Press Briefing: Latest Insights on Israel-Hamas War
This transcript is from a CSIS press briefing hosted on October 13, 2023.
Andrew Schwartz: Thanks very much, Josh. And welcome to CSIS’s press briefing. We’d like to offer you today our latest insights on the Israel-Hamas war and all the challenges surrounding what’s happening right now for Israel and for the Palestinians.
We have a terrific lineup of my colleagues. We’re going to lead off with Dr. Jon Alterman, who’s senior vice president at CSIS, Zbigniew Brzezinski chair in global security and geostrategy, and director of our Middle East Program. Jon is going to deliver some remarks, we’re going to go down the order after Jon, and then we’ll open it up to your questions. Jon, take it away.
Jon B. Alterman: Thanks very much, Andrew. Thank you all for joining the call.
The images of the last several days have been wrenching. And like you, I’m bracing myself for the weeks to come.
We think we know the script: a ground invasion, high civilian casualties, weeks of fighting, and an eventual Israeli victory. I’m not confident it’s all going to go according to the script. Hamas has departed from the script that Israel assigned it for years last Saturday, and last Saturday was surely only the first act that Hamas had planned. They knew it was going to be followed by airstrikes and a ground invasion. They arguably have been preparing for an Israeli ground invasion in Gaza for 15 years. What other surprises do they have planned? How successful will they be? And after Saturday, we should have humility about how much we understand about Hamas, its capabilities, and its planning.
While Hezbollah isn’t looking to fully enter this war in my judgment, it’s also preparing to. My assessment is they’d like their contribution to be limited to distracting Israel and drawing resources to the north, but I can certainly see circumstances where Hezbollah is drawn into full-scale conflict. And that would have devastating impacts on both Israel and Lebanon.
Just this morning, I was reviewing Fred Iklé’s book “Every War Must End,” and I think it’s a book that a lot of people should be picking up this week. As the war starts, we need to pay attention to the piece of how this war is going to end. I had a piece in Time magazine yesterday that argued that the winners and losers of this conflict are going to be determined less by the fighting than the aftermath, and the fighting isn’t a satisfactory outcome by itself; it needs to create leverage to obtain the desired outcomes. There is going to be a role for diplomacy here, and Arab states in particular may play an important role helping create a better postwar reality and legitimating it, and we need to start paying attention to that potential role now.
Before that happens, there’s going to be a lot of fighting. A lot of people are going to die in the next week. This may be the most transparent war the world has ever seen. We’ve already seen social media explode with images. I’m afraid that next week it’s going to be full of clips of mutilated bodies and unspeakable horrors. Disinformation and propaganda are always part of warfare, but our media-consumption habits are going to completely supercharge this. People are going to feel completely informed when they’re only getting a sliver of truth and the resultant polarization is going to be supercharged, too.
As I see it, when the fighting dies down Israel is going to be dealing with two simultaneous problems. It’s going to be dealing with political battles about accountability for the failures that led up to this war and political discussions about what an acceptable outcome with the Palestinians might be and what should be pursued.
That’s going to be very hard to do and one of these political battles can undermine the other but both are really vital discussions. I think that’s going to be where we are in sort of – in the winter and it’s going to be tough to disentangle.
The Israeli writer David Grossman had an important piece in the Financial Times today asking what Israel will be after this was over and he writes, quote, “If I may hazard a guess, Israel after the war will be much more right-wing, militant, and racist. The war forced on it will have cemented the most extreme hateful stereotypes and prejudices that frame and will continue to frame all the more robustly Israeli identity.”
I’d argue that’s not inevitable. It might not even be likely. But for Israel supporters in the United States and around the world and for Palestinians as well that will be a very difficult outcome if it comes to pass and all of those outside parties have an interest in trying to ensure that it does not.
Why don’t I end my comments there, and I’d be happy to add comments after all of my other colleagues have spoken. Thanks very much, Andrew.
Mr. Schwartz: Jon, thanks very much.
And next I’d like to introduce Dr. Seth Jones, who is the senior vice president at CSIS. He’s our Harold Brown Chair and director of the international security program here at CSIS. Seth, the floor is yours.
Seth G. Jones: Thanks, Andrew. Thanks, Jon. Great to be on what is an all-star panel and an honor to be on it.
Let me just briefly touch on one military and one political issue and I’ll try to be brief and leave room for the discussion. Israel has announced that its military objective is to destroy Hamas, largely, with its political and military leadership dead, captured, or underground and much of its infrastructure and weapons demolished.
I’m skeptical that Israel will be able to destroy Hamas for reasons I’m happy to get into. Nevertheless, that for Israel to accomplish these objectives or at least to attempt to I don’t see any other option – viable option – than an occupation of Gaza and I’ll get into more details, some of the complications on that in a moment.
That occupation, whatever it looks like, certainly, going to be costly to Israel. A range of us have been looking at and have been over to Israel including recently to look at Cast Lead, Operation Pillar of Defense, Operation Protective Edge, and a number of other Israeli operations in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon.
I was there just recently during Israeli operations against Hamas and others in Jenin back in June and July. But this war is going to be different for a number of reasons. I think we’ve already seen the – we have already seen the beginnings of the Israeli operation blanketing Gaza with ISR – intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets – seeking information house to house, floor by floor, operational awareness.
The challenge, I think – one intelligence challenge is going to be – for anybody involved in urban combat whether it was – it’s – whether it’s been in Fallujah or anybody that’s spent time, you know, on the ground in Gaza or the West Bank is distinguishing terrorists and their support network from civilians, which is very difficult in an urban environment.
