CFR President Michael Froman leads a town hall discussion with CFR Fellows and members on the current crisis in the Middle East.
FROMAN: Welcome, everybody, to this Council on Foreign Relations Town Hall on “The Conflict in the Middle East.” My name’s Mike Froman, president of the Council, and I am honored to be presiding over today’s discussion.
We have, I’m told, over nine hundred Council members participating, which may be a record—not surprising, given the severity of the issue that we’re discussing, as well as the nature of our participants. We have four of the Council’s experts, four of the world’s leading experts on the region: Max Boot, Steven Cook, Linda Robinson, and Ray Takeyh. And I am grateful to them for taking time to be here with us this morning.
Let me start, if I may, with Max. Max, we’re seeing the Israelis beginning their effort to prepare to go into Gaza, to retaliate. It’s a very complicated situation with the hostages there that perhaps create more constraints on what they would otherwise do in a circumstance like this. How do you see this playing out? How do you see it from a military view playing out in the days and weeks ahead?
BOOT: I think the short and simple answer is it’s going to be ugly. It’s already ugly and it’s going to get worse.
The Israeli forces were caught completely flat-footed, unprepared, and surprised by this daring and heinous Hamas assault on Saturday, and they’ve spent the last few days just trying to gain control of Israeli territory and to evict the Hamas attackers, which I think they’re probably pretty close to doing. But then they’re having to reckon with the fact that Hamas has seized something on the order of 130 hostages. Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad both have seized roughly about 130 hostages, which will greatly complicate military operations.
Then there is simply the fact that they’re going to most likely go in on the ground into Gaza, which is one of the most densely-populated places in the world, and urban operations are always a nightmare for any military force, as the U.S. military discovered in Fallujah in 2004, before that in Kuwait City in 1968—very, very difficult. And in fact, we may speculate that part of Hamas’ rationale or part of their strategic concept for this terrorist operation was to draw Israeli forces into a quagmire in Gaza similar to the way that the 9/11 attacks drew U.S. forces into quagmires in Iraq or Afghanistan, or similar to the way that Israel itself got into a quagmire in Lebanon in 1982 which took then twenty years to get out of, because, of course, Hamas does not match up with the high-end capabilities of the Israeli Defense Forces. They don’t have tanks. They don’t have fighter aircraft. They don’t have all these artillery systems that the Israelis are now deploying towards Gaza. But they are kind of skilled and fanatical light-infantry fighters. They seem to be obtaining some of the capabilities that Hezbollah has previously displayed during their last war with Israel in 2006. And they’re going to be playing on kind of their home turf. They’re going to be on their home terrain in this very dense urban warren, and that’s going to make it very difficult for Israeli forces, and it will leave them potentially vulnerable as they try to advance into Gaza.
And I think—so there’s going to be, I think, some tough fighting ahead, assuming that there is a large-scale ground operation, which I think is likely. But then, even if Israel is ultimately successful—which I expect they would be because the IDF remains the preeminent military force in the Middle East—but even if they are ultimately successful, I always come back to the question that General David Petraeus asked during the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003, which was: Tell me how this ends. What is the endgame? What happens if they manage to take control of much of the Gaza Strip? What happens if they manage to eviscerate Hamas? Who, then, will rule in the Gaza Strip? And that’s kind of the ultimate question that Israel’s never had an answer for. That’s why they’ve never actually gone out and tried to destroy Hamas despite all their threats to do that in the past, because they basically judged that Hamas was the lesser evil; that they didn’t want to occupy the Gaza Strip again and they didn’t want an even more radical group like al-Qaida to take charge. They didn’t want pure chaos, and so they kind of learned to live with Hamas as being the evil that they knew.
But clearly, that evil is no longer an acceptable neighbor anymore. The price of living with Hamas has gone too high, so they don’t want to live with Hamas anymore. But it’s not clear what the alternative is, who’s going to rule in the Gaza Strip after the conclusion of whatever military operation Israel now carries out.
FROMAN: I want to come back to the issue of Hamas in a moment with Linda. But before I do, to you, Max, among those hostages are a number of foreign nationals, including potentially a number of American citizens. That puts the U.S. in a very different position than it might otherwise have been in. We’ve got military assets moving to the area. Do you anticipate that the U.S. will be involved in hostage-rescue operations, in other operations in Gaza?
BOOT: I anticipate that the U.S. will provide intelligence support and possibly logistical support. I don’t expect that U.S. troops will take part in direct combat. I mean, certainly, JSOC—the Joint Special Operations Command—has some tier-one forces like, you know, Delta Force, Navy SEAL Team Six, and others that are—that are skilled at these kinds of operations, but I think it would just be too hard to deconflict between Israeli and American forces. The Israelis have the exact same capabilities. They have some of the best special operations forces in the world. I don’t think they need American shooters on the ground. I think what they do need is American intelligence and logistical support, and I expect that they will get that.
FROMAN: Linda, just in terms of this broader strategic frame for what’s going on, you’ve been following the development of Hamas and the strengthening of Hamas over the last several years. Give us your perspective on what’s going on strategically in the region and with regard to the evolution of Hamas, and how this operation may affect that.
ROBINSON: Thanks, Mike. Yes, just a couple of big-picture points first.
I mean, as Max has already said, I think this is quickly going to become not just a major war for Israel and the Palestinians with a ground force in—a ground incursion in the offing, but with already cross-border fire with Lebanon and this report that Iran may be involved we could be looking at a major regional war here. And that will, of course, spin the region back into conflict at a time when people were somewhat hopeful that we were turning that page. I know Jake Sullivan had just been quoted as saying the region was pretty calm.
And I would also note that Israel has been on a crisis trajectory throughout this year and with the new government. I was last there actually sixteen months ago, and Tom Nides, then the ambassador, was working to eke out some small improvements with additional work permits for Palestinians, a hospital opening he was very proud of, and trying to grapple with settler violence and settlement expansion, all kinds of behind the scenes and quietly. And we’ve just been in a crisis mode. And I would say, 227 Palestinians killed this year with major incursions in the West Bank as they really tried to focus on what they thought was Hamas expansion and Palestinian Islamic jihad there.
So Israel and the region, I think, the prospect is war. As Max said, I don’t think the U.S. is going to be engaged directly. But it is on a war footing now. It’s on war support footing. And that, of course, has the prospect for distracting it from any other major engagements in the region, which includes the normalization pact. I know Steve will talk more about that, but we’ve had successive normalization agreements with Arab states and now Saudi in the mix. And that holds—held a potential for benefits for the region. So again, all of that is on hold, if not indefinitely disrupted. And I think there are further consequences. The U.S. had hoped to pivot away from the region and focus more on great-power competition. I think all of this is going to bring attention back in a sustained way to the region, and particularly if an Iranian—direct Iranian connection is proven.
