Steven A. Cook, CFR’s Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies, gives an update on the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, background on Israeli-Palestinian relations, and implications for the future of the region.
FASKIANOS: Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations State and Local Officials Webinar. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach at CFR.
CFR is an independent and nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher focused on U.S. foreign policy. CFR is also the publisher of Foreign Affairs magazine. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy. Through our State and Local Officials Initiative, CFR serves as a resource on international issues affecting the priorities and agendas of state and local governments by providing analysis on a wide range of policy topics.
We’re delighted to have you all join us today for this discussion. Again, this webinar is on the record. The video and transcript will be posted on our website after the fact at CFR.org. And we’re delighted to have over 375 participants from forty-eight states and U.S. territories with us today for this discussion.
So I am pleased to introduce my colleague Steven Cook. We’ve shared his bio with you, so I will just give you a few highlights.
Steven Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of three books on the Middle East and will soon release a fourth book, entitled The End of Ambition: America’s Past, Present, and Future in the Middle East. And he is a columnist at Foreign Policy magazine and is published widely in international affairs journals, opinion magazines, and newspapers.
So, Steven, thanks very much for being with us today to talk about Israel and Palestine. Can you give us an update? We saw the horrific events on October 7 and the past month has unfolded. Could you give us an update of where we are, how the conflict is playing out in Israel and the Gaza Strip, and maybe some history, as well, to level-set this discussion?
COOK: Sure. Thanks very much, Irina. And thank you all to those of you in forty-eight states and U.S. territories. Good afternoon. I’m glad that you’re with us. I just wish the topic was a more uplifting one.
Before I get into where we are and some background on what’s been happening, I have two qualifications.
The first one is I have absolutely no good news to report. There is no good news coming from the Gaza Strip in the war between Israel and Hamas. I will—there is some good news in the Middle East, and I’ll share it with you at the end of my—at the end of my remarks because I think it’ll be helpful for people to have some good news coming out of the Middle East at the—at the end of this.
Second qualification: Recognizing that not everyone—and Irina alluded to this—not everyone is following every development in the war, I thought it would be appropriate to offer you somewhat of a situation report on where everything stands as of three p.m. East Coast time and then provide some analysis on the diplomatic efforts around the conflict.
So let me just start where we are at this moment. Today is—and it’s, of course, coming to the end of the day in Israel and the Gaza Strip—today is the thirty-fourth day of the war. Israel has split the Gaza Strip into two and is fighting deep into one of the main cities of the Gaza Strip, called Gaza City. Both its aerial bombardment of the region continues and there is a very, very significant ground operation underway.
Anywhere between 1,200 and 1,400 Israelis were killed on October 7. Since the ground operations in the Gaza Strip began, about forty Israeli soldiers have been killed. That brings the total number of soldiers—Israeli soldiers killed in the conflict so far to five hundred. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but given the small size of Israel’s population, it is a—it is very, very significant numbers, both in terms of civilian deaths as well as military deaths.
Palestinians killed are now over 10,500, including many, many children. But that number is actually likely to be much higher. Senior U.S. government officials testified before Congress yesterday, saying that the number of people dead actually can’t be accounted for. Because of Israel’s military operations, there are many, many bodies that are buried under the rubble in the Gaza Strip. Keep in mind also that the population of the Gaza Strip is 2 million people, so 10,500-plus numbers killed is an extraordinary number of people if you do it in terms of—you know, think of it in terms of how many Americans that would be if you do a population comparison. It would be a huge, huge number. Obviously, it is a devastating loss of life in this conflict and a disastrous humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip right now.
Militarily, the Israelis are closing in on the Hamas leadership. They’ve taken out a number of the organization’s command bunkers, most recently one located in the Jabalia refugee camp. You may remember last week there was Israeli airstrikes on Jabalia that killed large numbers of civilians. That is because Hamas puts its military infrastructure among the civilian population. That doesn’t make it any better, but just to give you an idea of how complicated this battlefield is, that is what is happening. And now the Israelis have set their sights and are fighting towards a major hospital in northern Gaza called Al-Shifa Hospital, and that’s because the Israelis believe that the major Hamas command bunker is in and beneath Al-Shifa Hospital, which has, you know, huge numbers of staff, large numbers of wounded people seeking shelter in this place. And so the coming days are likely to be extraordinarily, extraordinarily difficult.
Tension remains very, very high in the West Bank. Now, for those of you who are not steeped in this, let me stop for a second and give you a sense of the geography of this situation. You have Israel, and then actually to Israel’s east is what’s called the West Bank, the West Bank of the Jordan River. It’s confusing because it’s to Israel’s east. In the West Bank is where what’s called the Palestinian Authority is located. The Palestinian Authority was a pre-state/proto-state institution that was set up in 1994 by dint of a diplomatic agreement between Israel and what’s called the Palestinian Liberation Organization, overseen by the United States. The Palestinian Authority used to rule over parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Since 2007, however, when Hamas and the Palestinian Authority fought a brief civil war, those two territories have been split. The West Bank—parts of the West Bank have remained under the Palestinian Authority, which is run by the PLO and has a president named Mahmoud Abbas. And the Gaza Strip, which is to Israel’s southwest, is run by Hamas.
