Update on the Israel-Hamas War and the Region

Update on the Israel-Hamas War and the Region

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Palestinian Territories

Experts from the Council on Foreign Relations discuss the ongoing Israel-Hamas war and the implications it has for Gaza and the Middle East region.


Max Boot

Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies

Steven A. Cook

Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies and Director of the International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars

Linda Robinson

Senior Fellow for Women and Foreign Policy

Ray Takeyh

Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies


Michael Froman

President, Council on Foreign Relations

FROMAN: Well, thank you very much, everybody, for joining us. And I’m delighted to be joined here by four of our fellows: Linda Robinson, Ray Takeyh, Max Boot, and Steven Cook. Thank you all for joining us, to both reporters and others on the—on the line.

Linda, perhaps I can start with you and your view on the current state of affairs in Gaza, the humanitarian issues in particular, and what kind of pressures are being brought to bear on Israel with regards to the humanitarian questions? We’ve heard Secretary Blinken calling for humanitarian pauses. What is likely to happen there? And what’s happening on the ground with the—with the Palestinians in Gaza at the moment?

ROBINSON: Thank you. I just think it’s important to first note that we’re seeing really the effects compounding daily. And I’ve been trying to extrapolate out what several months of this is going to look like, and the images of continued civilian casualties, the destruction, the lack of safe haven, and aid shortages—I think they’re just going to continue to mount and take a toll on both Israel and the U.S. government. So that’s kind of my opening salvo.

I think that it’s certainly good news that U.S. citizens have been released just today and there is some movement. But I think the counterbalance is there’s mounting concern being expressed by countries who do support Israel’s right to defense and who do denounce Hamas as a terrorist organization. So I think you’re seeing the diplomatic blowback beginning to mount. So on the ground, I think what is of immediate concern that I would put out is not only continuing concerns about the proportionality calculations that are going on, and the apparent significant civilian casualties going on.

The other fact is there are strikes not just in the north of Gaza, but also in the south and central. And this is creating questions about exactly what type of safe haven is available to the civilians that are there. And I think that one last point I will make is there is still—obviously, there are 240 hostages. And I think that is going to increasingly move to the center, with many Israelis being concerned. Israel has a long tradition of rescuing or gaining the release of its hostages. And I think that is going to percolate to the fore.

FROMAN: Max, some are calling for a humanitarian pause. Others are calling for a ceasefire. How should we think about those concepts while Israel is still, of course, prosecuting a campaign against Hamas leadership and their military capabilities? And how do you think the—how do you think Israel is sorting through what can or should be done at this point?

BOOT: I mean, a humanitarian pause could make sense for a short period of time to allow aid supplies to get in. I think a ceasefire at this point would be a mistake for Israel. And that’s why I don’t think that the U.S. is calling—the Biden administration is not calling for that, at least not at this point, because we need to be clear about what a ceasefire means. A ceasefire would be a victory for Hamas. It would continue the Hamas threat against Israel. And would also be—not to intrude on Ray’s territory here—but it would also be a victory for Iran because, of course, Hamas is part of the axis of resistance and Iran’s proxy strategy around the region.

And I think that would be a disaster for the people of Gaza, for the people of Israel, for the people of the entire region. And I think, you know, Arab leaders understand that. And I think privately a lot of them are pretty supportive, from my understanding, of the Israeli offensive, even though publicly they’re not going to say anything like that. But they don’t want to—they want to—I think it’s imperative for the security of the entire region that Hamas’ hold on Gaza be broken. And, you know, if Israel were to stop fighting now, basically Hamas would declare victory. And it would lead to a huge crisis of confidence in Israel in their—in their leadership and in their armed forces, and so forth.

So I think what Israel has to do is basically to be very careful in their targeting, which is not easy to do because, again, there’s a lot of accusations against Israel of committing war crimes. And that needs to be sorted out. But let’s be clear, Hamas is committing war crimes, OK, even beyond their massacre of Israeli civilians on October 7. They are committing war crimes by hiding military facilities in civilian locations and basically maximizing the chances that Israel is going to create collateral damage every time it tries to strike Hamas. So this is a very brutal, very ugly form of warfare. Israel is already suffering casualties on the ground. Roughly eighteen IDF soldiers had been killed, last I checked. I’m sure many more will fall in this campaign. But I think, from the Israeli perspective, this is seen—this is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity. It’s a war of survival. And I don’t think that the—there’s any way that the IDF can stop now, when Hamas military capacity remains largely intact.

FROMAN: Well, let’s go to Ray, because, of course, Iran has multiple proxies in the region—Hezbollah and others. But are they going to let Hamas be wiped out by the IDF? Or what’s their strategy for protecting the survival of Hamas?