I mean, IDF soldiers have an extraordinary – have extraordinary competence in operations in both the West Bank and Gaza and, obviously, up north in Lebanon. But when you’re facing extraordinary stress, Hamas and other militants and civilians trying to kill you in a densely packed urban environment and have to make very quick decisions with your finger on the trigger with imperfect information, it’s going to lead to civilian casualties.
So I think we should expect that. Israeli operations will also include in addition to those ground forces dismounted infantry; armored personnel carriers, because you need those to bring in forces; the Merkava tanks; and bulldozers, which they have traditionally used for ground operation. We’ve already seen them using air – fixed-wing aircraft, the F-16 and F-15s, among others; attack drones, such as the Hermes 450 and the Heron 900; and then – and then helicopters.
So, you know, we – there’s a little bit of the military objective, the kinds of capabilities there they’re going to use. I’m happy to get into the difficulties of the urban environment in Gaza, which are complex. But I just want to end on a brief comment on the challenge of what to do when major combat operations start to wind down, because they will at some point, and the big question for me is, what will law and order look like, in some capacity, in Gaza? Clearly, you cannot – the Israelis aren’t going to be able to trust Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or any of the groups on the ground. The Palestinian Authority has next to no legitimacy, particularly in Gaza, and has shown very little competence in governing. So this raises the prospect of some temporary solution to an occupation of Gaza, checkpoints, monitoring population movement, conducting occasional raids, and trying to build a much more robust and heavily mined border between Gaza and Israel. But as Clausewitz reminds us, war is a continuation of policy by other means, and I just end this – and happy to get into this – I think there are some huge questions about what the next step is for some at least temporary law and order and governance of Gaza, which will be a very, very delicate and difficult decision-making process.
Hand it back to Andrew.
Mr. Schwartz: Seth, thank you very much.
Now I’d like to introduce Mr. Norman Roule, who is nonresident senior adviser with the CSIS Transnational Threats Project. Mr. Roule is a former senior U.S. intelligence official, having served for 34 years in the CIA managing significant programs relating to the Middle East. Mr. Roule, the floor is yours.
Josh, do we have Mr. Roule?
Norman T. Roule: Good morning.
Mr. Schwartz: He may still be muted.
Mr. Roule: No, I’m still here. I’m here. Can you hear me now?
Mr. Schwartz: Yes, we can.
Mr. Roule: Great.
Good morning. It’s a pleasure to be with you and to be a part of such an august group of individuals. I’d like to speak about Iran, specifically, briefly, two issues: First, what are Iran’s goals in this war, and what role has Iran played leading up to this, and what are the most likely wild cards or significant wild cards we should consider?
Iran’s goals range from the obvious – deleting Israel, damaging rapprochement with the Arabs – but also it goes beyond that. Iran would hope that Israel is involved in a long-term conflict because this erodes Israel’s public credibility in a region where Gulf Arabs and others are increasingly comfortable in dealing with Israelis. This conflict also has the potential of drawing in the United States, and that brings about the same benefit: If the United States, like Israel, can be seen as involved in producing significant Palestinian civilian casualties, that erodes the confidence, trust of the United States and creates problems in the street.
Iran is seeking to project power in the region as a way of demonstrating once again, to all of its neighbors, it needs to be taken seriously, it can’t be ignored, and its equities and demands in the region will need to be given respect and engaged. Iran is also seeking to inject itself into great-power issues. As this moves forward, you can see Iran playing a role, for example, on hostage issues. There are a variety of different nationalities involved in the hostage crisis and it is not unlikely, and indeed almost certain, that some of them will go directly to Iran to say what can you do to assist in the recovery of my personnel? I would look at China, for example, as being something there. Iran is also going to shape its proxies in the region with their behavior. Iraq is obviously going to be of concern to the United States as to how they deal with proxies in Iraq and in Syria and what that means for our counter-ISIS operations, embassy operations, and protection of our forces.
If I had to point to a wild card involving proxies that I believe is the most dangerous – and indeed, in the coming weeks perhaps the most likely significant disruptor involving proxies that would touch multiple global equities – it’s actually the Houthis. So here is the scenario. The Houthis fire a medium-range ballistic missile at Israel. The Houthis launch two attack drones against Israel. Who responds? How much time and energy does Israel spend on this? Does the United States involve itself in suppressing Houthi activities? What if the Houthis undertake activities against Israel-related shipping in the Red Sea? Imagine what this would do to oil prices, insurance prices, cargo costs in a Red Sea economic basin that carries approximately 20 percent of the world’s container activity, a fair amount of its oil depending upon every day’s flows, as well as foodstuffs, et cetera, et cetera? That would touch the U.S. economy as well as other economies.
So what has been Iran’s role in this? Well, it’s actually quite profound and limited. There’s been a lot of discussion about what did Iran know and did it give permission and what is it doing. That’s not how Iran works.
The way Iran works is it goes into a geography; it identifies a promising arsonist; it then empowers, trains, and resources that arsonist to dominate all the other arsonists in its area, in that geography; and then it gives that arsonist very specific matches. These tools in Iraq were the explosively formed projectiles, the improvised rocket-assisted munitions – the IRAMs. In Yemen, they were ballistic missiles and they were drones. And with Hamas, it is relatively small-caliber missiles and rockets, although the Fajr-5s are serious; drones; and a capacity to develop weapons indigenously in underground weapons factories.