But in the West Bank, there are—there’s lots of tension. Israel has conducted mass arrests of Hamas supporters in the West Bank. Israeli settlers—Israel has, depending on how you count, close to half a million settlers in the West Bank. This is not inside Israel—sovereign Israeli territory. In the June 1967 war, Israel conquered the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as well as East Jerusalem and Syrian Golan—the Syrian Golan Heights. And since the early 1970s, Israel has built settlements in the West Bank, and now there are somewhere in the neighborhood of half a million settlers in the West Bank. Those settlers have, since October 7, taken matters into their own hands, law into their own hands, and have been acting, I’ll sort of say, aggressively towards the Palestinian population of the West Bank, to which the Israeli police and military forces in the area have essentially turned a blind eye.
In the West Bank, 165 Palestinians have been killed. There have been a few—handful of Israelis killed in the West Bank. Like I said, there’s mass arrests.
There remain 239 hostages that Hamas is holding in—and others are holding in the Gaza Strip. There was a grisly video today that another terrorist organization, called Palestinian Islamic Jihad, released today which showed an elderly Israeli hostage and a young boy. Among the 230 hostages are elderly people, children, and even toddlers. Qatar has been negotiating the release of these hostages, and today President Biden asked for a three-day pause in the hostilities in order for Hamas to release fifteen hostages. The Israelis rejected this idea, indicating that they would pause for a few hours for a hostage release. From the Israeli perspective, a pause, especially one as long as three days, is a slippery slope to a ceasefire that Israeli leaders believe will be imposed upon them before they achieve their military goals. So they have rejected this pause that President Biden suggested, as well as other pauses in the fighting for humanitarian reasons. They have, however, said that they will allow a pause in the fighting on a daily basis to allow Palestinian civilians who are caught in the northern part of the Gaza Strip to make their way into the southern part of the Gaza Strip, which they say is a safe zone. However, we know that it is not entirely safe because the Israelis have conducted military operations against Hamas targets in the south that have killed Palestinian civilians in the process.
On the diplomatic front, Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in the Middle East last weekend and, quite frankly, he achieved nothing. There was no humanitarian pause. There’s been no ceasefire. Plans for after the fighting seem similarly doomed.
The secretary of state came to the Middle East with a plan to, quote/unquote, “reinvigorate” the Palestinian authority. This is this proto-state that is located in the West Bank, in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Over the years, it has become compromised by corruption and all kinds of dysfunction that have made the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority—it has compromised their legitimacy. President Mahmoud Abbas was elected in 2004 for a four-year term. He has since not stood for election again for fear that he might lose. So he is in the fourth year—he’s in the eighteenth year of a four-year presidential term, and has come to really represent very few people, if anyone, in either the West Bank or the Gaza Strip. So the idea is to reinvigorate the Palestinian Authority in order that it is—would extend its administration back to the Gaza Strip, this administration that it lost in 2007. This will be extremely difficult to reinvigorate the Palestinian Authority. Like I said, it has very little legitimacy. And, of course, President Abbas has a demand that it would only—he would only consider being essentially an American and Israeli agent in the Gaza Strip if the United States commits itself to a two-state solution to the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, which I’ll get to in just a second.
The second piece of Secretary Blinken’s diplomacy was to stir up—stir up support for an international force that would provide security in the Gaza Strip once hostilities came to an end. Not a single country has volunteered for this. The Europeans don’t want to do it. Of the Arab countries, only two really have capacity to do it, that’s Egypt and Jordan. They actually have the most to lose by getting involved in this situation. And no one else has volunteered for this very, very difficult mission.
And then we come—and all of this is in a prelude to the United States launching a new diplomatic bid to achieve a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, something that has been on the American agenda for the better part of the last thirty years. But I think that the chances for a two-state solution in which there is an Israel and a Palestine sitting side by side and in peace is highly unlikely, and that’s because Israel’s minimum demands for peace can’t possibly be met by the Palestinian side and the Palestinians’ minimum demands for peace are things that the Israelis can’t possibly—can’t possibly meet, and they’re essentially mirror images to each other. Israel wants Jerusalem to be its undivided, eternal capital. The Palestinians want Jerusalem to be their capital. The Palestinians want a return of Palestinian refugees who fled the country or were forced out of the country at Israel’s creation in 1948 to be able to come back to their ancestral homes, even though many of them don’t exist—even a—even a token number of them to come back in. The Israelis will not permit that. The Palestinians want a contiguous, fully sovereign state. The Israelis will not accept a fully sovereign, territorially contiguous Palestinian state; they say from their perspective this is a security problem for them. So those—on the basis of those terms, it seems very, very unlikely that American diplomacy towards a two-state solution will be successful even if we may embark upon diplomacy towards that end.