And that then leads me to a final kind of major point, which is the U.S. has been remarkably in sync with Europe on a Ukraine policy, for example. As this war goes on, and we already are getting reports of civilian casualties, Germany suspended its development aid to Palestinians, but quick to say not ended. But this is really, I think, going to be a test. The world is reacting with shock and outrage, but the way in which Israel may conduct this war could begin to open up some seams very quickly. If there’s a massive loss of life in Gaza, I think you’re going to start seeing international criticism. Russia’s already come out calling for renewal of the peace process as the only way ahead, and I think that ultimately is.
And I’ll just finish with what we—sixteen months ago we had a great briefing with Ronen Bar the Shin Bet director. And he gave this briefing. He said he’d given it at the White House a few days before, and it had this chart showing every one of the four Hamas-Israel conflicts, Hamas had gotten stronger. And it was really a graphic depiction of not just a military strength, but it’s the political problem. This is, as again we’ll quote David Petraeus once more, there is no military solution to this conflict. There is only ultimately a political solution.
And yet the truism has been that more—the peace process is moribund with no prospect of it being rescued. And the Palestinian people have been suffering greatly, and now are going to suffer even more. And there’s really no prospect for a way out unless the U.S. takes up the mantle once again. And I know that may be will of wisp, but I wanted to end on that note because I think we ultimately have to think about what’s the future here.
FROMAN: Well, let me just follow up on that. We had a press briefing on Saturday that Martin Indyk was part of. And he made the comparison to the Yom Kippur War of fifty years ago. And mentioned that Sadat went to war with the intent over time of creating peace. And Hamas is not going to war to create peace, in his view, but has no interest in a peace negotiation. Is this the end of any real discussion of the two-state solution? Or how could this lead to any meaningful negotiation going forward?
ROBINSON Yes, that is the question. I think many people here in this discussion will have a view on, but I think there are very serious impediments. And I did mention the settlement policy and if those planned settlements go forward it’s really physically impossible to have a state. The Palestinian Authority, of course, has been a moribund entity, seen as feckless even by most Palestinians. Hamas, as you say, has nothing but the destruction of Israel in mind. And the people are in despair. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the West Bank in the last two years prior to rejoining the Council. And it was—it’s just tragic. It’s a situation where the young people have no future. And that is a recipe for despair and terrorism. And I think that we’ve got to find a way forward, even though it looks like there’s no way forward. And frankly, the U.S. is the country, as the largest donor to Israel, has to grapple with the fact that the political environment there is not propitious to it, but it has to figure out a way to do diplomacy, in my view.
FROMAN: Ray, Linda mentioned the role of Iran. It’s unclear whether they were directly involved or simply supporting. What’s your perspective on that? And what do you think the prospects are that Iran’s other clients, like Hezbollah, will get more actively involved in the north of Israel?
TAKEYH: Thanks. The question has come up, how directly has Iran been involved? Not that it’s been involved, but the level of its involvement. And there are two trends happening in the region. One was the United States was trying to craft compacts between nation-states, Israel and Saudi Arabia in particular. In a sense, the United States was dealing with the leadership of the region, the political leaders, who at times are at odds with their own street. The Iranians have always paid attention to the street and nonstate actors.
They have been their principal interlocutors, their principal allies, whether it’s Hezbollah in Lebanon, a variety of militias in Iraq, Syria, obviously, with the Assad regime. And Hamas more so. The operational links between Hamas and Iran have been very significantly enhanced. I think Steven mentioned in the last press briefing that actually the head of the Iranian (Quds ?) brigade was trying to coordinate all these nonstate actors—Hamas, Hezbollah, and so forth—to cooperate with each other against Israel. I think that meeting took place this spring.
In June, you had the Hamas leadership actually come to Iran. You know, Haniyeh and others came to Iran and actually gave a press conference afterward about the level of assistance they are receiving from Iran, particularly military assistance. And recently, you began to see the Iranians press for more activity on that front, primarily to disrupt the Israeli-Saudi compact, which they view as antagonistic to their involvement—to their to their regional pretentions.
Now, was Iran involved? I think to suggest that this operation was wholly directed by Iran is to deny Palestinians their agency. I will say Iran wanted Hamas to do it, and Hamas wanted to do it. So basically, they came together. And there has to have been some sort of an operational level of involvement in terms of training and so forth by Hezbollah fighters. And one thing we are now trying to see is what happens to Israel’s northern front, as its southern front becomes so inflamed. Hezbollah has already expressed solidarity with what is happening in the Gaza. And there have been some infiltration, in some scrimmages.
My guess, and my hope, is that front remain stabilized as opposed to opening it up. I don’t see direct Iranian military involvement here beyond what they have already done, or a possibility of clash—direct clash between Iran and Israel, beyond the shadow whether the two powers have gone forth. Iranians are jubilant, satisfied with what was happening. I think President Raisi had a call with the leadership of the Palestinians. They have held rallies in their support. They’re openly endorsing what is happening and supporting it. So if there’s Iranian involvement, they’re certainly not going out of their way to deny it.
And that particularly since I think it is a triumph of Iran’s strategy, in one sense. They proved they can inflame public opinion, mobilize the streets, and therefore retard the ability of United States and leaders of nation-states to actually come together. This is not the first time Iran has been disruptive of peace processes by use of terrorism. There have been other occasions. Steven and others will talk about the viability of Israeli-Saudi pact. In my opinion, that was always a bit of a far-fetched agreement, given all the moving pieces and moving parts that weren’t coming together. I do think that, given how these events will unfold, is likely to be on the backburner for some time to come.
FROMAN: There’s been a fair amount of discussion in the press that indeed this—one of the reasons for this attack was to scuttle the Saudi negotiations with Israel. But there’s also been discussion that this attack has been planned or prepared for, for more than two years. Which sort of predates the seriousness of Saudi-Israeli talks. Was that just a catalyst or excuse for the attack, or do you think that was really one of the primary motivations for it?
TAKEYH: Well, there is an Iranian-Israeli shadow war going on in the region, and both sides have tried to mobilize their resources. So there is that. This comes in the backdrop of Iranians trying to figure out ways of retaliating against Israelis for a variety of things that they perceive Israelis have done in terms of assassinating their scientists, military leaders, and also heavily Israeli attack on Iranian military fortifications in Syria. So that is taking place irrespective of this. So this is aspect of the shadow war. The Saudi-Israeli thing is obviously part of it, and, of course, this is part of a larger narrative of Iranian foreign policy in a sense that you use terrorism as an instrument of state policy, and the instrument of state policy has always been to pressure your adversaries, whether in the Gulf, whether in the Levant, and so in that sense you can see it three level: the continuation of Iran’s historical policy, an aspect of the shadow war between Iran and Israel, and also the added benefit of undermining, if not completely destroying, the possibility of the Saudis coming together with the Israelis in a greater strategic and economic cooperation.
