Q&A | Aaron David Miller: Hamas Incursion a ‘Fundamental Shift’ in Conflict

By | Oct 11, 2023
A broad-souldered white man with brown hair gazes at the camera

As Israel scrambles to correct its intelligence failure and restore security, Middle East analyst Aaron David Miller predicts the end of the judicial overhaul and—perhaps—of Benjamin Netanyahu.

This weekend, hundreds of Israelis were killed, at least 100 more abducted, and thousands more injured in a suprise incursion by Hamas from Gaza into southern Israel. The “Shemini Atzeret War” occurred at the end of the Jewish High Holiday season, and almost 50 years to the day since the onset of the Yom Kippur War, another devastating surprise invasion. On Saturday, Hamas militants entered by land, sea and air, killing more Jews in a single day than any day since Holocaust and inviting comparisons to Pearl Harbor and 9/11 in America.

“There’s so much we don’t know,” Middle East analyst Aaron David Miller told special Moment contributor Robert Siegel during a live interview Monday. “I believe that events over the last three days have fundamentally changed the Israeli calculations.”

Miller says that the attack by Hamas, which included a massacre of people attending a music festival in the Negev desert, was reminiscent of terror campaigns by the Islamic State group and al-Qaeda. The attack came at an unstable time: In Israeli domestic politics, the country has been reckoning for months with an explosively divisive debate about judicial overhaul. On the geopolitical scale, the United States has been underwriting sensitive negotiations to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia.

Siegel interviewed Miller about the possible fallout from this categorically different violence. Below is an edited version of the conversation.

In the short term, what can Israel do in Gaza that doesn’t cost the lives of hostages? Is reoccupation the only option for Israel right now?

Can I just begin with one brief comment? I approach this conversation, first of all, with a sense of great humility. No matter how much context there is, how many experts talk about this problem, it’s got to be done with great reservation and great hesitation in terms of what we don’t know.

Secondly, I approach it with great sadness. I’ve spent most of my professional life working on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and Israelis and Palestinians are at a strategic cul-de-sac. I don’t want to inject moral asymmetry into this—the willful, purposeful murder by Hamas was done intentionally to take hostages and to inject a level of fear and a disruption of normalcy for Israelis, not just in the south, but in the north as well. So there’s no moral equivalence here. But I also grieve for the numbers of innocent Palestinians that have been killed and I suspect will be killed, assuming the Israelis move into Gaza in a way that is qualitatively and quantitatively different from anything they’ve done before.

As for the reoccupation of Gaza: For the last 20 years, every Israeli prime minister, including the most risk averse one in the group, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been told by his military advisors that a major effort to dismantle or eradicate Hamas should be avoided. I believe, however, that events over the last three days have fundamentally changed the Israeli calculation here. I’m not Pythia, the famed Oracle of Delphi, I can’t explain to you how the Israelis are trying to reconcile an inevitability of a massive incursion into Gaza in an effort to not just decapitate Hamas but eradicate it, and what that means for the day after, with the reality of the lives of [some 150 Israeli hostages]. I can’t get inside their thinking. I’m not sure the Israelis have reconciled this as of now either.

I doubt the Biden administration is going to allow a lot of daylight to emerge between itself and the Netanyahu government.

When Israeli prime ministers since 2005 have been advised against reoccupying Gaza, is that because of the losses that would be sustained in doing it, because the objective of dismantling Hamas is just impractical, or because a new Hamas would grow up in its place? What was the hesitation cost?

Ariel Sharon, the master builder of settlements and the deconstructor of settlements, recognized the practical and logistical trap for Israeli Defense Forces operating in Gaza, and the fact that Israeli settlers could have been hostages and required Israeli military support. He withdrew, and that ultimately allowed Hamas to emerge in 2007.

So the calculation has been, yes, the lives of Israeli soldiers, but equally or perhaps even more importantly, Israelis didn’t seem to have an answer to what I refer to as the “day-after” problem: Who is going to govern Gaza?