It seems likely that in the aftermath Israel will occupy some parts of the Gaza Strip for some time being. Of course, in that they risk getting sucked into a long and grinding insurgency, which is something that they want to avoid. Which is why they say that they will achieve their military objectives, which is to kill as many Hamas operatives and leaders that they can in order to make it so that Hamas cannot threaten Israel’s security again, and then they will leave and impose a security regime over the Gaza Strip while not administering it. That, to me, sounds a lot like what the situation was on October 6, the day before this conflict began.
So that’s where we are in diplomacy. That’s where we are on the ground as far as the fighting goes. As I said, I have absolutely no good news for you.
But I will share one piece of good news from the Middle East. And I read in an Emirati newspaper today that in 2023 seven Arabian leopards—very, very rare animals; there’s only two hundred of them left in the world—seven of them have been born and released into the wild in Saudi Arabia. That’s really good news. That’s the best news coming out of the Middle East that I’ve heard in the last almost five weeks.
Thank you very much. I’m glad I can impart just a little bit of good news to you. I look forward to your questions. Thanks.
FASKIANOS: Thank you, Steven, for that sobering overview of where we are.
Let’s open it up to all of you for your questions. As a reminder, we are on the record.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
And we look forward to hearing from you. Let me see. We already have several raised hands. So the first question we will take from Utah Representative Jay Cobb. And if you could unmute yourself. I think you just muted yourself back.
Still muted. OK.
Let’s go next to Paul Melser.
Q: Yes. Thank you.
So, you know, looking historically, the two-state solution that was offered in ’47 was rejected by the—by the Arab parties, led to the war in ’48. Two-state solution was nearly—sort of nearly achieved, I think it was—when was the Oslo Accords? I don’t remember the year, but again, rejected by the Arab side.
And let me tee up a couple of other points to get to my question. Before ’67, Gaza was Egypt, the West Bank was Jordan. Is there—is there any possibility that in the end it would revert to status quo ante and just have it go back to Gaza being part of Egypt, Jordan—West Bank being part of Jordan?
COOK: Well, let me just clarify a number of historical points here.
First, you’re quite right that the Arab side rejected the U.N.’s partition of Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. That’s U.N. Resolution 181 of 1947. And there are, you know, a variety of reasons which on principle the Arab states rejected and Arabs who lived in the area rejected it. And then, of course, that led to the 1948 war that led to the establishment of Israel.
The Oslo Accords was not a two-state solution. It was a commitment to, one, set up the Palestinian Authority; and, two, there was a long-term ten-year transition period that we hoped might lead to a two-state solution. Wasn’t necessarily rejected, but over that nine- to ten-year period the number of settlers in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip doubled while extremists like Hamas sought to undermine it through the use of terrorism in Israeli streets. There was a horrific spate of bus bombings that went on in the mid-1990s over this. So it’s not specifically that the Palestinian side rejected the Oslo Accords; it’s that those Oslo Accords came to naught because of a variety of political and security—political and security problems.
Now, Egypt did occupy the Gaza Strip for most of the period between 1948 and 1967. There was a brief period after 1956 when France, Great Britain, and Israel invaded Egypt in a brief war where Israel occupied it. Then the Israelis withdrew and it once again was occupied by Egypt. But it was never part of Egyptian territory. The Gaza Strip has never, ever, ever been part of sovereign Egyptian territory. And the Egyptians on principle believe that Israel, as the occupying power—and there’s a lot of debate over whether Israel remains the occupying power, since it withdrew its settlers and its military from the Gaza Strip in 2005 but continues to blockade the Gaza Strip along with the Egyptians—but nevertheless, the Egyptian position is that Israel as the occupying power is responsible for what happens in the Gaza Strip. And the Egyptians do not want Israel to foist the Gaza Strip and all of its problems, including security problems, on Egypt.
So that is where it stands. So there is no chance that Egypt will accept the Gaza Strip; in fact, have signaled that there is an effort on the part of the Israelis either to empty out the Gaza Strip of its—of its population into the Sinai Peninsula or to try to dump the Gaza Strip and its issues onto Egypt, it would be a threat to the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel in 1979.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
I’m going to take the next written question from Alexander McCoy, who’s a senior advisor at the New York State Senate: How is the military operation in Gaza being perceived by different elements of the Israeli political system—right, center, left?
COOK: Well, I’ve spent a lot of time on the phone with folks in Israel, and I think right, center, and left there’s been a rally around the flag if not the government. And there is broad public support for the goal that the War Cabinet has set for the Israel Defense Forces, which is to destroy Hamas and make it unable to threaten Israeli security.
