FROMAN: Good afternoon. Welcome to today’s Public Forum hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations. My name is Mike Froman. I am president of the Council, and I’ll be presiding over today’s discussion.
The Council on Foreign Relations is an independent think tank, publisher, educational institution, and membership organization committed to providing nonpartisan facts-based information and analysis.
We all woke up Saturday morning to the shock of another war in the Middle East and the horrific terrorist attack by Hamas on Israel. We are still only now fully coming to terms with its severity and its scale. It will have devastating consequences, both human and humanitarian. And it will be certainly—terrible ramifications for the weeks and months, perhaps years, to come. We at the Council are committed very much to following it and providing analysis and context as the situation on the ground develops.
Today’s conversation will—is part of that effort. And I want to introduce our three speakers.
Dr. Steven Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow in Middle East and Africa at the Council. He’s an expert on Arab and Turkish politics as well as U.S.-Middle East policy.
Dr. Ray Takeyh is the Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow in Middle East studies at the Council. He specializes in Iran, U.S. foreign policy, and the modern Middle East.
And Farah Pandith is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council. She is an expert and pioneer in countering violent extremism.
Today’s discussion is on the record. As has been said, it will be posted on the Council’s website afterwards.
Let me start, Steven, if I can, with you. Israel appears to be amassing forces on the border with Gaza. What are their military and strategic objectives for Gaza going forward? And are they achievable? And what are the risks that they face in going after those objectives?
COOK: Thanks very much, Mike. And thanks, everybody else, for joining us this afternoon. These are the major questions. The war cabinet—the Israeli war cabinet, which now includes the opposition party led by Benny Gantz, has given the IDF the instructions to destroy Hamas, to make it so that Hamas cannot threaten Israel. This is likely to be a very significant undertaking, which will include ground forces.
I think that the IDF has been careful thus far in saying that they haven’t been ordered—they haven’t gotten the order to undertake what they’re euphemistically calling a ground maneuver. But the mobilization of three hundred thousand soldiers and the movement of tons of equipment, including tanks and armored personnel carriers and artillery, indicates that after this very intense period of air barrages, that the IDF is poised to move into the Gaza Strip.
Then then we get to the hardest questions of all, Mike. I think the Israelis can bring a lot of power to bear to kill a lot of Hamas people, as well as, unfortunately, Palestinian civilians caught in the crossfire, which is something I know very many people are concerned about. But then they end up back where they were almost twenty years ago—occupying parts of or if not all of the Gaza Strip, something that the Israelis certainly don’t want to do. So perhaps the Israelis can win the battle against Hamas, but if they’re drawn into a grinding conflict in the Gaza Strip, Hamas and its patrons may actually score a victory in terms of distracting Israel, weakening the IDF, with a long, drawn-out occupation and guerrilla warfare in a very dense place.
FROMAN: Do you think, Steven, that that has been, in fact, part of their objective, in terms of the nature of the attack on Israel, the scope, the brutality is, indeed, to make it impossible for Israel to do nothing but go into Gaza and get drawn into a quagmire there?
COOK: As the days have gone on, and the Israelis have been very clear that they would like to clear Gaza, it strikes me that this is perhaps a strategic goal of Hamas, is to draw the Israelis in. The complex nature, the number of casualties associated with attack—Israelis really are faced with a number of unenviable choices. And their public is demanding a major operation to finally bring an end to the threat that is Hamas. So, yes, there is a real risk that the Israelis get caught. And there is a real possibility that that is precisely what Hamas intended.
FROMAN: Farah, let me go to you next. The Israelis have stated that one of their objectives is to, as Steven said, eliminate Hamas. Which is a difficult objective because if even one Hamas member is left holding up a flag at the end of this conflict, it appears that that objective hasn’t been met. This falls in a long line of efforts by the U.S. and others to eradicate al-Qaida, the Taliban, ISIS, et cetera. What does it mean to eliminate a group like Hamas? You study violent extremism. You study Hamas. What does it mean? And what would be an appropriate objective for this exercise?
PANDITH: Mike, one of the things that we have to be very clear about is Hamas is a terrorist organization. It requires ideological soldiers to be part of their efforts. They cannot do what they’re doing unless they have soldiers. So one of the things that we tried to do certainly in the last twenty years, since 9/11—twenty-plus years since 9/11, is go after terrorist organizations around the world with exclusively—mostly, I should say, hard power.
And one of the things we ought to be thinking about in this latest horrific attack is how we can think differently about how to decimate the appeal of an ideology like Hamas’s. Let’s remember that Hamas’s—I mean, their manifesto, what they want to do, is to eradicate Jews, and they want to eradicate Israel. That is what they have explicitly laid out. They are manipulating the religion of Islam to be able to bring people into the fold. So when we think about what you mentioned, the United States, other countries—not just Israel, but other countries around the world need to do is, first and foremost, condemn a terrorist groups like Hamas.
We had more than a hundred countries respond to what happened over the weekend with statements. And only forty-four of those countries actually explicitly condemned the terrorist organization first. Secondly, in terms of the ideology, how we think about what we need to do to shrink the pool of those people who find this ideology appealing, is we have to go all in. And we haven’t done that, Mike. We’ve put trillions of dollars into the hard power war and, like, pennies to the dollar on how we think about what it takes to, over generations, change the narrative, change the appeal.
