Meeting

Virtual Media Briefing: Hamas Attacks on Israel

Saturday, October 7, 2023
Hatem Moussa/AP
Speakers

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

Lowy Distinguished Fellow in U.S.-Middle East Diplomacy, Council on Foreign Relations

Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

President, Council on Foreign Relations

Presider

After the Palestinian militant group Hamas launched attacks from Gaza, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared today that Israel is “at war.” Experts from the Council on Foreign Relations will discuss the implications of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for Israeli-Arab normalization and U.S. policy and interest in the Middle East.

FROMAN: Well, good afternoon, everybody. Welcome. Thank you for joining us on short notice. 

We thought that at a time like this, when there’s a lot of uncertainty of what’s going on on the ground in Israel and in the region, that the best contribution the Council on Foreign Relations could make would be to assemble some of our experts and provide some sober, fact-based, informed analysis to you. That said, we’re clearly in just the first phase of a tragic crisis; and it’s possible it will spread, last for some time, and result in significant loss of human life. The implications for Israel, its relationship with the Palestinians, and the dynamics of the region are no doubt profound. And we’re fortunate to have some of the world’s leading experts, who happen to be fellows here at the Council on Foreign Relations, to help us make sense of it all. 

So let me start with Martin Indyk, if I can. Martin, how will this play out? Will it escalate and spread to Hezbollah, elsewhere? Is this a massive failure on the part of Israeli intelligence or the Israeli political system? And what does it mean for the Biden administration? All in five minutes, if you don’t mind. 

INDYK: OK. So I think there’s a high potential for escalation just because Israel is inevitably going to retaliate in a very strong way, possibly—I would say at this point even likely—go into Gaza. And the result of that would be a very high loss of life on the Palestinian side. The numbers are already in the hundreds. 

I think that we don’t know yet—(inaudible)—in terms of what Iran’s role is. But if this is coordinated, as I suspect it is, then I think we can see a situation where Hezbollah could well join in, and then we’ve got a regional conflagration the dimensions on which we have not seen and which would be a real regional conflagration. Hopefully we can head that off, but it’s not going to be easy. There’s a potential for eruption in the West Bank. Terrorist attacks against Israeli settlers would draw another harsh response in the West Bank. There could be a blob in Jerusalem on in Israel’s Arab sector. So there’s a high potential for escalation. 

What can the United States do about this is, simply put, not much at this stage. I think President Biden’s instinct is to put his arm around Bibi Netanyahu, reassure him of American support, and try to encourage some restraint, although that’s likely to fall on deaf ears at this point. But we have an interest—the United States has an interest in calming things down as quickly as possible. That is not Israel’s interest at the moment. Its interest is to reestablish deterrence, and for that it intends to extract a very high price, (I’m afraid ?). 

What happened here? Total system failure. It was a complete surprise. Hard to believe, given the way that Israel has penetrated all forms of communication in Gaza. Failure to prepare. Failure to have troops along the border. Failure of the fence along the border that they paid billions of shekels for. Failure—once the Hamas infiltrators came across, grabbed Israeli civilians and soldiers, failure to capture them; they went back into Gaza without being apprehended. It is hard to explain, but it is the combination of that with the sense that this was a dysfunctional government of the far right that placed greater emphasis on protecting settlers in the West Bank than it did on protecting kibbutzniks on the border with Gaza has the potential to be very explosive politically in Israel. 

FROMAN: Thank you. 

Ray, what is Iran’s involvement in this? Is it, as Martin said, likely to lead to a coordinated and expanded conflagration with their clients of Hezbollah in the north? And what does it mean for the agreement we’ve just signed with Iran and any further negotiations? 

TAKEYH: Thanks. I feel qualified to speak on this because last night I took my son to watch the film Golda, so right on target. 