Now, a lot of analysts have questioned whether that’s at all possible, given the difficulties that the United States had in battling al-Qaida, the Islamic State over many, many years. The Israelis, quite obviously—now, of course, those organizations are quite different from Hamas. The Israelis have not done—taken on this military operation heedlessly, although vengeance is certainly part of it. And they believe that they can do this and can exit. I think only time will tell.
But getting back to your question, there’s been, as far as I know, very, very little political opposition to the way in which the IDF is carrying out its operations among—within the Israeli public.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
We’re going to take the next question from Delaware Representative Cyndie Romer.
Q: Hi. Thank you.
I was just wondering, in your opinion, what coalition of countries do you think have the best chance of engaging with Israel and Palestine in peace discussions? And are you hearing anything about us getting to a point where even these discussions are happening?
COOK: Yeah. Unfortunately, there is—there is very little in the way of discussions of peace or an end to the historic—an end to the historic conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and there is very little discussion of how to—there have been demands for a ceasefire. There has been—although the United States does not support a ceasefire, it supports humanitarian pauses. So there isn’t really discussion about how hostilities come to an end, other than allowing the Israelis to continue to battle Hamas until they achieve their military goals.
But there has been a lot of diplomacy around how to get humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip. Countries like Egypt, countries like Greece, Cyprus have been deeply involved in these discussions. Turkey has offered its—somehow that it would play a leading role here, although geographically that would be extremely difficult. Obviously, on a geographic level, the most important country here is Egypt. And from almost the very beginning, the Egyptian government has been gathering supplies for Hamas—not for Hamas; I’m sorry—for the Palestinians through the Rafah border there.
The problem has been getting the material into the Gaza Strip. First, there is a very delicate diplomatic agreement that has to be struck in order to do that. Hamas does have a say over what is coming and, obviously, wants it to come in. The Israelis, though, insist on inspecting this material, because part of the way in which Hamas has built out its infrastructure in the Gaza Strip, these tunnels that you keep hearing about and other things that have aided their military effort, has been by diverting humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip. So the Israelis are insisting that any truck that comes into the Gaza Strip has to make this roundabout, hundred-kilometer drive in order to get to a place where the Israelis can inspect it before it is approved to go in and provide humanitarian assistance. And of course, you know, eighty trucks at a time, a hundred trucks at a time is really a drop in the bucket.
So the Greeks, the Cypriots, the Egyptians, the French, they’re all talking about perhaps using shipping to get humanitarian aid into Gaza, except for the fact that the ports in the Gaza Strip are heavily, heavily damaged at this point and the Israelis insist they will not allow their border crossings to be used for humanitarian aid. So, really, the only game in town here is Egypt, and that’s where the diplomacy lies. But it remains extraordinarily, extraordinarily difficult.
FASKIANOS: We have a question from Erin Bromaghim, deputy mayor of international affairs in the office of Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass. And she asks: Do you see any way forward for the Abraham Accords?
COOK: Well, the Abraham Accords are a separate set of agreements between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan that were signed in 2020. The core countries of the Abraham Accords—Sudan was brought on a bit later—Morocco, the UAE, and Bahrain, and thus far none of those countries have broken diplomatic relations with Israel. The speaker of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of the Emirati Federal National Council, which is their parliament, has said the Abraham Accords are here to stay. The Bahraini—the lower house of the Bahraini parliament issued a statement suspending economic ties and demanding that the Bahraini ambassador not go back to Israel, but the royal court said that that was nonbinding and that relations remain. So the Abraham Accords remain intact.
Morocco and Israel moved very quickly, as well as Israel and the UAE have moved very quickly to establish ties in all spheres. Those are, quite obviously, under strain. There have been recalls of ambassadors. Jordan, which is not an Abraham Accords country but signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1994, has recalled its ambassador. But no country has actually broken their relations with Israel.
Saudi Arabia, which up until this conflict the Biden administration was engaged in intensive diplomacy about normalizing relations with Israel, the defense minister was in Washington last week and he is reported to have said that Saudi Arabia remains interested in normalizing relations. On what terms, however, remains an open question.
One, though, does have to wonder that, as Israel’s military operations continue to unfold, and more and more innocent civilians are caught in the crossfire and Palestinians are killed in the process, how long it will be before Israel loses its friends in the Arab world. And I think, once again, they have been counseling the Israelis privately that they have to do more to protect Palestinian lives, even if, you know, there is a nod, nod, wink, wink. They have—you know, they don’t look upon Hamas positively either. The problem, it seems, is, you know, similar problems that the United States confronted when it was battling in Fallujah in Iraq or in counterterrorism operations in Mosul; is that when you have built-up areas with lots of civilians, people are killed. And the Israelis have done a lot of damage with their aerial bombardment, but I just—I also want to emphasize that, you know, Hamas operates within these areas as well, which is by design to make it as difficult as possible for the Israelis.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
I’m going to go next to a raised hand from John Jaszewski, who is a council member in Mason City, Iowa. If you can unmute yourself.
