Q&A | The Israel-Hamas War: Updates and Analysis (Part 3) with Aaron David Miller

By | Jan 19, 2024
Israel-Hamas war analysis from Aaron David Miller

Three months into Israel’s invasion of Gaza, there is no end to the war in sight. How have Israel’s objectives changed since the beginning of the war? How long will the Biden administration resist the pressure to play hardball with Netanyahu? Does anyone have a plan for the “day after”?

Earlier this month, Middle East analyst Aaron David Miller and Robert Siegel, former host of NPR’s All Things Considered and Moment contributor, returned for a third conversation in their series addressing these and other pressing questions. Watch their conversation here. The Q&A below is an adaptation of their conversation.

Let’s begin with the war itself, the fighting in Gaza and beyond. How would you update us on what has happened so far?

The Israeli objectives remain the same, at least publicly. Number one, degrade Hamas’s military infrastructure above and below ground; number two, kill its senior leaders; and number three, try to do everything possible, through negotiation or operational maneuvers, to rescue the hostages who are in the hands of Hamas and other Palestinian groups or families. Of the roughly 129 presumed hostages, Israel believes at least 20 may have died, either during the October 7 terror surge or subsequently. Those are the three objectives. 

I get the strong feeling that the Israeli objectives are extremely ambitious, that eliminating Hamas as an organization will be very difficult, not to mention killing 15,000 to 30,000 fighters. After all, Hamas is the organizational embodiment of an idea—which is the destruction of Israel and its replacement with an Islamic state. However objectionable that idea is, it still exists in the hearts and minds of a substantial number of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. The Israelis are clearly having a difficult time identifying, capturing or killing the senior leaders, particularly the three who are responsible for the terror surge on October 7: Yahya Sinwar, Mohammed Deif and Marwan Issa. 

So, destroying Hamas as an organization, as a military organization, remains an ambitious goal and perhaps beyond their reach.

One additional comment on the actual Israel-Gaza piece is that we’re witnessing is a fundamental change in Israel’s operational activities. The tempo and the character of its operations in Gaza have shifted from division-size maneuvers involving heavy airstrikes and artillery to more brigade-size efforts to mop up and prevent the resurgence of Hamas in the north of Gaza, and intelligence operations to attack Hamas cells and perhaps find its leadership.

The Biden administration would like to see such a change. They press the Israelis to undertake it because it’s the only way that you’re going to be able to create a predictable, reliable environment in which you cannot only minimize and limit Palestinian deaths, but also surge—not dribble—humanitarian assistance into Gaza. That’s the hope and the aspiration. If it’s not achieved by the end of January, the administration may have to consider alternative messaging and tactics to get the Israelis focused on that.

When Israelis say that they will wage war against Hamas for years and that they will hunt down Hamas leaders forever, would that be exemplified by the drone strike in Beirut that claimed the life of one of the Hamas leaders?

Yes. Last month, Ronen Bar, the head of Shin Bet, said, “This is our Munich,” referring to the 12 Israeli athletes who were murdered at the Olympics in 1972. It took the Israelis months, if not years, to identify the perpetrators and to kill some of them. And Bar was very explicit: Whether it’s Turkey, whether it’s Qatar, whether it’s Lebanon, whether it takes us months or years, we will find them.

The killing of Saleh al-Arouri, who was a key Hamas operative, and Ismail Haniyeh, the political head of Hamas, will have certain consequences. It’s going to chill any further hopes of resuming hostage negotiations. I think Sinwar may be reaching the conclusion that the hostages are to be kept and traded for the things he wants most, which is a cessation of hostilities and a return of Palestinian prisoners—and this is going to be very difficult. And Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, has just given a long set of remarks that seemed belligerent, in terms of escalation along the Israeli-Lebanese border. My own prediction would still be that neither Iran nor Hezbollah has a stake in a major confrontation with Israel, but we’ll see.

How different are the public and private conversations between the Israeli and American governments at this point? 

Joe Biden, alone among modern American presidents, has an extraordinary relationship with Israel. It goes back decades and it’s created an emotional and political bond. 

But Biden’s view of Israel, and even his view of Netanyahu, has changed. He’s more familiar with the risk-averse Benjamin Netanyahu. The politician who calibrates, who takes one step forward, one to the side and one backward; the politician who would rarely get in front of, or out of sync with, public opinion, a very careful, skillful politician. But Biden is not dealing with the risk-averse Benjamin Netanyahu. He’s dealing with a risk-ready Netanyahu.