TAKEYH: Thanks. This strategy is to make sure, in some form, Hamas survives, and survives in Gaza. Not in refugee camps or places like that. And they have sort of a three-prong strategy in order to achieve that. Number one is to inflame all of Israel’s boundaries, frontiers, their northern frontier, the Syria frontier, and so forth. And, in essence, continued to press the argument that there’s a risk of escalation here, so long as the Israeli military operations continue and so long as there are civilian casualties mounting.

The second part of that strategy is to essentially engage in what is mediation diplomacy, namely that there should be some sort of a ceasefire, whatever you want to call it, in order to get the hostages out, in order to negotiate the release of the hostages. And Iran’s foreign minister recently claimed that fifty hostages have already been killed because of aerial strikes by Israel. Whether that figure is true or not, I have no idea. But that’s what he claims. So he suggests there’s some kind of a stopping in the air war and the continuous conflict. And perhaps there could be some sort of a mechanism for release of the hostages.

The third part is mobilization of the international community, whether it’s the U.N., whether it’s Organization of Islamic Conference, and so forth. So essentially mobilizing the international community to put pressure on Israel to ceasefire. And the pretext for that, of course, is civilian casualties, but the essence of that argument for the survival of Hamas. The Iranian foreign minister has made another trip. I think he was recently in Turkey and Qatar. But more interestingly, one of the senior Iranian military leaders recently went to China and appealed to the Chinese to get more involved in terms of imposing some sort of a settlement or proposing some sort of a negotiated timeline for this.

And there is a lot of frustration in Iran today in terms of the press commentary and others, namely that this strategy is not working—that Israeli offensive continues, that Israeli aerial bombing continues, that Israeli ground incursion continues, that this particular strategy, as currently calibrated, as currently implemented, is not working. And therefore, there has to be something more done, maybe something different or further inflaming of the conflict on Israel’s periphery, and so forth and so on.

FROMAN: So, Steven, along those lines, I gather, the Hezbollah leader is slated to give an important speech tomorrow, that everyone is waiting to see what he says. What’s, again, the likelihood of—to Ray’s point—an escalation in the north with Hezbollah, beyond what we’ve already seen in terms of the incursions and the missile attacks? And then, as just a second part of the question to go back to Gaza for a moment, there’s been some conversation now that whenever this military exercise is over, assuming Israel is ultimately successful in eliminating Hamas as a political force in Gaza, who is to lead Gaza? Who is to govern? And is it feasible, as I think Secretary Blinken suggested, that a revitalized Palestinian Authority can extend its reach from the West Bank into Gaza?

COOK: Yeah, those are two important questions, Mike. And thanks for them. I think everybody should expect that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah will give quite a fiery address tomorrow. There’s lots of anticipation. I think that he can give a fiery address and not declare war on Israel. After all, Hezbollah is already at war with Israel. But in essence, to signal that Hezbollah remains the resistance and will stand with Hamas, without actually doing much more than they’ve already done. I expect that there is a lot of temptation on the part of Hezbollah from an ideological perspective, because they are the resistance, the resistance par excellence, in fact. And they can’t credibly claim to be the resistance unless they actually resist.

But there are some constraints on them. And one of them is the fact that there is a significant amount of American military force in the region, and that the Israelis have already demonstrated that they have some proficiency in going after Hezbollah cadres, and that it’s clear the United States has warned Iran about Hezbollah, and that the United States would respond in a resounding kind of way. Whether they believe that or not remains an open question. But at a level of ideology, it strikes me that Hezbollah has incentive and motive to increase its attacks along the border but is constrained by the battlefield and what it might confront.

When it comes to Gaza, there has been a lot coming out. There has been talk of an international force, some sort of international compact for Gaza. I think that if Secretary Blinken is focusing on the Palestinian Authority, that’s better than saying that we should have some sort of international force, because there really has to be a Palestinian solution. I know that members of Congress have been seized with the idea of, you know, some sort of multinational force. I think that this is a totally unrealistic thing. First, I don’t—I’m not sure who you’re going to sign up to take part in some international force.

And it really does mean that there needs to be a Palestinian solution to this problem, which is difficult in and of itself. Whether you can extend the authority of Mahmoud Abbas, who is deeply, deeply unpopular throughout the Palestinian world, to the Gaza Strip remains very much an open question there. There must be some other leadership that can coalesce in the Gaza Strip and administer it. It strikes me that Abbas is not that person.

FROMAN: Great. Why don’t we open it up to our friends from the press and others for questions?

OPERATOR: We will take our first question from Marisa Rawlins (sp).

(Gives queuing instructions.)

Miss Rawlins (sp) over to you. Oh, I think she disappeared. Quick technical difficulty. Next we have someone—Ayman, just first name.

Q: Hey, guys. It’s Ayman from MSNBC.

