Why you should care
A fragile cease-fire is holding after this latest bloody war between Hamas and Israel, but where does that leave the long-running conflict in terms of power ratios, influence and the future?
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
As the battle between Israel and Hamas raged for 11 days, I kept marveling at how dramatically things have changed since 1999, when CIA Director George Tenet and I visited the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at his office in Gaza. Arafat was accompanied by his security chiefs, Mohammed Dahlan, Amin al-Hindi and Jibril Rajoub.
Over coffee and a traditional Arab dessert, we discussed Palestinian plans for cracking down on militants such as Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad as part of an effort by Israel, the United States and the Palestinian Authority to lay a foundation for peace negotiations.
A year or so later, then-President Bill Clinton convened the parties at Camp David searching for a peace agreement. Accounts of the meeting differ on who caused it to fail, but it came as close as any effort before or since to reaching a peace agreement. At the time, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak implied Israel was prepared to cede authority over all of Gaza and more than 90 percent of the West Bank, and to dismantle many Israeli settlements there. But Arafat could not agree to the terms, which I’ve always seen as his inability to make the leap from revolutionary leader to statesman.
Today, of course, all of this has been turned upside down. The Palestinian movement is split between the official Mahmoud Abbas-led government in the West Bank and the de facto Hamas regime in Gaza, the West Bank is dotted with about 130 official Israeli settlements, and this latest bloody war between Hamas and Israel is suspended by a fragile cease-fire.
So where does this leave the long-running conflict in terms of power ratios, influence and the future?
First, this is a classic case — as so often in war — where gains and losses cannot be measured in lives and physical destruction. On that scale, Hamas is the loser. But in a broader political sense, Hamas has gained more than Israel. When a small militant group like Hamas takes on a regional superpower like Israel, all it must do to “win” is survive, and still be standing and prepared to go on (like the Viet Cong after their militarily disastrous 1968 Tet Offensive in Vietnam). Moreover, Hamas has pushed the Palestinian cause back into the public eye after a long period of being ignored or shoved to the sidelines, as it was in the Trump administration’s Abraham Accords, which led to Israel’s formal recognition by the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.
Second, the conflict once again has political leaders, including President Joe Biden, talking about the two-state solution (Israel and Palestine as separate, independent states) as the only way to settle the conflict. This had seemingly fallen off the world’s agenda in the wake of more dramatic Middle East events such as the Iraq War, the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings and the civil war in Syria.
In truth, though, the two-state solution — almost in hand at the beginning of the century — has receded as a realistic near-term possibility. Diplomats should work hard to revive it, but it will be a steep, uphill slog. Palestinian opinion polls last year showed support for it falling to about 14%, while focus-group research early this year showed Israelis widely preferring the status quo to the two-state option. There is talk periodically of shifting the goal to a one-state solution with Israelis and Palestinians living in one state with equal rights. But the obstacles to that seem equally formidable, especially given the violence in Israeli towns between Jewish and Arab Israeli citizens that uniquely marked this latest flare-up.
. . . getting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks off the ground is always a long and delicate game, and the two decades since the Camp David meeting have only added challenges.
Third, this battle has brought the U.S. back into the act in its recently neglected role as broker between Israel and the Palestinians. U.S. diplomats and other American officials reportedly made dozens of calls with officials from Israel and Egypt (the latter serving as an intermediary for Hamas). Biden himself was on the phone eight times with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over several days. There are several signs that Washington intends to stay engaged, including its planned reopening of the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, which was the traditional locus point for Washington’s dealings with the Palestinian Authority. Former President Donald Trump closed the office after moving the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv three years ago
Fourth, the conflict will be felt in other U.S. efforts in the region, mainly its work to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear limitation agreement that Trump left in 2018. The conflict threw into bolder relief Iran’s provision of funding and rockets to Hamas. This is precisely the kind of behavior by Iran that Biden is under pressure from U.S. conservatives and Israel to add to the agreement’s constraints on Iran. Iran, of course, will resist going beyond the agreement’s original provisions on nuclear work.
Thinking back to the 1990s again, getting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks off the ground is always a long and delicate game, and the two decades since the Camp David meeting have only added challenges. Negotiators would have to start with elementary confidence-building measures, given how wary the parties are of each other now. Mediators may simply have to leave Hamas out of the process and work with Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority government. But that will require a more coherent and united Palestinian leadership than exists under the 85-year-old Abbas, who recently indefinitely postponed parliamentary elections that were due to be held last week, perhaps fearing a loss to Hamas.
Finally, trouble in the Middle East is once again scrambling an American president’s priorities. In Biden’s case, those appear to be strengthening the U.S. domestically, competing with China, countering Russian aggression and dealing with global issues such as climate change. Fortunately, Biden seems to be retooling and restaffing diplomacy to deal with multiple problems. That’s a good thing, because as General David Petraeus once wisely warned, “This is a region that doesn’t play by Las Vegas rules. What happens in the Middle East does not stay in the Middle East.”