In the past week, actually, Iran’s rhetoric on this issue has escalated. Even the leader gave a speech last week sometimes when he essentially suggested that any country that wants to normalize relations with Israel should understand that it’s normalizing relations with a country that’s unlikely to exist for a very long time. And there have been visits by various Hamas officials and so forth, and even Hezbollah officials, to Iran. 

Iran has historically tried to use rejectionist forces or proxy forces in order to disrupt regional trends that it dislikes. As Martin remembers, in 1995 it was Hamas that essentially used violence to undermine a peace effort that was taking place at that time. 

There are operational links between Iran and Hamas, certainly on the military level. Hamas itself is sort of a(n) independent agent. Whether this—whether they required Iranian permission, I think they—certainly, Iranians were provided some foreknowledge that this was going to happen and they were enthusiastically supportive of it, as they are today. Throughout the country, they’re holding rallies supporting the Palestinians. Various members of the Iranian officials have come out, including Rahim Safavi, the military advisor to the leader and the former head of the Revolutionary Guards, suggesting that this is an important thing, important turning point for the Palestinians, and the objective should be destruction of Israel. In that sense, there certainly is an effort to engage in further—in escalation of this conflict. 

I don’t think the Iranians will have any problem with this conflict escalating along the north, as Martin suggested. Whether Hezbollah will do so has to do with a lot of different operations and a lot of different perspective that Hezbollah brings to this table. But the escalation of this conflict has not in any way disturbed them; as a matter of fact, I think they’re looking forward to it because, to the extent possible, it at least retards the process of normalization between the Israelis and the Saudis—which, I have to say, in my opinion was always a little bit far-fetched. I don’t think all the angles were coming together. 

In terms of what this means for Iran—the negotiations that just took place that—the prisoner exchange and the transfer of $6 billion, one of the administration’s objectives, I think, over the year has been to try to deescalate tensions in the Middle East. The peace process between the Israelis and the Saudis was a means of deescalating tensions. The deal with Iran was not just about prisoner release, but establishing some kind of a process that could potentially de-escalate the conflict between the two states.  

I have to say, I see no indications that Iranians are actually interested in de-escalating the conflict. They’re shipping arms to Yemen. They are certainly involved at some level with this outburst in the Palestinian-Israeli arena. And in that particular sense—and even their nuclear program is advancing. According to the IAEA reports, even the level of 60 percent enrichment went up by 7 percent.  

So, in that sense, they have no interests—they have demonstrated no particular interest in reduction of tensions, either in bilateral relations with the United States or in their regional activity as such. President Raisi in his visit to New York certainly did not betray any intention of reduction of tensions at all. So a chaotic region, where Israelis are at odds—are at odds with the Palestinians, where there's conflict, where there's tension, when there's even wars—mini-wars and so forth, has never been inconsistent with the way they view the strategic environment, a strategic environment that is beneficial to them. It's not nation-states coming together in some sort of a compact that could potentially isolate them, but the region that disintegrates into a further degree of violence and chaos. So I think they would be proponents of further escalation of this, and they certainly will try to use that against their regional nemeses, including the Saudis, and certainly the United States. 

FROMAN: Thanks, Ray. 

Steven, maybe you can comment further on what this means for regional dynamics, the negotiation between the Saudis and Israel. Is that time now? Is it over? As well as what does it mean for Israel's nearest neighbors, including Egypt and Egypt's role in monitoring things coming in and out of Gaza and the like? 

COOK: Well, thanks very much, Mike.  

Before I get into that a little bit, I just want to underline one data point on Ray’s topic on the Iranians. This past spring, the leader of the Al-Quds Force, so the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, convened meetings in Beirut with Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, and it encouraged these groups to work together over a period of time to attack the Israelis. So, it could be—this could portend the widening of the conflict and include something in the north as well, given what we know about what the Iranians have been doing. And as Ray pointed out, the supreme leader has been particularly active in social media saying that the time is up for Israel.  