And then finally, there’s a role for technology companies, Mike. And ideology does not exist in a vacuum. They’re not just putting posters up on a board and having people walk by them. They are going after potential recruits. So for us to be able to shrink the pool of people who are hearing their message, who are being lured into their ideology. We’ve got to make sure that what’s happening in the online space is controlled in a very different kind of way. And that responsibility comes both from the technology companies but also regular citizens like you and me, who have to demand different kinds of red lines in the online space.
FROMAN: When you say, “go all in,” and I understand, beyond the hard power, what does going “all in” mean, in terms of providing an alternative vision of Islam and reducing the appeal of Hamas?
PANDITH: The ideology is based on—any of these groups have different manifestos. But in order for them to go after somebody, they’re going after an emotional thing, Mike. They are speaking to the inside of somebody. They’re making them feel like they can belong to something. It’s how, in fact, domestic extremists also utilize that idea of identity and belonging.
So when we talk about going “all in,” it means not just today looking up and saying we have a problem with Hezbollah, or Hamas, or the Taliban, or Shabaab. It is to say, globally, what is happening to Millennials, to Gen Z, and eventually Gen Alpha, who are hearing the messages of these groups, who are influenced by these groups? How do we disrupt the way in which they understand what’s taking place, the lies and the fake information that has been put out there, and how can we come together as society so there are many touch points within a community to push people away?
I want to say one last thing, Mike. And that is, you talked to Steven about sort of what the point was in some of the brutality of what Hamas did. And let us not make the mistake of not recognizing that Hamas has learned from ISIS. That, in fact, the tools in their toolbox today are very different because of what they’ve seen works in other parts of the world, and in other contexts. So, in order to decrease the appeal of this ideology, we’ve got to learn lessons from the past. And we have to apply everything that we know in money, and resources, and sophistication in diminishing that appeal.
FROMAN: Do you think it’s possible for Israel to eliminate Hamas, as it says, through a military action?
PANDITH: I think it is possible globally for many countries to build a coalition that works on eradicating us-versus-them ideologies generally. And it is not something that happens in the course of a presidential cycle. It’s something that happens over generations. And if we look at what we know neo-Nazis are saying and have explicitly said that they’re trying to do—i.e., recruit seven-year-olds. Or we look at a group like the Taliban in terms of what they’ve said that they want to do, we’ve got to look at the scope in a in a bigger way, Mike. And we’ve got to understand that this is not just Israel’s problem. That these ideologies that exist are connected. And I think if we look to the future of what could be happening in that region, I would not be surprised if this ideology finds appeal in other parts of the world that bring ideological soldiers to bear.
FROMAN: Thank you.
Ray, Iran has been supportive of Hamas for a long time. Obviously has clients also north of Israel in Hezbollah. But there seems to be some debate now, at least in the press, about to what degree Iran knew about the attacks that happened on Saturday, let alone whether they were directing it. What’s your perspective on the degree of Iranian involvement? And what are they hoping to achieve through their support of this conflict?
TAKEYH: Well, this is an issue that’s being debated, of course, as you mentioned. What did the Iranians know and when did they know? I think it’s a sort of a narrow question. What we can say is Iran certainly enabled Hamas to do what it did. And over the past year, over the past several months, in particular, we have seen a considerable amount of traffic between the Iranian officials and the Hamas officials, their military planners and operatives on both sides, as well as Hezbollah. So in that sense, there’s a considerable degree of Iranian operational capability and operational participation beyond the usual provision of assistance.
Were they in the room when they said, okay, attack Saturday at 7:30? Probably not. Were they in the building? Yes, in a sense that they will always give themselves some measure of distance from the actual operational decision to execute because then the question will be did they actually ordered the attack, and so forth. And if they didn’t specifically order attack, and they were not on an intercept ordering the attack, then, of course, they have some measure of immunity from this.
What is the overall Iranian strategy that includes Hamas and includes this particular attack? Well, for the past number of years they have been trying to put together what they call the Axis of Resistance, which involves their many militias, and terrorist allies, and so on. These are—this is a multinational coalition. It involves Pakistanis, Afghanis, Iraqis. It’s not a sectarian coalition. It is not narrowly drawn from the Shia community, as was the Hezbollah previously. It involves Sunnis. It involves Shi’ites. It involves other sects, and so forth. So they have actually put together, strangely enough, a sort of a multinational coalition. And the purpose of that is, of course, to weaken the regional adversaries, particularly Israel.
And so this attack kind of fits into that pattern. The objectives would be to weaken Israel, as Steven mentioned, to get Israel into a quagmire. And the more humanitarian aspects of this come about, the more difficult it will be for Israel’s regional standing to be undisturbed. So there is that aspect of it. Israelis are now too preoccupied with Iran—with the Palestinian front to do anything else. It scuttles the alignment that Israelis were trying to craft with Sunni states, particularly Saudi Arabia, that could have aligned the region to some extent against Iran. So it kind of meets all their objectives. It mires Israel in a conflict, which is at some point—is going to actually cause considerable degree of international outcry because all the humanitarian issue. It demonstrates the power of Iran to inflict punishment in a cheap and easy way. So anybody considering any attack on Iranian territory, this will be another lesson. And it, of course, as I mentioned, disturbs some of the diplomatic moves that were being done.