Iran provides actually very little intelligence support because it’s not needed. The local actors take their capabilities and apply that to their own intelligence collection. So in this case, Hamas could see the observation towers. Hamas would know through Google Earth where a storage facility was located. And they conducted various attacks. The rocket, the – Hamas fires are generally relatively inaccurate, and are aimed at city centers and not necessarily specific Israeli locations. And of course, the multiple terrorists who came across the border were not terrifically sophisticated; they were just armed with assault weapons and told kill any civilian and bring anyone you can bring back.
For Iran, they’re going to – they’re going to project defiance. They’re going to try to compel the Saudis and others to stay close to the Arab street and to criticize and to stay away from Israel. The Iranians are also going to highly propagandize any civilian losses to raise the tension of the Arab street in essence because it does constrain the activity of Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and others. It is likely that Iran is going to seek some sort of regional conference or some sort of regional effort to handle the day after, if only because that once again puts Iran in the center of all its activities.
There will be countries looking to Iran in coming days to see what it can do. That will encourage Iranian negative behavior more than Iranian positive behavior. The Raisi regime has propagated an assertive and at times aggressive foreign policy. It’s seeking to demonstrate right now, as Iran goes through the beginning stages of what would be its leadership transition to a post-Khamenei era, that this current policy can achieve strategic gains.
I’ll stop there for other, smarter people. Thank you.
Mr. Schwartz: Thanks very much, Norman.
Next up, we have Dr. Daniel Byman, who’s a senior fellow in our Transnational Threats Program. Dan, the floor is yours.
Daniel Byman: Let me talk about two different issues that my colleagues did not address in depth.
The first is hostages. This is an off-the-chart number of hostages that Hamas has taken. In the past, we’ve seen limited operations where they’ve captured a solider or we’ve seen Hezbollah capture soldiers who were wounded and then died, and Israel has done mass exchanges of Palestinian prisoners for these – in the one case, over a thousand prisoners for one hostage. And here you have 150, and this is going to pose multiple challenges in the days to come.
First of all, there’s an immediate tactical challenge. These hostages will be dispersed and some will probably be held in tunnels underneath Gaza. And when Israel goes after the tunnel network as part of a military campaign that Seth talked about, it has to worry that it’s going to put the hostages at risk. In the past, that would have been an absolute no-no, that Israel was incredibly sensitive on this issue. However, it’s possible the rules have changed on this and Israel is simply saying: This is a war, hostages will happen, and we’re not going to have military operations deterred by them.
The second point, though, is strategic use of the hostages. Hamas has threatened to execute them in response to Israeli military operations. So far, thankfully, that’s been an empty threat as Israeli bombing has only grown and Hamas has not done so. But the closer Israel gets to succeeding in many of its goals – the more it hurts Hamas, the more it goes after its leadership – the greater risk is that Hamas will respond by executing hostages. And I would stress that these are not only Israeli hostages, but they also involve nationals of other countries – the United States, France, other major powers. So for – in contrast to past crises where the United States involvement was very much about supporting a close ally, this time the United States has its own people that are in the crosshairs.
The second point I want to go into a bit more detail on is the Lebanese Hezbollah. Jon mentioned that for now they are trying to walk a line with some symbolic strikes but not become fully engaged, and I strongly agree with that. I want to talk about Hezbollah’s calculus in all this.
Hezbollah has reasons to be cautious. Although it’s a very effective military force, although it has 10 times as many rockets and missiles as it did when it fought Israel very effectively in 2006, it has to worry about the Israeli response. When it fought Israel in the past, there was devastation in Lebanon and this was unpopular among ordinary Lebanese. It hurt the group with some of the communities, but it also caused tremendous pain to Hezbollah’s own constituents. And Israel has made it clear in the intervening 17 years that it will follow this playbook but be even more destructive. And this is something that Hezbollah has been very careful of, and as a result it’s been very calibrated uses of force that involve limited attacks on areas that have – Hezbollah has considered under dispute – (inaudible) – other operations that show some degree of support for Hamas but don’t cross red lines. But there are some caveats.
Caveat number one is that military force can easily get out of control. And at a time when Israeli especially is incredibly sensitive, it’s quite easy to imagine circumstances where an operation that Hezbollah thought was not going to be that provocative escalates. And this happened in 2006, where Hezbollah did a kidnapping that it thought was simply part of the rules of the game where Israel felt it was a cause for escalation.
But also, the media consumption that Jon mentioned comes into play here. If any of you watch or listen to Arab media, it’s an incredibly different news guide. And the bombing of Gaza, the clear deaths of innocents there, of children, of older Gazans, and that’s going to be in constant play. And as a result, there is going to be pressure on all regional actors to stand up for Israel. And for some there may be pressure for more diplomatic actions, but for Hezbollah it’s going to be pressure for military action.
And then add to all this the Iranian context. I think Iran sees this as a success. It stirred the pot. It disrupted the Israel-Saudi normalization. But Iran may have its own reasons to try to further escalate this.
So there are question marks on this, and I do hope it can be contained. But to me, this is very much watch this space because things could change in the coming weeks.
Mr. Schwartz: Dan, thanks very much.
And we also have Ms. Emily Harding who’s here with us. She’s deputy director, senior fellow of the International Security Program at CSIS, and with an extensive intelligence background and leading a new project on intel here at CSIS. Emily, the floor is yours.