Q: How’s that? Are we good?
FASKIANOS: That’s great. Thank you.
Q: OK. My question is simple. We live here in the center of the United States, here in Iowa. It is so far away from us, the conflict, we have little effect. But what worries me is the kinds of conflicts that are erupting in this country between Palestinian backers and Israeli backers. Is there anything we on a local level could do to ease that tension?
COOK: Well, John, thanks for the question. I generally do policy, not politics. But because, you know, I think the images and the things that we’re hearing and seeing have been so upsetting for many, many people, I think just the—I think part of what’s happening is that this conflict is focusing partisans on each side, but the battles here really are about other things, about the terms of debate in the United States about what values and norms that we all share. And what I have counseled people is that if they look at how these debates and fights are unfolding, it is terribly dehumanizing for both sides. I mean, I think—it sounds crazy, but there is a debate right now over, you know—you know, which way to kill children is less immoral. I mean, this is—this is crazy, and it shows that we’ve become unmoored in our understanding of what we agree on and what our common values and norms are.
So I think that the—for someone like yourself and others at the local level who are confronting this kind of thing, I think it’s important to remind people to recognize that what we’re talking about is humans and human suffering, and not to dehumanize the others, and that an emphasis on civility no matter how—you can be a passionate partisan for Israel or the Palestinians without dehumanizing the other side. And I think it’s very important and it’s very, very unfortunate that over many, many years Palestinians have been dehumanized in this debate and in everyday life under occupation, and that Israelis and Jews have been dehumanized in a lot of debates in other places, including on university campuses, and that’s how we get to this. And my plea to everybody is to recognize that there is human suffering and to do everybody’s level best to be as civil as possible.
You’re quite right; you yourself and you folks out there in the middle of the country aren’t directly affected by it. But the United States has an important role to play in the Middle East, and Israel—and helping to ensure Israeli security as well as helping to ensure the free flow of energy resources out of the region have been longtime important interests of the United States. In time, those things may change. But for the moment, that is what our primary goals are.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Great. Thank you, Steven. I’m sorry if you froze for me. I apologize for—
COOK: No, that’s all right.
FASKIANOS: —stepping on your continuing.
COOK: That’s OK. You didn’t step on me.
COOK: I was—I was finishing up there.
FASKIANOS: OK. Great.
There are a couple written questions about Iran, so I’m going to take Yasamin Salari, an aide in the California State Assembly: If you could expand upon the Iranian government’s role in this conflict and, you know, their part in all of this.
COOK: Right. It’s a really good question.
And I think that what should be clear by now is that Iran is a patron of Hamas. The Hamas leadership, after October 7, publicly thanked Iran for its support—financial support, for weapons. We now know that some of the tactics that were carried out in the October 7 terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians were—Hamas operatives were trained in Iran to do those—to use paragliders and other means to get into—to get into Israel.
What Iran has done in the region is set up or co-opt or support different groups that it calls the Axis of Resistance—resistance to Israel, but also resistance to the United States. Hamas is part of that. So is another group, called Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which has also fired rockets at Israel, also holds hostages, also did participate in the terrorist attacks on October 7; and Hezbollah, which is an Iranian—I’m sorry, a Lebanese organization; as well as you might have heard recently about the Houthis in Yemen, who have fired drones and missiles in Israel’s direction. They’re all proxies of Iran, and they have varying degrees of autonomy from Iran.
Hamas has more autonomy from Iran than, for example, Hezbollah or the Houthis or Islamic Jihad. And that’s why there is some debate about Iran’s complicity. It may very well be that Iran did not know that on October—on the morning of October 7 Hamas was going to undertake this major terrorist operation within Israeli territory, but they’re certainly complicit in the fact that they—in that they have, by Hamas’ own admission, armed and provided financial support for and training for Hamas.
It's important that these—to recognize that these proxies are used by the Iranians to sow chaos around the region because the Iranians don’t like the current regional political order, which is dominated by the United States and its partners in the region, and would like to push the United States out of the region. In the short run—in the short run, it seems like that has backfired, right? The United States has surged forces back into the region. There’s two aircraft carrier battle groups, one operating in the Mediterranean, one operating in the Persian Gulf. About two thousand Marines have been moved closer to the region and air forces been moved closer to the region. But I think that the Iranian leadership thinks more in longer terms, and that if they could drag the United States back into the region and potentially into the conflict, over time the American people will demand that the United States leave the region, which would be a victory. In the meantime, their aim is for Israel to get sucked into a long and grinding conflict in the Gaza Strip that would sow political division in Israel, weaken the IDF, and in a longer period of time contribute to the weakening of Israel that it could ultimately be destroyed.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
Next question, a raised hand from Texas Representative Jon Rosenthal.
Q: OK. Am I unmuted?
COOK: You are unmuted.
FASKIANOS: You are.
