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What Led To The Hamas Attack On Israel — And What Now?

The crisis in Israel and Gaza–and Southern Lebanon and the West Bank —  is unfolding rapidly. Following the Hamas attacks on Saturday, Netanyahu promised to “return fire of a magnitude that the enemy has not known.” Israel has already launched heavy airstrikes on Gaza and seems to be readying a ground invasion. Meanwhile, unrest in the West Bank has resulted in 11 Palestinians killed by Israeli soldiers, and in Southern Lebanon Hezbollah has been trading rocket fire with Israel.

Joining me to discuss this crisis is Daniel Levy, who is head of the U.S. Middle East Project and is a former peace negotiator under the governments of Israeli Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak. We kick off discussing why the Hamas attack happened when it did, the strategic logic underpinning Hamas’ actions, Israel’s likely response, the implications of this episode for Israeli domestic politics, and the prospect that this might devolve into a wider regional conflict.

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Transcript excerpt edited for clarity

Why Did Hamas Strike When they Did?

Mark Leon Goldberg I am interested in getting your perspective on why Hamas decided to launch this attack. Now, obviously, this seemed to have been in the works for a long time, given the complexity of the operation. But why do you deduce they decided to strike when they did? 

Daniel Levy As you say, this sophistication of operation clearly was not in the planning for only a short period of time. That, of course, doesn’t mean that the go no go decision was taken a long time ago. In fact, one would imagine that was not sooner. There have been some reports, and I am really not convinced that those are accurate, that there was perhaps a meeting that took place in Beirut, that the final green light is given by Tehran. And I would distinguish between two things here. I don’t think that is the case. I don’t think the instruction came out of Tehran or the Hezbollah controlled parts of southern Beirut. What I would say on that is that the capacity of Hamas and the other important resistance movement participant in this Palestinian Islamic Jihad has been upgraded as a consequence of the relationship that they have with the other members of the axis of resistance. And this is a thing:  the axis of resistance, which includes Iran, includes Hezbollah, it includes these movements. And so the ability to conduct asymmetric warfare of the type that we saw is in part a function of that relationship. But that doesn’t mean that they are a proxy who does Iran’s bidding. 

Mark Leon Goldberg That’s a longstanding idea that Hamas is supported by Iran but is not a proxy of Iran as opposed to Hezbollah, which is very much a proxy of Iran. And that is one of the, I think, the key distinguishing features between those two entities, among others. 

Daniel Levy I agree. But I would also want to position these things on the spectrum. In other words, Hezbollah also has a Lebanese constituency that it has to think about. So there’s complexity in all of these relationships. 

Now, the other thing that looms large in conversations around the Middle East that relate to the Israeli-Palestinian situation and the people of therefore looking at it is that the proximate cause is the American push to achieve a package that would be US-Saudi. There’s a lot of geopolitics around that as to why America would want to be deepening its relationship with Saudi right now, perhaps decelerating Saudi’s geopolitical pivot. But it also has an Israel  part of the package is a normalization with Israel. And so if you look at this from what is one of the things that was on the cards that will be most immediately impacted, I do think those talks go into a hiatus. It doesn’t mean that the American Saudi talks and this won’t happen still under the Biden administration, but I think it becomes less likely. It has been put to me that that seems a decent explanation as to why now, and I think it is part of the story. 

But again, I find it insufficient as a catch all explanation as to where I’m left in trying to answer that question is that these things eventually reach what one could say a tipping point, that one should pay a bit of attention and take at least a little bit seriously what the movement itself is telling us, which is “we keep warning you, we keep saying that if the situation deteriorates, if none of the issues we’re putting on the table see any movement, then this is the ultimate recourse for a resistance movement to take”. And so I think we’re probably better off and we probably get closer to the correct answer if we zoom out a little bit and consider the fact that what we see is a situation whereby Palestinian conditions keep deteriorating, there has been a whole additional layer of provocations from the current Israeli governing coalition. In other words, it’s not that there’s some fantastic status quo ante from before Bibi’s new government, that if only we could return to that, things would go swimmingly. No, things were bad. The denial of basic Palestinian rights and freedom, the regime under which they live, that is the long term cause. And then you have the provocations of the new government. 