And it’s cheap, easy, and Iranians have immunity. No one’s talking really about attacking them. And I think we talked about this in another forum. There is a considerable degree of genius to the Iranian proxy war strategy, because what is often said, when they’re behind the attack similar to this, the country that is targeted—in this particular case, Israel—is too busy dealing with the flames to focus on the source of the fire. And what often happens is—it happened to the Americans in Iraq; it’s happening to the Israelis today. What often happens is they say, well, we can’t expand the zone of conflict by essentially dealing with Iran. So we have to essentially pacify Iraq. We have to pacify Gaza, and so forth.
So the Iranians get all the things they wanted out of this, and still have some degree of immunity in terms of their territory. And in terms of the loss of Arab life, they have no problem with Arabs dying in this particular conflict, because they’re martyrs. And the reward for martyrdom is celestial, as Farah was saying. So, you know, all these people are being martyred for the cause of God. So it meets all their strategic objectives at a reasonable cost, and essentially immunizes them from any form of attack.
Now, we’re in a situation where things can get out of hand. You know, best laid plans go astray. So if this thing gets—seriously gets out of hand, they could essentially be more involved in a direct way that they don’t wish to be. But at this point, is a conflict that’s manageable. It is a conflict that achieved its strategic objectives. It demonstrated the power of the resistance front. It has essentially caused Israel to be mired in a conflict that’s going to be very prolonged. It’ll eventually draw some degree of international criticism, and certainly regional criticism of Israel. This is all good news, from their perspective.
FROMAN: If the conflict were to expand significantly to the north, with Hezbollah getting involved—another close Iranian proxy—how would you see that playing out? And does that risk a much greater widening involving Syria, involving Iran ultimately, of the conflict?
TAKEYH: Well, the Hezbollah angle is a very interesting one. Steven and I were just talking about this. What will Hezbollah do is a question that’s on everybody’s mind. By the way, if Hezbollah becomes involved in this political conflict, the logic of Iranian proxy war strategy still holds. Because then say, well, Israel is busy on all its frontiers, so it cannot possibly extend into the Persian Gulf. The core logic holds. But it doesn’t serve Iranian interests, because Hezbollah’s a trump card they hold in case of some other conflict with the United States or Israel that involves attack on Iran in terms of its atomic facilities and so forth. And essentially, bringing Hezbollah into this conflict in a meaningful, measurable way doesn’t serve their interests. It doesn’t serve Hezbollah’s interests, but we are in uncharted territory because Hezbollah’s learned some lessons from 2006 about the damage that it can suffer in this—in waging war against Israel.
What they can do—what Hezbollah is doing—is having limited skirmishes. And, by the way, they can do it through Syria with Hamas operatives, and so forth. These limited skirmishes have to bring in some Israeli forces to the north in order to deal with the potential contingency of a Hezbollah attack, which detracts from Israeli strength in the south. But without necessarily provoking a larger conflict that could seriously jeopardize Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, and Iranian proxy of consequence. Hezbollah is different here because if Hezbollah is involved in this particular conflict, nobody will doubt that Iranians ordered them to do so. Because what we have learned about Hezbollah in the Syrian civil war is that they are willing to engage in conflict that doesn’t necessarily serve their interests, political interests in Lebanon, if ordered to do so by Iran.
So Hezbollah is no longer a proxy of some sort; it’s actually an aspect of the Iranian military security services. It is deployed across the region. It is deployed in many places where Lebanese have no business being deployed. So Hezbollah will actually open Iran to certain vulnerabilities that, at this point, it’s not facing. And this is why I’m hesitant to suggest that the Hezbollah front is going to blow up in a serious way. But if you keep having these skirmishes, and enhancing them, and increasing them, then essentially you can draw some Israeli forces to that front and further drain Israeli sources and stress the resources.
FROMAN: Steven, let’s talk a little bit about great-power politics. We’ve got the U.S. moving carrier fleets off the coast. Obviously, there are Americans involved, Americans who have died, and Americans who are being held hostage, as well as citizens from other countries as well. Russia and Iran have become very close. China has been involved in the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran in an effort to maintain access to the oil in the region. What role do you expect—let’s start with Russia and China—what role do you expect either one of them to play in this conflict? And then on the U.S., beyond a show of force—a symbolic show of force offshore, what is the potential role of the United States in this conflict?
COOK: It’s a great question, Mike. Let’s start with the United States, because it is becoming physically present in the region in way that it had not been by moving an aircraft carrier battle group into the Eastern Mediterranean. It is clearly a signal to Hezbollah and the Iranians not to widen the conflict, although in conversations with Lebanese yesterday, they wonder whether Hezbollah will actually get that message and believe that message. And Ray just articulated that he doesn’t think that there is likely to be a northern front or that Hezbollah wants in northern front. But, again, with the United States moving in and these skirmishes going on with Israel and Hezbollah, those two actors could walk into something that might draw the United States in because of our essentially declared goal to prevent a widening of the regional conflict.
