U.S. appeals to Israel have been limited to try to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza, or, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it, "taking more effective steps to protect the lives of civilians.” But so long as Israel continues to pursue the extirpation of Hamas, significantly limiting civilian casualties is impossible, as the Biden team must recognize. Notably, the world sees that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has essentially rebuffed Biden, which impacts on U.S. credibility elsewhere, especially since the United States is universally seen as Israel’s sole patron. Certainly, America’s reputation for promoting humanitarian concerns has been severely damaged.
Both factors argue for the president to press Israel immediately to declare a cease-fire, not just a temporary “pause,” but one designed to end the war. Indeed, if we are to believe Israel’s own estimates, Hamas’s military capacities have already been heavily degraded, and the possibility of it again being able to mount a serious attack on Israel is low.
The gravity of risks in the Levant and potentially throughout the region means that the United States (and others) cannot once again return to indifference when this war ends. Biden has shown he is aware of this, and has recommitted himself to pursuing the so-called “two-state solution.” For years, however, it has been largely a mantra; and while it is the best outcome, its prospects are now even more remote given renewed Israeli fears provoked by the October 7 attack and its attendant atrocities, as well as increased Palestinian bitterness over the massive destruction and loss of life in Gaza.
Yet time is not on the side of “orderly diplomacy” that for a half-century has been the usual course. There is already a major risk of a new intifada on the West Bank, as most Palestinians have lost any hope of Israel’s willingness to recognize their basic human rights, much less permit a Palestinian state. They also see that Israel will not stop West Bank settlers from displacing and even murdering Palestinian civilians. The Palestinians also cannot count on support from Arab states. No Arab leader really cares for the Palestinians and none has even called into question their existing treaties with Israel or the so-called Abraham Accords.
Nor is it conceivable that, to do the necessary diplomatic work, the U.N. or countries other than the U.S. can lead or have any chance of success. Nothing will be possible unless Washington takes charge and makes clear to Israel that, as the occupying power, it must change its policies and practices toward the Palestinians.
On December 6 , U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres reiterated his “appeal for a humanitarian ceasefire to be declared.” In the U.N. Security Council Friday, the United States vetoed the resolution and was joined only by Britain’s abstention. The Biden administration thus tied itself even more to Israel’s slaughter in Gaza, carried out in major part with U.S.-supplied bombs. The veto further cheapened U.S. political and moral standing and made it harder for Biden to be seen as credible as a diplomatic leader once the war ends.
Until October 7, President Biden and his team gave Israel-Palestinian relations short shrift. So far, everyone has been lucky that the crisis has not spread across the region, with the possibility of wider war. Even so, Israel and Hezbollah have come to blows; Yemen has taken some pot-shots; and while Iran has been careful not to get directly involved, its proxies in Iraq and Syria have been engaged in some incidents.
But luck is not a policy. The president must know that the Israeli-Palestinian crisis can’t again be pushed aside when this war ends. He needs to rebuild trust in the United States for strategic competence and then as an honest broker. He needs to show that the United States will place its own interests first, not anyone else’s. He needs to augment his foreign policy inner circle with outside experts in strategy and regional dynamics, but free from biases. And he needs to be prepared to run risks in American domestic politics.
It's a difficult agenda, but nothing less will enable President Biden to protect and promote U.S. strategic, political, and moral interests.
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Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov speaks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Dec. 10. (Vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — In remarks Sunday at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov seemed to revel in what is becoming a groundswell of international frustration with the United States over its policies in Israel. Despite Russia’s own near-isolated status after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Lavrov glibly characterized the U.S. as on the wrong side of history, the leader of the dying world order, and the purveyor of its own brand of “cancel culture.”
“I think everybody understands that this (Gaza war) did not happen in a vacuum that there were decades of unfulfilled promises that the Palestinians would get their own state,” and years of political and security hostilities that exploded on Oct. 7, he charged. “This is about the cancel culture, whatever you don’t like about events that led to the current situation you cancel. Everything that came before February 2022, including the bloody coup (in Ukraine) and the unconstitutional change of power … all this was canceled. The only thing that remains is that Russia invaded Ukraine.”
Lavrov, beamed in from Russia to the international audience in Doha, went fairly unchallenged, though his interviewer James Bays, diplomatic editor at Al Jazeera, attempted to corner him on accusations stemming from Russia’s own bloody record in Chechnya in the 1990s and and 2000s and its ongoing military campaign in Syria, which Lavrov noted was at the “behest” of the Syrian government.
On the issue of the failed ceasefire vote at the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent veto member, Lavrov said, “we strongly condemn the terrorist attack against Israel. At the same time we do not think it is acceptable to use this (terrorist) event for collective punishment of millions of Palestinian people.” Did he condemn the United States for vetoing the ceasefire measure? “It’s up to the regional countries and the other countries of the world to judge,” he declared.
When asked if there was a “stalemate” in the Russian war in Ukraine, and what the Russians may have gained from their invasion in 2022, he said simply, “it’s up to the Ukrainians to understand how deep a hole they are in and where the Americans have put them.”
On whether a ceasefire may be in the offing in that war Lavrov said, “a year and half ago (Zelensky) signed a decree prohibiting any negotiations with the Putin government. They had the chance in March and April 2022, very soon after the beginning of the special military operation, where in Istanbul the negotiators reached a deal with neutrality for Ukraine, no NATO, and security guarantees…it was canceled,” he added, because the Americans and Brits wanted to “exhaust (Ukrainians) more.”
Lavrov gleefully piggybacked on themes from an earlier forum panel on the Global South. He accused “the United States and its allies” of building “the model of globalization, which they thought would serve them well.” But now, Lavrov contends, the unaligned are using “the principles and instruments of globalization to beat the West on their own terms.” As for Russia, Lavrov deployed a little “cancel culture” of his own, cherry picking the high points of his country's history over the last 200 years to project a nation that he boasts will emerge unscathed by Western assaults today.
“In the beginning of the 19th century Napoleon (rose European armies) against Russia and we defeated him; in the 20th century Hitler did the same. We defeated him and became stronger after that as well,” he said. With the Ukraine war, the West will find “that Russia has already become much stronger than it was before this.”