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In this edition of Wilson Center NOW, we discuss the latest on the Israel-Hamas conflict and its wider implications for the region with Rami Khouri, Distinguished Public Policy Fellow at the American University of Beirut and former Wilson Center Fellow, and Guy Laron, Senior Lecturer at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and current Wilson Center Fellow. 


  • This is an unedited transcript

    Hello, I'm John Milewski. Welcome to Wilson Center. Now a production of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. My guests today are Rami Khouri. Rami is a former Wilson public policy scholar with the Middle East program. He now serves as American University of Beirut, Distinguished Public Policy Fellow and at the Arab Center.

    Washington senior Fellow. Also joining us is Guy Laron. Guy is a senior lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is also a former Wilson public policy fellow. He served time with the Wilson Center's Middle East program, the Kennan Institute and the History and Public Policy Program.

    Gentlemen, great to see you. Thanks for joining us. Thanks for having us. Yep. So today, we're going to be talking about the conflict between Israel and Hamas and how it has spread to other avenues.

    And I thought I would begin, gentlemen, with getting each of you to provide us with your general take on where we stand in terms of escalation versus de-escalation and how that relates to what seemingly now our dashed hopes for any soon cease fire. Let's begin in the order of introduction, Rami, and let you have the first word. Okay.

    Thank you. I'm glad to be with you. And thanks for doing this. We are in an escalating situation on both the Israeli and the Palestinian side, which is actually the culmination of about 100 years of conflict. October seven was a decisive moment when Hamas that it's attacking Israel and then Israel retaliated with its severe and ongoing war. But really, this is continuing a contest that started really a century ago, 1922 and 1923, with the British League of Nations mandate and after the Balfour Declaration as the Zionist movement, which was a very noble thing for Jews, turned into a part of the British imperial project in the Middle East and more with British assistance to create

    a Jewish state which happened Israel. It was inevitable that this conflict was going to continue, and it has. And it's brought in other Arab countries and Iran and others. And what we're seeing today is a level of ferocity on both sides and determination that really is the peak of this conflict over the last century. I don't think the hostages on the Palestinian prisoners, 8000 of them in Israeli jails, are a lost cause.

    I think there will be some kind of agreement to exchange them soon because both sides want that and what comes with it. But whether this leads to a negotiated permanent resolution of the conflict remains to be seen, and that's what we should all aim for. Guy, In our ahistorical media world, particularly often in the United States, you know, we we talk about this beginning on October 7th, but as Rami just reminded us, the roots go back centuries.

    Right. But, you know, if you look at it through the Israeli angle, this is the making of a decade and a half a period in which Israelis were told that we would be able to maintain a stable status quo with Hamas and that the whole thing just blew up and embarrassed the prime minister and the current coalition. And this is very much was the Netanyahu doctrine that collapsed on the 7th of October.

    And I think perhaps that's the reason why the situation currently is at an impasse. It is tragic and it is protracted. Both all three of us. It's not clear when this conflict would end, because it seems that there are reasons why this conflict is being prolonged in an active manner by the Israeli government. Beyond the point of military reason.

    Currently, what's on the news is the military. The Israeli military operation in Rafah, which is maybe the most dangerous stage of the conflict because about a million Palestinians are constantly created there because they were pushed by the Israeli army towards the Egyptian Israeli border. And any action, any military action that Israel takes puts in danger hundreds of thousands of lives.

    Now, the question remains why Israel didn't start with the last. It would have been a logical starting point for Israel to cut short the link between Gaza and Egypt to block the tunnels that go underground and allow Hamas to smuggle such huge quantities of cement, weapons and electronic equipment into the Gaza Strip and basically end there. But what the government is saying is it wants to continue the war for, you know, today.

    But the national security adviser of Netanyahu said to the public that the war would continue for another seven months until the full yes, until the full dismantling of all Hamas infrastructure in the Gaza Strip. And what many Israelis are starting to wonder is whether the government is interested in ever ending the conflict, because what the government may fear, what this coalition may fear, is that once the war stops, people would start to discuss the failure of the Netanyahu doctrine and what comes next.

    Well, yeah, there's so much to unpack there. What seems to be missing from the so-called Netanyahu doctrine is any real vision for an end game. And that's what you describe now that Israeli citizens may be turning on to. Rami, your thoughts on this notion that you can fight your way out of a situation like this, kill every enemy, destroy all infrastructure and end it that way.