Beyond this, however, President Biden has put himself in the position of essentially holding Israel’s hand through this. Now, as Ray points out, as the Israelis prosecute this war and as we start seeing a—the likely humanitarian disaster unfold in the Gaza Strip, there probably will be pressure from many quarters for Israel to exercise some restraint. And that’ll be the role of the president of the United States to see how he can encourage restraint on the part of the Israelis. But of course, Israelis are bloodied. They’re angry. They’re vengeful. So I wonder how much advice they are actually taking, even from someone who has positioned himself as such a strong friend of the State of Israel.
As far as the Russians and the Chinese go, the Russians have—let me just say that the Israeli ambiguous position with regard to Ukraine and Russia did not really buy them much. The Russians have moved closer to the Iranians. The Russians have essentially blamed the Israelis for what has happened and has called for a new peace process, which is sort of empty rhetoric but the sort of kind of trolling that we expect to come from the Russian Foreign Ministry. As far as the Chinese go, I think there’s a much more interesting dynamic that is happening in how this conflict does accrue to their benefit.
What was going on in the region, what we were all talking about last week, was Saudi-Israel normalization. And Saudi-Israel normalization was essentially the sugar to get Congress to swallow a Saudi-U.S. defense pact. And that Saudi-U.S. defense pact was, from the perspective of the Biden administration, and effort to knit the United States and its gulf partners, in this case Saudi Arabia but there would be follow on agreements, closer together in a way that blunted China’s influence in the region. We can well imagine that, as the Israelis prosecute this war, that the Saudis will want to not move forward with normalization, which then makes it an even harder thing for the Biden administration to push a defense pact with Saudi Arabia through the Congress, which is already hostile to Saudi Arabia.
And there is—the Chinese don’t have to contend with this and can continue as this conflict goes on seeking to advance their influence in a variety of ways in the region. But I should point out that and looking at this over a period of time, it doesn’t strike me that the Chinese want to replace the United States in the region. I think they’ve looked at what we have done and how we have gotten bogged down in this region for decades now, and don’t want to repeat the mistakes that the United States has made. Certainly, they want to push the United States out of East Asia. But would they like the United States to be engaged in the Levant, in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well as in the Persian Gulf? Certainly.
TAKEYH: Can I just pick up briefly on the important point that Steven made about what Hezbollah is going to do is very much speculative. We’re in a situation where we don’t know the decision making of the other protagonists. And when you’re speculating on their decision making, you tend to be reasonable. Except nobody’s acting reasonably today. If we were sitting here about a week ago and we said Hamas would attack Israel in such ferocity, we would assume that that’s not reasonable. And is not reasonable, but they still did it. Hezbollah, it would be reasonable for Hezbollah not to attack. But whether they attack?
I want to pick up one small point on the Chinese-Iranian agreement, because at the time of China’s Iran-Saudi agreement. At the time, it was thought that China had the ability to talk to both antagonists, because it has relationship with both of them. But that particular normalization agreement had a very limited perspective. All the Chinese wanted from the Iranians is not to attack Saudi oil facilities. And to be fair, they have not. They just undermined the Saudi regional position. They never stopped trying to assist the Houthis. The United States Navy has interdicted a variety of their—so they have not, essentially, as we see, stopped the Axis of Resistance from engaging in mischief. It was a very narrowly crafted agreement.
And the Chinese—Ali Khamenei and Chairman Xi—seemed to understand each other, that just don’t disrupt the oil facilities which could destabilize the energy market and the global markets accordingly. And to be fair, the Iranians have done so. And, by the way, the normalization agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia is still going on. President Raisi is in touch with Prince Salman. The Iranian foreign minister is doing a tour of the region. He’s in Baghdad. He’ll go to Beirut. I’m sure at some point he’ll stop by. So that process is actually unfolding at the time when the Iranians have been very aggressive in undermining Saudi regional potential, at least momentarily.
FROMAN: We haven’t talked at all about the West Bank, the Palestinians there. And that was also supposed to be part of the Saudi-Israel normalization discussion, that there would be some compromise and some delivery of benefits for the Palestinians. How does Hamas’s victory here—maybe I’ll go to Farah, if you don’t mind—how does the Hamas’s victory here position it as the now leading defender and spokesman for Palestinian issues? And where does that leave the Palestinian Authority and, really, any hope of making progress on the issues of the West Bank?
PANDITH: Well our analysis up to this point has not been great in terms of what it is we think Hamas is about and what they’re willing to do. One thing we can definitely see in terms of the last few days in terms of a global response and in the way in which you’re seeing the manipulation of narratives, is that they are taking this pseudo-role, as you outlined, Mike—that they are taking the mantle, speaking for the Palestinians. And I want to be clear on a couple of things. The first is, they don’t speak for all Palestinians. And the way the media has been leveraging the story has really been a one-sided kind of conversation. And I think it’s important that we remember that the brutality and the terrorist tactics that Hamas deployed doesn’t mean that every Palestinian believes that that is the right thing to do. And so I want to really put that out there because it’s not fair to think otherwise.