This has probably been the worst year in memory for the state, nation and people of Israel. And the country is being led by an individual who now conflates his own political survival, and what is required to guarantee that survival, with the best interests of his country—and that is a very dangerous combination. Joe Biden understands that he’s not dealing with his “good friend Benjamin Netanyahu.” Biden would no longer say, “I don’t agree with anything you say, Bibi, but I love you.” That persona is gone because I think Biden sees a politician and an individual who’s prepared to do things he wasn’t prepared to do in the past.

The Biden administration also understands that Netanyahu is dealing with two Israeli governments. First, he’s got the war-cabinet government with Benny Gantz. In his participation, Benny Gantz is absolutely critical and crucial—he adds a comfortable margin to the coalition in terms of seats. And then, on the other hand, Netanyahu is dealing with the most right-wing, extremist, fundamentalist government in the history of the state with two politicians— Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich—who are not only continuing to pursue annexationist policies on the West Bank but who oppose any serious discussion about returning the Palestinian Authority to Gaza or strengthening it.

So this presents the Biden administration with a difficult proposition. There have been some successes: First, there would be no humanitarian aid going into Gaza—not a scintilla—without Joe Biden’s pressure. In my opinion, the people of Israel, mostly the prime minister, couldn’t care less about what happens to the people of Gaza. Joe Biden’s pressure has helped facilitate what little aid has come through. Second, I don’t think there would have been any negotiations over the issue of hostages, which Biden has again made a top priority. Number three—I’m not speculating here—the Israelis were seriously considering a preemptive attack against Hezbollah in the first days after October 7, and the Biden administration turned that off. At the same time, we’ve taken a huge reputation hit, obviously, for the president’s preternatural support of Israel. Some people are amazed that the administration won’t be tougher, impose costs and consequences, and simply tell the Israelis “enough, it’s time to stop.” But that’s not in the cards. 

Should the administration want to do something to up the leverage and the pressure, it could; it could slow or stop munitions deliveries. It could vote for or abstain from the U.N. Security Council resolution if it chose. It could join the chorus of the international community, which is now in harmony on getting a cessation of hostilities. It could do all three of those things if it wanted to, but I don’t think it will.

Let’s turn to Israel and the Israelis for a moment. Bernard Avishai, an Israeli-American political analyst who’s in Jerusalem, wrote in The New York Times that Israel is increasingly split between people who think the war is winnable and others who think some kind of diplomatic solution is needed. Does that ring true to you?

No, it doesn’t. And again, I have not been in Israel since October 7. I’ve done my best to try to get some sense of whether there is a majority of opinion. I think right now, with some exceptions, the margin for the idea of a political horizon or negotiation with any Palestinians about anything that involves fundamental decisions that affect Israel’s security is slim to none.

Now, all of this can change once the fighting and the dying, primarily on the Palestinian side, come to an end. But no, I don’t think that this is the prevailing view for most Israelis, when it comes to doing things for Palestinians, thinking good thoughts about Palestinians or negotiating with Palestinians about any sort of compromise.

I think the sense of rage and shame that exists among the Israeli military, the intelligence services and the public in the wake of the indiscriminate, willful savagery that occurred, the sexual predation, the mutilation, the rape, and what is happening to the female hostages in Gaza now—those are forces that express themselves. I don’t think it’s accurate to suggest that half the public wants to end the war and find a better way with the Palestinians, and the other half doesn’t.

Do you get any sense of revisiting what Israeli policy has been in recent years, the notion of downplaying the Palestinian issue and normalizing relations with countries like Sudan and the UAE? Do Israelis have any bandwidth to be thinking about those things these days?

It’s really hard to generalize. It raises an issue of causality right? Why did October 7 happen? I don’t buy the explanation that there’s direct causality between decades of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians and what Hamas did that day. A stronger case could have been made for that had October 7 been a kind of Sadat-like effort to inflict a limited military defeat on Israel in an effort to create a sense of urgency among the Israeli public toward a negotiation. That’s not what October 7 was all about.

And among those decades of Israeli-failed policies were also genuine efforts to actually try to settle matters (some of which I participated in). Not just with Barack Obama at Camp David, but in [Former Prime Minister of Israel] Ehud Olmert’s discussions with [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas and in John Kerry’s discussions with Abbas as well. I’m not saying those were perfect initiatives; they were not, but they’re part of the history of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians. I think the policies of the current Israeli government have essentially taken over and infused the international community with this notion that there isn’t a good Israel and a bad Israel—there’s only one Israel, and that Israel is bad.

A year of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, for so many reasons, has created these fractures and fissures over what Israel is and where it is.  Seventy-five years after Israel’s independence, two remaining critically important struggles and conflicts continue into 2023——the nature and identity of the state and its borders. 

