The Good Fight
Terror and Tragedy in the Middle East

Terror and Tragedy in the Middle East

Yascha Mounk and Amichai Magen discuss the worst attack on Jews since the Holocaust and Israel’s response.

Amichai Magen is the director of the Program on Democratic Resilience & Development at Reichman University's Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy, and Strategy. He is a Visiting Professor and Fellow in Israel Studies at the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Amichai Magen discuss the Hamas incursion into Israel that is responsible for the greatest massacre of Jews since World War II; the prospects for Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in the aftermath of the greatest security failure in Israel’s history; and the evolving crisis following the start of Israel’s military response against Gaza.

The views expressed are those of the speakers, not those of Persuasion. The transcript and conversation have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: Amichai, what just happened? Tell us something about the scale of the murder and the killing of civilians in Israel over the last week, and, perhaps, help us make sense of that in the larger context of Israeli history.

Amichai Magen: This is a very rapidly unfolding set of events. Already, we need to distinguish between two phases of this war. The first began in the early morning hours of Saturday, October 7th, the last day of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot when the vast majority of Israelis were sleeping in their beds or preparing to go to the synagogue or barbecue with their families. They were young people preparing to have a nature celebration in the proximity of Gaza. And then we've entered a new phase over the last 24 hours. So let me just unpack those two, even though we still don't have all the facts, not all of the bodies have been recovered, and there are many missing. The first phase of this war was a huge surprise, completely unexpected and unprovoked. At approximately 6:30 in the morning, a barrage of rocket fire from Gaza into various parts of Israel began. Before the day was done, over 3,000 missiles, rockets, and mortar shells were fired from densely populated Palestinian Territories inside Gaza into densely populated Israeli civilian centers, consistent with previous rounds of warfare instigated by Hamas. 

But this time, things were different. This time it looks as if the rocket barrage was really a distraction from the real military operation, which looks as if it's been planned for a very long time. There's a big question about the complicity of Iran in this, but essentially, in the initial phase, 1,500 Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad militants crossed the border into Israel, very quickly overwhelming understaffed military posts on the border with Gaza, and then made their way into Israeli towns and villages, and there conducted what can only be described as a pogrom as a massacre within the first five or six hours before Israel could probably mobilize and respond. We now know that over 1,300 Israelis, the vast majority of them civilians, were simply massacred. In places, the kibbutzim and moshavim neighboring Gaza, militant terrorists went house to house burning, shooting, decapitating, raping, looting: it was simply simply a massacre. There's no other word for it—huge trauma, with echoes, for many Israelis, of the events of the Holocaust, and, for the rest of the world, echoes of the type of behavior that we have come to expect from organizations like ISIS and various Al-Qaeda affiliates around the world. 

That was the first phase. But this is mutating very quickly. And it could very quickly evolve into a multifront regional confrontation in which Israel has to face not only the two Iranian proxies that are based in Gaza—Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad—but much more worryingly, from a strategic and a military point of view, Hezbollah which is based in Lebanon and now parts of Syria over the last few years. There are reports of shelling from Lebanon into Israel, possible terrorist infiltration from Lebanon into northern Israel, into the Galilee. At the same time, there are early signs of a rising insurgency—or perhaps the beginnings of an intifada—in the West Bank. Hamas is doing everything it possibly can to incite and to encourage people in the West Bank and, indeed, Israeli Arabs who are living within 1967 borders to take up arms against Israeli civilians, police, and military. There is also a global dimension to this, because we see a call by Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas for a day of jihad around the region and the world. This could have destabilizing consequences. 

Mounk: And as ever, it is, of course, legitimate to criticize the actions of the government of Israel. But the line between people who claim to be anti-Zionist and who are, in fact, simply anti-Semites is very thin. And you can see in the call for the global attack on Jewish targets (not just Israeli targets) the nature of Hamas’s ideology. 

What are the prospects for the war that is now unfolding? I recognize that we're in a very, very deep fog of war. Is the weakness of Israel in those first days simply a result of an extreme and unusual intelligence failure, and now that the country is on high alert and is mobilizing it can look towards this confrontation with relative confidence? Or do you think that there is a possibility of broader military failure which would put Israel at much more risk than it seems to have been in previous wars since, probably, the 1970s?

Magen: Let me address first the causes of this conflict, and some are structural and some are more contingent and more recent. The structural cause of the conflict is the fact that Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Iranian proxies, are committed ideologically, religiously, and materially to the annihilation of the State of Israel. I invite all the listeners to simply go to your favorite internet browser and enter the words “Hamas charter.” And you'll see the full set of aims and declarations of Hamas. They don't hide their intentions. Hamas is an acronym. It stands for the Islamic Resistance Movement. It is part of the axis of resistance, the so-called Muqawamah, and its aim is to annihilate Israel and to create a fundamentalist Islamist caliphate on the territory of what is now Israel. It doesn't discriminate between Jews, Arabs, Druze—as far as they're concerned, they are all kafirs, they are all apostates and need to be annihilated. 