Q: Very good. Thank you so much. So I want to first thank you for having this.
And I want to touch on when you were talking about earlier how the rest of the world is viewing this, especially as civilian casualties and deaths rise by the day in the—in Palestine, in the Gaza Strip. And my concern is at some point, you know, this plan to turn world sentiment against Israel will work. And so my question is, you know, can’t—since Israel relies very, very heavily on the United States and our U.N. coalition partners for the assistance that allows them to operate militarily the way that they do, is it not possible in any way for us to kind of urge them or even strongarm them to take extraordinary measures to spare civilian life there? Because, clearly, they are out in the public, in the media, you know, the Israeli officials saying that they’re taking measures to spare Palestinian lives, and it’s just not working when day after day we see the thousands of children and innocents are being killed. So I guess the question is, why can’t we more forcefully urge them to take more extraordinary measures? And I know that it makes their task more difficult, but I think if they were to show the world what kind of measures they are taking to preserve life while, in contrast, the other side doing their best to—for the opposite goal of seeing not just Israelis, but Palestinians—they put their own people in harm’s way for the purpose of this kind of propaganda? So that’s my question, can we do that?
COOK: Yeah, I think it’s a—it’s an important point. And I think that first, in terms of Israel losing support globally, I think that that’s already happened. I think that there was an outpouring of sympathy for Israel in the first week or so after the attacks revealed both the number of Israelis who were killed and the brutality with which some of them had been murdered. But it was, I mean, I think a foregone conclusion a foregone conclusion—and I think Israelis understood this—that once they undertook their military operations, that support would drain away. And that’s precisely what has happened.
I think the—I think the United States faces a number of challenges. First of all, I think, the administration has counseled the Israelis on doing everything that they can to protect civilian life, recognizing the challenges of what this battlefield looks like. I think that this has been done in a private way. So that’s—but the Israelis are determined to, as they have said from almost the very start, to change the rules of the game. And part of the previous rules of the game was that they would bend to international pressure and reestablish some sort of wild and wary kind of deterrence with Hamas. But after so many Israelis were killed, they seem determined not to bend to international pressure.
And while front—and, once again, let me underline, this is not my perspective. I’m trying to articulate to you what is coming out of Jerusalem. Is that the Israelis believe that they are doing everything they can. When they conduct airstrikes on parts of Jabalia refugee camp, they are calculating that their military target is so important that the, quote/unquote, “collateral damage” is worth that risk. Once again, others may have other risk factors, and they make a different decision. But that’s what the Israelis are doing. And the United States has said: We do not want to tell the Israelis how to conduct their operations. This is their security.
So the other challenge that the United States has is, what if the United States were to tell them? What if they were to put the pressure on them, and it didn’t work? It would put the president in an extraordinarily weak position. And I think our leverage is sort of—yes, Israel has enjoyed a significant amount of support and military aid from the United States. But I don’t think—I think the word “dependent” is too strong. Israel is an industrialized country that has its own, rather well-developed, defense industrial base. The Iron Dome system that has been used to protect Israeli population centers was completely developed on its own—on Israel’s own. The United States became involved in it after it was deployed by Israel because the U.S. Army wanted to use it.
And so there was an agreement that was struck that an American contractor would produce the interceptors for it. So I don’t think that they are as dependent—and they never wanted to be—as dependent upon the United States, for precisely this reason. So it’s extremely, extremely difficult, especially as the Israelis define this conflict in existential terms. As important as the United States is to Israel, when they define—when any country defines something in existential terms, whatever external actors can bring to bear, whatever pressure they can bring to bear, or incentives they can offer, are not as—or, are not as powerful as we’d like to think that they are.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
I’m going to take the next written question from Josh Stump, legislative director in the Office of State Representative Dale Zorn in Michigan: How much support is there for Hamas in Gaza? Is that level of support consistent with all Palestinians?
COOK: Yeah, it’s a—it’s a great question. And what is the astonishing irony of this conflict, as well as other conflicts between Israel and Hamas, you know, going back to 2008 and 2009. And then it was one in 2012, and then in 2014, and then another one in 2021. There might have been one in between 2014 and 2021, I can’t keep them all straight. Is that prior to this outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Hamas, Hamas’ public support has been not great. In fact, there was a poll recently released by very reputable polling out of Princeton University called the Arab Barometer, which demonstrated that Hamas’ public support in Gaza Strip was—prior to this conflict—was something like 23 percent.
But after the hostilities, it seems to have—of course, it’s hard to poll in the middle of hostilities—but it seems that support for Hamas has increased. And that’s the stunning irony of this, that Hamas left to govern in the Gaza Strip has a hard time maintaining broad public support. But when the Israelis really start taking—dismantling the Gaza Strip, support for Hamas and its resistance is important. And this stands in contrast to the Palestinian Authority, which has said negotiation is the best way to achieve Palestinian goals of justice and statehood, but really have gotten nothing in return from negotiations that haven’t really happened in a long time, and that didn’t achieve much to begin with. And Hamas’ actual resistance, which Hamas says will achieve justice and ultimately statehood by destroying Israel. And so in these moments of crisis, there seems to be support—more support for Hamas. But it’s above, I think, it’s ceiling. And I think it’s a function of this war, and other outbreaks of violence.
