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How was Hamas able to launch such a devastating attack on Israel?


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The war between Israel and Hamas that began with Hamas' shocking invasion of Israel is built on what my guest calls deadly foundations. Those deadly foundations are the subject of today's interview with Daniel Byman. We'll also talk about where this war might lead. Byman has written extensively about the Middle East and terrorism, including the book "A High Price: The Triumphs And Failures Of Israeli Counterterrorism." He's a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor at Georgetown University. In the past few days, he's written several articles about the war for the publication Foreign Affairs.

Shortly after we finished recording our interview this morning, Israel announced the formation of a new emergency government that will include Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a top rival from the opposition, Benny Gantz.

Daniel Byman, welcome back to FRESH AIR. A question we've all been wondering is, why now? Why did - I know it's an anniversary, and terrorists seem to love anniversaries. But beyond that, why do you think Hamas chose this moment to stage this shocking attack on Israel?

DANIEL BYMAN: We don't yet have a great answer to the question of why now, but let me present several possibilities. Some people have talked about the international environment, that Saudi Arabia is normalizing relations with Israel, and Hamas and Iran want to disrupt that. And that may be one reason. I tend to look myself at some of the more domestic reasons. Hamas has a rivalry with the Palestinian Authority, which has power on the West Bank, and Hamas wants to show Palestinians that it is more steadfast in its defense of Palestinian rights and otherwise is contrasting itself with what it would describe as the subservience of the PA to Israel.

And also, I think most importantly is Hamas' position in Gaza. Hamas has ruled Gaza since 2007, but it's had difficulty governing it effectively. And part of this is due to international pressure and Israeli pressure on Gaza - tremendous economic restrictions. And Hamas has been dealt, in its eyes, a losing hand. It can't demonstrate that it's providing a better future for Gazans. And at the same time, it can't burnish its credentials as what it would call resistance, that it's slowly becoming more political. So from Hamas' point of view, it's losing as a governing entity, and it's losing as a violent one. And this is a way of dramatically trying to restore its image as a resistance actor.

GROSS: There's also been so much dissent within Israel over the Netanyahu government, which is a far-right government. And the Netanyahu government was trying to weaken the judiciary, the Supreme Court, and give Congress more power. And many people have said that's because Netanyahu was facing charges of bribery and fraud, breach of trust. And I'm wondering if you think Hamas might have seen this as an opportune moment because Israel itself has been so divided. There have been massive protests against the Netanyahu government.

BYMAN: Hamas has always, in its propaganda, at least, portrayed Israel as weak politically, that it lacks the political will if Palestinians will simply push it hard. And certainly, the last year has seen tremendous divisions within Israel. And it's plausible that Hamas would seek to take advantage of this, believing that if it hits Israel hard, it would discredit Netanyahu and, in general, cause more divisions within Israel. I would say two things about this. One is that, in general, Israelis have a history of coming together under pressure. And I think the latest attacks, as horrific as they are, the only silver lining I can see is that Israelis have put aside many of their differences and are coming together in the face of what they feel is a brutal attack.

The other is that one thing Israelis didn't disagree on as much as they used to in the past is policy towards the Palestinians. This is an issue that, in my view, unfortunately, the political right in Israel has largely won, that there isn't a strong peace movement in Israel. There aren't many people calling for restoring the peace process. So although Israel has very big divisions politically, the Palestinian issue and the broader peace process question, which used to be so divisive, has - is much less so in recent years.

GROSS: Something that I think separates this crisis from previous ones in Israel is that the U.S. is directly involved in the sense that there are American hostages, and there are Americans who were killed in the attacks. How do you think that's going to affect the U.S. response?

BYMAN: For the United States, this is really uncharted territory. In the past, when the U.S. has considered Israel and the region, it's focused on the security of a very close ally. It's focused on deterring adversaries like Iran. But the death of a large number of Americans, the fact that several - and as of this recording, I don't know the exact number, but there are probably several hostages in Hamas' control - is really a game changer. This is a direct threat to the lives and security of Americans and as President Biden has to focus on this issue. It also complicates how the United States thinks about military operations. There is a possibility that an Israeli retaliation in Gaza might inadvertently lead to the death of an American hostage. There is a possibility that Hamas, to deter Israel, might threaten the lives of American hostages. So the United States is in this much more directly than in the past, where it was really a question of how to support an ally in a difficult time.