BOOT: Can I just make one fast point on Iran? Because I think obviously interlaced with the question of Iranian responsibility for the attack is the underlying question of, well, if they are responsible, what the heck do we do about it? And there is no good answer to that because the most obvious response is sanctions, and we already have a lot of sanctions on Iran. You could probably ratchet up those sanctions a little bit, but as we recall, when sanctions against Iran were at an even higher level, prior to the nuclear accord that President Obama negotiated, they were still able to support all these proxy forces all over the Middle East. It doesn’t cost that much money to support terrorism. It’s a very cheap way of fighting a war. So I don’t think we should have any illusions that more sanctions are going to cause Iran to stop doing what it’s doing, and so then you’re left with, well, then, what’s the alternative? Are we going to go to war with Iran? I don’t think anybody wants that either. So the problem with Iran is there’s no good options, which is why their strategy is so effective and so fiendish because they can lash out and it’s not clear what we do in response.
FROMAN: Do you think, Max, that Israel would take kinetic action against Iran?
BOOT: I kind of doubt it because I think they’re kind of deterring each other, unless something changes pretty radically, because remember, Hezbollah has an arsenal of something like 150,000—150,000—rockets and missiles aimed at Israel, and that is Iran’s deterrence against Israeli attacks. So, sure, the Israelis could launch a few airstrikes on Iran, but it’s not going to defeat Iran and it’s probably going to bring this heavy retaliation from Hezbollah, and so then Israel would be facing a two-front war, maybe even more than a two-front war, with uprisings in the West Bank and possibly dealing with a threat from Syria as well. It doesn’t want to deal with that and so I would think that’s not the most likely course of action at this point.
TAKEYH: If I may, this is the genius of the Iranian strategy. It uses proxies to provoke conflicts and then everybody says we cannot attack Iran because it enlarges the conflict, and so they rely on measures such as financial pressures and so forth, whose effectiveness has been debated. But this is why it’s so clever for them.
I would say they have gone way ahead in terms of their rhetoric, in terms of taking accountability and responsibility for this. It’s not just celebration of it. I know the foreign ministry denied it, but that’s what their foreign ministry is there to do. Every other leadership has suggested how much they’re proud of—how much the Palestinian struggle indicates solidarity between the street and the Iranian policy and politics at this point.
FROMAN: There was at least one press report that there was a meeting in Beirut a week ago or so where the Iranians gave the green light for this to happen. I don’t know whether that’s been confirmed or not.
Steven, on the broader regional dynamics—and let’s go back to the Saudi-Israel deal. Is it dead now, forever, or do you think there’s any possibility that coming out of this there is actually an increased momentum to normalize?
COOK: Yeah, thanks for the question, Mike. The Saudi-Israel deal is really something that’s taking up a lot of oxygen in this discussion around the war. There are obviously other actors, Arab actors in the process. But to focus just a bit on the normalization, because this is the question I’ve been getting a lot: You know, normalization has taken on a dynamic of its own. For all of the efforts of the Biden administration, the Saudis and the Israelis have clearly signaled that they would like to normalize the relations, in the same way that the Emiratis and the Israelis normalized over a period of five years before the signing of the Abraham Accords in September 2020.
Of course, there’s a major difference between the UAE and Saudi Arabia in that Saudi Arabia’s a much bigger country with—the king and the crown prince, once he becomes the king, will be the custodian of the two holy places, Mecca and Medina, the mosques there—gives it incredible power and influence throughout the Muslim world. So while they’ve wanted to normalize, there have been, as Ray implied, some significant obstacles to normalization. I think, although the Israelis have signaled—the permanent representative to the U.N. has signaled that he sees no reason for normalization not to move forward now.
It seems abundantly clear—as the Israelis undertake a major military operation in the Gaza Strip, something that we have not seen before; this will not be a repeat of any number of operations that we’ve seen since, you know, 2008 or so. As the Israeli defense minister said, the security cabinet has given the IDF license to lay siege to Gaza and destroy Hamas. There’s going to be a massive loss of Palestinian life as a result, despite whatever precautions the IDF says that it is taking. Under those circumstances it seems clear that the Saudis will not be able to move forward with the Israelis under these circumstances. And then, of course, there will be this whole host of questions about—if it creates a refugee crisis, who’s responsible for reconstruction? I think that this, at least for the moment, normalization is going to be in the deep freeze.
As far as other actors go in the region, I think there are three other important actors in the conflict, the first being the UAE, Israeli’s closest partner in the Arab world. The Emirati Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a rather eye-opening statement essentially expressing solidarity with the Israelis on this. The foreign minister called the Hamas escalation appalling, all while calling for the protection of civilian life. That may in fact be how they actually feel, but they are also trying to contrast themselves to their regional nemesis, the Qataris, who issued a very, very strong statement with very little nuance blaming the Israelis for the violence. At the same time, however, the Qataris are involved in negotiating with Hamas over the release of these 130 prisoners that—the hostages that they have taken. So the Qataris are also playing an important role. It’s important to remember that the Qataris also have a representative in the Gaza Strip that is responsible for reconstruction and administering donations towards reconstruction. So there is a dialogue that goes on between Israeli and the Qataris.
And then the other big actor is quite obviously the Egyptians. This has been their traditional role to de-escalate the situation. The Egyptians keep an eye on Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. They have their own security concerns about them. Obviously, the intelligence failure is all on the Israelis, but certainly the Egyptians, who are supposed to have Gaza wired as well, clearly missed things over the course of the last couple of years that this has been being planned.
I think that the Egyptians aren’t going to get anywhere in terms of de-escalation, given the fact that no one’s answering the phone at the Israeli defense ministry to de-escalate. But it does run a very significant risk for Sisi in how he positions himself here. He is already unpopular at home. Egypt is facing an economic catastrophe of Sisi’s own making. And the opposition to Hosni Mubarak, those groups that emerged in 2011 that really instigated the uprising, find their origins in Palestinian solidarity committees that go back to the second intifada. You can tell from Egyptian social media that there is a tremendous amount of solidarity for the Palestinians here. So Sisi, under pressure at home for a variety of reasons, is also going to have to play this as delicately as he can and do what he can without further inflaming his public opinion.
So I think—there’s been some discussion here of diplomacy. I’m deeply, deeply skeptical about diplomacy. I’m deeply skeptical about a peace process. I think we’re in for a very long and difficult and bloody conflict in which a lot of civilians have already been killed and a lot of civilians are going to be killed, despite the best efforts of Israel’s Arab neighbors and partners.
FROMAN: As you said, in the past, when things flared up in Gaza, Egypt would go in, in some form or another, and calm things down or call some people to task. Is there—do they have any role in that going forward? Or is there—are they sort of viewed completely as irrelevant at this point?