I’m going to go next to a written question from Christine Ead: How can real progress be made when the elephant in the room is Iran? Through the funding, training, and encouragement from Iran, through the proxies—Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthis—the terrorism will continue. It is as, you know, in Iran’s best interest to have conflict in the region. So we’re barely responding to the multiple attacks on our military in the region. Is this a sign of weakness to the leaders of Iran and others?
COOK: Well, that is—that is really one of the fundamental foreign policy debates that has been going on in Washington for quite some time. Which is, how to deal with Iran. Because Iran pursues this strategy where its proxies sow chaos around the region to advance its and their agendas, their local—the proxies’ local agendas as well as Iran’s broader regional agendas. Yet, there is reluctance to take on Iran directly from both parties, by the way. From, you know, foreign policy officials in both parties we’ve seen this. Because of concerns that it would lead to a wider regional conflict. And I think everybody understands that Iran is behind a good portion of the chaos in the region, but were—at least up until October 7, we’ll see what happens going forward—were willing to live with that because the cost of going after Iran was higher than managing these periodic outbursts of local violence.
And I’ll give you an example. If you think that Hamas has a lot of rockets, and in its opening salvo against Israel it fired between two thousand to five thousand—Hamas has more than a hundred thousand rockets in its arsenal. So that in a conflict, it could fire that many rockets as the Hamas opening salvo for many hours in a row, which would overwhelm Israel’s defense systems. So it is a carefully—people have talked about this over and over again. You’ve seen political leaders, members of the Senate, talk about exactly this issue.
My pleading is that we need to have a realistic view of what Iran is doing. And that the idea that a number of administrations have pursued is that with enough diplomacy and enough incentives Iran wants to have a new relationship with the United States. I think it should be clear by now that Iran does not want to have a new relationship with the United States. It wants to push the United States out of the Middle East. And one of the ways of doing that is by keeping these proxies—you know, keeping these proxies in a position to do harm to America’s partners and, as I said before, sow chaos in the region. But I think American policymakers are also stymied by not wanting to trip the region into a wider regional conflict.
The next written question from Selectmen Gus Murby, in Medfield, Mass.: Taking into consideration the comments that have been made around wavering international support for Israel’s military course of action, do you see any realistic alternative military courses of action Israel could pursue that would allow them still to accomplish their objectives, or incapacitate Hamas, that would be considered to be more acceptable to the international community?
COOK: Well, you know, let me—let me just start out with a—with a caveat that I am not a military analyst or, you know, a defense guy. I’m not a guns and trucks analyst. And I defer to those experts. I suspect that when see senior U.S. military officials were in Israel prior to the beginning of the ground operations, they were making the case for a smaller ground operation that was quite targeted. I think the Israelis took some of their advice about handling this, but, you know, it doesn’t seem that the Israelis are undertaking more limited directed strikes. I think their view is they can’t do that without taking down buildings and finding the entrances to tunnels. Again, that’s my reading into what Israeli thinking is on this.
I also think, to be completely honest with you, that there is, from the Israeli perspective, a rationale for the way in which they have unleashed the kind of violence that they have unleashed on the Gaza Strip. Keep in mind that, you know, the legend of the IDF is that it is this vaunted, efficient, fighting force. And on the morning of October 7, a bunch of dudes in paragliders and others broke through their very sophisticated defensive systems and killed 1,400 people. That has had an impact on their deterrence and their reputation. And I think that part of the unleashing of violence that the Israelis have done is to reestablish that deterrence by convincing people that the Israelis are just as crazy as they think they might be.
This is on the record. Maybe I should have—maybe I should have said that in a different kind of way, but you get the point of what I’m saying. That there is an imperative here from the Israeli perspective to reestablish deterrence. And the way to do that is to unleash withering attacks on Hamas. And, unfortunately, that means that civilians—and a significant number of civilians—are going to get killed in the—in the process.
FASKIANOS: There is a question from John Dugan, vice mayor of San Carlos in California: Assuming Israel imposes order in Gaza after the conflict, as they said they will, are you at all optimistic they can sponsor legitimate elections, seat a government that can be accepted by most Gazans? I mean, what is the—
COOK: That is not the Israeli plan. Not the Israeli plant at all.
FASKIANOS: OK, what is it?
COOK: They’ve been very—they’ve been very, very clear that their plan is to destroy Hamas and leave, and that they will not be responsible for administering government in the Gaza Strip. There is a—there is a civilian affairs part of the Ministry of Defense that administers—that previously administered the Gaza Strip when the Israelis were on the ground there, when they occupied the Gaza Strip—physically occupied the Gaza Strip—that administers the West Bank as well. But they have no intention of doing that.