GROSS: And if we just pull back a little bit, the U.S. is already involved in the war in Ukraine, supplying arms to Ukraine and providing - I think providing intelligence as well. So now the U.S. is involved because of the hostages and because Israel is an ally in the war between Israel and Hamas. Are they connected in any way? Do you see Russia's attack on Ukraine as it all connected? Not directly, but, like, in the Venn diagram, is there a place where they overlap?

BYMAN: I think there is some overlap when we take several steps back. So what we're seeing is a world reaction to a decline in both U.S. power and U.S. engagement in certain parts of the world. The United States has been trying to reduce its engagement in the greater Middle East for over a decade now. President Obama tried. President Trump continued that. And for President Biden, China and Russia have been priorities, not the Middle East. And when the United States disengages, it gives more freedom of action to local actors. And these, at times, can be U.S. allies - so we saw countries like Saudi Arabia becoming much more aggressive. But they can also be adversaries, and Iran has been trying to take advantage of the reduced U.S. presence. And part of what Iran does is support a range of militant actors, and these include groups in Iraq and Yemen but also groups focused on Israel, like the Lebanese Hezbollah and especially Hamas.

And as the United States under President Biden has tried to restore its global presence, the United States has been trying to make choices, with Russia being one of the big foes. But Russia has ties to the Middle East, and it is increasing its support for Iran and otherwise trying to portray itself as the alternative to the United States. So I don't think Russia was directly tied to the latest round of violence, but I think the broader geopolitical environment does matter for what happens in the Israeli-Palestinian context.

GROSS: Do you foresee the possibility of a larger regional war or perhaps even a world war?

BYMAN: Unfortunately, it is at least possible that this war will widen, perhaps dramatically. We've seen the Lebanese Hezbollah do attacks into Israel. We've also seen attacks from Syria that may be from Iranian-linked groups, although we're still not sure. There are reasons that Hezbollah might be cautious. It's fought Israel in the past, and it's been devastating in particular for Lebanon, but also for Hezbollah. And the organization has tried to walk a careful line between showing that it remains anti-Israel, but avoiding provoking a larger conflict.

At the same time, Hezbollah right now wants to show solidarity with Hamas. Hezbollah also works very closely with Iran, which also supports Hamas and wants to stir the pot in the region. And passions will be high. And as we start to see more and more Palestinians die from the Israeli response, there will be on pressure of groups like Hezbollah to escalate. However, part of the reason the United States has deployed an aircraft carrier into the Eastern Med is to try to limit and stop escalation. Whether that will succeed is unknown, but this escalation concern is very much on the mind not only of Israelis, but of the United States and its allies.

GROSS: Can you talk a little bit more about the connection between Hezbollah and Hamas? They're both political parties and Islamic fundamentalist militant groups.

BYMAN: So Hezbollah and Hamas share many similarities but also are quite different in many ways. Hezbollah is a Lebanese group that was really created with Iranian help and works very closely with Iran. It's incredibly formidable, maybe the most dangerous militant group in the world. Hamas, of course, is a Palestinian group and has before this shown less capability, doesn't have the arsenal of Hezbollah, doesn't have the military force, although many of our assumptions, I think, need to be revisited.

But historically, Hezbollah has worked very closely with Iran, done international terrorism against the United States, as well as other targets. It sent people to Iraq and Yemen and - to work with Iranians there. While Hamas has been much more focused very narrowly on the Palestinian arena. The two, however, began to work together in the 1990s with Hezbollah providing training to Hamas. And, in general, often when Iran works with groups like Hamas, it does so with Hezbollah people embedded. They're very skilled themselves, and at the same time they speak Arabic; they're Arabs; and thus often have better connections to Arab communities than do - than does Iran, which is Persian in origin.