I just wanted to flesh that idea out about destroying Hamas for a second, and just kind of get your opinions as to whether or not the idea, the ideology of Hamas, even if you do get rid of the organization and bring in some kind of international force or even some pan-Arab force, the idea of a more militant, more radicalized group that Iran would be once again recommitted to reconstituting, even possibly themselves would be willing to reconstitute, as we’ve seen previous organizations post-al-Qaida. We got ISIS, you know, and the comparisons can go back. Even within the Palestinian framework before Hamas, you had PFLP, Abu Nidal, Black September. The list goes on, all the way back to the ’60s. What, if anything, changes the day after Hamas is destroyed, ideologically speaking?

BOOT: Well, I mean I would—I would venture that it’s—I mean, it’s true that you can’t—you know, very hard to destroy an ideology. You’re certainly not going to destroy an ideology by force. But I think Israel would still be accomplishing a great deal if it manages to break Hamas’ hold on the Gaza Strip. And the comparison I would use as the one you yourself cited, which was ISIS. And, of course, the Islamic State still exists in some form, but it is not the threat that it was when it controlled this massive caliphate sprawling across Iraq and Syria. That its ability to control that territory was destroyed by Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish forces, in cooperation with the U.S. and international alliance. And that really rolled back that threat.

In a similar way, I think it is possible for Israel to break the Hamas hold over the Gaza Strip and to vastly diminish Hamas’ military capacity. Then, of course, you’re still going to have the issue that Steven talked about, which is who is going to administer Gaza next. And, of course, if there is no effective administration Hamas can come right back in. But I think what you’re—what you’re really pointing to, in the larger issue, is that there has to be some kind of progress for the Palestinian population in Gaza and in the West Bank for them to reject the siren song of radicalism and to embrace a more modern leadership. And I think that is something that Israel should be cognizant of, more cognizant than Netanyahu and some of his far-right ministers are at the moment.

And it’s very, you know, disconcerting to see them actually undermining the Palestinian Authority. Smotrich, the finance minister, is not delivering tens of millions of dollars in revenues that are owed to the PA. You have these crazy settlers who are inciting violence in the West Bank as if they want to open a second front for Israel. So all this kind of stuff is very bad news. But potentially, I think if Hamas is—if their grip on the West Bank is broken, that opens at least the possibility of a more moderate Palestinian leadership taking over. And that’s something that the U.S., and Israel, and others should definitely encourage. And I think we should definitely push Israel to get serious about a two-state solution and giving Palestinians something positive to look forward to so that they are not drawn to Hamas in the future, or some other violent radical group that’s going to emerge if not Hamas.

FROMAN: Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question will be from John Rash.

Q: (Off mic)—from the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Thank you for holding this panel this afternoon.

I want to know if you could please elaborate a little bit more on the U.S. naval deployment to the region, the practical impact it may be having on constraining Hezbollah. And, conversely, if in the speech tomorrow morning Hezbollah announces a more aggressive stance, increases the aspect of an attack, the possibility that that could eventually draw in U.S. forces and what that might mean. And then finally, a comment please on President Biden’s relative success, or lack thereof, of having Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Knesset war cabinet, in effect, heed his warning that he used with the 9/11 analogy about how the U.S. allowed itself to be drawn in too deep and let emotions overcome reason in many ways. Thank you very much.

COOK: Well, since I invoked the U.S. forces in the region, I guess I’ll answer the question, though I defer to Max’s expertise on this. My understanding is that those forces are in the region to deter the Iranians and Hezbollah, as well as to provide additional antimissile coverage for the Israelis should they be confronted with the kind of salvos that we know that Hezbollah is capable of. I fully expect that, as I said before, that Hassan Nasrallah will give a very fiery speech. He may very well call for increased military activity.

I don’t expect that the United States or American forces to get involved until or unless that Hezbollah actually does up the ante and does increase its military activity. Up until now, these have been basically skirmishes along the border, something that the Israels, fighting two fronts, can easily handle. It’s another issue if Hezbollah, which is armed with 100,000-plus rockets, starts unleashing those types of salvos, which look—which would make what Hamas poured into Israel in the opening stages of this conflict look like a very slow rate of rocket launches.

As far as your question with regard to President Biden, we know that he and his administration have given this advice to the Israelis. It remains unclear whether they’ve fully taken that advice as they push deeper into the northern Gaza Strip. The headlines from today were that Israel has had broken through Hamas’ first lines of defense and were approaching the outskirts of Gaza City. This would suggest that the Israelis are moving in force into the city, which suggests a different kind of combat than the one that they have engaged in thus far in the conflict. So we don’t know how successful President Biden has been. And President Biden and the administration has said, of course, we offer our best advice, but it’s up to the Israelis how they conduct their military operations.

