During the in-person visit to the highest level of the Biden administration, Secretary of State Antony Blinken visits the Middle East to seize the momentum created by the Gaza ceasefire last week in what could be the first step backwards towards peace talks.
The Biden administration has been criticized for failing to take more aggressive steps to try to end the back-and-forth attacks ahead of the deal, as some members of Biden’s own party called on the United States to adopt a tougher stance against Israel’s actions in response to a series of rocket attacks.
The Cipher Brief asked our expert Norm Roule to see how an intelligence professional examines recent events in the Middle East and how they bring them back to US national security..
Norman T. Roule served for 34 years in the CIA, managing numerous programs relating to Iran and the Middle East. He served as the National Intelligence Director for Iran (NIM-I) in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence from November 2008 to September 2017. As NIM-I, Norm was the chief executive of the intelligence community (IC) responsible for overseeing all aspects. national intelligence policy and Iran-related activities, to include IC’s engagement on Iranian issues with senior political officials from the National Security Council and the State Department.
We asked Norm to start by sharing his main observations on what has happened to date.
Rolled: A handful comes to mind.
First, the world has just witnessed another spasm of violence in the Middle East that has left hundreds of civilians – including dozens of children – dead, over a thousand injured and thousands homeless, with no significant change in the status quo. The post-conflict situation virtually guarantees that similar violence will recur. Unfortunately, there is no indication that the international community – or the Israeli and Palestinian leaders – are ready to devote diplomatic and political capital to achieve a settlement that would alleviate the well-documented suffering of the Palestinian people and the deadly threats against Israeli citizens.
Second, Arabs and Israeli Jews have engaged in inter-communal violence and social entropy to a degree not seen in decades, perhaps not since the founding of Israel. These lingering internal tensions have flared up in the eyes of the world, shattering Israel’s image of peaceful relations among its citizens of different faiths. We are perhaps seeing a taste of what a one-state solution might mean in practice.
Second, I think we have witnessed the consequences of years of Iranian support for Hamas to develop its weapons technologies. Despite the successes achieved in stopping much of the arms smuggling from Sudan via Egypt, Israel’s repeated attacks in Syria to reduce the ability of Palestinian and Lebanese militants to acquire precision guided weapons , and the constraints that the maximum pressure placed on the Iranian resources of Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas’s offensive capabilities gradually developed into an unprecedented capability. Hamas certainly does not have the capacity to destroy Israel, but it can shape the psychology of conflict and threaten much of Israeli territory. A new nuclear deal with Iran will almost certainly increase the funding, training and weaponry that Tehran provides to these militants.
Fourth, the Biden administration has seen how difficult it is to avoid getting involved in crises in the Middle East. Over the past few days, the president and senior officials have contacted leaders of Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatari in their efforts to end the violence. I don’t think this episode will change the administration’s perspective on America’s need to devote less energy to the region, but it could speed up the creation of an architecture to deal with its problems. Related to this, an unprecedented number of Democrats have criticized Israel and spoken of blocking US military support for the IDF. This change cannot be ignored by an administration that must consider how to maintain democratic control of the House of Representatives in 2022.
The cipher Brief: How do you see this latest conflict compared to previous Israeli-Palestinian conflicts in recent years?
Rolled: Since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, there have been six Israeli-Palestinian military conflicts, approximately one every eighteen months. Each event has followed a similar path, but I can think of a few differences with this last conflict.
First, Hamas succeeded in firing thousands of rockets at more civilian targets threatening millions of Israelis, Americans and other innocent nationals, including Palestinians. About 360,000 Palestinians live in Jerusalem, and Arabs in Israel number about 1.9 million, or about 21% of the population. In addition, of more than 4,000 rockets fired by Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, nearly 700 have landed in Gaza itself.
The conflict has sparked unprecedented inter-communal violence in Israel that will take years to overcome. Finally, Israel demonstrated an intelligence capability that conducted air operations that targeted the militant military architecture and the individuals behind it.
The cipher Brief: Can both sides claim a strategic victory at this point?
Rolled: Each side will claim that it has demonstrated its ability to defend its people through tools of confrontation, but neither can claim a strategic victory. There is perhaps no better example than the iconic photographs of Palestinian rockets and Iron Dome defenses jumping into the night sky. Each will designate these images as a defeat for the other.
The cipher Brief: What will be the impact of the conflict on the political fortunes of the Israeli and Palestinian leaders?
Rolled: In general, the leaders of Hamas and Israel are likely to experience a temporary spike in popularity that wanes over the weeks. Right-wing leaders are likely to dominate their respective political spheres for the foreseeable future. If I had to nominate a winner in this category, I would say it is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Just days before the fighting began, Netanyahu looked likely to lose office. It would probably have meant the end of his political career. However, he once again proved it correct to say that “cats would like to have as many lives as Netanyahu”. The conflict thwarted 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 to lead.
On the other hand, Hamas will argue that it has brought the Palestinian issue back to the forefront of world attention. He will also assert that, unlike the Palestinian Authority, Hamas has the leadership and the capacity to defend the rights of the Palestinians, especially in Jerusalem. Abbas was largely irrelevant in recent events, but he will likely find the international community eager to embark on an unlikely effort to bolster his stature against Hamas and find a way to restore momentum to the moribund peace process. .
The cipher Brief: What about tactical successes?
Rolled: Each side can list significant tactical successes, and both have demonstrated an ability to strike opponents using long-range weapons.
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