GROSS: And there've already been clashes between Israel and Hezbollah this week. So there's reason for concern. I know that Hamas is on the U.S.'s list of terrorist groups. Is Hezbollah officially listed as a terrorist group as well?

BYMAN: Hezbollah is also designated as a terrorist group.

GROSS: Is Hezbollah part of the government in Lebanon?

BYMAN: Hezbollah plays multiple roles in Lebanon, including being part of the government. So it, in a de facto way, administers parts of southern Lebanon, as well as other areas where it's strong. It's held government ministries. It has a presence in parliament. So it's very much part of the Lebanese political, economic and social establishment, as well as being a very dangerous militant and terrorist group.

GROSS: You know, everybody has been asking, how could Israel have missed what was going on, the planning for this invasion by Hamas? And I want to ask you that question because you are the author of the book "A High Price: The Triumphs And Failures Of Israel Counterterrorism." So this was obviously coming under the category of failure, massive failure. How do you think this might have happened?

BYMAN: This is a question that I think commissions and press investigations are going to be trying to answer for months and even years to come. And I want to confess, I did not think Hamas was capable of such a large-scale, sophisticated operation before it happened. So I can't point fingers without pointing one at myself. But there are multiple possible failures here. The biggest one is simply a failure of collection, that Hamas was able to hide the training, the import of large numbers of rockets and missiles into Gaza, the development of new tactics like using gliders and really just a mass-scale operation under the noses of Israeli intelligence.

And Israel has put a lot of effort into knowing what is going on within Hamas and within Gaza in general and using a wide range of intelligence systems to do so. So that basic collection problem seems to have been missing. And add to it a failure of defensive measures where there do not seem to have been enough military and police forces near Gaza for contingencies such as what happened in case intelligence fails. And this is something that I also believe is linked to the broader policies Israel pursued in Gaza, where the Netanyahu government seemed to think that the very limited economic incentives it was giving Hamas in terms of work permits into Israel, that this was a way of keeping Hamas satisfied, of keeping Palestinians satisfied and that because of their improved economic situation, as limited as it was, that they would not consider a large-scale attack.

So to me, there are multiple failures in terms of assessments of Hamas and assessments of Israeli policies. And all this shows what's really one of the most difficult things for those of us who study terrorism, which is that terrorist groups are adaptive, that when they see challenges, they try to devise new ways of overcoming them. And Hamas has come up with new ways of attacking Israel. So whenever we think about this challenge, we have to recognize that defensive measures are very important but that terrorist adversaries are likely to try to overcome them.

GROSS: Do you think that Hamas looked at what Ukraine has been able to do in fighting against Russia's invasion and some of their tactics?

BYMAN: I haven't seen direct indications that Hamas tacticians have been looking at the Ukraine example. What I would say, though, is Hamas in general has emphasized the idea of resistance with a moral component, that they believe that Israel's technological superiority will only get Israel so far. And they point to the Lebanese Hezbollah in particular as an example of a group that through its own tactical cleverness, but especially through its willingness to sacrifice, was able to expel the Israelis from Lebanon in 2000, and in 2006, fight Israel in a 34-day war to a draw. And Hamas thinkers have emphasized that a lot of what Hezbollah did successfully was show Israel that was willing to keep attacking even in the face of heavy casualties.

And Hezbollah leaders with their Iranian backers have also pushed this point more broadly, that the way to take on Israel - and they would say the way to take on the United States - is not to be afraid of death, to show a willingness to put your life on the line and for communities to sacrifice. And they contrast that with American and especially Israeli casualty sensitivities, where a few deaths on the Israeli side is a national calamity, while they would say on their side, it's a cause for celebration of those who died heroically in the struggle.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Daniel Byman. He's a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor at Georgetown University. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, my guest is Daniel Byman. He is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a professor at Georgetown University. He's an expert on the Middle East and terrorism and the author of several books, including "A High Price: The Triumphs And Failures Of Israeli Counterterrorism."