I could paint you a scenario in a galaxy far, far away in which a successful Israeli military operation to eradicate Hamas could be followed by a transition period. The Israelis would stay for an indeterminate amount of time. The international community would rise to the challenge. The UN would create a transition period. The reconstruction of Gaza would be fueled by billions of dollars from Saudi and the Emirates. The EU would participate. You could have elections, and the return of the Palestinian Authority to Gaza. Gaza could be converted from an open-air prison, which is what it is now. It wouldn’t be Singapore on the Mediterranean, but it would be a place where humans could actually live with some degree of dignity and hope of economic prosperity.

I could paint you that scenario. It’s just, in many respects, untethered from current realities and the will of the international community.

As you’ve mentioned, Hamas is supported by Iran, and Palestine Islamic Jihad might as well be a wing of Iranian intelligence. Might Israel retaliate against Iran for that country’s role in the conflict? And would that lead, do you think, to a much broader regional conflict?

I believe that even now, the Israeli calculation and the Iranian calculation is to avoid precisely this sort of regional escalation that you describe. When we talk about a regional escalation, let’s be clear what we mean. We do not mean Jordan is involved in this. We do not mean the Syrian military, which is now being rebuilt, is involved in this. We do not mean Egypt. We mean Hezbollah’s involvement over the border with its repository of 100,000 high-trajectory weapons of varying range and lethality. And we mean a direct conflict between the State of Israel and the Islamic Republic, and by that I mean attacks by Israel on Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in the region and Iranian ballistic missile attacks directly against the state of Israel. That’s what we mean when we talk about a regional escalation, Hezbollah and Iran.

And are you worried about the prospect of that happening right now?

I’m not worried about it right now. I’ll wait to see what exactly the Israeli move in Gaza is going to be because I think this conflict is still dynamic. The West Bank has remained remarkably tranquil. Even though Hamas has named this operation “The Al-Aqsa Flood,” referring to the mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, you’ve seen very little tension in and around Jerusalem, unlike in 2021.

From the Palestinian perspective, Hamas has just dealt Israel the worst loss of its history. Does this further elevate Hamas over the Palestinian Authority as the leading Palestinian organization?

The story isn’t done yet, and I’m not sure we could answer that conclusively, but the answer is yes. Hamas’s calculation was to recenter the Palestinian issue in the international community’s collective political mind and to ensure that Hamas was seen as the vanguard of Palestinian nationalism, the only Palestinian group that could inflict the kind of pain that it ended up inflicting on Israel.

This was an ISIS/Al-Qaeda-like tactic. And the reason it was done, in my judgment, was to demonstrate that the government of Israel could not protect its citizens. To disrupt normalcy. Some of my relatives in Israel live hundreds of kilometers away from the fighting, and yet they’re frightened and they’re scared. That’s exactly what this attack has done. It’s not fear so much—it’s fear and it’s helplessness. That was Hamas’s goal, and I think, as of now, they’ve achieved it.

What do you make of the reading that there is a strategic aim in all this, which is to let it be shown that if Saudi Arabia normalizes relations with Israel, it’ll be doing so while Israelis are carrying out retaliatory strikes against Gaza and Palestinians are dying? Might this war push the relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which the Iranians certainly don’t want to see, to the back burner?

I think it’s a very wise comment, and I think that issue aligned Hamas’s objectives and goals with Iran’s. If the Biden administration thought they had any leverage over this Israeli government to press it on concessions to be part of this U.S.-brokered Israeli-Saudi normalization agreement, it has no leverage anymore.

I’d worry about settler vigilantism in the wake of this. That’s a real concern.

What is the Biden administration’s strategy and policy at the moment?

The Biden administration has made a calculation to give Israel the time and space to do what it’s going to do. That may seem like an overly harsh, cynical, cold reading of the situation, but I think it’s correct, for three reasons:

First, Joe Biden’s regard and support for the idea of Israel, the people of Israel, the security of Israel—though not the Netanyahu government and not the prime minister—is deeply ingrained in his emotional and political DNA.

Second, politics. The Republican Party has emerged as the “Israel, right or wrong” party, the go-to party when it comes to demonstrating support for Israel. This administration cannot put itself in a position where it appears to be hostile or adversarial, particularly at a moment of crisis and particularly in the wake of the stories that are going to be told once the Israelis fully control, which they haven’t done yet, those southern border communities. And that means giving the Israelis, as I mentioned, the time and space to do what they’re going to do.