Whether they can carry through on that threat or not remains an open question. But their goal is to destroy Hamas and leave, and then establish a security regime over the Gaza Strip. Which is not to organize elections and administer it, but is to, once again, create basically a cordon sanitaire around the Gaza Strip so that no one from the Gaza Strip can get anywhere near Israel and threaten the security of Israelis within the country.
FASKIANOS: Right. There are several questions in the Q&A about—
COOK: Anything about the leopards? Anything about the Arabian leopards?
FASKIANOS: Nothing about the leopards. About the military—the weapons and some international law. And those are not necessarily in your—in your lane. But maybe you could talk a little bit about the rise of antisemitism. And, you know, we’ve seen a lot of conflict on college campuses and, frankly, in cities and communities on both sides, right? What would you advise state and local officials to be doing to lower the temperature? And, of course, there’s a social media element of this and the misinformation that’s happening on social media, which is—you know, spreads like wildfire. And what’s true, what’s not true and, you know. So maybe you could just talk a little bit about that.
COOK: Look, there’s undoubtedly been a rise in antisemitism around this conflict. FBI Director Wray, in rather startling testimony a week or so ago, made it clear that, you know, while Americans Jews make up about 2 ½ percent of the population, they are subject to 60 percent of the hate crimes in this country. And that there has been a very significant uptick in in antisemitism. This isn’t—this isn’t—this isn’t pro-Palestinian activism. This is actual antisemitism. I mean, you know, swastikas being—you know, defacing, you know, homes, dorm rooms, things like that, that don’t have anything to do with Palestinian activism. I think that antisemites are taking advantage of the conflict.
There is a raging debate whether there is a difference between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. I think that many anti-Zionists would make the argument that their criticism of Israel has nothing to do with Jews. American Jews would say that’s not necessarily the case. And we’re not going to solve that. We’re not going to solve that problem. What I think for—you know, local officials are in a really terrible position, because everybody’s asking them to make statements about a conflict that is thousands upon thousands of miles away. I think at the Council on Foreign Relations, we are—we have the luxury of never having ever made a statement on anything, that the Council on Foreign Relations itself, as an institution, doesn’t make—doesn’t take an institutional position on something.
And, you know, if I was a local elected leader, a county councilman, and a selectman, a board of supervisors, I would immediately table legislation saying, the county, the town, the borough, the whatever, doesn’t take an institutional position on something, although individual leaders may, at their discretion, take a position on something. That would be my recommendation. But as I recommended to the gentleman from Iowa before, I think—when involved in this, I think the thing to do is to remind people of their humanity. We’re talking about people who are suffering gravely. And that it is easy for us to talk about this conflict from where we are. And as a result, we tend to slide into this slippery slope of dehumanizing and not recognizing that people are suffering.
I have the privilege of knowing people on all sides of this conflict. And those people that I speak to all sound the same way, distraught. People who haven’t—who are worried about family, who are worried about their people, those kinds of things. And I think we have to be cognizant of that and try to lower the temperature. Certainly, social media is not going to lower the temperature. There’s a ton of mis and disinformation out there that is not going to lower the temperature. So we should, when confronted with this, do everything possible to remain logical and maintain—and ensure that we approach these issues with our humanity forward, and recognizing how much suffering is happening in this part of the world right now.
FASKIANOS: Steven Cook, thank you very much for this hour. And to all of you. There are a lot of questions we didn’t get to, but of course, we will have more webinars and dig into some of the questions that were raised on the military aspect or the international law perspective.
COOK: My pleasure, Irina. I do invite everybody who’s listening in to take a look at what my colleague David Scheffer has written on international law. He’ll be doing more on that. And I know you’re going to say it, but, you know, my colleagues and I have been, you know, very busy at this, trying to provide insight and analysis. And it’s all on CFR.org. My apologies. I’m not a military guy and I’m not an international law guy, so I can’t pronounce on those issues. But there are resources available that will help you understand these issues better.
COOK: Check out those Arabian leopards, though.
FASKIANOS: The Arabian leopards. Maybe we should include that in the link that we’re going to send out to the webinar recording and transcript.
COOK: I mean, I’m looking for anything at this point. I’m looking for anything.
FASKIANOS: Anything to bring a smile and to have some hope.
You can follow Steven Cook on X, formerly known as Twitter, at @StevenACook. And, again, to reiterate what Steven did say, you can visit CFR.org, ForeignAffairs.com, and ThinkGlobalHealth.org for the latest developments and analysis on this situation, as well as international trends and how they’re affecting the United States. And, of course, we do welcome you to send your suggestions and feedback for future webinars. You can email us at [email protected]. So, again, thank you all for being with us today. Enjoy the rest of the day.
COOK: Thank you.