Now, as far as Israel's Arab neighbors go, you know, there's a normalization dynamic that is underway between Israel and Saudi Arabia that was happening on its own. And it doesn't strike me that this episode will necessarily bring it to a grinding halt after all. The Saudis have indicated their ongoing frustration with the Palestinians in the Palestinian arena. I think whether this comes to an absolute halt will really depend very much on how the Israelis respond in the Gaza Strip. And I think if Martin is correct—and I think he's likely to be correct that we are going to see a rather significant operation from air, land, and sea that costs many, many, many lives—I think this dynamic of normalization will likely slow it down or come to a halt, at least for a period of time.  

It's also not lost on anybody that, you know, the pieces were all covered. You have significant opposition here in Washington among president’s own party to it, and actually, among the current Israeli government, which quite honestly, I see having a hard time surviving much longer beyond this crisis, but nevertheless wasn't—all of the relevant actors there weren't as interested in normalization as perhaps the prime minister and the foreign minister.  

Now as far as other actors go, the Jordanians have issued a statement calling for de-escalation. They're obviously worried about violence in the West Bank. The Qataris, who have a representative in the Gaza Strip who deal with the Israelis on a regular basis, issued a very tough statement that was unhelpful, placing squarely—the blame squarely on the Israelis.  

The interesting piece of this, the most interesting piece of this will be Egypt, of course, coming on the heels of the revelations that Egyptian intelligence was involved in bribing the now former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee over Egypt's military aid, and the now chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee vowing to block a significant portion of that aid. It is and has long been an Egyptian mission to help maintain stability in the Gaza Strip, and between—and peace between Israel and Hamas. And when that failed, it has long been Egyptian intelligence’s mission to go into Gaza, knock heads together, and try to de-escalate the situation.  

I think the problem for the Egyptians at the moment, although they will hold themselves out to be helpful, is that the Israelis are going to have to be given a lot of room and a lot of time, given the damage that Hamas has done and the casualties in Israel. So, I think the Egyptians won't get any opportunity to do much in a short period—in the short term. Thanks.  

FROMAN: Thanks, David. 

Let's open it up to questions from the participants, reporters. 

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.) 

We'll take the first question from Barbara Usher. 

Q: Thank you. Barbara Usher from the BBC.  

Could you talk a little bit about where you see U.S. policy going on this? Obviously, there's a sort of standard response with the short-term Gaza wars. But in the context of the Biden administration in particular, which has had these tensions with the Netanyahu administration over the aggressive settler policy, but even more so in a way over the judicial overhaul? 

And then also maybe a bit about the dynamics within the United States. You've had these kind of unusual episodes, this letter by academics saying that they—that Israel should be called out for apartheid policies recently. Even somebody like Ambassador Kurtzer is talking about limiting aid. I think this was also very much triggered by the domestic Israeli scene. But if you could just maybe give us some pointers about where you think the U.S. policy will go and how this war has perhaps changed or altered or whatever, the trajectory of it.  

Thank you. 

FROMAN: Martin, you want to take that one? 

INDYK: Sure. 

So, if this was a shock and a surprise to Israel, it's certainly a shocking surprise to the Biden administration, which relies heavily on assessments from Israel about what Hamas is up to. The Biden administration's approach to the Middle East, from day one, has been to “calm things down,” quote, unquote. That's their first priority. And as we can see, that's not happening.  

So it's a major challenge to that, which can have a knock-on effect, as we've already discussed, in terms of its broader efforts to form a strategic security framework with Israel and Saudi Arabia—Israel, the militarily most powerful country in the region; Saudi Arabia, the economically most powerful country in the region. They present two anchors of an American offshore balancing approach to maintaining stability while the United States focuses on Russia, Ukraine, and China in Asia. That's the strategic conception.  

It's out the window now, for all the reasons that have already been discussed. So, what do you do in that situation? The instinct is to go back outside, pick up your assumptions and bring them back in, try to calm things down again. That's not a bad instinct. But it's not going to provide anything but a temporary reprieve, even if they could get it. So, they have to begin thinking about a broader way to stabilize the situation.  