Emily Harding: Thanks so much, Andrew.
Intel failures like this one are never just one thing. They’re like a plane crash; it’s a whole bunch of little things that go wrong that all add up to a huge disaster. So I’m going to go through a few points on how this intelligence failure happened from what we know right now and then looking ahead.
So, first of all, from what we know now we can group the problem into three buckets: number one, a collection failure; number two, an analytical failure; and number three, a tactical warning failure.
On the collection front, for Israel, Hamas, Iran, and Hezbollah are all top collection targets. They have long contributed lots of resources. A high priority to collecting on those topics. However, these adversaries have been after each other for a very long time. At this point they can pretty much anticipate each other’s moves, and maybe it seems like collection has gotten more difficult in recent years. Gaza, southern Lebanon where Hezbollah is based, and Iran are all reasonably closed societies so handling human assets gets harder in a closed society.
In addition, Hamas seems to have conducted a denial and deception campaign in the run up to this invasion of Israel. One thing that we saw was that Hamas leaders were speaking on a line they knew Israel had tapped to talk about how they had absolutely no interest right now in engaging in any kind of massive operations and that seems to have worked.
The Israeli analysts seems to have – seem to have actually accepted that as true. Also, I really question whether Iran’s recent capability advancements in the cyber sector have translated over to Hamas. As we know, Israel is one of the most sophisticated actors in the world when it comes to cyber activity. They are virtually unparalleled when it comes to the capability of doing things like hacking into cell phones, hacking computer network operations, and hacking into systems.
Iran has gotten much better both at cyber offense and defense and I am questioning whether or not Iran may have provided some of that assistance to Hamas in order to help them boot Israel off their networks in recent months.
Again, this is just speculation. I haven’t seen any indication of that. But it kind of fits with the pattern that we just saw. So that’s the collection challenge.
On the analytical challenge, some news pieces have come out lately suggesting that Israeli analysts were briefing the Israeli national security establishment in recent weeks that they thought Hamas was deterred. This is the kind of thing that we see where there’s a failure of imagination.
The Israeli analysts may not have been able to imagine a massive multi-front attack like this. They did see indications that Hamas and PIJ – the Palestinian Islamic Jihad – were training and in fact training things like assaults on settlements but they dismissed those as exercises.
Third, we have this issue of tactical warning. The New York Times piece that came out a few days ago was really excellent and laid out how some of these pieces had come together to create this disaster.
First of all, we know that the Israeli intelligence saw the surge of fighters towards the border and flagged it for border patrols. But what we don’t know is whether those warnings were not heard, not acted on, whether the holiday played a role. But for whatever reason the border guards did not respond in an appropriate manner.
Number two, Hamas used drones to take out the cell towers that were around the border wall and that had several effects. One question that I will have, going forward, is whether or not these were Iranian drones like the ones that we have seen pop up in Ukraine. But the effects were that when they blinded the cell towers they blinded the cameras that were along the top of the wall and that prevented Israel from having situational awareness of what was happening where.
The second thing that did was disabled some of the remotely-controlled guns that are on top of the wall. Those weapons would have been able to push back the people who were, for example, using bulldozers to push down sections of the border and cross on foot. Those were disabled when the cell towers were gone.
And then number three, it seems to have really harmed the IDS command and control efforts. There was no way to really organize a rapid response. So, yes, this was an intelligence failure on multiple levels. I’m sure that when the conflict starts to wind down, as Seth was discussing, there will be lots of internal questions about what went wrong.
But for right now Israel is facing a different huge intelligence challenge and that’s, number one, finding the hostages. They’re going to be doing everything they can to pick up any indication that a group of hostages is, you know, hiding here or scattered here.
And the other piece is to find Hamas, trying to separate out the citizens of Gaza – the noncombatants – from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the people who are actually the combatants, and then organizing their ground offensive that way.
I published a commentary a few days ago on CSIS’ website laying out this intelligence failure argument in much more detail, if you’re curious. I also just wanted to focus on, you know, two additional things.
Dan mentioned that the Arab news is very different than some of the news coverage we’re getting in the U.S. I’m in Europe right now and I wanted to point out that a lot of the European news is also different than what we’re seeing in the U.S. I flipped on the TV in my hotel room and Euronews came up and it was all focused on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza with a lot of these horrific images that people are talking about with nothing from the Israeli perspective.
Another thing that’s being talked about on European news is the potential for anti-Semitic attacks in some of the cities. Like, in London, for example, I know there was some anti-Semitic graffiti and some attacks on some kosher grocery stores and things.
Finally, the other thing that I wanted to flag is that there’s a Washington Post piece out right now that talks about Hezbollah, and it cites a Joint Chief of Staff intel assessment from February, one of the pieces that was in the Discord leaks. And the main thrust of the Post piece is that Hezbollah is probably going to stay quiet; that the intelligence community – the U.S. intelligence community assesses that Hezbollah is mostly deterred from attacking Israel right now.
Two things to point out about that. Number one, it’s old; it’s from February. And number two, the information in that assessment is labeled FGIISR. That means foreign government information from Israel. So a lot of that assessment – the information in that assessment anyway – is going to be based on information that Israel provided to the United States.
As we’ve discussed in this call this is, in fact, an intelligence failure on behalf of the Israelis, probably also in part on behalf of the U.S. intelligence community a little bit. But I would take that reporting – that Joint Chiefs of Staff assessment – with a big grain of salt, given those two caveats.