The same observation could have been 75 years after American independence. In 1851, neither the identity nor the borders of the United States were defined. The comparison can convince you either that there’s still hope in defining Israel’s identity and its borders in a positive direction or of the doomsday approach, which would suggest that the game’s over—that Israel’s not the United States, which has nonpredatory neighbors to its north and south and fish to its east and west. Israel doesn’t have any of that; Israel is in the middle of a dysfunctional, broken region, and it’s got major security problems. I choose to believe that both with respect to Israel’s identity and its borders, there’s still a possibility of working those things through.

Do you feel a sense of possibility of some kind of revived Palestinian Authority playing an important role in Gaza the day after the fighting is over? And for that matter, do you think Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates might be open to playing a role in Gaza after the fighting is over?

The administration is using the acronym RPA—the Revitalized Palestinian Authority or the Reformed Palestinian Authority or the Rejuvenated Palestinian Authority. The objective is clear and right: Palestinians must govern Gaza. That is the objective, and they should govern it wisely by attending to the security and prosperity of the 2 million humans who live there. There’s a lot of magical thinking involved in how you do that and how quickly you could do that. Mahmoud Abbas controls only 40 percent of the West Bank. He has no credibility. Hamas’s support—if you believe Khalil Shikaki’s polls, and I do—has tripled in the West Bank.

They’re probably more popular in the West Bank than in Gaza—because they’ve brought incredible destruction to Gaza as a consequence of their actions on October 7. But to think that Abbas, in the nineteenth year of a four-year term, with single digits in terms of the latest polls, can somehow become a legitimizing authoritative force to return to Gaza, strikes me as a fanciful thinking. 

It’s Gaza first, but cannot be Gaza only. Whatever happens in Gaza has to be tethered to a broader political horizon, some sort of political solution. And that raises obviously the whole question of what do you do when you have a weak and non-existent partner right now in the Palestinian Authority, and you have an Israeli government that is essentially opposed to the least bad option (two states), even though maybe Netanyahu can be brought around on that issue. 

The reality is that 2024 will be the year of Gaza; it will not be the year of negotiations for a two-state solution. It will be the year of trying to figure out a way to get the Israelis to change their operational military tactics, and to surge humanitarian assistance with the UN and other international agency support and to create a climate that is relatively stable to begin the process of reconstruction, which is going to take a great deal of time at enormous cost.

I would divide the next year into two periods. Period number one is between now and November 2024. Should Biden get a second term, that might coincide with the leadership changes in Israel that are absolutely essential for any progress. The current situation—with two vengeful, angry, traumatized communities without leadership willing to steer them in another direction, is a prescription for disaster. 

So, the administration could set a frame between now and November, but it cannot seriously take on the Israeli-Palestinian issue for political reasons, which are legitimate, frankly. If anyone is interested in the reelection of Joe Biden and the defeat of the presumptive Republican nominee, you really don’t want the administration bogged down in a hopeless effort to get Israelis and Palestinians to do something that they will not do and that will end in failure. That’s the last thing Biden needs.

You’re saying that November of 2024 could have consequences for leadership in both Israel and in the Palestinian movement. Does the recent ruling by the Supreme Court in Israel change things much in terms of Netanyahu remaining in power and the way he conducts the war?

The ruling is formal confirmation of the fact that, in my judgment, judicial overhaul is dead. This government does not have the credibility to defy the Supreme Court, given the intelligence and operational failures over which it presided that produced October 7. They’ve basically said that the government is going to respect the Supreme Court’s decision—and they have.

The problem on the Israeli side is that I don’t see the mechanism right now for removing Netanyahu—that’s the real problem. You have a coalition with no stake in self-destructing, and you have a prime minister who’s conflated his own political needs with the needs of his country. Next month, Netanyahu begins to testify before three Jerusalem judges in a district court on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. That trial’s been ongoing for three years. But I don’t know how you remove him. 

I could spin a scenario in which the fighting enters another phase: Benny Gantz decides he’s leaving and he explains to the nation why he’s leaving; the heads of Shin Bet, Mossad, the director of military intelligence and the chief of staff all submit their resignations; and, maybe in response to public pressure as well as cracks within Likud (which does not have a history of devouring its own), the government either falls or is reconstituted with new elections.

23,000 Palestinians, including many women and children, have died since the war began mostly in the shelling of Gaza. Some say that the fighting should stop and Israel should cease its operations. Was there an alternative response to October 7?