TAKEYH: If I can just say one brief thing about the deterrence of this. Since the deployment of the American naval vessels, there have been a number of proxy Iranian attacks on American forces, twenty-seven or whatever the number is. The proxy war strategy of Iran is kind of a clever one, because they can essentially inflict pain without—with complicity, but without responsibility. And so long as that’s the case, I think they will do so. Now, I don’t think Iran is in any way seeking to directly engage in this particular conflict. So in that sense, the lines of deterrence will hold. But that’s sort of—that’s sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. But I think if the red line was proxy—attack on American forces by Iranian proxies would provoke retaliation upon Iranian territory, that may make a more meaningful impression on them than the current strategy, where we insist on the fact that we don’t wish to expand the war, for all kinds of understandable reasons I might add.

FROMAN: Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question is from Robin Wright.

Q: Thanks, guys.

Many of you will Khalil Shikaki, who has been in Washington this week. And he has an interesting theory about what Hamas’ strategy was. He calls it Sinwar’s Sadat moment, that the goal was to go into Israel and take as many hostages back and use that as leverage to not only win freedom for 6,000 Palestinian prisoners, but also to move forward on a hudna, which could last, what, ten, fifteen, twenty years, as he put it. But that, needless to say, everything that could go wrong did go wrong, and more. So I’d be interested in your kind of reflections on that, probably first from Steve.

And then, Dahlia Scheindlin was also here. And she is, you know, is a pollster in Israel. And she said, you know, the idea of a two-state solution among Israelis is just dead. Blinken talked about just today, as he left for the Middle East, emphasizing, you know, with urgency, the need to create a two-state solution. So I’m just interested in, you know, is this all pie in the sky now? Is it too late for that? Thanks.

COOK: Hey, thanks, Robin. Look, that’s an interesting theory on the part of Khalil Shikaki. I should also point out that in 2006 he said that there was no way Hamas was going to win in the Gaza Strip. If this was his effort to have a Sadat moment and establish that, everything he planned and did backfired spectacularly, and clearly knows that he doesn’t know his enemy. If you kill 1,200 to 1,400 Israelis, you are inviting a withering and brutal response from the Israelis, who have no interest in a hudna at this point.

As Max pointed out, their sole interest is in the destruction of Hamas, as difficult as that may be to kill an ideology. It is entirely possible to make it impossible for Hamas to run the Gaza Strip or threaten the Israels in a serious way. We may get something worse, as Ayman Mohyeldin was pointing out. But still, this was poorly executed if that’s what Sinwar’s goal was. And I think it’s clear just from an anecdotal level that, for Israelis, a two-state solution is furthest from their mind at this point. The peace camp was already in trouble if not dead. This has made it seemingly an impossible dream.

ROBINSON: Robin, I’ll just add briefly, I think you’ve hit your—put your finger on how difficult this is going to be. And I think the figures that I’ve seen are a third of Israelis still believe there’s a two-state solution possible. But still, it’s a minority. I think it’s going to take leadership from the Israeli political spectrum. And this is a big shock. And I think where you go after a military campaign that has, I think, undefined and ill—perhaps, poor chances of success. The eradication of Hamas is, I think, very difficult to achieve. I think it’s very important that the U.S. administration has come out and put this mark on the wall so people can begin fleshing out what would the steps be needed?

And, of course, the Israeli—the settlers problem is, first and foremost, something that has to be dealt with. And I’m sure you’re following this closely. The number of attacks, settler attacks, was already at a record. And they’ve just gone off the charts since October 7. And there is not only no effective restraint on them, there are many reports of IDF reservists accompanying them on these attacks. So I think we’re looking at a crawl, walk, run approach here.

And I think the U.S. has to take some next steps to flesh out what that roadmap would look like, and possibly even have an envoy in charge of that. Because I think it’s increasingly clear there’s no purely military path out of this, and there’s really only one political path. Which is make—revive and refresh the Palestinian Authority. And I think that goes to elections. It goes to many steps. There’s only one figure that I’m aware that polls above Hamas, and that’s Marwan Barghouti. So I think there’s an important set of specific conversations that need to be had.

BOOT: And if I can just jump in very quickly just to say, I mean, yeah, the two-state solution is not—polling shows, not very popular in Israel or with Palestinians, for that matter. But I don’t really see what the solution is because, basically, what are the solutions? Well, there are a few utopian souls who think you’re going to have some kind of democratic state with Israelis and Palestinians, everybody in one big country. I don’t think that’s going to happen. You’re either going to see the destruction of the state of Israel, which again I don’t think is going to happen, or you’re going to see Israel basically having to be a colonial power indefinitely in Gaza and the West Bank, with all the international opprobrium and the consequences that entails in being held to account for apartheid-like policies and so forth. And I don’t think that’s very tenable while, you know, another explosion builds up among the Palestinians.