    Clearly, that that can't be done. Both the United States and Israel, who are really one party together in this conflict against Hamas and their supporters, both in Palestine and around the region. The sorry, the real tragedy is that the U.S. and Israel have not learned from the last 50, 60 years of history, which I lived through. I remember the 1960s in college and the U.S. in the seventies, the Vietnam War, and both in Vietnam and Afghanistan, where the U.S. had tremendous military power and use that ruthlessly.

    They had to eventually pull out and negotiate with the Viet Cong and with the Taliban. So and the Israelis similarly have tried over the years and in Lebanon, with Hezbollah and with Hamas before. They tried all kinds of things in Lebanon. They had the southern Lebanese army. They tried to create village leagues in the West Bank. They tried every trick in the book to maintain a dominance in the region that included their control of of neighboring Palestinian or Lebanese land.

    And it just wouldn't work. It doesn't work not because it's a bad strategy politically, because it runs against human nature. People who are occupied and subjugated and humiliated and killed them go through stuff like we saw yesterday in Raqqa. They will rise and fight back till the next ten generations. And this is exactly what's happened. So, no, you can't fight your way out of this.

    This is a political conflict. It has to be resolved through political means. It's really hard to do that now, but it's never impossible because at some point we're going to have better leaders in Israel and Palestine and in the U.S. and better leadership is what you need. We learned from Northern Ireland and South Africa that good leadership is critical to make that transition into a permanent and just peace arrangement.

    Guy, what insights can you provide? And I don't expect you to be a spokesperson for all Israeli citizens, right? But what insights can you provide in terms of the public mood, support for Netanyahu, support for the war effort, what's happening so well there that we can use and we know about, which is the poll numbers of the various parties in Israel.

    So what you can see is that after the announcement about the judicial coup, as it became known for judicial reform in January 23, the Netanyahu coalition lost about ten seats. It lost its majority in public opinion polls. And since seven October, it lost another ten seats. So if SNAP elections would have happened today, the now coalition would lose with his own party.

    The Likud losing as much as half of the seats it controls today in the Israeli parliament. So I think that with time there is greater and greater dissatisfaction as well as the demoralization of the Israeli public. There were a lot of lofty promises made in the beginning of this war about what it would bring about what would be the end point.

    And as the war continues, it becomes clearer and clearer to Morgan. You really I'd like to say, by the way, that are from the start that none of the goals declared by the government would be achieved after seven a few days after seven of them. It was clear to me that they will not be able to change the world with tanks or trains.

    The situation in Gaza, with talks with what the Israeli army is trying to do right now. But more and more Israelis are just to have the actually the war doesn't lead to their release of the hostages. In fact, we know that the Israeli military bombings in Gaza killed few of these hostages. And every two or three days that were announced, Israelis were announced in the media that more hostages have just died.

    And each time the announcement that actually they died on the 7th of October, we just found out and people are starting to wonder, did they read the 712 figure of speech? So, I mean, I think as far as Netanyahu is concerned, seems to be contempt to continue the work for the foreseeable future. And then there are other wars, the confrontation with the law in the north, the West Bank is boiling, which is another issue that we can talk about.

    So he can continue the war indefinitely. But public support for the government is fracturing even among his hardened supporters. There is a feeling of disaffection. Know. I want to ask both of you about international pressure. You know, certainly we can look as recently as Afghanistan to see how the U.S. learns that there are limits to your external influences within a country, even in that case with direct military intervention.

    The pressure we've seen here has been other, for instance, the implications of Spain, Ireland and Norway formally recognizing a Palestinian state today. You're both I know that Rami had not seen this because he had just logged in. And I know you're coming from class guy, but President Erdogan today had some really harsh words for Netanyahu and for Israel and for the U.S. calling Netanyahu a psychopath, a vampire that feeds on blood.

    He said that the Islamic world should take collective action and that Israel is not just a threat to Gaza, but all humanity. And he goes on to say that America has blood on its hands for enabling genocide. So this is just one extreme example of the types of pressure we've seen internationally. And I'm wondering both of your thoughts is this hasn't seemed to move the Netanyahu needle.

    He seems impervious to any of this outside pressure. Maybe even defiant in its face, somehow empowered by it. What are your thoughts on what the international community can do to bring this to some sort of diplomatic end? Yeah. So Erdogan, we should say, has the lever is leverage over Israel in two important ways. Erdogan controls about 20% of Israel's oil imports.

    He can cut them short. Israel imports about 20% of its oil consumption from Azerbaijan through a Turkish port called Jihan. So he can everyone can shut it off. I mean, the implications are bad implications for Turkey as well. It seems like, you know, an unstable or loyal trade partner and other countries, you would wonder about that. But but that's one leverage.