But in terms of who is in a winning posture, Hamas has the microphone. They have a microphone, not just in that part of the world. And certainly, they have the momentum. But they have the capacity today to say that they are winning. They did something unexpected. They went beyond the imagination of anyone. And so therefore, they are ascendant. And what’s worrisome is that no other group, no other authority, can—how do you catch up with that, Mike? How do you begin to put your opinion and your counternarrative forward when they have the airways, they have the power right now? So I think it’s very important.
Certainly, the Council is very level-headed in how we are talking about things, but I also know that we have a couple thousand people who are listening to the conversation today. And as they interpret the news, and as they understand things, please don’t make the same mistakes we made after 9/11, which is to put everybody in these gigantic buckets and think that everything is a monolith. There’s a lot of nuance out there. And what really concerns me, to be honest with you, on the domestic side is that because of the way in which we believe that—or rather, the way the news has been reported, that in fact Hamas is speaking for all Palestinians, that is going to have repercussions in our own country in the way in which we treat each other, in the way our fellow Americans who are Jewish, are safe.
We already have DHS, who is out there talking about protecting Jewish life in America. We already have seen evidence of spikes of backlash, both in 2014 when Hamas attacked in Europe, also in 2021 here in the United States, in Times Square and West Hollywood. So you can imagine that things will be happening in a really terrible way in our country too, if we do not take more care in understanding that we cannot give them the microphone the way they want it. That’s what they want, Mike. That’s what they would like to do. They want to put a wedge not only in that part of the world, but in the way in which people are talking about different faith communities, different ethnic communities, and the right and wrong of what they’re doing. They are brutal terrorists. They have used outrageous terrorist tactics. And they do not represent every voice that is part of that part of the world.
COOK: Mike, can I just jump in here one quick second? I know we want to open this to questions, but I just want to speak to a little bit on the issue of the political dynamics on the West Bank. Hamas has outstripped the Palestinian Authority for many years now. Remember in the 2006 elections Hamas won, then beat the Palestinian Authority on the battlefield. But there is this question of resistance. Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority, is compromised by the fact that the Palestinian Authority has become corrupt, unable to make life better for Palestinians, and unable to take any steps—because of the extreme compulsion under which he is forced to rule the Palestinian parts of the West Bank that he rules—unable to relieve Palestinians of their suffering.
That is to say, no steps towards a resolution of the conflict. No steps towards justice. That provides an opportunity for Hamas to reinforce the idea that resistance is important. They are the leaders of resistance. And that Mahmoud Abbas is fatally compromised by his willingness—alleged willingness—to compromise with the Israelis, who have been unwilling really to give an inch. And that has provided Hamas a certain political buoyancy outside Gaza. And, quite frankly, if we’re talking about the widening of the conflict, that has to be something that the Israelis are worried about, given the support for Hamas also in the West Bank.
FROMAN: All right, let’s open it up. We have, as Farah said, about three thousand participants. We will try to get to as many questions as possible. Please keep them—please keep them short and make them questions. And, Sarah, perhaps you can walk through what the process is for people who want to ask questions.
OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)
Our first question will come from Zach Greenberg. Zach, please accept the unmute prompt.
Q: I don’t believe that I raised my hand.
OPERATOR: We will take our next question from a written question from Sarah Danzman, who asks: Is there any possible pathway toward a humanitarian evacuation of Gaza? At least a voluntary one focused on women and children? What kind of diplomacy is needed to organize this, if it is even a remote possibility? Relatedly, can you imagine any situation in which the Israeli government would lift a siege on Gaza so long as Hamas continues to control it?
FROMAN: Farah, do you want to try to take that one first?
PANDITH: Sure. I think that there is a current effort underway from the United States to try to work on that corridor. And I know that it’s complicated because we have a political will in Israel, as such, at the moment that things are complicated along the Egyptian gateway for that corridor. So it’s being worked on at the moment. I will say, I know Steven will want to jump in on this. But I will say that every effort has to be made, even though things may be slow in coming. And I know everybody wants to see that open up immediately. But I—but I have to—I have to say that there’s a worrisome—as every hour goes by we’re hearing the really incredibly difficult dimensions of life in that part of the world. Gaza has almost two million people in in there, as you’re well aware in terms of your question. And reporting is suggesting that they are really desperate for clean water and food. So I don’t know, Steven, if you want to jump in. I saw your—
COOK: Sure. The United States is working with the Egyptian government in trying to convince the Egyptians to open a humanitarian corridor to allow Palestinians who would like to escape the violence. The Egyptian government has so far said that it would not. The Egyptians are, of course, a full partner with the Israelis in the blockade of the Gaza Strip. I think the Egyptians’ concerns are along a number of dimensions. The first is, Egypt is a very poor country that is confronting major economic problems on its own and does not know how it would care for what could potentially be huge, huge numbers of Palestinians. The Egyptians are already confronting a refugee crisis from the civil war in Sudan.