That’s it for me.
Mr. Schwartz: Emily, thank you very much.
And, Josh, we’d now like to open this up to questions.
Colleagues, thank you for that great introduction.
Operator: (Gives queuing instructions.)
And we will go to the line of Tracy Wilkerson with LA Times. Please go ahead.
Q: Thank you. Hi. Thank you for doing this interesting briefing.
Jon, you said – you spoke of the future phase of diplomacy and the role of the Arab states in that and I am curious whether you think that the U.S., given how forcefully the administration has sided with Israel, if the U.S. will still be, you know, a viable partner in diplomacy with the Arab states or if the Arab states are going to be sort of – I know no one is, you know, a big fan of Hamas but I wonder if some of those Arab states will be a little cautious to embrace the United States, the United States having embraced so forcefully Israel.
And then just finally, Emily, you very – in passing after your very intelligence analysis mentioned a possible U.S. intelligence failure in all of this and I wondered if you could elaborate on that. Thank you.
Dr. Alterman: Thank you, Tracy. You and I go way back so it’s a pleasure to talk to you again on the phone.
Yeah, I think the – one of the important things to keep in mind is that all of the Arab governments – this is not talk about the Arab street, which is different, but the Arab governments – completely share the Israelis’ assessment of Hamas. They see Hamas as an armed group that embraces political Islam that grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood. That’s one of the bogeymen of all the Arab regimes, right.
And the other is they see Hamas as a proxy of Iran, their second bogeyman. So from a government perspective the Arab governments have a keen interest in trying to help create a situation in Gaza where Hamas is pushed from power. But there’s a legitimacy problem. You certainly can’t impose that solution from outside but would they like to facilitate it? I think they would like to facilitate it and that’s where the opportunity comes.
Certainly, as we’ve talked about some of the images coming out of this war can make things impossible. We’ll sort of – we’ll have to see where this all goes. But I think the instinct of governments is if they can be helpful pushing Hamas from power they’d like that.
One other thing just to point out that I neglected to say in my comments, I think Hamas was much more successful than it expected to be on Saturday and I think they were much more successful than they should have been for their own good.
One of the interesting things, you know, in Dan’s comments – Dan and I also go way back – one of the interesting things in Dan’s comments is he said having a hundred and fifty hostages in some ways gives you less leverage than having one or two hostages.
I don’t think they anticipated having a hundred or a hundred fifty hostages. I don’t think they anticipated being able to breach the border in 29 places. I don’t think they anticipated that they were going to kill hundreds and hundreds of Israelis. That creates different outcomes. Hamas, I think, wanted to have the kind of victory that Egypt had in 1973 when Egypt – the principal victory for the Egyptian army was merely crossing into Sinai, breaking through the Israeli defenses. Fifty years later, the Egyptian army still considers 1973 to be their principal victory. And a couple weeks after they crossed into Sinai, they were beaten back within a hundred kilometers of Cairo. But because Hamas penetrated that far into Israel, killed so many Israelis, kidnapped so many Israelis and others, I think it changes the possibilities for what the settlement of this war is going to look like, and I think not to the advantage of Hamas.
Q: Thank you.
Dr. Alterman: Emily, there’s a question for you there, too.
Ms. Harding: And then to – this is Emily. Yeah.
To answer your question about U.S. intelligence failure, as much as I hate to call out my former brothers and sisters in the intelligence community, yeah, I think they are going to have to be doing some self-analyzation, some evaluation of previous intelligence pieces, and what they knew and when they knew it, and what they wrote and when they wrote it.
Intelligence sharing between the U.S. and Israel really is a shared responsibility. In a lot of ways, there are places that the Israelis just know better and do better, and so the U.S. leans pretty heavily on them for information. You know, conversely, there are some things that the U.S. can do that we can share back with the Israelis. But when it comes to on-the-ground information, it’s much more an Israeli show than it is a U.S. show.
That said, I mean, there’s plenty of information out there. It will be really interesting to see what the U.S. intelligence community comes back with as far as why this strategic surprise happened.
Mr. Roule: Emily, may I add to that wise comment? This is Norm.
Ms. Harding: Yeah, of course, Norm. Go ahead. You know this quite as well as I do.
Mr. Roule: So I agree with everything you’ve said. I would like to expand that just a little bit and say this is an international intelligence failure.
The United States has looked at the Palestinians as a terrorist threat since the 1970s. We have had robust intelligence collections over the – collection programs over the years against this threat. But you move resources to the assignment or target where you perceive there to be the greatest threat. And if you develop a sense that this isn’t the most important thing or – you’re not going to have the same number of personnel and focus that you had when aircraft were being hijacked so frequently.
But the United Kingdom has the same responsibility. And neither the United States or the United Kingdom allow Israel to take over the intelligence collection protective responsibilities for our own citizen(s) in their country.
But Egypt also has a responsibility and has an intelligence service that looks at the Gaza issue. Now, there’s been a report that Egypt may have acquired information and shared it with the Israelis. I think it’s very unlikely or not a significant report, because if the Egyptians had an inkling that something like this were happening they would have shared it with a lot of governments very loudly because of the consequences to the Sinai and Egyptian equities.
Last, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the Qatari state security service has a responsibility to monitor the Hamas political leadership in Doha.
So I think, pulling back from this, you’re going to see a number of intelligence services may have had a very particular paradigm of Hamas that shaped how they pursued this issue. And it’s easy to say that Israel got it wrong, because they did, but so many other very serious actors – sober, thinking counterterrorist professionals – really were in the same boat.