Having said that, nothing really lends itself to a positive approach. Hamas is intent on Israel's destruction. It benefits from instability, just like Iran does, as Ray said. The Israeli far right-wing government is not interested in doing anything with the Palestinian Authority, the moderate side of the Palestinians, let alone dealing with Hamas. So I think—and then the Palestinian Authority itself has no legitimacy. So the United States really has very little to work with here, except to try to work with Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, our other allies in the region to come together to try to just put a lid on this and worry about where it goes from there afterwards. But Israel and Hamas have had five rounds in something like more than 10 years in the same kind of scenario. And every time it ends with calm restored. The Israelis think deterrence is restored, and your modus vivendi is struck with Hamas informally, and it lasts until the next time. At a certain point, the United States needs to say: Enough; we have to find a more stable and permanent solution. But it's very hard to get there from here. 

FROMAN: May I have the next question.  

OPERATOR: We'll take the next question from Aamer Madhani from USA Today. 

Q: Hey, it's actually from the Associated Press. But thank you for taking my question.  

If you could, just the shock of the massive intelligence failure that’s seemed to happen and the impact that this has for Netanyahu domestically.  

And I was also interested in hearing your all’s thoughts on was Israel caught off guard or in a weak position as a result of the judicial overhaul and all the internal debate on that? Do you see that as having any impact on this moment?  

Thank you. 

INDYK: I'll take the second one if somebody else wants to take the first.  

FROMAN: Yeah. Steven, you want to take the first? 

COOK: Well, in terms of the intelligence failure? Yeah. I think it's—I think it's abundantly clear. You know, just anecdotally, I was speaking with some Israelis this morning as events were unfolding, and one of their children was rushing back to their base. And the only thing that she could say, as she was heading back to her base, was that it was a massive intelligence failure across the board, that, you know, from the inside, Shin Bet, Mossad, military intelligence, no one had any idea that this was coming. After all, had they had any idea that this was coming, she would not have been enjoying herself on a weekend off as a—as a drone operator. So I think that this is of the same massive calamity intelligence failure as you saw in October 1973. And will—when all is said and done, there'll be yet something that echoes the Agranat Commission, which looked into the intelligence failures of the 1973 War. 

TAKEYH: Can I just say one thing? Because I have looked at issues of intelligence failure in other episodes. Once there's a commission that’s going to be established, a Steven suggested, they—all governments after a disaster do a commission to figure out what happened. And you will see in those analysis that information was available about this sort of thing coming up. And the question was, is not so much the lack of information being available regarding Hamas mobilization, it’s how was that information interpreted, and why does senior political officials ignore it?  

Because in almost every case of intelligence failure—and I have looked at particularly the 1979 Iran Revolution—there is a lot of information available about impending problems. But somehow that information is not digested by political leaders in a timely effective way. And they turn around immediately and say intelligence failure. 

FROMAN: (Inaudible)—politics? 

INDYK: Yes. The vision that was created in Israel by the judicial reform efforts of this far-right government, I think it's pretty clear, was a huge distraction, in particular for the army, where you had thousands of reservists saying they would not serve and pilots who the Air Force operates on a reserve system, saying they would not serve. And I think that that roiled the IDF in a way that was—that, I think, was discovered was a huge distraction.  

Secondly, with Ben-Gvir, a minister for so-called national security, harassing the prime minister, the police; and his partner, Bezalel Smotrich, harassing the military about providing protection for settlers in the West Bank; there appears to have been a buildup of Israeli regular forces in the West Bank to protect the settlers. And that maybe—I emphasize maybe—the reason why the border towns and kibbutzim along Gaza were left unprotected in this situation, which is otherwise very hard to believe that it could happen. Certainly, the protest movement—half of Israel, basically—has since now jumped to the conclusion that that is what happened; that the preoccupation with protecting and promoting the settlement enterprise caused a distraction from kibbutzim and town dwellers along the border to settlers in the West Bank.  