Let me ask you a few basic questions about Hamas. How would you describe Hamas in terms of what it stands for?

BYMAN: So Hamas has gone through a tremendous evolution since it was formally created in 1987. But at its core, it tries to mix two different basic goals. One is Palestinian nationalism, that Hamas is seeking a Palestinian state on the territory of what it would consider the full borders of Palestine. So that would include all of Israel, as well as what is now the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In addition, it is a religious movement, and it wants a particular form of Islamic government. So it differentiates itself from other Palestinian movements, especially its historical rival, Fatah, which was more secular in its orientation.

Over the years, however, Hamas was seen to have moderated on at least some of these goals in practice, if not formally, that it has recognized Israeli power and that the Israeli state and Israeli people are not going anywhere and also that it has shown some willingness to recognize that there are other forms of government and that it will negotiate with different political partners. So there is a maximal Hamas view, but then there's also a pragmatic Hamas. And they've shown different sides over the years since their creation.

GROSS: In its founding mission statement - I'm not sure what it's officially called - it calls for, you know - what? - the eradication of the state of Israel. What's the wording?

BYMAN: I think that's correct. That is eradication. I would have to check. But I think that sentiment is right, that...

GROSS: That's the gist of it.

BYMAN: ...Israel is...

GROSS: Yeah. So one thing I'm not sure of - what does that mean? Does that mean that Israel should be, you know, not a Jewish state, but just a state and have Palestinians and Israelis not only have equal rights, but, you know, have the right of return for Palestinians? Or does it mean that Jews in Israel should be killed? Like, what - how do you interpret it?

BYMAN: So when Hamas made that original statement, its goal was very, very maximal, that Israel was a fundamentally illegitimate state, and it saw this in the context of colonialism. So the people who are Israelis, Hamas, said, no, they're really Europeans or others from the Arab world, and they're invaders. So just like the French in Algeria, just to pick one example, they should be kicked out. And, you know, either they die in the process, or they return to their home countries.

Obviously, any Israeli is going to tell you that Europe is not a place where Israelis want to return to. And Hamas is ignoring the tremendous legacy of Jewish history that led to the formation of Israel. Over time, although Hamas' rhetoric at time continues to be quite extreme, it has come to terms with the reality of Israel. And part of that is simply power disparity. Israel is a powerful, wealthy country. And even as bloody as the last few days have been, Hamas and the Palestinians stand no chance of eradicating Israel.

So the question really is, how much of a compromise would Hamas be willing to settle for, if any? And this has been an exceptionally difficult question for Hamas, where some of its leaders are more pragmatic and some are not. And the challenge for Hamas has been balancing these tensions, where it wants to show that it can responsibly govern a place like Gaza, but it also wants to show that it remains committed to fighting Israel. And Hamas has wavered back and forth between these two. And I would have said four or five days ago, it was more focused on governing Gaza. But the last few days have shown that it wants to double down on its resistance credentials.

GROSS: Well, we have to take another break here. So let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Daniel Byman, and he's a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He's a professor at Georgetown and author of books about the Middle East and terrorism, including "A High Price: The Triumphs And Failures Of Israeli Counterterrorism." We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're talking about the Hamas attack on Israel and what the world consequences are for this, in addition to the consequences for Israel. And we're also kind of looking at the background of this attack - at Hamas, at Israeli policy. If you're just joining us, my guest is Daniel Byman, and he is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He's a professor at Georgetown University. He's an expert on the Middle East and terrorism. And his many books include "A High Price: The Triumphs And Failures Of Israeli Counterterrorism."

Tell us a little bit about how and when Hamas was founded.

BYMAN: So after the 1967 war, Israel takes over the Gaza Strip. And this is a fundamental change for Gaza, because previously it had been under Egyptian control. And the Egyptian government at the time was brutally opposed to political Islam and especially its manifestation as the Muslim Brotherhood. So when Israel takes over, Israel sees the primary threat as leftist and nationalistic Palestinian voices, not Islamist ones. And also, Israel, as a democratic state, is not going to suppress religious activity in general. So you see a tremendous growth of Islamic activity in Gaza under Israel in the 1970s and 1980s.