Dr. Alterman: Norm, this is Jon. Can I –
Ms. Harding: Yeah. I think –
Dr. Alterman: Let me jump – let me jump the queue and ask you a question: Are you confident that the Hamas political leadership in Doha knew that – or the Hamas political leadership in Lebanon knew that this was going to happen –
Mr. Roule: No.
Dr. Alterman: – in terms of operational security and the way they were able to surprise the Israelis?
Mr. Roule: No, but that’s a question that should be – should be addressed in a(n) intelligence hotwash of this issue. And I can’t rule it out that they at least had some sort of knowledge that something was happening so that they could prepare political statements, that they could prepare the aftermath, prepare for their own safety and security in the aftermath of this event. So I can’t prove a negative, but what I can say is they are not – they are not isolated actors in this event. And all the various regional players need to focus on a terrorist organization – that’s the basic rule of thumb – and we don’t release political actors from such focus.
Ms. Harding: Yeah. This is Emily. I think that I’m totally glad that you brought up some of the regional actors and the shared responsibility there, Norm, because it’s absolutely true.
I think we have to look at both the dramatically – what seems to be dramatically improved Hamas operational security – I mean, the fact that an operation this big, that involved this many groups and this many people, did not leak in a more direct way is really kind of astonishing.
But then also, from the other side of things, I think we have to look very carefully at just how these parties were sharing information. This is probably going to be one of those incidents where there was – everybody was expecting Hamas to do kind of low-boil things – to do things like exercise, there to be a low level of chatter – so you see one data point, you dismiss it. Why did nobody put all the data points together and realize that, wait a second, this exercise looking at taking over a kibbutz looks a little bit like this conversation that may have happened over here, and why are they having this conversation on a line where they think we might be listening. So looking at all of those pieces put together is a really challenging intelligence question, but it’s one that you absolutely have to do.
Mr. Schwartz: We’ll take the next question, Josh.
Operator: (Gives queuing instructions.)
And we will go to the line of Barbara Usher with BBC. Please go ahead.
Q: Thank you.
Just in terms of what someone – I think it was Mr. Alterman – was saying that Hamas maybe had achieved more than it expected to, I see that one of the spokesmen, Abu Obaida, said exactly that, it achieved more than it had hoped for.
But my question is different. I wanted to ask Mr. Alterman where you think this leads U.S. Mideast policy and whether it is – whether it shows that the Biden administration’s approach has been a failure. I’m interested that the – that Blinken keeps talking about in a very binary way the two paths; you know, one is normalization in a – in a path to stability and the other is nihilism. And, of course, not, obviously, that simple. And whether you think it was an indication – a failure of U.S. policy that they sort of dropped the ball on the Palestinians themselves.
Dr. Alterman: Thank you for that question. It seems to me that from a question of U.S. diplomacy there’s a limited amount the United States can do when neither the Israeli side nor the Palestinian side saw either an urgency or a necessity to move forward on diplomacy. From a diplomatic perspective – and I know an awful lot of diplomats, as do you – all of these crises are exactly what diplomats see as opportunities, because now there will be both an urgency and necessity perceived on both sides to change the outcomes here.
So I’m not sure that any action by the Biden administration from 2021 to a week ago would have galvanized movement on Arab-Israeli issues. I don’t think the Israelis were interested in it and I don’t think there was a Palestinian party that was interested, either the Palestinian Authority or Hamas in Gaza. But the coming weeks and months are going to provide an awful lot of opportunities for diplomacy.
As I talked about, you’re also going to have polarization/alienation. There are going to be people who say this exactly proves that you can’t make peace with those people. But from a perspective of diplomats, diplomats never accept that. Diplomats argue that you have to move things in the right direction and deal with imperfect outcomes. And it seems to me that the moment for diplomacy is going to come, and what Secretary Blinken is doing in the Middle East now is planting the seeds of precisely that diplomacy.
Mr. Schwartz: Josh, we’ll take another.
Operator: We’ll go to the line of Jeff Seldin with VOA. Please go ahead.
Q: Thanks very much for doing this. Two questions, if I may.
First, how well-prepared do you think Hamas is for the fight that’s to come with Israel in Gaza? Can Hamas win? And with the Hamas endgame, what does that look like?
And then, also, given the capabilities that were demonstrated by Hamas – the operational silence, the different platforms it used, its propaganda campaign that went along with this – is there a need for the U.S. and the other countries you mentioned to start reevaluating all of Iran’s proxies for what they might be able to do? Is there a chance that the underestimation of some of these groups goes far beyond what we saw with Hamas?
Mr. Schwartz: Seth, do you want to – do you want to take that?
Dr. Jones: Yes. Yeah, this is Seth. I can – I can start. Dan and I are actually working on a piece together which touches on some of this.
I mean, just on the Hamas question, the urban terrain for anybody that has been to Gaza is – it’s difficult terrain for any experienced military, including the IDF, to operate in, and so I think when you look at the actual urban terrain, you’ve got narrow alleys, you’ve got concrete buildings of different heights, you’ve got warrens. Hamas and actually other groups – we’re talking a lot about Hamas, but there certainly are other groups operating in Gaza, including Palestinian Islamic Jihad; there will probably be civilians that pick up weapons and fight. They have an intimate knowledge of Gaza’s streets and alleys, underground facilities, including tunnels, buildings. And so as IDF soldiers make their way through Gaza, they’ve got to have to deal with the improvised explosive devices, suicide bombers, anti-tank missiles, RPGs, drones that Hamas has some capabilities. But I do think, you know, at least the early part of this fight, the Israeli intelligence collection capabilities and the fact that Gaza is entirely surrounded does mean that Hamas probably will lose a large number of its military leadership and political leadership that are currently in Gaza. Some may be able to hide effectively, but I think we’ll see Hamas take extremely heavy casualties.