COOK: Well, I think that, you know, this is—as Egyptians say, the world will come back to Egypt. I don’t think this is the propitious moment for it. Certainly the Israelis and the United States have looked to the Egyptian general intelligence to—as you implied, as I have said—go into Gaza and knock heads and bring things to and end. However, we’re now beyond that. This is not one of these limited operations. This is not one of these things that we can think will come to an end in, you know, ten or eleven days, two weeks maybe, I think 2014 being somewhat of an outlier. But we’re going to see—the Israelis have called this a war, and that gives them broader strategic goals, and so far articulated by the Israeli government that is the destruction of Hamas—something that they have been very unwilling to do.
In 2014, the Israelis—the Egyptians counseled the Israelis to knock down every door in the Gaza Strip and take down Hamas, and the Israelis wouldn’t do it because they didn’t know who they would be handing the Gaza Strip to. That seems to be off the table now. The Israelis have said the rules have changed, and I think their goal is to destroy Hamas and then come what may afterwards.
FROMAN: Let’s talk about what’s going on within Israel itself. Some people blame this intelligence and military failure on the preoccupation of Netanyahu’s government with judicial reform, with protecting the settlers perhaps at the extent—at the expense of the—of the south. Others believe that’s overstated and believe that, yes, this was a serious intelligence failure, but this is not something that was driven by the division in Israeli politics at the moment.
Let me just throw this out to any of you: What do you think is the linkage between what’s been going on domestically in Israel in its politics and this outbreak of violence? And there will be plenty of time for review commissions and recriminations later, but any initial assessment on how this intelligence failure could have happened to such a great degree?
BOOT: Well, I just know just reading some of the Israeli press that there—a huge number of Israelis are blaming the prime minister and his right-wing government, and I think rightly so, because this is on their watch. And Israel has a history, whether it was in the Yom Kippur War or with the 1982 invasion of Lebanon or what have you, or you know, even the 2006 Second Lebanon War, when things go wrong on the battlefield there is a tendency to hold accountable not only the military leaders but also the political leaders, and clearly this is Netanyahu. And I think there is a strong case to be made that, you know, he has weakened and divided Israeli society. He won power with a very narrow majority, and then installed the most radical right-wing government in Israel’s history and proceeded with this judicial overhaul bill which would radically change the balance of power within the Israeli political system without having anywhere close to a consensus behind it, leading to these massive weekly protests, leading to reservists to say they’re not going to volunteer for service anymore. And I think that created a picture of division and disunity that could only encourage, you know, Israel’s enemies, including Hamas.
I mean, the Wall Street Journal story I think yesterday that was quoting some Hamas and Hezbollah figures suggested that they were encouraged by what they saw in this kind of disunity of Israeli politics—and including the fact that, you know, because the Netanyahu government has been encouraging illegal settler activity in the West Bank and inflaming tension in the West Bank, the IDF felt compelled to shift forces from the border with Gaza into the West Bank, and so they were—they were focused on the increasing level of violence in the West Bank and were caught completely unprepared by what happened on Saturday emanating from the Gaza Strip. So I think, you know, at the end of the day—it’s not going to happen right now, when Israel in the midst of one of the worst crises in its history, but after the current emergency passes I think there will be a political reckoning and I can’t imagine Netanyahu surviving these disasters.
FROMAN: Is there—I’ll go to you in one second, Linda—is there any evidence that the divisiveness over judicial reform actually led to a weakened military, that the reservists were not showing up or others were not participating? Or has that just been speculation?
BOOT: I mean, I think it created that impression around the region. But obviously, right now, when Israel is under this mortal threat, the reservists are showing up. They’re all—all these divisions are being laid to the side. And I think what you’re seeing is kind of the messiness of democracy, which often leads despotic enemies to underestimate the power of a mobilized democracy in the way that, you know, Hitler and Tojo underestimated the United States and so many others have underestimated democratic powers over the years. And I think you’ll see the same thing with Israel—that it looks very fractious and messy and chaotic when the political sausage is getting made, but at the end of the day there is a capacity—just as Americans came together after 9/11, there is a capacity. Israelis are coming together after this latest horrific attack.
ROBINSON: Just three quick points, two data points.
The IDF incursions in the West Bank have been numerous and ongoing, both trying to tamp down the young Lions and other individuals they’re going after, in Area C particularly protection of settlers. So there is a record that they’ve been focused on that area.
Also, at the senior levels, a lot of the IDF and security establishment have been trying to restrain some members of the Cabinet of Netanyahu. In the Times of Israel just the other day, Ronen Bar was reported as having called the national security advisor and said please do not go to the Temple Mount. So they’re trying to keep them from inflaming the situation, and some reports that they’ve been having meetings without the full contingent there.
Finally, the assessment. While they knew Hamas was rebuilding, I think there was an assessment that they were not going to launch an all-out war. I think the capabilities are well-known; I think they just misjudged the political intent. And I think that is, in hindsight—which is 20/20—looks wrong because, after all, Hamas is really the only political actor right now. For it not to respond to everything the Netanyahu government has been doing would make them look weak as well.
FROMAN: It is eerily reminiscent of the Yom Kippur War. One thinks about the misjudgments made back then about the capability—about the intent of Egypt and Syria based on an assessment of their capabilities and misreading what their intent actually was in launching—in launching those attacks.
Steven, are you surprised by any of the world reactions to what’s been going on? Prime Minister Modi came out strongly in support of Israel. Saudi Arabia has been relatively silent or ambiguous in its reaction. What surprises you most? And I think perhaps—I think it was to Ray’s point, where do you see the fault lines in the European support for what’s going on with Israel and other major supporters?
COOK: Yeah, it’s a—it’s a terrific question, Mike. I think that the—there are two things that have surprised me by the regional actors.
One is, as I hinted in my response to your first question, was how strongly the Emiratis have come out in support of the Israelis. It is balanced in a sense that it calls for the protection of civilians, but it was very, very strongly critical of Hamas. And this is something we haven’t seen before from the Emiratis.
The second thing that surprises me in the region is how ambiguous and kind of quiet the Saudis have been. They want to be the big dog in the region. They have spent the last couple of years telling everybody how critical Saudi Arabia is, how it’s—there’s a power shift from the east to the Gulf, and that the Saudis are the true leaders of the region with Egypt in disarray, Iraq deeply compromised because of its own problems as a result of the American invasion, Syria having collapsed; that now, you look at the region, Saudi Arabia is it. But Saudi Arabia has done nothing other than really issue a statement blaming the Israelis, but in a more ambiguous way than the Qataris have. So if the Saudis really want to put their riyals where their mouths are, I think they need to up their game here in terms of how they envision the region after this war is over.