They also don’t want there to be yet another Palestinian refugee crisis that is literally within their borders. The Egyptians have taken a principled position that the resolution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians lies with Israel, and that they do not want to be forced to take responsibility in that way. And then finally, related to that, the Egyptians are quite worried that if they open up a humanitarian corridor, it will be permanent once this conflict comes to an end and Gaza has essentially been razed. And it seems to be what the Israelis are saying. That the Israelis would then turn around and say: Well, now this is an Arab responsibility. And when they say “Arab responsibility,” they mean an Egyptian responsibility. Again, keeping with the Egyptian position that the resolution to this problem is really an Israeli one.
So that is why the Egyptians have been resistant. I suspect that there are ways to move the Egyptians. They are in need of economic assistance, debt relief. There are things that we can do. But whatever we do to force them, or compel them, or encourage them to open up that corridor, it will likely be subject to very significant restrictions. That means that probably men will not be permitted through, but at least women and children who remain in Gaza right now with no place to go will at least have some semblance of safety.
FROMAN: Sarah, let’s go to another question.
OPERATOR: We will take the next question from Luciano Moro.
Q: Thank you for the opportunity.
My question is about the prospects of peace. What I see in the discussions is talk only about war, but I have yet to hear anything about the prospects of peace. And given the current lull in any meaningful peace talks for decades now, what are the possibilities that there is such even a desire at all to find some lasting solution to the current crisis? Thank you.
FROMAN: Steven, you want to say that one?
COOK: Yeah. I think the prospects for a peace process, as we have come to know it in recent decades, are near zero. Obviously, at this moment, the Israelis have no appetite for this, and have said that they will resist international pressure. Now, of course, wars open up new pathways and new possibilities. There’s been a lot of talk about this as—because the attack came on the fiftieth year and one day anniversary of the October 1973 war, there have been some talk about the analogies to this. Certainly there are some. The extraordinary surprise of the attack being one of them.
But I think the difference is that Anwar Sadat sent the Egyptian army into battle in order to open up new diplomatic opportunities that ultimately led to Egypt-Israel peace. Hamas, if you look at its charter, went to war with Israel to suck Israel into a war and to kill as many people as possible. But, again, I think the chances are near zero right now for a peace process. But who knows what will happen in the coming months. One can hope. And, like I said, wars do tend to open up new opportunities for diplomats to explore and perhaps advance something that will bring a little more stability to the area.
TAKEYH: Can I just say one thing about this? Excuse me, Farah. There will be multilateral diplomacy involved in this. As Israelis move in, and who rules Gaza? What kind of aid provisions are given to it? What role does EU aid have? What role does the United Nations have? What role do the regional actors have? What role does the Islamic Conference have? There will be multilateral diplomacy. This war requires that almost. And those processes will be going on. And as derivative of that process, you may see at some point some kind of a peace process. If you kind of keep the 1973 analogy, you first have these armistice agreements, and then you try to build upon that.
So, there’s a whole question of—oh, please go ahead.
COOK: No, Ray, I take the point. But, of course, the Israelis were dealing with another state.
TAKEYH: No, I understand that.
COOK: And dealing with a leader who sought some sort of change in the status.
TAKEYH: No, no, I understand that. But that there’s going to be a huge question about who rules Gaza, because nobody wants to. (Laughs.)
PANDITH: Can I just make a point on the issue of peace? And, Luciano, thank you very much for including that in this conversation because I think it is important. But I want to say a couple of things. The first is, you cannot have success if during the times of noncrisis you are not communicating and you’re not building to the best of your capacity on sort of diplomatic connections. And toward that end, this is a really terrible way to learn, once again, a lesson about the fact that our world is really small. And that we cannot look only in one part of the world and ignore another. So I think that what we ought to be doing is, as we try to achieve peace, is to look at all the levers that we have at our disposal to be able to do exactly what Ray said, on the different tiers of conversations that are taking place.
And then the second thing is, United States, by the way, does not have ambassadors in many of the countries in this part of the world. And I will bring us back to the United States for a moment, because I think that the political gridlock in our nation on that piece, where we normally move forward with diplomacy without these kinds of stumbles, is a real problem for us. And then thirdly, and importantly, is the imagination question. And that is, we have not done well in imagining what could be. We, unlike many other disciplines, those people in foreign policy tend to keep in our little silos and just think about what happened in the past and must be, you know, what’s going to happen in the future.
We’re in a very different posture today. We’re dealing with a world that is mostly digital—I mean, really young people thinking differently about how to disrupt because they’re digital natives. We’re thinking about nodes of influence that are very different. We’re thinking about how culture affects how narratives are formed. Toward that end, it would behoove diplomats to think creatively and imagine differently what peace could be and how to get there. And I think it is really important as we have the conversation about innovation in foreign policy, which we’re doing in other places, that we also think about that in terms of places in the world that need new solutions. And this is a really good time for some strategists to take a good look at what we’ve gotten wrong and what we can improve upon.
OPERATOR: Our next question is a written submission from Azzedine Iayachi: Farah, how can ideology be targeted while ignoring what brought it about, the Israeli occupation and the living conditions of the Palestinians? The internet will not affect these objective, tangible conditions.
PANDITH: OK. I think I understood. I’m sorry, I thought I was waiting for another part of the question. OK, let me just go on the two things.