    And the other he already used. Turkey is Israel's fifth largest trade partner, and Erdogan has already shut down trade with Israel. Inflation is rising on account of the closing of the Red Sea Straits and cutting down trade ties with Turkey. And I don't know what would be the point in which the Israeli public would turn more decisively against the government.

    One way to think about the Netanyahu government is unpopular in Israel but is not illegitimate. I think that's that's an important distinction. So people would still go to the Army and serve and fight in the war, although they do not support the government. But at some point, there will be a breaking point that we just don't know what it is.

    My impression is that international pressure would only increase in the coming weeks and months. Rami, your thoughts on this question of international intervention or pressure? Yeah, I think both Hamas and the Israeli government have developed some really strong self-reliance mechanisms and they're use they're showing them and they also depend heavily on basically one partner. For Israel, the U.S. is really all that counts.

    Everybody else counts. But the U.S. counts really more than everybody. And as long as the U.S. continues to support Israel militarily, financially, which is not the biggest thing, but it helps and diplomatic support at the U.N., shielding Israel internationally, as long as that's still there and it still is, then Israel feels probably Netanyahu's government feel they can go on.

    They don't care about anything else. They've they've shown that international law, U.N. treaties, U.N. resolutions, norms of civilized states expressed in human rights and things like that are totally irrelevant for Israel right now. And they may come back one day, but right now they're not. So. International pressure is not going to have an immediate impact because Israel can keep going as long as the U.S. is doing what it's doing.

    And that may or may not change. We'll have to see. Hamas similarly is very powerful, but it relies on external partners for various things. It relies on Hezbollah and Iran and the Qataris as a diplomatic outlet. The Egyptians as a diplomatic outlet. So they are susceptible to pressure. And they they've held out for almost eight months, which is pretty surprising to most people.

    So the pressure will in the end, international concerted international pressure will make a big difference. And I believe that what, you know, serious people who are working now on this should look at a package where you bring it on a cease fire, you exchange the hostages or the prisoners. You you allow normal movement within Gaza. You get the Israelis back to the border.

    But international coalitions have to step in with serious security guarantees for both sides and a serious mechanism to down the road. Not now, because anger's anger is too high, but down the road to start exploring a political negotiation like the Madrid process which happened in the early 1990, I think 92 or whatever it was. So international pressure is both important to stop the fighting, but also to permanently stop it by moving on to a political negotiation that could possibly resolve it for both sides equitably, which I think it can.

    But it's going to take more work now than it would have taken ten or 15 years ago. And any solution to the current conflict or to the ongoing issues between these players is going to take time. Right? It's not going to happen overnight, even though there may be hope. But right now, there are people in need of food, in need, of shelter, in need of security.

    What are your what can you tell us about the current humanitarian aid situation? I know that the U.S. temporary portion has run into some problems based on bad weather. Is are we anywhere close to getting people what they need? The the Israeli response to international outcry over the humanitarian situation in Gaza have been has been mixed at best.

    There are some elements in the government and in the Israeli military that do understand that humanitarian catastrophe, starvation in Gaza would be bad for Israelis in all sorts of ways. And they do try to let trucks in not just from crossing, but from several crossings into Gaza, where actually the humanitarian situation is worse in the north of Gaza, not in raw in terms of food.

    That's that's the problem. But at the same time, there are elements in the government and this is the party that Jewish settlers in the West Bank, religious Zionism, as well as the settlers themselves that try to do everything they can to block the trucks and even to destroy by themselves food. We saw several pictures of them doing that.

    There's a peace movement, an Israeli peace movement, standing together that now stands in the taqueria crossing in the West Bank. It's a major avenue for food aid from Jordan to reach Gaza. So they basically defend with their bodies the trucks. And so far in the last few days, they want to press forward in allowing the trucks to pass through.

    Rami, any thoughts on the humanitarian aid situation? Yeah, I think it's a really tough one because if you judge it just by the evidence of how people have acted, not what they've said, but what they've done, it's pretty convincing that the Israeli government, not all Israeli people and the American government, not all American people don't care about the humanitarian condition of the Palestinians that allowed this war to go on for almost eight months.

    The U.S. has been there with the funding and the arms and the diplomatic protection. And the government in Israel is doing what it wants to do. The humanitarian needs of the Palestinians don't really matter to the U.S. and the Israeli governments. They matter to a lot of other people around the world. And the pressure is building. But we've seen very clearly that Israel defies international norms.

    And Netanyahu boasts about this, and this is part of his strongman image that we will protect ourselves. We'll fight alone if we have to. And most people will say that if they are if they're attacked. But the humanitarian issue really is unfortunately pretty secondary right now. And here I live in the U.S. and I watched the media coverage of the mainstream media and the government's statements.