As far as solidarity for Israel more broadly, what we’re seeing in Europe is what we expect to see. However, as Palestinian civilians are killed and as there is social media footage and television footage of really what will likely be horrific scenes of carnage among people who have nothing to do with this, you can imagine the pressure coming from European capitals as well as the Turkish capital to intervene and bring hostilities to an end. The question will be whether the Israelis will be, like they have in the past, susceptible to this kind of external pressure, given the number of Israeli casualties, the butchery with which Hamas has engaged in this operation. And this is—in reference to the October 1973 war, this is the single biggest day in Israeli war casualties since 1973. And in 1973, in the first day, it was only about 430 Israelis. And those were all soldiers. The 700-plus are soldiers as well as—as well as civilians. So the Israeli population is inflamed by this. And I think that is why we’re going to see something very, very big that will go on for some time. But again, the Europeans, the Turks, others will start peeling off and appealing for restraint and calls about disproportionate usage of force. I expect that that will happen.
TAKEYH: By the way, if I could just say one thing about this, this doesn’t help any of the incumbent governments in the region, including the Iranians. In terms of public opinion, in Saudi Arabia and others are radically opposed to Israel and the effort to mend fences with Israel. As well, as Max was talking about, in Israel itself the political leadership is likely to come for serious accounting after this is done. In Egypt, as Steven was saying, General Sisi is going to be hard-pressed by public opinion that will restrain.
The Iranian public does not want to have anything to do with Arab conflicts, and Arab civil wars, and Arab issues, as they have pressing domestic needs both in terms of domestic democratization, lack of economic opportunity, and a whole host of other problems. They do believe that their leadership’s crusades in the Middle East have been to the disadvantage of the population at home. And the longer this war goes on, the further it disadvantages all the actors that I spoke about, not to mention the international community. And therefore, there’ll be a great deal of pressure for stepping in and have some kind of a ceasefire. And who knows what happens to Gaza in terms of governance in the aftermath of this.
FROMAN: Ray, last question before we open it up to our—to our participants. Great-power politics. We haven’t talked much about Russia or China in this context. Russia, increasingly close with Iran. Iran supplying weapons to it for Ukraine. China positioned itself as a peacemaker between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and to be a mediator. What role do you see for them in this? And is there any benefit or cost to them for what’s going on?
TAKEYH: Well, they have already made their statements about the idea that this should be resolved peacefully, and so forth. But in this particular sense, for a change, the Iranian leadership read the great powers correctly. It understood that—it now has great-power patronage in terms of China and Russia. It understood that Vladimir Putin would certainly welcome a distraction from his war in Central Europe.
But it also understood that it could engage in this kind of a regional affair without losing support of the Chinese, because the Saudi-Iranian deal, normalization agreement that was crafted by the Chinese, was about one thing. For the Iranians not to do what they did in 2019, disrupt the flow of oil by attacking Saudi installations directly. It didn’t say, don’t do what you did in the region. So in a sense, the Iranians have held up their part of the bargain. They have not attacked the Saudi oil facilities. They have just inflamed the politics of the Middle East without unnecessarily complicating their relationship with the People’s Republic of China. So that was actually a surprisingly cagey leader—cagey read by leaders who don’t often get international politics correctly.
COOK: Can I just add, just quickly, on the—on the China front? If we are correct in that the Saudi-Israel normalization is something that is going to be extremely difficult that this time, and thus the idea of a defense pact between Saudi Arabia and the United States is going to be that much more difficult because Israeli-Saudi normalization was the sweetener for the Saudi defense pact, then this rebounds to some degree to the benefit of the Chinese government. A lot of what the United States has been doing in and around the gulf in terms of bolstering its allies, creating new kind of security structures, had been directed against the Chinese and as a way to reassure our partners in the region that we are going to remain there after a lot of discussion of pivoting to Asia.
The secretary—the national security advisor himself said a number of months ago that he sees a lot of opportunity in the Middle East in order to confront the Chinese and contain Chinese powers. So I think in this way, if we’re thinking about great-power competition, this does have an impact, especially as the United States is going to be drawn into this. If Linda is correct, there’s going to be a lot of emphasis on diplomacy, not with a lot of prospects of it being successful. Once again, the United States distracted by the Middle East when there are other pressing issues out there.
FROMAN: Great, thank you.
At this time we’re going to invite our participants to join the conversation with your questions and/or comments. Just a reminder that the meeting is on the record. And the operator will remind you about how to join the question queue.
OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)
We will take our first question from Diana Taylor.
Q: Thank you. Diana Taylor.
In listening to you, one question that comes to my mind is how does all of this affect the U.S. support and international support for Ukraine?
FROMAN: Max, you want to take that one?
BOOT: Well, in theory, I don’t think there should be any direct connection. I mean, I think that there are—I mean, it’s a little rich for me to see, you know, a lot of Republicans who are willing to cut off Ukraine saying that we need to send more aid to Israel right away, because to me this seems like they’re both facing these heinous foes who commit war crimes and attack civilians. And they are both worthy of support. So I don’t think you can—you can draw that distinction. But I think clearly some in the Republican Party do. I think it’s unfortunate. What’s happening with Ukraine right now remains very much an open question because, as you know, the supplemental money for Ukraine was not included in the bill that the Congress passed to avert a government shutdown. And you had Kevin McCarthy’s downfall as House speaker. So now the House is in chaos.
And right now, I think there’s a—there’s a push among Ukraine supporters on the Hill to say we need to stop with nickel and diming. We just need to pass a massive appropriation that will take Ukraine through the next year, through the next U.S. election, which is going to be on the order of $60 (billion) to $100 billion, just to give them everything that they need to take it out of the U.S. political process. And I very much hope that will be successful because, you know, you just had—a few days ago, you had Putin saying that if Ukraine is cut off from Western support, they cannot last more than a few days and the Russians will win. And I think there is good cause to fear that he may be right. And I think that would be a horrific outcome to this conflict.
So I think we need to—you know, the U.S. is a superpower and we can afford to keep sending our aid Israel as well as sending our aid to Ukraine. I mean, aid to Ukraine is still about one half of 1 percent of the federal budget. So this is not breaking the bank. This is something we can do and we should do, because we have a vital interest in Ukraine, we have a vital interest in the Middle East. We need to be a superpower that can walk and chew gum at the same time.
FROMAN: Next question.
OPERATOR: We will take her next question from Christopher Isham.
Q: Thank you very much. Greetings, everyone. This is very, very interesting.
Just a very specific, kind of technical question. There have been a couple of reports out there that that Hamas has been using Huawei phones, and that that could have made it much more difficult for the Israelis to crack their communications. I wondered if that—any of you have come across that, or whether that makes any sense?
FROMAN: Anybody have expertise on that? Good question, Christopher. Sounds like something you should go off and research.
Q: (Laughs.) OK, thanks.
FROMAN: Next question.
OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Barbara Slavin.
Q: Hi. Thank you very much.