The ones that Hamas has focused on is al-Aqsa, is the Temple Mount, the holy site in Jerusalem, and that there’s a disagreement actually within the Israeli government on this, which I won’t go into. It’s interesting, but you have important forces in the government pushing the envelope on that. That is, as my friend Danny Seidman calls it, is nitroglycerin when it comes to this part of the world. You have the settler militias who have really been given the green light to do their worst by this Israeli government. And there have been a lot of instances of Palestinian fatalities on the West Bank. It’s been the deadliest year and the worsening of the conditions for Palestinian prisoners. So if you put all of that together, and if you remember that on the other side of the Palestinian political divide and I’ll close with this, you have the Fatah-led PLO and they made the decision to go for peace talks, go to negotiations. They have seen no return on that investment. Things have only got worse. Hamas is the resistance movement. The PLO in the West Bank is very fragile. They’ve seen an Israel that’s polarized and looks a bit fragile. And I think those things come together. This is the moment to try this kind of thing. 

How Israeli Miscalculations Lead to this Crisis?

Mark Leon Goldberg  If you look at the flip side of this, which is Netanyahu’s real innovation, which has been to treat the Palestinian issue as like a security challenge to be managed, not a political problem to be solved. And if indeed, Hamas is trying to change that equation, how do they foresee this endgame or this crisis resolving itself in any way that’s meaningfully supportive of Palestinian aspirations? 

Daniel Levy The point that you make is really important. If I can say for the following reason, because Netanyahu has, as you say, tried to make this case, look at the Palestinians, they’re never going to get anything as long as we can manage them. And to be honest, they’re relatively easily managed. It’s a version of the Bush neo-con era real men go to Iran. Right after Iraq, there was that push — Next has to be Iran. And I think there’s the Israeli version of it is “the serious people don’t deal with the Palestinian file. The Palestinian file is a mowing the lawn maintenance file. Serious people deal with the Iranian file.” 

And I mention that because and it feeds into the answer to where does this go as Hamas sees it. But I mention that because I think that precise approach by Israel goes some significant distance to explaining how come the enormity of the failure here, because the scenes of the heart breaking and I also tremble think what’s going to happen in Gaza. But the extent of the failure of Israeli deterrence, of Israeli initial military response and of Israeli intelligence is enormous. And I think one can only explain if one brings into the equation this hubris that Israel has towards the whole Palestinian issue, that these are a defeated people. They’ll have occasional bursts of energy, but we’ve got this managed low cost. The world doesn’t care. There are countries normalizing with us who never would have in the past. Everyone has moved on. 

And I think this led to deep miscalculation and going too far in believing your own spin in your own lies leads to a decomposition of the capacities in your system. And I think that’s what we’ve seen. Hamas and the resistance movements may be overreaching in drawing that conclusion to the extent to which this kind of an action can lead to a relatively rapid unraveling of more of the system. I think the Israeli system will regather, rehabilitated its capacity to push back, and I think it’s going to come at a huge cost to Palestinians in the short term. I do think in the long term, this doesn’t play out well for Israel. But I think in the immediate term, Hamas may think that the brittleness and fragility on the Israeli side is greater than it is. And I think it’s significant. It’s more than it’s been. But if you ask how do they think this plays out, I assume that they have factored in the possibility of the kind of Israeli operation in Gaza which displaces their government. But I think they’re hoping that if Israel tries to do that, the cost of that will be so great. It will play into an already polarized Israel that others may join. The West Bank will be destabilized, that the P.A. in the West Bank may well not be able to continue, and that there is a general unraveling and out of that will emerge new openings. That’s the closest I can come to trying to articulate an answer to your question. I can’t say it won’t play out that way. And ultimately it may well, but I think that’s more of an over the horizon thing.