And I think, you know, up until 10/7, I think most Israelis thought they could just kind of ignore the Palestinians and pretend they lived in Western Europe, and they didn’t have these Palestinians on their doorstep. And I think the attack of 10/7 kind of blew that—blew that fallacy away in a very brutal, and ugly, and horrific way. And I think it’s understandable that right now most Israelis are very, very angry, and they want revenge. And they want justice. And they want to destroy Hamas. But the polls also show that if elections were held right now, Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition would lose power. Bibi is very unpopular right now. So you could, after this crisis, have a more centrist government coming to power that might show greater recognition of the need to accommodate legitimate Palestinian political desires in order to avoid, you know, this endless cycle of violence that we’re trapped in right now.

ROBINSON: Can I just counter? Dahlia had some interesting figures. She said, after every conflict that Israel has moved to the right. And the last time it won 48 percent of the vote, and that her estimate now, based on her polling, is that the right would get 60 to 64 percent of the vote. But Bibi would not win. Just interesting. You should hear her numbers, they’re fascinating.

COOK: It’s more likely to have a center-right-right coalition than a center coalition in any election coming up.

BOOT: Right, but even a right-wing figure could suddenly decide to do something different. I mean, look at Sharon deciding to give up—evacuate the Gaza Strip. So, you know, you never know what’s going to happen.

ROBINSON: And I’ll just note, a year ago—I know we want to move on to other questions—but July 2022, Benny Gantz went to—had a very cordial meeting with Mahmoud Abbas. And I think he’s the type of figure that could lead and take the first steps.

COOK: Gantz ran to the right of Netanyahu on Gaza, however.

OPERATOR: OK, next question is from Daniel Cohen.

Q: Hey, this is Daniel Cohen from Morgan Stanley, U.S. policy.

Would love your thoughts on how Israel aid shapes up with Ukraine aid, and kind of the—you know, the U.S. defense industrial base and if that’s something—you know, if there are any actionable steps that that lawmakers are taking for that kind of next geopolitical world that we might be entering.

FROMAN: Who wants to take that one?

BOOT: You want to jump in, Linda, or should I?

COOK: I nominate Max.

BOOT: OK, I’ll do it. I mean, obviously what—you’re seeing sort of an interesting phenomenon right now, which is that a lot of grassroots Republicans are very skeptical of aid to Ukraine and a lot of grassroots—sorry—a lot of—a lot of grassroots Republicans very skeptical of aid to Ukraine, a lot of grassroots Democrats very skeptical of aid to Israel. And both of those issues are now becoming more politicized than they were in the past. And, of course, you see even the new House Speaker Mike Johnson kind of playing politics even with aid to Israel, which is really popular with the Republican base, and demanding that in return for $14 million for Israel that that that the Democrats rescind the additional funding for the IRS, which seems to be a nonstarter for the administration. So, you know, we’ll see how that shakes out.

I think, at the end of the day, I would still expect that the aid for both Israel and Ukraine would ultimately pass, although the Ukraine aid is going to be a heavier lift. And if it doesn’t pass, it would just be such a geopolitical catastrophe that I don’t even want to think about what happened in that situation. But there are legitimate issues also about, you know, as Daniel pointed out, about the U.S. defense industrial base. And there are already some reports of munitions that might have gone to Ukraine instead are going to Israel. And I think, you know, if there’s any silver lining in this horrific war that Russia has launched against Ukraine, and forcing us to come to Ukraine’s aid, I think it has been a wake-up call about the decay of the U.S. defense industrial base since the end of the Cold War. And we are ramping up right now.

I mean, I think we’re rapidly ramping up artillery production and all sorts of other munitions production. It takes time. But I think that’s hugely important, not just for the war in Ukraine but also for other contingencies, whether it’s in Israel, China, Taiwan, wherever it may be. And I think this is really highlighting the need to revive our defense industrial capacity. But right now, we’re certainly going to be stretched very thin because Ukraine is going to need a lot of aid and Israel is going to need some as well.

OPERATOR: OK, our next question comes from Simone Jaroslaw.

Q: Hi, Simone Jaroslaw, also Morgan Stanley, strategic risk intelligence.

Hamas has 30,000 to 40,000 members, plus some of those involved in the October 7attack weren’t even official members. So even if Israel can eliminate every one of those Hamas members, it will cause many civilian casualties. And, as you’ve acknowledged, the ideology will likely live on. So how, in practice, can the U.S., or whoever else, impose moderate Palestinian leadership, as many are calling for, on a populace that may or may not want that? Thank you.

FROMAN: Linda, you want to take that one?

ROBINSON: Yes. And I think it is—what you’re implying is it can’t be imposed. But it’s going to have to be. Again, I’ll go back to leadership and the vision thing. I think it’s going to really require an articulation of the way ahead. Israel is going to be seeking security guarantees. And I think they have to come through a refreshed Palestinian leadership. And that is why Fatah and the Palestinian Authority has recognized Israel’s right to exist, but they are going to be looking for movement forward toward what they’ve agreed will be a demilitarized Palestinian state. And we’ve discussed the hard, really steep, climb to get back to that. But I think that is really, in my view, the only path forward, is to start laying out to Palestinian leadership what the elements of that deal would be, and if it is accompanied by a reversal of a lot of the difficulties that Palestinians live with daily.