BOOT: I mean, actually, I’ll just jump in with, like, a fifteen-second answer to Christopher’s question, if I could.
FROMAN: Oh, sure.
BOOT: Just to say, I don’t know anything about that story. I’m highly doubtful that Huawei phones have some kind of encrypted technology that that the Israelis or the NSA cannot crack. I’m sure that’s not the case. I would suspect that Hamas practice very good operational security, though. And so they weren’t—I would very much doubt that they were talking about their plans on cell phones, which they knew would be intercepted by Israel or the United States. So I think their cognizant of the surveillance capabilities that we have, and I’m sure the Iranians are very helpful in helping them to communicate in ways that help to go around the vast surveillance capabilities that countries like the U.S. and Israel have.
TAKEYH: Actually, to Max’s point, about several months ago the head of the Revolutionary Guards gave a speech and essentially said that paramilitary groups should negate the advantage, the technological edge that other powers have, by low-level communications. Essentially, not going for technology that can be encrypted or sophisticated, but low—messengers, and that sort of a thing. That’s the way you overcome technological edge, not by developing devices that are even more sophisticated. So as they go high, the Iranians always go low. (Laughs.)
FROMAN: Some interesting lessons in terms of how to—we always focus on technology being the great advantage here, but it may well miss some of the old-fashioned ways of communicating—carrier pigeon and the like, so.
TAKEYH: Right, right.
FROMAN: Barbara, I’m sorry, we got off track.
Q: No, that’s OK. Thank you very much for doing this.
Two questions, one is why we haven’t seen formation of some sort of national unity government in Israel that would perhaps get rid of Ben-Gvir and Smotrich. And the other question involves Iran. I’m trying to understand why Iran would be pushing for something like this. Now, obviously, they want to disrupt Israeli-Saudi normalization. But the Iranians have also been trying to decrease their international isolation and show that they are, you know, somehow successfully overcoming sanctions and so on. So if Ray could talk a little bit about the thinking in Iran in supporting such an incredibly brutal assault. Thanks.
FROMAN: Start with Ray, and then we can go to Israel for—
TAKEYH: Has Iran been trying to reach out to the international community, as such, and overcome and negate the sanctions policy? I’m not quite sure, Barbara, if they see those two issues as necessarily dichotomous. They’re overcoming sanctions through their relationship with China. And that remains undisturbed. They’re selling more oil because the Chinese are willing to deny the various prohibitions that are sent in front of them. They recently have this prisoner transaction with the United States. So in that particular sense, I’m not quite sure if disrupting the region and the trends in the region that they dislike has come—they viewed it as a very substantial financial cost to them.
And they were wrong about that. As a matter of fact, as this event has unfolded, Iranian economy has suffered, as Israeli economy, as everybody’s economy in the region. So in that particular sense, also the essence of the Iranian foreign policy today, as I see it, is consolidating allies in the region—revisionist states and nonstate actors—and particularly consolidating the relationship with the two great powers, Russia and China. And less inclined towards relationship with the United States and even to Europeans, that have been their traditional commercial partners in the West.
COOK: Let me jump in on Barbara’s first question about a national unity government. There is—there are reports that you Yair Lapid had gone to Netanyahu and offered a narrow coalition that did not include Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, and that Prime Minister Netanyahu said that he was interested in a national unity government but that he wouldn’t jettison his right. I’m not sure at this point it makes a difference, given the fact that under this crisis the Israeli seem to have come together. I should also remind folks that both Gantz and Lapid ran to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s right on Gaza. They essentially said that Netanyahu had been timid when it came to dealing with the Hamas threat from Gaza. So they are likely to be onboard for the operations that the IDF is starting to conduct.
FROMAN: Next question.
OPERATOR: We will take our next question from James Gilmore.
Q: Thank you. I’m Jim Gilmore. I’m the immediate past ambassador to the OSCE in Vienna.
My question is to ask the panel whether they see linkage between all of the conflicts that are going on simultaneously right now. It seems to me that we’re in a revolutionary moment. The invasion, of course, of Ukraine is very destabilizing for all of Europe. Nagorno-Karabakh has now broken out. When I was there, there was a war going on but it was fairly stable. Now we’re seeing an aggressive action by the Azerbaijanis. The Serbs are massing troops on the Kosovo border, and that remains a very alive conflict. And then finally, Taiwan is simmering over there, although I believe the Chinese are smarter than the Russians and I don’t think they’re going to do anything for the immediate future. But if this whole thing tears apart, that could occur also. So my question to the panel is, is this a linkage that all of a sudden we see these breakouts in all of these different battlefield areas? Or is it just coincidental? Thank you.
FROMAN: Interesting question, Jim. Anybody want to take that on?
BOOT: I mean, I wouldn’t say that there’s a—
COOK: I’ll defer to Max.
BOOT: I mean, I don’t think there is a direct linkage, you know, between what’s going on in Ukraine and what’s going on in Gaza, and what’s going on in Nagorno-Karabakh, or what’s going on in the Taiwan Strait. I think what you’re seeing in broad terms, though, is kind of the testing of the liberal world order that emerged after 1945, and the testing of the U.S.-led international order, kind of the unipolar-led order that emerged after the end of the Cold War in 1991. And both are fraying badly and in large part, I think, because of the fraying of domestic U.S. support for the role that the United States has played in the world since 1945. And it’s pretty alarming to me to see the extent to which you have leading Republican presidential candidates, like Donald Trump, and Ron DeSantis, and others—basically taking a quasi-isolationist position. Which I think encourages Putin to continue his aggression in Ukraine, hoping that Trump will win in 2024 and that the U.S. will cut off Ukraine. And there’s already evidence that that may be happening with the—you know, the majority of the House Republicans turning against aid for Ukraine.
So, you know, I think that there are very powerful forces of dictatorship and disorder that are testing the liberal world order. And I think there is some significant pushback. I think you’ve seen a very impressive coalition that President Biden has quarterbacked to aid Ukraine, with more than fifty countries coming together to provide support for Ukraine. And I think the level of U.S. and European support has been surprisingly staunch and greater than what Putin expected. And I think, you know, you do see the Abraham Accords, you do see the increasing normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia. And you do see in the Pacific, the Quad and other—all of China’s neighbors, basically, drawing closer together with the United States.
I mean, President Biden was just in Hanoi concluding a partnership accord with Vietnam, which people wouldn’t have expected to see a few years ago. We’ve got the AUKUS deal with Australia. We’re drawing closer with India. So I think it’s kind of the age-old battle between the forces of order and disorder. And, you know, I think right now we’re trying to kind of hold things together, but it’s very tenuous and there’s no question that the forces of disorder, in particular Iran, China and Taiwan—China, Russia and Iran, they are on the offensive. And it’s very hard to deal with their offensive. Especially for the U.S., because we have to deal with it on multiple fronts at once. And, you know, we tried to focus on the Pacific, but now we’re being drawn back into the Middle East.