But a key moment is really 1987. Then you have the outbreak of the First Intifada, where ordinary Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza rise up against what they consider an unjust occupation. And this catches everyone by surprise. Now you have this - really this storm that is shaking the Palestinian arena. And for the Muslim Brotherhood, they have to engage. They are being taunted. The more secular types associated with Fatah say, you know, look, if you want to fight for Palestinian rights, the Muslim Brotherhood is doing nothing. But you also have a small group, Palestine Islamic Jihad, that remains active today, that is saying if you're an Islamist who wants to fight Israel, join us, not the Brotherhood.

So in 1987, the Brotherhood in Gaza forms Hamas as a - what it would call a resistance organization. Initially, it's pretty weak. A lot of its leaders are quickly arrested. They try operations, but they don't work really well. But over time, it grows more and more powerful. And a lot of that is because of its links to Palestinian society. So the Muslim Brotherhood and then Hamas ran hospitals and ran schools and ran charities. And they were deeply embedded, and a lot of their activity was not violent. But this sort of peaceful and social activity aided its credentials. It made it a credible organization. It gave it access to lots of ordinary Palestinians. So when this organization declares itself, it starts out on a much firmer foundation than many other terrorist groups would.

GROSS: How did Hamas gain control over Gaza? And we're talking about, like, 2007. What happened?

BYMAN: In the 1990s, there was a peace process where many people, myself included, really hoped that there would be a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians. And Gaza was run by Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority. In 2000, the Second Intifada breaks out. And this is an incredibly bloody event that lasts for five years and continues on several years after that in a lesser form, where over a thousand Israelis die and over 5,000 Palestinians die. And when Yasser Arafat ran the Gaza Strip, his security services were incredibly brutal against Hamas and tried to aggressively crush it. And Hamas was quite weak, with many of its leaders in jail, and was only able to do a few limited operations in the late 1990s. But when the Second Intifada breaks out, one thing that Arafat does is he opens up the prisons. So Hamas becomes much stronger with many of its leaders returning.

In addition, and probably more importantly, Hamas' message becomes stronger. Hamas is able to say to ordinary Palestinians, look, negotiations get you nowhere. The way to take on Israel is to fight. So Hamas becomes much more popular. Israel, meantime, targets Arafat, targets the Palestinian Authority. So their message is weaker, but they're also operationally weaker. As the Intifada is ending, Israel decides to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. But the politics are so poisonous that it refuses to negotiate with moderate Palestinian leaders. It's saying to its own people, openly, we're doing this on our own terms. We're not doing this as part of a negotiation. But the result is when Israel withdraws in 2005, Hamas looks even stronger. Hamas says, Israel is now out of Gaza and it's not because of the Palestinian Authority. It's not because of negotiations. It's because of resistance. It's because of our fighting. And it gains a lot of credibility.

In 2006, there are elections in the Palestinian territories, and this is something pushed by the United States. And Hamas wins these elections. Now, it wins for two reasons. One is that the Palestinian Authority is seen as inept when it comes to governing. Many Palestinians rightly considered it highly corrupt and also very ineffective on things like basic services, such as picking up the trash or providing law and order. But Hamas also gains, because the Palestinian Authority was so overconfident, it bungled the election. Sometimes in the same district, the anti-Hamas candidates would run three or four candidates. And Hamas - the Hamas candidate might win 30% of the vote, but that was more than his rival. So Hamas wins the election without actually winning a majority of Palestinians. There's...

GROSS: But people always refer to how Hamas seized power, and you're talking about, like, winning an election. So what happened in between there?