One is the first thing I said when I commented today was that Hamas is a terrorist organization. And violence in the name of a political cause or a religious cause is not acceptable, period, whether it is al-Qaida, whether it is ISIS, whether it is the Taliban, whether it is any form of terrorism. We have red lines on that. I know what you’re saying about the conditions on the ground and the really difficult situation that has gone on for decades. But there is no excuse for terror. There is no excuse for a terrorist organization to be able to do this.
I would—the second point I want to make is your point about the internet. I’m going to push back slightly. I think I understood what you were getting at, but I want to say this to you: Without the capacity of social media to push out fake accounts, fake news, manipulate videos, turbocharge narratives, you would not have the kind of global responses that we’re having in the world today on multiple fronts. So there is a deep connection between how the internet is being used by terrorist organizations and those that absorb messages that are coming in, how they organize, how they raise money. So I don’t know if I know the other piece of what you were trying to get at, but I hope that that answered your question.
OPERATOR: We will take the next question from Jim Tisch. Please accept the unmute prompt.
Q: Do you think that the Hamas attack on Israel exceeded Hamas’s expectations? And did Hamas expected that the—expect the scope of the reprisal from Israel? And, finally, if so, what’s Hamas’s long term goal if they’ve been kicked out of Gaza, and if every member of Hamas leadership now has a target on their back?
COOK: I think, given the way in which the Israelis have been able to bottle up Hamas over many years and, from time to time, employ violence to establish deterrence with them, I think Hamas can only come to the conclusion that they exceeded expectations on Saturday and are continuing to exceed expectations in terms of the number of casualties and damage they have done—they have done to Israel. They have had to have known that this would invite a massive response from Israel. Which leads us to infer that this is part of their goal, is to draw Israel into a grinding conflict in in the Gaza Strip that they can hold on, do damage to those invading forces, and hold out long enough until the international community expresses its outrage, forces the Israelis to pull back before their goals are achieved, and that Hamas will live another day.
As far as their leadership on the outside, I would expect that the Israelis are going to be seeking to hunt them down. But certainly, within the Gaza Strip, clearly a goal is to grind the Israelis down and ensure—and under the belief that the international community will force the Israelis to stop. The difference is, given the number of killed, the number of wounded, the Israelis—at least in the first week—have indicated that they will resist all such outside pressure until their goals are met.
TAKEYH: Can I just make a brief addendum to Steven’s point? If you look at the strategy of war here, it’s actually—the Iranians first developed this on the battlefields of Iraq. Namely, you compensate for technological superiority of your enemy by moral virtue, by being even more zealous. That actually was transported to Hezbollah, and to—namely, even when Israelis were attacking Lebanon very, very significantly in 2006, Hezbollah’s idea was you keep resisting, you keep shooting off rockets, you resist even when that resistance seems quite, quite extraordinary. So this is essentially you display your virtue and your morality, irrespective of the odds, irrespective of the technological superiority of your enemy. Your resistance continues, maybe not the same level, but at some level.
The methods of Hamas are very close to ISIS, but in some way this is Hezbollah’s playbook. You go across this border. You take hostages. And you keep resisting even when there’s an onslaught coming. So to some extent, I think Hamas may have that strategy. Which reinforces Steven’s point that if they just keep resisting, resisting, resisting, then eventually the international community will come in with some sort of an armistice and some kind of an agreement about how to move forward that we’ll try to impose on Israel. Although, as Steve was mentioning, Israelis are not in a compromising sort of a mood today.
OPERATOR: Our next question is a written submission by Patrick Duddy: What role can and/or will Egypt play and the weeks and months ahead?
FROMAN: Steven, that is definitely you.
COOK: Yeah, it’s definitely up my alley. The Egyptians have long played an important role in Gaza in brokering ceasefires and sort of knocking heads when Hamas threatened to go too far. The Egyptians have a real security concern in Gaza. They, themselves, are fighting extremists in the northern Sinai. They have detected cooperation between Hamas and those extremists. Of course, Hamas is a creation of the Palestine branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt is at war, literally and both politically, with the—with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is sort of the granddaddy of all Muslim Brotherhood organizations.
But at the moment, it strikes me that the Egyptian role is really going to be one where if the United States prevails upon them, providing humanitarian corridors for the Palestinians, as we discussed before. There is no mediating role right now. It’s probably not terribly distressing to the Egyptian leadership that the Israelis take down Hamas. In 2014, during the conflict between Israel and Hamas, the Egyptians were counseling the Israelis to destroy Hamas. The Israelis resisted Egyptian entreaties because they were concerned about a power vacuum in Gaza and who would rule it. Those views have now flipped, and the Israelis seem intent on bringing an end to Hamas, whereas everybody’s wondering what would come next. But specific to the question, the Egyptian role in mediation is inoperable right now, and it’s going to be a humanitarian issue going forward.
OPERATOR: Our next question is a written submission from Dorothy Jean Weaver: Are the words “impending genocide,” used recently by Jewish Voice for Peace, appropriate words to describe what is about to unfold in Gaza? What will be left of Gaza after any major incursion by the IDF?
FROMAN: Farah, you want to take that one?
PANDITH: I don’t know how to answer that question.