The third reason is policy. There are two issues out there between now and 2024. The crisis is how to manage Iran and its putative enrichment program while avoiding a major escalation that could draw the United States into a regional war and create rising oil prices and falling financial markets. And the second is an opportunity—an Israeli-Saudi normalization agreement brokered by the United States.

Both the crisis and opportunity demand, compel, a U.S. president to have a functional relationship with an Israeli government. So for reasons of [Biden’s] persona, his politics and the policy, I doubt this administration is going to allow a lot of daylight to emerge between itself and the Netanyahu government.

There’s no moral equivalence here, but I also grieve for the numbers of innocent Palestinians that have been killed and I suspect will be killed.

I will say one thing: If there is any silver lining here—and I even hate to use the term—it is the death of the judicial overhaul. The average length of an Israeli government since independence in 1948 is 1.8 years. In December, this government will reach its one-year mark. I don’t like making predictions, but if you and I have another chat at this time next year, it won’t be with this Israeli government. A political price is going to be paid for the massive intelligence failure, the inadequate deployment along the border, and the fact that Israelis begged and cried for help and there was no IDF to come to the rescue. To me, that means this government can no longer pursue this bill of goods of judicial overhaul, which would rearrange Israel’s political system. It would be complete and utter overload.

After the Yom Kippur War, the Agranat Commission made a conscious decision not to hold the political leadership accountable. That may happen here. But Golda Meir was held accountable by public opinion, and had to resign. I suspect a similar fate awaits this Israeli prime minister.

I’m not necessarily predicting the imminent demise of this government. It didn’t happen immediately with Golda either—it took another year. But I suspect it’s going to come.

In 1973, it has been said that Israel was captive to its own concept: Since the Egyptians and Syrians knew that they didn’t have the strength to defeat Israel, Israel assumed they wouldn’t start another war. By this interpretation, it was the failure of the Israelis to understand that Sadat had in mind a different kind of victory—a modest victory that would give them the dignity to make peace. In this case, what do you think the intelligence failure was?

It’ll take months to unwind the tick-tock that led to this disaster. Our friend Tom Friedman and others have used the phrase “a failure of imagination.” The Israelis couldn’t imagine that Hamas had the capacity to pull off this kind of attack or had the incentive to do it. The Israelis were on the verge, largely to pacify or facilitate the Israeli-Saudi normalization, of increasing the numbers of Palestinian workers from Gaza into Israel.

And yet, you would have thought an operation of this size would’ve been identified. And it may well have been, we won’t know, that analyst A or B warned of it and it was not taken seriously.

What’s likely to be the tipping point for Saudi Arabia to become involved on either side or to back away from potential relations with Israel? 

MBS, Mohammed bin Salman, will rule Saudi Arabia for over 50 years and is likely to encounter, by my count, a minimum of six or seven U.S. presidents. He has demands, but they don’t occur in the dimension of the Palestinian issue. What he is interested in is what he gets from the United States, and this is my concern.

I’m all for Israeli-Saudi normalization. It’d be great for the Israelis and the Saudis. There may even be a regional resonance to it. But what are we being asked to pay for Israeli-Saudi normalization? A mutual defense treaty. The last time the United States Senate ratified a mutual defense treaty was 1960.

We are going to undertake a commitment to defend Saudi Arabia? A nation whose interests episodically coincide with ours and whose values do not? That worries me. If MBS got everything from the Biden administration that he wanted—and the Biden administration wants this badly—he’d figure out a way to finesse the Palestinian issue. Given this war, I don’t think I would hang a “closed for the season” sign on the possibility of a U.S.-Saudi-Israeli deal, but I think it really now is going to be constrained.

Access Moment’s ongoing coverage of the Hamas-Israel war here.

Given the chaotic state of the U.S. House, can Israel expect material support from the United States?

The question is, what do the Israelis want? So far I’ve seen no formal asks. What’s been reported in the press are interceptors for Iron Dome, ammunition, and small diameter bombs. That’s, so far, what they’ve asked for. This is not ’73, where you’re talking about a massive airlift on the part of the Nixon administration. So do I think that the Israelis will get whatever they need from the Biden administration? I do.

