On the highest level of the Biden administration’s face-to-face visit, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken travels to … Middle east To seize the momentum created by the ceasefire in Gaza last week in what could be the first step toward peace talks.
The Biden administration has been criticized for not taking more aggressive measures to try to end the back and forth attacks before the deal, with some in Biden’s party calling for the United States to take a tougher stance against Israel’s actions as it responded to a series of rocket attacks.
Our coding brief enlisted the help of our expert Norm Rolls Take a look at how an intelligence expert views recent events in the Middle East and how they lead to the return of US national security.
Norman T. Roll spent 34 years at the CIA, where he directed several programs related to Iran and the Middle East. He held the position of Director of National Intelligence of Iran (NIM-I) in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence from November 2008 through September 2017. As NIM-I, Norm was the lead official in the Intelligence Community (IC) responsible for overseeing all aspects of national intelligence policy and related activities. In Iran, to include IC engagement on Iran issues with senior policy makers at the National Security Council and State Department.
We asked Norm to start sharing his most important observations about what has happened so far.
Rolled: A bunch comes to mind.
First and foremost, the world has just witnessed another wave of violence in the Middle East that has left hundreds of civilians – including dozens of children – dead, more than a thousand wounded and thousands homeless, without any meaningful change to the status quo. The post-conflict situation virtually guarantees that similar violence will occur again. Unfortunately, there is no indication that the international community – or Israeli and Palestinian leaders – is prepared to devote diplomatic and political capital to achieving a settlement that will alleviate the well-documented suffering of the Palestinian people and the deadly threats to Israeli citizens.
Second, the Arabs of Israel and the Jews have engaged in sectarian violence and social entrapment to an extent not seen in decades, and perhaps not since the founding of Israel. These long-running internal tensions erupted in the eyes of the world, shattering Israel’s image of peaceful relations between its citizens of various religions. We may be seeing a taste of what a one-state solution might mean in practice.
After that, I think we have witnessed the fallout from years of Iranian support for Hamas to develop its weapons technology. Despite successes in ending much of the smuggling of weapons from Sudan through Egypt, frequent Israeli attacks in Syria to limit the ability of Palestinian and Lebanese militants to obtain precision-guided weapons, and restrictions imposed by maximum pressure on Iran’s resources for Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine. Hamas’s offensive capabilities have gradually evolved to reach an unprecedented extent. To be sure, Hamas lacks the ability to destroy Israel, but it can shape the psyche of conflict and threaten a large part of Israeli territory. A new nuclear deal with Iran is almost certain to increase the funding, training, and weapons that Tehran provides to these militants.
Fourth, the Biden administration saw how difficult it was to avoid getting involved in the crises of the Middle East. In the past few days, the President and senior officials have reached out to Israeli, Egyptian, Saudi, Jordanian and Qatari leaders in an effort to end the violence. I don’t think this episode will change administration views about the need for America to devote less energy to the region, but it may speed up the creation of architecture to manage its problems. Regarding this, an unprecedented number of Democrats have criticized Israel and have spoken of blocking American military support for the Israeli army. This shift cannot be ignored by an administration that must question how to preserve Democratic control of the House of Representatives in 2022.
Blade Brief: How do you see this recent conflict compared to previous Israeli-Palestinian conflicts in recent years?
Rolled: Since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, there have been six Israeli-Palestinian military conflicts, one every eighteen months. Each event followed a similar path, but I can think of some differences with this most recent struggle.
First, Hamas has succeeded in launching thousands of rockets at a greater number of civilian targets threatening millions of innocent Israelis, Americans, and other citizens, to include Palestinians. About 360,000 Palestinians live in Jerusalem, and the number of Arabs in Israel is about 1.9 million, or about 21% of the population. Of the more than 4,000 rockets fired by Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine, nearly 700 have landed in Gaza itself.
The conflict has sparked unprecedented intercommunal violence in Israel, and it will take years to overcome. Finally, Israel demonstrated an intelligence capability that led air operations targeting the combat military architecture and the individuals behind it.
Blade Brief: Can either side claim a strategic victory at this point?
Rolled: Each side will claim that it has demonstrated its ability to defend its people through the tools of confrontation, but neither side can claim a strategic victory. Perhaps there is no better example than the iconic images of Palestinian rockets and Iron Dome defenses competing in the night sky. Each will refer to such images as defeating the other.
Cipher Brief: How will the conflict affect the political fortunes of Israeli and Palestinian leaders?
Rolled: In general, the leadership of Hamas and Israel will likely see a temporary rise in popularity that will fade within weeks. Right-wing leaders are likely to dominate their political spheres for the foreseeable future. If I had to nominate a winner in this category, I’d say it is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Just days before the fighting began, it appeared that Netanyahu would lose his position. Perhaps this would have meant the end of his political career. Yet it once again proved the adage that “cats wish they had the same number of Netanyahu’s lives.” The conflict collapsed Israeli politician Yair Lapid’s efforts to form a new coalition and forced rivals such as Naftali Bennett to support Netanyahu’s handling of the crisis. Israel now faces the prospect of a fifth general election in two years, and Netanyahu has another chance at leadership.
On the other hand, Hamas will push it back to the forefront of the world’s attention. It will also claim that, unlike the Palestinian Authority, Hamas has the leadership and capacity to defend Palestinian rights, particularly in Jerusalem. Abbas has been largely insignificant in recent events, but he will likely find the international community eager to engage in an unlikely effort to bolster its standing against Hamas and find some way to regain momentum for the dying peace process.
Blade Brief: What about tactical successes?
Rolled: Each side can list significant tactical successes, and both have demonstrated the ability to strike enemies with long-range weapons.