BYMAN: So in 2006, Hamas wins the election. But this is disputed, and there's a question of, does Hamas control Gaza or - and how many rights does the Palestinian Authority have? And there is economic isolation. And Hamas believes that Israel and the Palestinian Authority and the United States are plotting to overthrow it. So there is a dispute about who has what political power, but Hamas simply seizes power in 2007. And many people refer to this as a Hamas coup. So from Hamas' point of view, it had democratic legitimacy because of 2006. From the point of view of its Palestinian rivals, Hamas simply threw all the procedures and rules out the window when it seized power.

GROSS: So Hamas governs the Gaza Strip. It's also a military group. It's shown its strength as fighters. How has it been at governing?

BYMAN: So Hamas has both strengths and weaknesses at governing. It has governed Gaza better than its predecessors. So Gaza was governed by Egypt and then by Israel and then by the Palestinian Authority. And in all those cases, basic services were poor. And that includes things like trash collection or fighting crime, which are very important to citizens on a day-to-day basis. And Hamas has done a better job in many cases than its predecessors. But Hamas has not been able to bring economic prosperity. And part of that is that it's not an organization that is focused on economics or trying to improve the investment climate or other basics for that. But Hamas would say it's also because of the economic pressure that Israel and its allies have placed on Gaza, that there's been a partial blockade on what goes in out of Gaza. And in a way, Israeli policy was very much designed to do this.

Israel was trying to message ordinary Palestinians that they should stick with the more pro-Israel Palestinian Authority and reject Hamas. And as a result, Israel has tried to limit economic development on Gaza, even as it's tried to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe. And since Hamas has been in power for 17 years now, that meant that we have a generation of Gazans who have grown up with Hamas leadership and many of whom have been quite frustrated by it. They feel trapped in Gaza. And while they certainly blame Israel, they also blame Hamas.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Daniel Byman. He's a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor at Georgetown University. He's an expert on the Middle East and terrorism. And his books include "A High Price: The Triumphs And Failures Of Israeli Counterterrorism." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, my guest is Daniel Byman. He is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a professor at Georgetown University. He's an expert on the Middle East and terrorism and the author of several books, including "A High Price: The Triumphs And Failures Of Israeli Counterterrorism."

As we've witnessed, Hamas has thousands of missiles. And it has - what? - tens of thousands more?

BYMAN: That's probably correct, and a very wide range, some short range, but many that are able to hit deep into Israel.

GROSS: Gaza is a small territory. And how does Hamas manage to get those missiles and to hide them? And I know a lot of them are hidden, like, underneath homes and perhaps underneath mosques. That's what Israel claims. But nevertheless, tens of thousands of missiles. How do you get them in, and how do you hide them?

BYMAN: So Hamas' capability comes from two overlapping sources. Iran has provided a range of missiles to Hamas, and some of these are smuggled in through tunnels, usually from Egypt. In addition, Iran has provided components of system. So you could smuggle them part by part. But perhaps most important, Iran has provided knowhow. So it's taught Hamas how to make these missiles. And that's the second source, is indigenous production. And, you know, go back a few decades, and we saw Hamas using these sorts of strikes, but it was very limited, right on the border of Gaza, just a few kilometers into Israel. Each year, it seemed, the range of these systems would grow. So more and more of Israel was threatened by Hamas.

In recent years, Israel has felt protected by antimissile systems, like Iron Dome, that have shot down missiles that have threatened population centers. But Hamas seems to have been able to smuggle in or acquire or build huge numbers which have simply overwhelmed the Iron Dome system, that so many were fired that Iron Dome could only shoot down a few of them. And that is a tremendous failure of Israeli intelligence, in my view. And as your question points out, the Gaza Strip is small, and Israel has covered it with intelligence assets for some time now. So to be able to hide these weapons, even in tunnels, even underneath various homes and mosques, is still quite an accomplishment. But Hamas has pulled it off. We have to recognize this as a Hamas success.

GROSS: I want to ask you about countries that support Hamas. We've talked a little bit about Iran. I want to ask you about Qatar. They're, I think, in an unusual situation. They've provided a billion dollars in aid to Hamas. But the U.S. has a major military base in Qatar, and I can't quite reconcile that. So why don't you try to explain what's going on?