    It's really quite sad that the U.S. government acts in such a inhuman way. And this is one of the great challenges, which is for political scientists and psychologists and others to figure out why do you have an American leadership in the Congress and the executive branch, which is pretty much followed by the mainstream media broadly. Why does this group of people actively participate in what the world has called clearly a genocide?

    This is very un-American. I mean, the Americans have done their own genocides of their own atrocities all over the world. But to explicitly support this, while it's visible to everybody on social media is quite a puzzle. So the nature of the link between the Israeli government and the U.S. government is something that really deserves a lot of a lot of study.

    So that maybe you can get some of your Ph.D. students to work on this from the Israeli side and other people here who work on it here. And because it's really critical to understand that guy at the heart of what we're talking about now is it's sort of this notion that, look, after the type of attack that Israel endured on October 7th, no nation would be denied its right to respond.

    The question is where you reach that point, where you cross over from what is deemed to be a reasonable response into something else. And that seems to be where the debate is now in terms of whether there is concern for a humanitarian needs or not. What can you tell us about the discussion within Israel about this QUESTION? Well, you know, what happened on seven 7th of October was so devastating.

    And for millions of people in Israel, so scary. I mean, it's hard for me to explain how panicked the public was in the first few weeks after that happened, including very intelligent, broad minded people who are my neighbors, who would say that they were just terrified of Arabs in general. I mean, the panic was palpable in Israel at the time.

    I thought that the land invasion would be the wrong thing to do. I'd say I was in the absolute minority and there were a few voices at the time, but no one was willing to listen to them. The I think the question I mean I mean, it would be hard for me to argue against the claim that Israel's response is excessive.

    But I think some of the discussion is like obviously a military operation in a way that would achieve the goals that you are talking about. Okay. So going into Gaza to military campaign that Hamas was well prepared for and I envisaged how it would come about would be a tragic mistake. American generals came to Israel at the time, said, learn from our mistakes, from our wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan, then into urban warfare in densely populated areas would be a huge mistake.

    It would be a quagmire. And the Israeli cabinet. But I think also Israeli generals didn't want to listen. So I think the question is like, why does Israel continued, continues to fight what it hopes to achieve out of the current military operation that it's doing. And for a bigger and bigger number of people in Israel. It turns out that there are no clear goals other than destruction.

    Destruction of Hamas infrastructure, destruction of military equipment. But it's not clear when it ends. You know, the economy, even before the Israeli operation started that, you know, five or really 500 kilometers of tunnels in Gaza, that would take months. Now, the Israeli army say it's not 500th, it's 750 kilometers of tunnels. It's not like if your goal is to destroy any Hamas infrastructure in Gaza, it will never end.

    It will never end. So I think it's not just excessive intent. I mean, the question is whether the military operation can achieve its stated goals. I think with each passing day, it turns out that it cannot. Rami, I want to ask you about this and then I come back to you on the same question. And it's the the notion of the wider war, right from the very start.

    Concerns were expressed globally and certainly within the region that they didn't want this thing to spill over into a regional war. Some people would say, listen, that train already left the station and maybe it's not a direct war, it's a shadow war, but it's been ongoing. I want to get your thoughts, both of your thoughts on this question of the wider war and what the risks are for escalation in that regard.

    Rami. This is an important point, but it remains a subordinate to the core issue, which is the contest, the century old contest between Zionism and Palestinian Arabism, which has grown into a conflict between the state of Israel and many surrounding Arab states and Iran. So we need to constantly go back to the core conflict and then look at the spread, the regional situation.

    This is incredibly important because what you have now, we've seen in the last 30 years the incompetence of Arab governments to deal with Israel militarily or otherwise. Some of them have made a peace agreement and reached peace, which I'm happy about for them. But that hasn't taken away the sense among the vast majority of Arab people. The Palestine issue.

    The Palestine issue needs to be resolved equitably. And we've put forward a plan of the Arab peace plan that we think is fair for both sides. But the fascinating thing is the emergence of this Arab Sunni and Shiite Arab, a Lebanese of Palestinian Yemeni Iraqis, all these different militant groups all over the region who have developed greater and greater capability so that the war that Israel wages now is against five or six different entities in the region, all of whom are following a similar pattern of developing clandestine, serious military capabilities.