Over the midterm, I think the question gets back to this broader political issue is, to what degree does the fighting increase recruitment for groups that operate in Gaza, including ones that would turn to Hamas or Islamic Jihad or other organizations? So how does that play out in the sort of midterm? And that, I think, is an open question that we’ll have to see how the combat goes.
Just one other thing on the intelligence failures. When I was in Israel back in July and talked to senior IDF officials, I think one question that I think the Israelis, the Americans, the Gulf states – Norm, I think, rightly raised this – is, to what degree was there also bias on a focus on Hezbollah up in the north, as well as activity in the West Bank? There were operations in the summer that the Israelis were conducting in Jenin, for example. I heard generally from IDF deep concerns with the protests in Israel about their concerns about a Hezbollah ground invasion or ground attempted invasion from the north. So to what degree would that biasing judgments – that will be an interesting question.
It sounds like Dan wanted to jump in on this as well.
Dr. Byman: Seth, you summarized it well. Only thing I would say is, given the surprise Israel experienced with regard to the wide-ranging successful Hamas operation into Israel, it’s clear that Hamas would have anticipated Israeli response into Gaza itself, so they are prepped and ready. So I would say it’s two prepared forces clashing in exceptionally difficult terrain. I do think Israel has, in general, superiority, but it’s going to be a tough fight.
Mr. Schwartz: Josh, let’s go to our next question, please.
Operator: We’ll go to the line of Brett Samuels with The Hill. Please go ahead.
Q: Hi there. Thanks for doing this call. I just have two quick questions, if I could.
First, I’m curious – obviously, we’ve seen former President Trump weigh in on this; and President Biden, obviously, has been very focused on this. I’m curious if anyone could speak to, politically, you know, how this factors into the 2024 race and U.S. politics.
And then, additionally, I’m curious if any of you expect to see the Biden administration or the U.S. officials potentially increased pressure or be more outspoken about Israel’s need to show restraint in its response to all this. Just curious what you all expect to see in terms of the Biden administration’s role in sort of the humanitarian concerns and some of those that have been bubbling up as Israel prepares for its response to all this.
Mr. Schwartz: Jon, do you want to take that?
Dr. Alterman: Sure. I mean, I think it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going to happen politically before we understand what’s happening militarily. I think we’re – I think we’re going to have some surprises over the next several weeks. And I wouldn’t want to prejudge them. I think the Biden administration’s strong instinct, led by the president, is if you want to have influence with the Israelis, there are some rules.
One is you have to show them empathy early. And every American president dating back to Carter who hasn’t been very good at empathy has had problems with the Israelis. And everyone who has been good at showing empathy has had good relationships with the Israelis. So what we’ve seen out of the Biden administration is the president, in particular, trying to keep Benjamin Netanyahu very close, with the purpose that when you need to have influence down the road you need to have that foundation of trust.
This administration is going to be very reluctant to criticize the Israelis publicly. I don’t think you’re going to see this – concerns being communicated over Twitter. What you see publicly, I think, is after things have been communicated for days strongly and privately. And to the extent the administration can keep its concerns private, it will, partly to reassure the Israelis. But the downside of that – and we talked a little bit about European attitudes and Arab attitudes – the downside is a sense the U.S. is doing nothing and sitting on its hands while the rest of the world is seeking to pressure Israel, and why is the U.S. not joining?
President Biden in particular, who has seen himself as a Zionist, pro-Israeli for half a century, has been dealing with Benjamin Netanyahu I think more than any other global leader, because he and Netanyahu have been active in politics for literally, I think, four decades they’ve known each other. I think Biden will be willing to take that hit because he thinks that it serves the policy objective of moving Israeli policy.
Mr. Schwartz: Thanks, Jon.
Dr. Jones: Andrew, can I jump in?
Mr. Schwartz: Oh, yes. Go ahead, Seth.
Dr. Jones: Yeah, can I jump in for one second? Just briefly, I think the – you know, the – it’s sort of an interesting question. The answer depends, I think, and the political dimensions may depend, in part, on how long the war lasts, the casualty build, how far this spreads. Does it spread to the West Bank? Does it spread within Israel itself, with civil strife? Does it doesn’t spread north, not just to Lebanon but to Iranian actors in Syria or Iraq? All of which have standoff capabilities that can reach Israel or Yemen, as Norm raised. So I think there are – you know, there are a range of questions that will impact the political dimension. We’re very early in this.
And if you look at the casualty numbers, you know, it’s both sides. The Israelis suffered during the Second Intifada, like, just over 300 IDF soldiers dead, roughly. During Protective Edge, just under 100. But the casualties on the Palestinian side have been in the thousands. This war is likely to be more significant and brutal, based on what’s just happened in Israel. So as we see casualties mount on both sides, including civilians, this will, I think, put pressure on political actors outside of Israel to try to keep those numbers down as much as possible. But there are a range of questions like, how long does it last, how far does it spread, that I think will impact. And we’re still very early on, as Jon noted.