BYMAN: So Qatar is one of those countries that has tried to punch above its diplomatic weight. It's a very small country, but it's a very rich country, and it's had a very active foreign policy for over a decade now. When the Arab Spring happened in 2011, Qatar saw a chance to increase its influence by working with various governments or movements associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, the political Islamist movement that is the origin of Hamas. And it supported this in Egypt. It supported it in other countries. And so Hamas saw this as an opportunity to find an additional patron. And Israel, in some ways, perhaps surprisingly, was willing to cooperate with Qatar on this.

And part of it was because Israel does not want - or did not want, I should say - a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. It didn't want economic development, but it didn't want the people to starve. It wanted basic hospital services. So the question was, could the government in Qatar provide services to Palestinians that would not increase the military capacities of Hamas? And that's always a difficult line because whenever you're providing assistance of any sort, it frees up money for other projects, including military spending. It also means that Hamas can employ its people in these jobs, and they can draw salaries. So it's hard to kind of separate these completely. But the emphasis was on Qatar doing more social and economic projects, while that stands in contrast to something like Iran that has provided military support.

GROSS: The Saudis and Israel were starting to normalize relations. What do you think the war is going to do to possibly change that - interrupt it, prevent it?

BYMAN: In the short term, the war is a tremendous setback to Saudi-Israeli normalization. The Saudi-Israeli normalization was primarily about a shared enemy, Iran, and also Saudi Arabia's desire to get some support from the United States. It was suggesting U.S. support for Saudi Arabia's nuclear program and also a U.S. security guarantee for the kingdom. The expectation was Saudi Arabia would make some demand on the Palestinian front, but that it would be very modest because given Israel's political dynamics, Israel couldn't make real moves on that, and the Saudis knew it.

But with the Palestinian issue front and center, it's impossible for Saudi Arabia to make progress with Israel unless Israel makes very significant concessions on the Palestinian issue, which is simply not going to happen in an Israeli political context. So that very basic issue, which many people hoped would be on the backburner, is now front and center. Now, perhaps in six months, progress can resume. But in the short term at least, this is going to be very difficult.

GROSS: Do you think that Iran saw some kind of normalizing between the Saudis and Israel as a threat to Iran?

BYMAN: Certainly Iran's leaders saw Israel's normalization with Saudi Arabia and its previous normalization with countries like the UAE and Bahrain as a threat to Iran, in part because these countries have been quite explicit that they see Iran as a threat, and they believe working together against Iran is very important. So it's not surprising that Iran would seek to disrupt this. And it's trying to do that politically, but it's also trying to do it by supporting different militant groups. We still don't know...

GROSS: Like Hamas.

BYMAN: Exactly. Like Hamas and like Hezbollah. And there have been some reports that Iran was involved in this particular operation. I've seen indications that they have and a lot of people saying they haven't. It's hard for me to know at this stage, but it's, at the very least, part of why Iran has funded Hamas, provided weapons to Hamas, trained Hamas is so it can attack Israel, is so can target Iran's enemies. And in the last few days at least, from an Iranian point of view, that has paid off.

GROSS: Let's take another short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Daniel Byman. He's a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He's a professor at Georgetown and author of several books about the Middle East and terrorism, including "A High Price: The Triumphs And Failures Of Israeli Counterterrorism." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Daniel Byman, who has written extensively about the Middle East, and he's a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He's a professor at Georgetown and author of several books, including "A High Price: The Triumphs And Failures Of Israeli Counterterrorism."

We've been talking about Gaza 'cause that's where Hamas is, but, you know, there's also the West Bank. And I'm wondering what you think this means, this war means for the West Bank and for what Israeli policy will be in the West Bank. And again, you know, the elected governing body in the West Bank is Fatah, which had been headed by Yasser Arafat. And Mahmoud Abbas became the successor, and he's been in power a very long time. He's in his 80s. He's considered out of touch by many people. So can we focus on the West Bank a little bit?