I think, beyond that, there is this—has been long now a sense of dysfunction of this far-right government. And one thing to watch is that the leader of the opposition, Yair Lapid, put out a statement today after meeting with the prime minister in which he said that he had offered Netanyahu a Darrow coalition of the center right that would be the Likud under Netanyahu, Lapid and his party, and Gantz—Benny Gantz and his party that would essentially form a majority, push out the far right, and work as an emergency government that would provide much greater confidence on the part of the Israeli people. We will see whether Netanyahu decides to renounce the far right and join with the center. It's a risky thing for him, but he is in a very dangerous position now because the failure is on his watch. The casualties are on his watch. And he is politically in deep trouble.  

FROMAN: Meagan, next question. 

OPERATOR: We'll take the next question from Shaun Tandon.  

Q: Hey there. Thanks for doing this call. 

It’s sort of a basic question but was wondering what do you think of the timing for why Hamas did this. What are the factors? I mean, could the Saudi-Israel normalization prospect be enough that they wanted to reframe the narrative, put the interest back on the—the global interest back on the Palestinian issue? Is it also because of the anniversary of the Yom Kippur War? What do you think the factors are there for Hamas?  

And also, we've discussed to Ray's point the role of Iran. I mean, to what extent do you think there's coordination in this? I mean, obviously, there's moral support. To what extent do you think, or insofar as we know, is there actually a coordinated approach between the clerical government in Iran and Hamas? Thanks. 

TAKEYH: I can take the second part of— 

FROMAN: Go ahead. 

TAKEYH: Please, go ahead. OK, I can take the second part quick. 

FROMAN: Go ahead, Ray. 

TAKEYH: In terms of coordination, there is coordination between Hamas and Iran at operational level, at political level, at all levels. And we see the munitions that they use, the Hamas and the origins of those munitions, particularly missiles and so forth.  

The question that remains unknown is whether this particular operation was instigated by the Iranians. That is something I am uncertain of. Certainly, they would have ample evidence for doing so. But Hamas on these issues has historically acted, as I mentioned, as an independent actor, and it has made its own decisions about when and how to engage the Israeli state. But the coordination is beyond dispute.  

I happen to believe that Iran did have some kind of a foreknowledge that this was happening. I am just not certain if they told Hamas to go ahead and attack Israel in such way. The proxy in that arena that has been most effective and most compliant beyond, of course, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, has been Hezbollah. Hezbollah has compromised its interests many times at the behest of the Iranians, including its immersion in the Syrian Civil War, which did not benefit it at all. That kind of an—that kind of a relationship, as far as I know, does not exist with Hamas. 

But certainly to go to your question, Mr. Tandon, yes, there was coordination. The question was whether Iran instigated it. That I'm not sure about. I'm skeptical of that. 

Please. 

Q: On the question of timing, I don't think anybody knows at this point. There's certainly something, you know, poetic, if in macabre way, about doing this on essentially the fiftieth anniversary of the 1973 war. But what makes the issue of Hamas-Iran coordination tantalizing here is that clearly the Iranians have an interest in disrupting the normalization process between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and this might, from their perspective, be a way to do it. But of course, I think in this early going, we don't have any hard information as to why the timing was today. 

INDYK: I think it's worth reflecting on the fact that the assumption that the Israelis were operating on—and we were, too—was that Hamas was interested in a live-and-let-live approach. They were pushing for more Palestinian workers to go into Israel from Gaza. They were earning money from the proceeds that those workers brought back into Gaza. They were looking for more money from Qatar. They were rebuilding Gaza. The idea that that was a huge smokescreen for something that they were preparing for a very long time because the simultaneous nature of the attack—the firing of thousands of rockets; the land, sea, and air infiltration—could not have been done overnight and they had to be engaged in a massive deception operation as well, in many ways it’s similar to Sadat fifty years ago in the October war, Yom Kippur War. 