And we haven’t really talked very much about what’s been going on in the West Bank. Max mentioned Smotrich, the finance minister, cut off the customs duties. They’re in a fight—the customs taxes, revenues that are due to the West Bank, to the Palestinian Authority. That people can’t move around. They’ve added—to the 645 roadblocks and checkpoints, they’ve added 140. The people are really bottled up there. There are a lot of IDF incursions going after Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. And there are multiple settler attacks daily. So the Palestinians’ lives, even in the West Bank, are quite miserable. So I think that what is needed is holding out a vision of what a normal life would look like, and the benefits that would come to people. And that would be the way ahead to avoid the radicalization that—I think, simply, a brutal military campaign will ensure the radicalization of the subsequent generations of Palestinians. I think that’s just a given.

FROMAN: Let me just ask. We got Secretary of Blinken heading back over to Israel now. And potentially engaging in some shuttle diplomacy of sorts as well. What do we expect to come of this? What would success look like at this stage? I don’t know, let me start with you, Steven.

COOK: Well, I think it’s clear that the administration would like the Israelis to pause, at least for a short period of time, in order to flow more aid into the Gaza Strip. I think that that’s one issue that Blinken is working on. The other one is obviously the hostages. And the longer-term issue is how to shape the day after, which no one has a very good answer to. I think the it’s more likely that he can be of help when it comes to releasing hostages. I think it’s unlikely at this point, unless the United States really wants to use sticks with the Israelis, that they’re going to get a pause. The Israelis seem to be in really no mood for this and wants to press whatever military advantages that they perceive that they have at this moment. So those are the two immediate issues. And thinking about the day after, in conversation with Israeli officials, they said those conversations were being had behind closed doors in very kind of deep, deep discussions. And that’s—I presume, the secretary is involved in those deep, deep behind the closed doors discussions.

FROMAN: And do you think the issue, as you say, of the day after and ultimate leadership over Gaza, and management of Gaza, is that something the Israelis are able and willing to engage on right now? Or is that something they’re put on the backburner? I mean usually you would ideally go into an exercise like this with some idea of what the endgame that you were trying to achieve was, beyond sort of immediately—removing the immediate threats to your security. The Israelis don’t seem to have—if they do have, they’re not disclosing what their ultimate endgame is Gaza. Can the U.S. force that?

COOK: Well, they have—well, I think that that’s—I think that’s one of the reasons why you see Blinken going back to Israel, is because they don’t really have a good sense of what the Israelis are thinking or a plan. Although, I will point out, that Defense Minister Yoav Gallant basically said: We’re going to separate Gaza. We’re going to separate from Gaza. We’re not going to be responsible for it. We’re going to set up a real security perimeter. And we won’t be responsible for it any longer. That does not seem, to me, to be a realistic—a realistic response. Especially since, as I pointed out, there’s no appetite within the Arab world or Europe to take responsibility for the Gaza Strip. So, as you point out, Mike, there is no sense that the Israelis have formulated a plan for the day after. And, as I said, in the longer term, this is where the United States’ value—real value added is, because the Israelis are intent on continuing to prosecute their work.

FROMAN: And you don’t see—you’re an expert on Egypt, among other things. You don’t see the Egyptians evolving in their position towards having some responsibility towards the Gazans from—

COOK: Other than grievously wounded Palestinians, absolutely not. This is a matter of principle for them. They’ve been very clear, any effort to move large numbers of Palestinians onto Egyptian territory would, in their words, be an act of war. So suggesting that the peace treaty would be in jeopardy as a result.

TAKEYH: I just want to ask Steven, what are all those tanks that the Egyptians mobilizing for?

COOK: Yeah, those tanks were already in the Sinai. The Israelis, actually as a matter of the peace treaty, the Israelis have a say over how much military force can be in the Sinai Peninsula. But I saw this as a symbolic effort to demonstrate to the Israelis how seriously—how seriously the Egyptians take this issue of moving large numbers of Palestinians into the Sinai Peninsula. Because, after all, this is something that had been bandied about within the Israeli interior ministry as an option. Even the idea of moving large numbers of people even temporarily is something that the Egyptians flat out reject. There was some notion early on in the conflict that since Egyptians needed so much debt relief, they could essentially be paid to do this. But I think subsequent statements and actions on the part of Egyptian leadership would suggest that they’re going to remain on principle. They do not want Gazans in the Sinai, and they don’t want to provide the Israelis the opportunity to to dump the responsibility of Gaza onto them.