BYMAN: So in 2021, the West Bank saw the worst violence it had seen in many years. In 2022, it got worse. And this year, it seems on track to be even worse. So many of us were focused on violence in the West Bank, not Gaza, as the challenge for Israel. And part of this was because of the growth in settlements, the abuse of actions of Israeli settlers and a general sense among Palestinians in the West Bank that life was getting worse. So there was more support for different militant actors, including some terrorist groups that seemed completely new, that weren't tied to traditional organizations.

And part of the problem was that the traditional leadership led by Mahmoud Abbas was discredited. It was seen as corrupt. It was also seen as acting as an arm of Israeli intelligence, that it was arresting Palestinians rather than helping them fight Israel. The Palestinian Authority is, in my view, simply a relatively standard, corrupt and brutal government. It rules by providing a core group of people with some perks and privileges. It doesn't govern particularly well, and it has effective but fairly brutal security services that crack down on Palestinian dissent of any sort.

So it was discredited, and that's a broader problem, not just for the Palestinians, but also for Israel, that Israeli policies have helped discredit Abbas and the Palestinian Authority. And as a result, there's not someone to turn to who can govern territories like Gaza. It's hard to put someone like the Palestinian Authority in power there now because they are discredited, because of their ineptitude and their ties to Israel.

GROSS: What is your worst fear about what this new war might lead to? And do you have any hope that the end might resolve in a step forward, that whatever settlement is eventually reached or whatever victory is eventually reached might lead to some kind of brighter future?

BYMAN: My worst fear is that the conflict goes from being one between Israel and Hamas in Gaza to a much broader one, that unrest on the West Bank grows and spills over and the situation there becomes much more violent, that the Lebanese Hezbollah becomes more involved, and that we start to see violent attacks on Israelis or other violence around the world, and that what is right now a very bloody but limited conflict becomes part of the broader struggle against the West in the Middle East, against the United States and its allies, and something that really shapes the politics of countries around the world. I worry that this latest fighting will end up with a much worse situation. But at times, we have seen hope come out of very difficult circumstances.

As many people have observed, we're at the 50th anniversary of the 1973 war. And that was a war that, from Israel's point of view, seemed like a debacle - many Israelis dead, a successful surprise attack by Egypt and Syria. But the U.S. secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, was able to see an opportunity there. And he, along with Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, eventually made significant progress on peace that culminated in a peace deal between Israel and what had been its greatest enemy, Egypt. So out of war and disaster, you can have peace and more opportunities. But that's going to be exceptionally difficult in these circumstances. Israelis are - were already embittered against Palestinians, believing that the Second Intifada showed that they were committed to violence. And this will only reinforce that perception. The United States is not putting an emphasis on restarting peace negotiations in the Middle East. And as a result, I think it's going to be very difficult to take a very sad and bloody situation and have a silver lining to it in the end.

GROSS: As somebody who has studied Middle East relations for many years, what's it like for you to watch things fail and fail and fail and then get worse and worse with periods of getting better, but then getting worse?

BYMAN: It's incredibly disheartening that you have hope, and that hope could be in the 1990s with peace talks. It could be 2011 with what seemed like the outbreak of democracy in the Arab world. And then you see things worse off five years, 10 years later. And you see friends in the region who went from being optimists to having no hope. You see a generation that doesn't have political prospects and often doesn't have economic prospects. And as someone who analyzes and provides recommendations, you feel that your own contribution is something that has, at the very best, been ineffective, but perhaps has contributed to broader problems, that the solutions have not been taken, and that as a result, our kind of collective failure to move this forward shows that, as an analytic community, as a policy community, we need to do much better.

GROSS: Daniel Byman, thank you so much for talking with us.

BYMAN: My pleasure.

GROSS: Daniel Byman is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a professor at Georgetown University.


GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Marty Baron, who was the executive editor of The Washington Post during the Trump presidency and when the Post was acquired by Jeff Bezos, as well as the transition that followed. Baron's new memoir is called "Collision Of Power: Trump, Bezos, And The Washington Post." I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Our co-host is Tonya Mosley. I'm Terry Gross.


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