FROMAN: Go ahead, Steven.
COOK: I’m sorry. I just—you know, just to build a little bit on this, but specifically when it comes to the Middle East. You know, I don’t see these connections either. But what I do see is that the kind of talk about a new Middle East and the normalization agreements and the Negev Process and these things obscured a lot of things that were happening in the Middle East that were actually quite terrible, and that the region was not as calm as perhaps we had been lulled into a sense of—into the sense that it was, you know, transitioning to this new, more pacific phase.
You go around the region, but starting with the Palestinians who continue to live under Israeli occupation, a slow-rolling annexation, in which, you know, none of their grievances had any chance of being addressed, to that in the West Bank and Gaza being essentially an open-air prison for Palestinians, to the potential collapse of Egypt, as Max pointed out, Iran being an agent of chaos in the region. You know, the fact that there is a war in the Middle East is shocking, but from one perspective it’s not entirely surprising regional dynamics.
FROMAN: Let’s get another question.
OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Meredith Broadbent. Ms. Broadbent, please accept the unmute. We seem to be having technical difficulties.
We’ll take our next question from Patrick Duddy.
Q: Good morning. Thank you for doing this. I’m the former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela and I’m now a senior advisor for global affairs at Duke University.
I’d be particularly interested in how you think or what you think the posture of the U.S. carrier group that has been ordered into the Eastern Mediterranean will be and specifically, also, how you think the U.S. wants the other powers in the region to understand our presence there in that form.
FROMAN: Max, you want to take that one?
BOOT: Sure. Well, I mean, I think it’s a—it’s a precautionary deployment, which kind of shows, again, the political if not the military power inherent in aircraft carrier battle groups, which their military utility arguably is waning in the age of cruise missiles and ballistic missiles and drones and other capabilities, and they could be very vulnerable in a full-scale war with China. But there is still nothing that sends a signal of geopolitical reassurance to our allies quite like seeing a U.S. carrier battle group deploying like the Gerald Ford group is deploying to the Eastern Mediterranean right now. And again, I think it’s really just a signal to Iran to kind of cool their—the rush to war, and to Hezbollah not to open up a second front. But I think it’s just—it’s just a political symbol. I don’t think it’s—I mean, unless this war spins out of control, I don’t see U.S. forces becoming directly engaged.
TAKEYH: Can I just make one brief point? Picking up on Steven’s point, there are extraordinary problems in the region—institutional decay, class cleavages that are quite provocative, corruption which is random. There’s not a democracy deficit; there’s an absence of one. It’s a—it’s a reassertion of clumsy authoritarian rule. In a number of states, we don’t have functioning governments—so whether it’s Syria, whether it’s Libya, whether it’s Iraq, or so forth, Yemen certainly, these ongoing civil wars.
And I think one of the things that the Americans have come out of this Iraq experience is a lack of attention to those domestic disorders and once again relying on bargains with authoritarian states in order to sort of tranquilize the region’s conflicts. Those problems, as Steven was saying, are un-ameliorated. And this eruption was—militancy of Hamas is certainly the case, the cynicism of Iran is certainly the case, but there are underlying problems that the Western countries, the Europeans and the Americans, are paying less attention to because of all the difficulties that had happened with Iraq. The pendulum has swung to the other side. We no longer have a reform agenda, in a sense, talking about economic and political reform in the region.
Saudi Arabia is a profoundly authoritarian state launching a vicious anti-sectarian campaign, and even some of the openings that happened in Saudi Arabia under King Abdullah have been reversed. Nobody’s really talking about those things. And then we see that there is a popular discontent that at times comes to the surface in an explosive manner and besets all the other strategic objectives that the United States or Europe may have had.
FROMAN: But, Ray, just based on our prior experience in not just Iraq but with the Arab Spring and otherwise, what would you recommend to the administration be different?
COOK: Thank you for asking my question, Mike.
TAKEYH: Well, I do think we should press on the issue of human rights. We should press on opening of the political space. We should talk about accountability in how you treat your citizens. These issues should not be neglected; they should be part of a larger agenda. It may not succeed, but I think indifference to them doesn’t really—doesn’t really make them go away. Even modest adjustments in behavior of these countries would be advantageous in some respects, and the United States does possess some leverage over all these countries. It does have some leverage with Saudi Arabia, who’s asking for a security clearance with—a security compact with the United States, which is a very serious thing; and with the aid that’s given to Egypt; and so forth. That dialogue should continue, and it will have some kind of—some kind of advantage, at least on the edges. It will not transform the region’s political culture. And during the early part of this century, when we tried to transform the political culture, realized how stubborn it was. But not willing to transform the political culture and not pressing a domestic—a domestic reform agenda is a different thing.
Finally, I would say, as someone who studied a country that left its domestic problems unresolved only to be beset by revolutionary upheaval—(laughs)—you know, you might want to deal with some of those problems before they became particularly acute.
FROMAN: Good advice.
OPERATOR: We will take the next question from Kevin Book.
Q: Thanks very much for doing this.
My question, I guess, concerns the ongoing Iranian nuclear program’s development. And if you take maybe a more expansionist, worst-case scenario of how things could play out, could this be an accelerant for that program? Could this be a catalyst for the breakout that we’ve read so many times is only weeks away? Thank you.
TAKEYH: I’ll address that and then others can pitch in.
I’m not quite sure if this event will provoke an acceleration of the Iranian nuclear program, which is advancing quite remarkably anyways. It is a country that has mastered assembling advanced centrifuges, which is what you need for a breakout capacity or sneak-out capacity. It is enriching up to 60 percent, which is weapons-grade uranium. You can actually assemble a weapon with sixty (grade ?). It has a fairly developed scientific cadre, an atomic energy organization that seems capable. At this particular point, there may not be technological barriers to weaponization. These may be some political decisions that the Iranian government has to make. And also, the question is: What benefit does it get from its partnership with China and Russia, particularly in terms of transference of nuclear technologies from Russia to—from—to Iran in case they are having some technical problems in terms of scientific expertise and material of that sort.
Those are ongoing concerns. I’m not quite sure if they will be accelerated by this conflict, because the Iranian nuclear program has already crossed a number of thresholds where increasingly its march to weaponization becomes a political decision and less a technological one.
FROMAN: But certainly, Ray, to the degree that even the prospect of an agreement with the U.S., however remote, was possible, that seems now completely off the table. Doesn’t that eliminate one restraint on them?
TAKEYH: It seems very difficult to envision the United States and Iran coming to a nuclear agreement which requires substantial reduction of sanctions. And that agreement would be segregated from all other areas of U.S.-Iranian contention. A big one would be their support for Hamas as it wages war and so forth. It’s hard to see how the nuclear issue can be—can be self-contained and segregated from all this.