And I wonder whether that wasn’t a big part of their timing. That was, after all, the last big military victory by the Arabs against Israel, even though it ended in defeat. But the crossing of the Suez Canal, the gaining of the Golan Heights by Syria was a huge achievement for the Arab armies. And I think Hamas, looking back at it now, wanted to use that in order to show that they could do what Sadat did. There’s a big difference, however. Sadat went to war in order to make peace, and he turned very quickly to the United States to begin a negotiation—peace negotiation with Israel. Hamas has no intentions of doing that. It’s rather, I think, wanting to build its reputation—destroy further the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority, show themselves as the fighters in the Arab world compared to the sheiks, who all they want to do—want to do is make peace with Israel—with Israel and make money out of it. I think that that was their basic calculation. It’s totally amazing, shocking to me that they were able to do it without Israel or the United States picking up on it. 

FROMAN: Meghan? 

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Daniel Drezner. 

Q: Hi. Thanks, all, for you—for doing this. 

I guess my question is about how—what the fallout will be within Israeli domestic politics, because I assume that we’re about to witness the mother of all blame games in terms of who bears the responsibility for the failure in intelligence. And if there’s one thing we know about Benjamin Netanyahu, it’s that he’s survived for something like twenty years. So I guess my question is, how is Netanyahu going to try to play this in a such a way that presumably the IDF bears the brunt of the blame as opposed to himself? And is it possible for him to do that, or is this such a colossal failure that not even Netanyahu’s political skills are going to be able to avoid the blame? 

FROMAN: Martin? 

INDYK: Well, certainly he will try, Daniel, to do what you suggest. But you probably have noticed that he’s not quite as effective as a spinmeister than he used to be, and the reason is because he doesn’t have—notwithstanding his protestations, he doesn’t have his hands on the steering wheel. Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, the far-right ministers in his government, ignore him, and they basically do what pleases them. I can’t imagine what the Cabinet meeting is like with those guys in there trying to shift the blame to him, of course; trying to gain some political advantage out of it. So he’s in a very difficult situation. 

Secondly, it’s the government’s responsibility to protect its citizens. He can’t just blame the army for that. Such high casualties means that he’s going to have to take responsibility, as much as he may try to avoid it. That’s why I suspect his best option is to go with Lapid and Gantz and try to establish a different, responsible government where, going forward, he can deal with this problem in a more effective way. If he doesn’t, he’s using a dysfunctional operation to try to deal with Israel’s most serious crisis in fifty years. And I think he’s smart enough to know that that’s not going to work, but we’ll have to see. 

FROMAN: Next? 

OPERATOR: We’ll take—we’ll take the next question from Massimo Calabresi. 

Q: Hello. Thank you for doing this. It’s very interesting and helpful. Massimo Calabresi from Time magazine. 

My question is: What, if any, risk or danger is there of this conflict expanding into a wider regional conflict engaging any other state-level militaries? Or is that—is it a sub-state/proxy war/conflict, as far as you can tell? 

FROMAN: Steven, you want to take that one? 

COOK: Yeah. I think it’s unlikely that we’re going to see a kind of interstate conflict between an Arab army and Israel. But there is a real danger that we will see Hezbollah and Israel, which is kind of the nightmare scenario. And as I mentioned before, and as Ray has also mentioned, the idea of Iranian coordination raises the prospect of the potential for the north to get violent as well. There have been sporadic press reports today of infiltrators from the north trying to make it into Israel. That’s been an ongoing problem in the north for many months now, but now that there is a very significant conflict going on in the south it’s something that I think everybody should be on the high alert for. 

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Jeffrey Rosen. 

(Pause.) 

Q: Sorry. Difficulty unmuting. 

What are the implications for Saudi Arabia in all of this? It would seem to me that the achievement of Vision 2030 depends to some degree—maybe to a large degree—on stability in the region. This is a very destabilizing event. What leverage do they have? And how might they use it to affect an outcome? Or, in fact, is some of this as directed at them for trying to achieve stability in the region as it is against Israel? 