PANDITH: I really don’t.
COOK: Let me just offer a thought about this. I think the word “genocide” gets thrown around a lot these days, in an inaccurate way. I think we can say that, unfortunately, Palestinian civilians are going to suffer, and are already suffering tremendously as a result. And therefore, as each one of us had pointed out, there is a humanitarian emergency here. And part of American, and European, and Arab diplomacy has to be focused on convincing the Egyptians that opening this corridor is important. And that whatever we need to do, there is a real fear that the Israelis in their fury will do so much damage to the Gaza Strip that it becomes a place that people can’t inhabit, at least for the short and medium term. And that’s why it is so incredibly important. But I do caution people on this issue of genocide. It’s extraordinarily loaded. And it’s extraordinarily loaded also when it comes to when you’re talking about the Jewish state, and Jewish people.
FROMAN: I agree with that.
OPERATOR: We will take the next question from Linda Ketterer.
Q: Yes. This is Linda Ketterer. I live in Traverse City, Michigan. I’m on the board of a local organization called the International Affairs Forum.
I have a simple question: What can ordinary U.S. citizens do in light of this horrific situation? Is there something that normal people could be doing that might be helpful?
FROMAN: Well, maybe I would just start off by saying, as many of my colleagues have said, there are devastating consequences in Israel and there’s going to be humanitarian crisis in Gaza. And I know we are identifying organizations to whom to make contributions and donations to deal with those issues. And certainly, encourage others to do that as well. But if anybody else has others they think of. Yeah, Farah.
PANDITH: So, Linda, thank you for that. And I have three things that a regular person can do. First of all, our country needs to put Jack Lew in place in Israel. And so they should talk to their congresspeople and urge them to make that process happen faster.
FROMAN: Just to say, just so everyone knows, Jack Lew is the person who’s been nominated to be U.S. ambassador to Israel. Right now we have no ambassador there. And he’s pending confirmation.
PANDITH: Yeah. And there are other Arab states that also do not have ambassadors. So, there’s that.
Secondly, I made reference to the fact that I was very worried about what’s going to happen here in the United States around the rise of antisemitism. And I think it is really, really important that regular citizens are attuned to this, and that we are thinking about how to build capacity to be kind to each other, but also to be alert, and to help people of different faiths and backgrounds around us. There will be extremists, domestic extremists, that exploit this moment. That are going to use this moment to actually make other Americans unsafe, whether they’re Jewish or Muslim or looking Arab, whatever that might mean. So we have to be alert, and we have to do more.
And then thirdly, and this is extremely important, and that is to understand how vital it is that the language that we use in everyday life, the lexicon, does not set up—don’t use lexicon that sets up an us-versus-them mindset, because it actually makes an impact. And you will notice that the things that are being stated by our folks in the administration are very carefully worded. For a reason, because we know that words carry power. And that is true in schools. It is true in parent-teacher conversations. It is true in your local cafe. So as you think about things that you can do in daily life, it is really important that you understand that what I would call a nano intervention can make a difference.
FROMAN: Sarah, let’s try and take one more, if we can.
OPERATOR: We will take the last question from Antonio Fins.
Q: Yeah. Thank you for taking my question.
Along those lines about antisemitism, we have the AJC, the Anti-Defamation League have both issued statements in the last couple of years noting a rise of antisemitism. How concerned are you that at some point, we’ll see the sort of the united front that we’re seeing in Congress right now in the political leadership—that united front behind Israel, that will see a breakdown similar to what we’ve seen in Ukraine, where a year and a half ago they were in the Congress waving flags and now you have major divisions within the Republican party about supporting Ukraine?
And I don’t know if you saw—anyone heard Mr. Trump’s speech from last night, but he talked about Netanyahu pulling out of the Soleimani drone attack back in early 2020, and how it was a disappointment to the U.S. And sort of making the argument that Netanyahu kind of lacks resolve. And I just wonder how helpful that would be at this time, when the Israeli leadership is under such pressure, to have someone questioning it like that, and someone who is leading—if the polls are right—the leading presidential candidate. And, again, thank you for taking my question.
FROMAN: I won’t comment on the particular candidate’s comments that you raise, only to say that this is a time when even in Israel where there’s been quite divisive politics over the last couple of years, people are pulling together to deal with this tragedy. And I think, here in the United States we need to pull together both in support of Israel and in support of Ukraine. And this is about rules—international rules, and enforcing them, and standing up for decency. And the role of the United States in defending the the rules-based international system. And so I would hope that we would be able to maintain bipartisan consensus in support of both countries, and in the context of both of these conflicts.
I’m afraid we’re going to have to stop it there. First, I want to thank Farah, Ray, and Steven for taking the time to do this public forum. I want to thank everybody who has participated. The Council is committed to providing information, as I said, on a nonpartisan basis, facts-based basis, in support of broad public education on the issues facing the country and American foreign policy. We are honored to be able to provide information like this during this crisis. Stay tuned; we’ll be continuing to. And look for our publications, CFR.org, Foreign Affairs, our other major publications, our podcasts, to stay up to date on what’s going on and to provide some helpful historical and geopolitical context. Thanks very much.