You can make a case—and people do—that that was never a practical proposition; that other issues would always overwhelm the nuclear compact, the nuclear portfolio. But at this point, it’s hard to see how you can do such narrow agreements that will relieve Iran not just with a more substantial amount of money, but also with a sort of a fairly capable researchable nuclear capability.
BOOT: Let me just briefly make the obvious point, or I think obvious point, that, you know, I think Trump’s decision in 2018 to leave the JCPOA—the Iran nuclear deal—was one of the most catastrophic misjudgments in the history of U.S. foreign policy, because at that point Iran was more than a year away from having breakout capacity and right now the timeline is basically down to zero, as was alluded to. And so now you’re dealing with a nuclear threshold state in Iran, and we don’t have any good options for reversing that at this point because, as Ray suggested, there’s not much chance of a—of a deal getting done to undo that. And so the region has just become a lot more dangerous. And you know, Trump promised that, you know, he would bring this massive pressure on Iran that would lead to an even more restrictive deal, and clearly that has failed and we have to live with the consequences of that failure.
TAKEYH: I think the words “Iran” and “no good options” should be permanently cojoined in our lexicon. (Laughter.)
FROMAN: (Partially ?).
I think we have time for one more question.
OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Razi Hashmi.
Q: Hi, everyone. This is Razi Hashmi. I am deputy director for human rights in the Middle East at the State Department and DRL. I really appreciate this conversation and also for Ray bringing up human rights.
I’m curious to hear from Steven, Linda, and Max on how to best address these systemic issues in kind of an appropriate way while a crisis is ongoing such as this. Thank you.
ROBINSON: Thank you so much for that question. And I would just first echo, I think, the first thing is for the administration to augment its statements by actively trying to push for a rapid de-escalation of the conflict. I think that it is going to be far more devastating and costly in human lives than perhaps we’ve dealt with sufficiently here. And in the longer term, in the last major study I did before I left Rand, the U.S. spending can be dramatically reoriented toward development in support of human rights and development of human capital, which is the region’s future, as the oil will inevitably decline.
With regard to the conflict itself, I think this is the end of Israel being able to pursue a policy of manage the conflict. That’s what they’ve been coasting on all of this time. There isn’t a military solution. And if this particularly brutal form of mowing the grass produces nothing but casualties and no political process, it will have been really, truly a tragedy.
COOK: Thanks for the question. You know, I—despite my sunny disposition, I’m deeply cynical about this—(laughter)—having lived through the freedom agenda, and the Arab uprisings, and the idea that the United States has the kind of appropriate resources, interests, attention, and insight in order to essentially help remake political cultures of other societies.
Of course, the president of the United States can never disavow human rights. And it should, as Ray pointed out, be part of the agenda. But under current circumstances, I’m not quite sure how the United States is going to do that, particularly as it relates to the conflict.
President Biden is kind of, you know, an old-time politician. He brags that he’s hugged and kissed every Israeli prime minister since Golda Meir, and I think he’s throwing, you know, all of his support behind the Israelis here. When this conflict does come to an end, there will have to be some sort of conversation about a reckoning in Gaza and how to deal with it. And I think in that sense Linda is correct that there is going to be some effort to try to move away from managing the conflict to resolving the conflict.
I’m skeptical. I’m certain that’s going to happen; I’m skeptical that it will come to an outcome. Never underestimate the ability of leaders in the region to try to muddle through things and not do hard things. And after this war, I think the—if there is—if there remains a peace camp in Israel, which—it has been obliterated.
So, yes, I think there are things that the United states can do around the region to invest in human capital. I remain skeptical of devoting resources to things that don’t seem like they have a likelihood of success. But because they’re so cheap, there are things that we can do. And those things—talking about human rights, developing human capital—all of those things are quite worthy.
I think we should lower our expectations about our ability to help transform Middle Eastern societies. We’ve been down that road and we’ve learned a lot of lessons from it. I think one of the lessons is to—is to lower our and tamp down on our transformational impulses, even during crises.
BOOT: I’m with Steven. As a—as a disillusioned supporter of democracy in the Middle East and as a—and as a repentant supporter of the war in Iraq, I had overly high hopes for how much the U.S. could do to transform the region twenty years ago. And I have been thoroughly disillusioned in the last two decades and now agree with Steven’s more cynical approach. And frankly, I think even Joe Biden, who has called the battle between democracy and dictatorship the defining struggle of our time—I think even Joe Biden has been somewhat disillusioned in practice because, in practice, he’s making deals with MBS and Modi and others who are hardly paragons of democratic virtue because that’s what’s in America’s interest to do. So I don’t think we have that much power to transform the region.
But I think there is one area where support for human rights and greater freedom can have a—make an important contribution in the current war that’s going on, which is, you know, I think Israel has needlessly inflamed the situation in the West Bank and Israel has a—has a partner—potential partner for peace in the Palestinian Authority, certainly a partner against the Hamas, which the PA hates. And yet, Israel, under the far-right Netanyahu government, has been undermining the PA, has been spreading settlements in a de facto creeping annexation of the West Bank, which has been leading to greater violence in the West Bank.
So right now I don’t think there is any restraint on Israel from a very harsh military response in Gaza to the worst single attack it’s faced in its history. That’s going to happen, and it’s going to go out there and destroy Hamas, and a lot of innocent Palestinian lives are unfortunately going to be lost. But at the same time that that’s happening, I think it is still important for Israel to make some concessions in the West Bank to calm the situation there and to keep the West Bank from erupting as another front of a larger war against Israel. And that is something that I was hoping would happen as an outgrowth of the Saudi-Israeli normalization talks. Those talks are perhaps in deep freeze right now, as Steven said. But I think it would still be very much in Israel’s interest to do that, assuming that the composition of the government changes and it’s not Smotrich and Ben-Gvir and these other far-right extremists who are dictating Israeli policy in the West Bank, which I think is very antithetical to Israel’s actual interests.
TAKEYH: I just want to note I’m the only idealist on the panel. (Laughter.) Well, chalk one up for the immigrants. (Laughter.) If there’s anything to be said, this is an argument for more immigration and less relying on native-born cynics.
BOOT: I’m an—I’m an immigrant cynic, you know—immigrant idealist turned cynic. (Laughter.)
FROMAN: All right. On that note, first of all, thank you, Max, Steven, Linda, Ray, for participating. Thank you, everybody, for joining this town hall. It will be posted on our website. I encourage you to check out CFR.org, where we have been posting a lot of new material and updating it regularly on developments in the region, as well as, of course, Foreign Affairs, ForeignAffairs.com, and its app. We will be continuing to cover this very closely and bringing our expertise to bear. And it’s a tragic situation, and we all wish, of course, the best to people on the ground who are facing a very difficult situation. Thank you for joining us.