COOK: Let me start out and then others can join in. I think, Jeffrey, you’ve hit on two of the important points here. 

The first is that the Saudis were a target. I think the—and I think it’s clear that an effort to undermine the normalization dynamics that are underway in the region, the Iranians have been clear about that and Hamas, obviously, doesn’t stand to benefit from the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. 

You’re also quite right that the Saudis really do need regional stability in order to achieve the full—you know, all of their, you know, broad Vision 2030. And so if—the Saudis, who have put themselves out as the most important regional actor, now need to try as best as they can with their relations with the Israelis as well as their clout within the Arab world to bring something constructive to the table here. But I wonder what that may be, given the fact that they are—they don’t have good relations with Hamas. They are opposed to Hamas. 

And the Saudis have another domestic political problem. Whereas Mohammed bin Salman and the people around him are keenly interested in normalization of relations with Israel, have spoken openly about it in ways that I think many of us have been surprised by over the course of the last year, the vast majority of Saudis themselves are opposed to normalization. I think that it was recent numbers coming out of Saudi Arabia that was somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 percent of Saudis support normalization. It wasn’t that long ago that there were telethons happening in Saudi Arabia in support of Hamas suicide bombers. So—whereas, of course, MBS is the, you know, primary if not the sole decision-maker in Saudi Arabia, and if he wants to move forward he can move forward, but there are a number of obstacles here. 

And once again, I think, like the United States, like the Egyptians, like others who might want to use some influence that they have in this situation, in the short term, at least, they don’t have anything to bring to the table. The Israelis are going to be looking to a very significant military operation, and that is not going to be of the same nature that we saw in these last few rounds. It’s not going to be—to be limited. And that also presents a significant problem, as I said in my opening remarks, to normalization. 

TAKEYH: Can I just make a brief comment about that, if I may? 

The new leadership in Saudi Arabia has sought to revise the previous national compact that they had, namely economic dividends for sake of lack of political participation. To some extent, the Saudi government is trying to put Saudis back to work. It’s making demands on the Saudi citizens in terms of taxation, in terms of participation in the workforce, in terms of actually burdening everyday activities. And what it offered them is cultural and social liberalization. 

That was always a tenuous compact, in my opinion. I’ve seen a predecessor of that in Iran in the 1970s. And then normalization of Israel, which as Steven suggested correctly has really no support within the Saudi community or for that matter the larger Arab community, it further puts stress on the Saudi government in dealing with its domestic audiences. 

And the other thing that Prince Bin Salman has done is a very vicious anti-Shiite campaign that they have launched that further aggravates the problems that they have and further provides Iran with inroads into their country in terms of their—a vulnerable constituency. 

You know, trying to change the national compact within Saudi Arabia; you know, trying to change Saudi regional position; trying to refashion the Saudi economy; these are extraordinary things to do if you take them one at a time. If you do all three at the same time with this degree of alacrity, it can be destabilizing. Speed kills. And this is a—this is really an extraordinary experiment whose conclusion at this point remains uncertain, but certainly there are reasons to believe that there will be stress in the coming weeks and months and years. 

INDYK: Could I just add one thing here that’s worth watching? 

This war, of course, is taking place at a time when social media has kind of gone wild. And the killing of Israelis and Palestinians is now being broadcast not just on CNN, but through the various social media channels—videos, who knows whether they’re doctored or not. But this is going to—the Saudis, Saudi people, are very connected in terms of the internet. The videos that will come out of Israeli retaliation in Gaza is going to exacerbate the anger in the Arab world, and I think particularly in Saudi Arabia, and this is going to be very hard for Mohammed bin Salman to control. 

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Mark Goldberg. 

Q: Hi. It’s Mark Goldberg with Global Dispatches. Thank you all. This has been super valuable. 