ROBINSON: Mike, could I just add a couple of quick points? I think that this Blinken shuttle diplomacy, if you will, is probably going to take on a life of its own with numerous trips. But I think he’s not only got on his agenda the hostage issue and aid, if not a pause I think he’s got to get some immediate movement because those images and the situation is so devastating. But I think the next thing is really to get Israel to articulate what its gameplan is and ultimately with a goal of a more circumscribed definition of what success of the military operations would mean. This was happening behind the scenes, as Max, at least, will recall with Operation Cast Lead, that led it to be circumscribed to forty-nine days back in 2014.

And I think this is ultimately I think got to be brought about, is what is achievable at what cost? Because the U.S. is paying the cost as well. As the biggest supporter of Israel, it’s going to be facing the same kind of blowback than Israel is. And then the other thing that would, I think, be necessary is eventually get them to map out what the day after looks like. And they could, I think, be persuaded by thinking about their own investment. They’ve invested enormously in normalization with the Arab neighbors, and not just the Arab neighbors but resumption of ties with Turkey. I mean, they have a lot at stake here. And I think they—Blinken can help them widen and become more strategic in how they’re approaching this.

TAKEYH: If I could just add it like a fifteen-second reality check on the day after. Sitting here right now, I could be wrong, November 2, but I would predict that the most likely day after outcome is that the IDF will be in indefinite occupation of the Gaza Strip. I think that is—that is where we are headed. It’s an ugly outcome. Nobody wants to acknowledge that. Nobody wants that. The Israelis don’t even want that. But I just don’t see what the practical alternative is going to be because, as Steven said, you’re unlikely to have, like, this international force parachuting in from somewhere to take charge of Gaza. The Palestinians don’t have the capability. The Palestinian Authority doesn’t have the capability to do it right away. So I think the IDF is basically going to be trapped there. And then they’re going to be trying to find a way out. And the only way out is really going to be to empower the PA, I think.

FROMAN: I think we got a question.

OPERATOR: We do, from Jim Zirin.


Q: Yes, hi. Is there any military option for extracting the hostages? And what is it? Must we rely entirely on a pause in the hope that they can negotiate something? Are there special forces and commandos that can extract at least the American hostages, and maybe many of the Israeli hostages, before they all perish?


BOOT: Well, it’s a heck of a lot harder than it looks in the movies, you know? I don’t—this is not—this is not going to be Raid on Entebbe. There are not a bunch of hostages sitting conveniently in an airport terminal waiting to be rescued. I mean, they—Hamas has split them up. They’re in tunnels. They’re under the control of different organizations. And I think the difficulty—I mean, the difficulty here is not like the actual door-kicking aspect of hostage rescue. I mean, Israel has some top-notch special operations forces, as we do, that could go in and extract folks. The difficulty is the intelligence. And I think we saw on 10/7 that Israel’s intelligence on the Gaza Strip is not nearly as good as it thought it was. So I doubt that they have a lot of actionable intelligence on the location of the hostages. And so, you know, it’s a tragic thing, but I just—it doesn’t seem to me that there is a high probability of a lot of successful hostage rescue operations.

TAKEYH: Can I just ask Max, because my hostage rescue knowledge is limited to Operation Eagle Claw—

BOOT: It didn’t work out so well.

FROMAN: Not one of our best ones, as I recall.

TAKEYH: But can you actually get out of there, even if you have intelligence of where a hostage is held in a specific tunnel? Getting in and out, as I understand it, are two very different things.

BOOT: No, no, it’s very hard. I mean, this is—this is a very difficult area to operate. I mean, that’s—and that’s why, you know, a lot of the reason why Israel is sending in the ground forces, because a lot of people have these fantasies about, like, these super special, you know, SOF-type folks parachuting in, or fast roping in, or whatever, and going in and out. And you don’t really—there’s not that option with tunnels, in particular, and fortified locations, booby trapped locations. Hamas has had a long time to prepare the ground. So, you know, you send a small number of special forces in there, you have a high probability of Black Hawk Down.

So you need very good intelligence and you need—you know, before you even send them in, you need the—you know, the way we would operate, I’m sure the Israeli same thing, you need the quick reaction forces, you need the medivac, you need all of the enablers. It takes a lot before, you know, countries like the U.S. or Israel will put these very—these top-tier special operators at high risk on the ground. You have to have a whole infrastructure behind them to make that possible. And it’s very hard to have that in the middle of a place like Gaza, with so many places for Hamas to hide. I mean, maybe Linda has a lot of expertise on that as well. Maybe you want to weigh in?