What is Itamar Ben-Gvir, who is now the minister of National Security, up to with his own proclamation of a state of emergency, giving police expanded powers? Will he be sending forces into Arab-Israeli neighborhoods as a show of force that’s guaranteed to spark rioting and add to the chaos?

He could. I mean, both Itamar Ben-Gvir and Betzalel Smotrich have been given prestigious titles with real responsibility and with real budgets: Smotrich in particular. And, of course, both of them are committed to laying the foundation for the annexation of the West Bank, or the majority of it—without using the term annexation. Whether that will continue in these circumstances is unclear. I’d worry about settler vigilantism in the wake of this. That’s a real concern.

The Israelis are going to be preoccupied, and the West Bank could easily explode as a consequence of what they’re going to do in Gaza. And that also would extend based on what we saw in 2021, which was the worst intercommunal violence between Palestinian citizens of Israel and Israelis since the state of Israel was established.

What role do you expect Egypt can play at this point? Can it be a constructive interlocutor with the people in Gaza or do something positive?

It’s funny, for the half a dozen secretaries of state I worked for up until 2003, the first stop of any Middle Eastern trip was always Cairo. Cairo was deemed to be America’s partner. And frankly, Sadat and Mubarak sometimes rose to the occasion. But Egypt no longer occupies the pride of place that it did in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s—the Gulf has replaced Egypt. Although, Egypt has been extremely important as a broker and as a facilitator of quieting down any number of conflicts between Israel and Hamas, as have the Qataris.

On the question of allowing Gazans to flee Israeli bombardment into Egypt, you have to wonder whether Gazans, many of whom already consider themselves refugees, would want to double down on becoming  refugees by leaving Gaza. And I’m not sure that the Egyptians, who are extremely nervous about Hamas’s and Islamic groups’ presence in Egypt, would be willing to admit those who wanted to leave in any significant numbers.

In Israel, wars have changed the outlook of the people. They’ve set the tone for the subsequent years. What do you think the impact of these events will be on the mentality of Israelis?

I wouldn’t presume to speak for Israelis on this one. You’re asking a question about the future. And I would respond by saying the following:

In my own life, I personally experienced two significant events related to this conflict and my own work. One was being in Jerusalem in October of 1973 and watching a nation traumatized. Even though the wars were at the borders and there were no attacks on civilians, there was quiet in the cities. Food disappeared from the supermarkets. Israeli men and some women in the reserves, the Miluim, disappeared. But six years later, in the wake of the trauma—and ’73 was a trauma—Israelis had an extraordinary degree of hope in the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty. So that’s trauma that turned to hope.

Twenty years later, I sat on the south lawn of the White House on September 13, 1993, watching Arafat, Clinton, Barak, Shimon Peres, Mahmoud Abbas stand on stage, committing themselves to a series of heroic agreements known as the Oslo Accords. When the Oslo Accords failed, that hope led to trauma.

Recently, both of those experiences have convinced me that we can’t see what’s in front of us—for good or ill. I don’t say “never” anymore. I have two grown children in their 40s. I occupy a tiny space on this planet for a very, very limited amount of time. I don’t have the right, the moral right, to say “never.” I don’t have the right to say there will never be a resolution, an equitable and durable solution, for Israelis and Palestinians.

Jack Kennedy was the first and last president who ever had an emotional impact on me. Kennedy described himself as an idealist without illusion. That’s what I am. I’m an idealist without illusion. I will never give up on the prospect that the world can be changed for the better. But I’m going through life and through this process with my eyes wide open.

It’s tikkun olam, right? I mean, did the rabbis really believe that the world could be repaired? Or was it the act of repairing, the process of repairing, the constant process of seeking something better, of aspiring to something more that really was their message? Or you could quote Elie Wiesel—Without hope, there’s no life. But we’ve got to work, not just hope.


2 thoughts on “Q&A | Aaron David Miller: Hamas Incursion a ‘Fundamental Shift’ in Conflict

  1. Diane Westheimer says:

    Excellent piece. Thank you

  2. Allen Eli Segal says:

    Intelligent questions, intelligent answers. Thank you for illuminating our Jewish world in these very trying times. And a Big Thank You to President Joe Biden, who received 70% of the Jewish vote. For A Good Reason.

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