Do you foresee any sort of domestic political pressure within Israel to strike Iran directly? And are there scenarios you might envision in which Israel might launch, you know, kinetic military action against Iran? 

FROMAN: Ray, you want to take that one? 

TAKEYH: Whether the Israelis will strike Iran directly, I’ll leave that to Martin, and perhaps Steven will want to—want to contest that. 

I’m not sure if I see direct Israeli incursion into Iran itself; although the Israelis have been very effective at various operations within Iran, so I can see them targeting individual Iranians within that respect. But in terms of actually precipitating an interstate conflict between the two, I don’t see that. But I don’t know what kind of pressures Prime Minister Netanyahu is going to be in, and I’m not sure how he will react to those pressures. Martin suggested that coalition government is one way out, and interstate conflict is the other way out. So I’m not quite sure how he would respond to the domestic pressure he’s getting. If there is an Israeli attack directly and in a manner that’s directly traced to them, then I think the Iranians would have to respond. 

INDYK: So I think— 

TAKEYH: Go ahead. 

INDYK: Sorry. 

TAKEYH: No, please go ahead. 

INDYK: Look, Israel has its hands full at the moment. It’s got to worry about forty hostages, Israeli hostages, in Gaza. It’s got to figure out what exactly went wrong and what else could happen. To start a war with Iran at this stage is I don’t think an option. Would they launch targeted attacks on high-value Iranian targets, Iranian regime targets? I do think that’s possible. But I think for them it’s got to be first things first. 

And if they can avoid Hezbollah coming into this war, they will want to do that. Hezbollah is arming fifty thousand rockets. If they start firing them into Israel’s main cities, this is going to be a regional conflagration before long. And so I think they’ve got to be a little careful about that, and the United States is going to be encouraging them to try to calm it down rather than escalate. But I wouldn’t rule out at all the possibility that they will start to organize attacks on Iran as a retaliation that are pinpoint, disavowable, but clear that this is punishment for Iran’s role. 

COOK: Yeah, I was—I just want to add very quickly that the kind of direct violence—the direct kinetic activity against the Iranians is virtually certain to invite a second front from the north. And as Martin said, that’s something that the Israelis clearly want to avoid. So we’ll see more of the kind of shadow war that the Israelis and Iranians have been prosecuting against each other rather than some sort of dramatic direct confrontation. 

FROMAN: Meghan? 

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Janet Rathod. 

Q: Hi. I—from Citibank—spend a lot of time thinking about the interplay between geopolitics and cybersecurity, so two interconnected questions here. 

Are there any cybersecurity considerations associated with this event? 

And what’s your assessment of Hamas’ cyber or information-warfare capabilities? 

INDYK: Well, certainly not my area of expertise, but it seems to me that this is where low-tech beat high-tech. Hamas’ capabilities in the cyber area are limited. They do have internet. They maybe have 3G. But their ability to handle cyber activities compared to Israel’s abilities which we know something about, this is just, you know, black and white, night and day. So I think that they took advantage of the fact that Israel had become dependent on their interception of all of Hamas’ communications, ability to listen in, to perhaps deceive the Israelis and to have an OPSEC way of operating that the Israelis could not intercept, not because it was sophisticated but because it was, you know, like pigeon carriers. 

COOK: I think the real—the real cyber issues are clearly the Israelis and Iranians pitted against each other. They—ongoing, and which is part of this broader shadow war that’s being conducted between each other. I’m not aware that this is something that Hamas has waged against Israel, but certainly the Iranians are often trying to get into Israeli systems, and vice versa. And there’s ample evidence of the Israelis being able to do that. 

FROMAN: Good. Any last thoughts from our panelists before we—before we close? I think we’ve covered sort of the waterfront. 

All right. Well, thank you all for joining. Needless to say, this is ongoing situation. It’ll likely be with us for some time, and we will make ourselves available in various ways to provide analysis and be helpful to you in any way we can. So thank you for joining us today. Take care. 

(END) 

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