ROBINSON: Well, I’ll just note, having, yes, written two books about special operations, there—in this case, Israel, of course, has Sayeret Matkal, the Delta Force of Israel. So they are incredibly accomplished. And I think they, rather than U.S. forces, would be the ones going in. And I think the probes you’re currently seeing in the tunnels is designed to try to obtain that very hard-to-get intelligence. But I think Max raised the relevant historical analogy, which is Black Hawk Down. Would be extremely—one thing getting in. Very hard to get out. And I mean there are scenarios, though. And see, if they were—if this rises up to be really the priority, then you would begin to consider scenarios whereby you would let the civilian population leave, give them a viable path, provide them all of that aid, pretty much evacuate the city So you could get in there and do those kinds of surgical operations.

I’ll bring up Raqqah in the ISIS fight in Syria. The Syrian partners we had, they allowed civilians to leave in droves from Raqqah. They did not want to have the civilian blood on their hands. And, of course, some American commanders were annoyed because they knew that some ISIS fighters were escaping. But it was a tradeoff made so that they could go in and complete the operation. I will note, in that case, 80 percent of the city was destroyed. So I think we’re talking about here really the longer these military operations go on, there just is going to be catastrophic damage and loss of life. And that toll, I’ll just come back to my first point, we’re in early days here, relatively speaking. And you can already see the amount of blowback that this is creating. So I think there will be pressure to come up with some creative new approaches to define what military success looks like.

FROMAN: Great. I think we have one more question.

OPERATOR: Yes. Our last question from Gary Mitchell.

Q: Thank you. I’m Garrett Mitchell, from the Mitchell Report.

It’s a question that I even hesitate to ask, but I’m going to do it anyway. And that is, aside from sort of shadow—or, shuttle diplomacy, are there any actual sticks that the U.S. could use with Israel at this point to say: We are serious about you’re not moving forward in a, you know, massive move in Gaza? We are serious enough about that because we’re concerned about how it’s going to poison the next couple of generations. And we believe that so strongly that we’re willing to do X, Y, and Z.

I don’t even know if there is an X, Y, and Z, but I just want to raise that question. A, are their sticks that America—that the U.S. has that could be used to persuade Israel not to do what it’s bound to do? And second, as part of that, is there any possibility that something quite specific in the way of a scenario about, here are a series of steps that need to be taken over the next X number of weeks, et cetera, that will allow us to determine whether progress is being made in any way, shape, or form between cooling things off and getting—I won’t say a resolution—but some interim set of affairs in the region?

COOK: I’ll take the first question about sticks with the Israelis. Of course, there are sticks. There is, you know, our quite robust military aid program with the Israelis. But I suspect that that—and, you know, I’m here at the Council on Foreign Relations. I do policy, not politics. But I’ll venture to suggest that politically that’s not going to fly with Republicans, most Democrats. Perhaps the ten or so that voted—Democrats who voted against the resolution in support of Israel will sign on to support such a thing.

The other thing is that let’s not—you know, let’s be clear that there’s a possibility that we try to leverage our military relationship with the Israelis, and it doesn’t work. From the Israeli perspective, this is existential. That unless they destroy Hamas’ ability to threaten Israel, which is essentially to destroy Hamas, you cannot repopulate the southern part of Israel. So to the extent that a state defines something in existential terms, it’s unlikely that they’re going to listen—leaders are going to listen to external actors, even ones with tremendous resources that the—that the United States has, tremendous resources that Israel has come to rely on over many years. But I think it’s all in the realm of theoretical, because I don’t think that the Biden administration is going to threaten the Israelis in such a way.

FROMAN: Go ahead, Linda.

ROBINSON: Yes. I know that you asked for alternatives to shuttle diplomacy. I just think that the administration is very committed to the behind-the-scenes approach. And I think that there have been some discreet effects that we have seen from that. And I just—I believe that the likely course they’ll continue to pursue. But as I’m saying, I think creative options are part of what Blinken and the U.S. will be trying to supply to help Israel understand and layout what a path ahead is. There was mention of the scenario being only one of occupation. And I just would like to counter with a brief possibility. There are Palestinian security forces. We’ve been training them and supplying them for years, along with the U.K., Australia.

It’s a mission that has been very devoted, and you could see them at the front of some kind of peacekeeping, peace enforcement operation with maybe—I know, Steven, you thought no Arab countries would support this. But if it’s crafted with the Palestinians in the front, it could provide a way for the Israelis to do what—at least I understand Netanyahu does not want to be an occupying force. They eschewed that before. And it’s really a calamitous scenario. So I think this is really—the burden of diplomacy right now is to sketch out these options.

FROMAN: Terrific.

Thank you. First of all, thank you, Ray, Linda, Steve, and Max, for doing this. Thanks, everybody, for joining us. A video of this will be on our website in the next few hours, for those who wants to go back and watch it again or refer it to others. And we intend to have such briefings on a regular basis, as this situation evolves, including some work on international law and the humanitarian law, in the next—in the next week, or so. So stay tuned for invitations on those issues as well. Thanks very much.


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