Mr. Schwartz: Terrific. Thank you, Seth.
Josh, do we have any other callers? We’re going to have to wrap this up fairly quickly.
Operator: Yes. We will next go to Barbara Miller with ABC Australia. Please go ahead.
Q: Oh, thank you very much. Just a couple of quick questions on the hostage situation.
I heard what you said, Daniel, that the rules may have changed. I think what you were essentially saying is they might have to accept some level of collateral damage there. Where does that leave the U.S.? What options are left for the U.S., obviously, under also a lot of pressure to get citizens it suspects of being held out?
And which regional actors might play a role there? I heard Norm talk about Iran, but presumably that’s not an option for the U.S. So which regional actors can the U.S. look to?
Dr. Byman: So this is going to be a huge question. And in a way, the – in my view, at least – the media storm about this has not begun. We’re going to start to see live video released of individuals pleading for bombing halts because they feel threatened. We’ll see family members that are understandably tremendously concerned about the safety of their loved ones. And that will increase political pressure on the Biden administration.
I think the countries that are most likely to be of assistance to the United States in this are Qatar and Egypt – I’m sorry, Qatar and Turkey, where they both have provided various forms of support to Hamas in the past but also have good, if far from perfect, relations with the United States. So they are potential go-between on hostage issues. Egypt in the past has played a role in negotiations as well, but Egypt itself is in a difficult situation.
And I want to go back to a point that Jon said about unexpected consequences. I’m not sure Hamas thought, hey, we’re going to do a massive operation and we’ll get a bunch of American hostages. I think they basically rounded up whoever was there, and some of them happen to be Americans either visiting or, in many cases, dual citizens. So this is something that Hamas may not want. And they are – may actually be moments when they do goodwill gestures, releasing children and the elderly. And other nationalities may come into play here as well.
Q: Thank you so much. And, sorry, just because I don’t know the voice, was that Daniel speaking?
Dr. Byman: Yes, it was. I’m sorry. This is Daniel.
Q: Thank you very much.
Mr. Schwartz: Josh, we have time for one more.
Operator: With that, we’ll go to the line of Caroline Coudriet with CQ Roll Call. Please go ahead.
Q: Hi. Thank you so much for doing the call.
The Biden ministration has said that it might request supplemental funding from Congress next week regarding Israel. Could you guys preview at all what you might expect to see in such a package? Thank you.
Mr. Schwartz: Emily, do you want to take that one?
Ms. Harding: Sure. I’ll start off, and I might hand it off to Seth to talk about what particular weapon systems the Israelis might want more of or be asking for here. I mean, Congress seems that it is poised to provide Israel a lot of – a lot of what they want and what they need, even if it’s a way of signaling support more than giving them precisely the equipment that they need. I guarantee there’ll be conversations behind the scenes about opening up any taps of intelligence that we have. We’ve already seen them move a carrier battle group, carrier strike group into the Mediterranean over closer to Israel. I’m sure that’s there is a deterrent mechanism and then also as a way to provide ISR if needed.
But, Seth, I would – I would ask you to talk about specific weapons systems.
Dr. Jones: Yeah. Good question. I know there’s been a lot of debate about types of weapons systems. If you look at what the Israelis are likely to use in Gaza, there’s, I think, going to be a premium on precision weapons, particularly ones coming from air assets. The Israelis fly an F-15 and F-16s, including F-15 and F-16Is. They also fly drones that will shoot U.S.-manufactured missiles, including the Hellfires. So munitions, I think, is key.
Also on the air defense side, particularly if we see additional significant amounts – additional Hamas firing rockets, or if this expands to include the West Bank and some of the northern territory, air defense capabilities for Iron Dome and other Israeli air defense systems, and possibly also small arms that Israel might need. I mean, Israel’s got a lot. I think the question is also for deterrent purposes. The more that Israel goes through in Gaza, it wants to have sufficient stockpiles for deterrence purposes directed at the Syrians, and the Lebanese, and at Hezbollah operating there, as well as in the West Bank. So there’s a short term need for weapons system for current operations, as well as – as well as for deterrence purposes to keep this from spreading. And the U.S. has already started sending in aircraft with the range of these kinds of weapons systems.
Ms. Harding: I would just add to that – this is Emily, again. I would just add to that as well that there will be debates on the Hill, or at least vocal opposition on the Hill. Folks saying that we can’t keep supporting Ukraine and support Israel. I would go ahead and throw a flag on that and just say that there’s no reason whatsoever that our support to Ukraine should be influenced by support that we are handing to Israel. It’s just a different circumstance. And, as Seth rightly points out, Israel already has a lot of what it needs here. So that I think it’s a red herring to say that we’re going to shift all of our support for Ukraine over to Israel because we have to do that.
Dr. Jones: This is Seth again. Exclamation point on that. The weapons system that the U.S. is providing to Israel in general are not the ones, for the most part, U.S. is providing to Ukraine. Javelins, ATACMS, Excalibur, GMLRS. That’s what we’re providing to Ukraine, and obviously others. I don’t think there’s any expectation that any of those will go to the Israelis.
Mr. Schwartz: Colleagues, thank you very much for this briefing today. We’re going to conclude. Members of media, thank you for joining us. This transcript – a transcript of this briefing will be available today, hopefully shortly. And you can always reference the CSIS website, CSIS.org, for all kinds of other resources on this conflict. So thank you very much for joining us today. And we’ll wrap it up, Josh.