I’ve grappled internally with my own conscience and my own mind on this issue. In the face of inhumanity, demonstrating one’s humanity is the mark of something extraordinary. In a galaxy far, far away, with an enlightened Israeli government whose leaders understood the fundamental problems of invading Gaza, could an alternative strategy have been worked out?

My answer is no. Not given the character of the killing on October 7, the rage, the shame, the sense of humiliation.

After all, look at the reaction to the deaths of 3,000 Americans on 9/11—we invaded two countries; we stayed for 20 years; we caused hundreds of thousands of deaths of combatants and noncombatants, including thousands of our own. And we didn’t have a proximity problem with Al-Qaeda. So by comparison, I don’t think the Israelis could have responded in any other way. From the beginning, there was no way that they could achieve their objectives without wreaking grievous injury on thousands of innocents in Gaza. 

And therein lies the moral and ethical dilemmas with which many people are struggling. I’m all for cessation of hostilities, but I would argue that it has to be tethered to a quid pro quo. What would that quid pro quo be, what would be realistic to expect? If Hamas said tomorrow, “We’ll return all the hostages. We need a cessation of hostilities.” That would be a very compelling offer, even to this Israeli government.

But meanwhile, the reputational hit to the United States has been so severe that the Biden administration needs something to come out of this investment. Nothing’s going to justify the loss of life, but they’ll want something on which they can actually build to prevent another October 7. In my judgment, that won’t mean eradicating Hamas as an organization but ending Hamas’s sovereignty in Gaza.

Is that attainable? It’s what the Biden administration would like to achieve. That’s one of the reasons it has not joined the chorus of people who are calling for a cessation of hostilities, full stop. A permanent cease-fire, right now, that’s what the world wants. That’s what the Arabs want—at least that’s what they say they want. What does that actually mean in practice? Does that mean the Israelis withdraw from Gaza, leaving Hamas in place and its leadership intact? What becomes of the hostages? Does Hamas then negotiate the return of the hostages for emptying the Israeli jails of Palestinian prisoners? And then what do we do going forward? 

Those questions are not satisfying to those people who understandably want the killing to stop. “Stop the killing; that’s the only thing that matters. We can talk about everything else; we can fix everything else as long as the killing ends. You can’t just kill 22,000 humans, even if 8,000 of them are combatants; you just can’t do it. It has to stop no matter what you give Hamas or what they gain or how they benefit or what sort of dilemma the Israelis are now in.” That’s the argument that is marshaled, time and time again.

And I must say, the split screen that existed in the wake of October 7 doesn’t exist anymore. What happened on October 7 to 1,300 Israelis happened, but for many, many, many people, it does not justify what the Israelis have done. And as a consequence, there’s really only one screen now, and that’s the screen of what’s happening to Palestinians in Gaza. October 7, it’s unfortunate, it’s tragic, but it’s really not that relevant anymore to a lot of people. And that’s a real problem.

How do we convince the general Palestinian population that Israel is not their mortal enemy, but Hamas and Iran are? And how much do you think the constant incitement by Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza of the Palestinian and Arab populations is a detriment or block to the Palestinian people ever accepting two states?

It’s not a matter of talking points or persuasion. Thousands of Palestinians are being pushed from their shepherding communities as a consequence of settler intimidation, threats and lethal force. It’s a problem, but it’s just part and parcel of a traumatized, aggrieved, angry, rightfully resentful Palestinian community. You can’t whistle past the graveyard on this one; you need Israeli and Palestinian leaders to show the way.

Is there anything Americans, particularly American Jews, can do? A lot of people are feeling hopeless. What can people do watching from afar? Anything?

Number one, don’t panic. 

Number two, create empathy. Try to understand the shame, the suffering, the rage, the impossibility of being a Palestinian or an Israeli right now. This requires each of us to detach to the degree we possibly can from our own agendas, our own motives and our own prejudices. 

And number three, above all, and I say this with great conviction: Don’t rely on analysts for the truth—go out and get it for yourself. We have access to more information than at any time in the history of man and womankind at the touch of a mouse, and yet we are dumber, less educated and more inclined to contract out our views to those of our favorite broadcaster, politician or pundit than ever before. The citizen’s responsibility to be informed is more complicated than ever, because millions of Americans fundamentally disagree with millions more on what constitutes basic facts, and that puts an extremely heavy burden on each of us to get educated. Your job is to read as widely as possible and put the pieces together for yourself. 

It seems to me, of everything that I’ve said today, that this is the most important thing. The responsibility is on you to come up with conclusions on your own; it’s not easy, you’ve got to work at it. But I’m telling you, it’s the key to more than just understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and this crisis. It’s the key to figuring out how we, in a self-governing republic, get through the next year and the next ten years.

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