    Israel tried to destroy Hezbollah in Lebanon several times. It couldn't do it. It's trying to destroy Hamas. It probably won't destroy it all, but it will damage it severely. And the spread of the sentiment, anti-Israeli sentiment around the region has been there for for decades and decades. The Iranian situation is, to me, the most fascinating because Iran, under the Shah, had very close relations with Israel that give them oil and arms and stuff.

    So the point here is that you have a political conflict and you will get allies and supporters on both sides to help you. Israel has people around the world who supported, who are not Jewish and who are not Middle-Eastern and who are not Zionist. So it's no surprise that you get Arabs and non-Arabs, Turkey, Iran, supporting the Palestinians, but actually supporting a just peace that this is what we constantly say.

    We're looking for a resolution that's fair to both sides. We're not looking, as the Israeli propaganda has it, that we're trying to destroy Israel. We want to wipe out the Jews. That's completely untrue. So the regional situation is going to continue to stay hot and may erupt in some exchanges here and there. But I don't see a full scale war.

    And clearly the Iranians of the Israelis a few weeks ago sent back and forth messages that we can reach you and we can defend ourselves. So they they're not going to get into a regional war. And the U.S. certainly doesn't want to do that. Guy Yeah, it's it's a regional war and it's a regional war largely between Israel and an Iranian coalition.

    I mean, the project of Iran in the future previous years was to react to Israeli threats to bomb Iranian nuclear installations by creating what the Iranians called a ring of fire around Israel and hands of Iranian help and support to various militias that have their own interests, but are also united in condemning Israeli policies or acting against Israel.

    The most important point is the Hezbollah. But Hamas also got a support in the military training from Iran. The same thing for the Jews. So I think the big question that, you know, a different government, if we had a different government in Jerusalem right now, is does it make sense to fight against various allies of Iran rather than wage a shadow war against the Iran itself instead of Israel acquiring itself in an endless fight with Hamas and Hezbollah?

    And it has little chance to to to hurt them in a way that these organizations or militias would stop fighting it will not like. The main problem is the ayatollah's regime in Iran. And then you can or you should do some tactical concessions in order to end this conflict and develop a new strategy. Gentlemen, we are. Thank you.

    We are very short on time, but I want to give each of you about a minute for any final thoughts. And rather than me direct that with a direct question, let's just leave it open ended. What has it been said yet today that you'd like to say? Rami, you go first and then we'll give Guy the final word.

    I would say that given the century long nature of this conflict, I would say that the critical goal is not just to have a cease fire, prisoners, the hostages, etc.. The critical goal for everybody, especially for the Israelis, is to define Zionism geographically and politically. So Zionism is a beautiful thing for Jews, especially in Russia in 1891, that this process started, but one that became part of a British imperial project that became a colonial project.

    Settler colonialism and apartheid and all the terrible things that have been said about Israel recently, which are based, in fact, for most people and leading to genocide. Zionism has to be defined. The Arabs have said we are willing to live with a Jewish majority state in a 67 borders if we resolve this. And so this is what Gaza Tactical concessions.

    I don't know if you meant that or something else, but both sides have to make concessions to the other so that a Palestine Palestinian rights can be achieved. Statehood and sovereignty. The refugee issue has to be resolved equitably, and Israel similarly has to get the sense that it can live in peace and normal relations, but only when that stops being a settler colonial apartheid state.

    Next scholar on so to continue what Rami said like the elephant in the room the topic we haven't discussed but is major is the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. This government is about keeping them at all. And that's why the judicial reform was about constitutional amendments that would allow the government to annex the West Bank and keep on fighting because it fears that any end to this war would start talks about a settlements, a settlement that would would include dismantling some of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

    So that's the biggest obstacle right now. And Rami talked about redefining Zionism. Still, the question for the public is what kind of price it is willing to pay for to all settlements. And if it is, Israel isn't willing if the Israeli public isn't willing to pay that price. So how Israel extricate itself from its presence in some of the areas in the West Bank?

    Gentlemen, you know, it's been said that you can't solve a problem if you don't think about it clearly. And so thanks to both of you today for helping us think about this clearly. If there is any hope, this is the type of clear eyed analysis we need. So thank you very much. I should also tell our viewers and listeners, if you'd like more from Rami and Guy and other experts in the region, check out the Middle East program.

    Here at the Wilson Center. A Marissa Khurma and her team are doing lots of terrific work that also involves these two gentlemen and others. Gentlemen, thanks. We hope we can call on you again. We hope that it will be to talk about, you know, how things are working out under a peace agreement. So let's be hopeful in a time where we need it.

    We hope you enjoyed this edition of Wilson Center now and that you'll join us again soon. Until then, for all of us at the center, I'm John Milewski. Thanks for your time and interest.


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