More recently, I think we can point to three factors that instigated and that help us understand the timing of this attack. The first is an Israeli failure of imagination, a certain complacency. Israel, over the last three years in particular, believed that it could reach an accommodation with Hamas, it could offer greater economic opportunities to the population of Gaza. Over the last few months, more workers were issued with Israeli work permits to work in Israel, more money has been funneled to Hamas through Qatar and other sources. And Israel thought that this would create a set of incentives that would stabilize things. We now know that a lot of what Hamas has been doing over the last year has been to distract Israel from its plan of attack, but there was a certain degree of complacency and naïveté there. Again, we don't know all the facts. Historically, after this type of catastrophe, a national commission of inquiry will have to be created after the war to investigate what happened. But clearly this is a colossal intelligence failure, followed by a colossal operational failure.

Point number two is that Israel looked distinctly vulnerable because of the extreme polarization over the last year, because of the public statements made by Israeli pilots that they will not come and volunteer for IDF service if the Netanyahu government continued on its path to weakening Israeli democracy. We tend to think that Israel is very good at watching its neighbors, but the neighbors are also very good at watching Israel and understanding Israeli society. And they detected a unique moment of division and vulnerability over the past several months. 

The third reason is a strategic one. It is more difficult to prove because Iran is very good at obfuscating its operations. The essence of proxy warfare is plausible deniability on the part of the patrons. So we don't yet have the full picture. But it is clear that Iran has very powerful strategic incentives for trying to sow chaos in Israel and the region at this time. Two things really stand out. One is Iran's desire to ensure that the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel do not conclude a peace deal. And, in particular, they are trying to scupper the possibility of an American–Saudi defense pact, which would be a real strategic blow to Iran. The Iranians are aware that the clock is ticking because of the American political clock on the window of opportunity to conclude that deal. And they are trying to create chaos in the region. Again, this is difficult to prove. But I think it makes a lot of strategic sense. There may also be an identification on the part of Iran of a window of opportunity where a regional war in the Middle East would allow Iran to really rush forward and to become, for all intents and purposes, a nuclear power. Iran is very, very close. We have credible intelligence estimates by the United States, by Israel, by other intelligence agencies around the world, that Iran is essentially within two or three months of being able to enrich enough uranium and to develop a detonation device. And so there are very powerful strategic incentives for Iran to sow chaos across the Middle East exactly at this time.

Mounk: What would happen if Hezbollah from Lebanon and perhaps other forces were to start attacking Israel as well? And how do you assess, at this point, the preparedness of Israeli military and Israeli society to respond to that? Clearly, as you pointed out in your earlier response, there's a perception of such deep division that Israel might not be able to respond effectively; it seems that there is now a government of national unity, and that even though there's deep anger towards both the policies pursued by Benjamin Netanyahu before this moment and the intelligence failures which led to this attack, the ability of Israelis to close ranks for the moment seems to be assured. 

How worried do you think Israelis need to be right now about a potential multi-front war? 

Magen: Let me remind you there are a variety of Shia Iranian militias based in Syria, Iraq, Yemen. Iran certainly has the capacity to facilitate the launching of drone attacks, of missile attacks, not just from Lebanon, but also from Syria, and potentially from Iraq and Yemen. The scale of this is potentially very extensive. Indeed, let me just give you a sense of proportion. Hezbollah is not a terrorist organization in the way that you and I might normally think about a terrorist organization. Hezbollah is a proto-state, and one of the most powerful military actors certainly in the region and, arguably, in the world. At the moment, Hezbollah has about 180,000 rockets and missiles pointed at Israel. Of those, somewhere between 35,000 and 40,000 are precision-guided, GPS guided missiles that could hit critical infrastructure in Israel. And Israel is a very small country, it's the size of New Jersey. It has one major international airport, and its critical infrastructure is, therefore, vulnerable. 

If Hezbollah were to enter this war in full force, we would be facing a very different type of campaign, and Israel would be facing, at the very least, a two-front assault, one from the south, one from the north. As I mentioned before, that could potentially escalate into a much messier reality of various types of attacks on civilians, and disruption of Israel's war effort in the West Bank and within Israel itself, something that Israeli military analysts have been warning about for several years now. Clearly, internal divisions and a neglect of the core functions of national defense, not only over the last year but I would say over the last four or five years as Israel has gone from one failed government to another failed government, from one cycle of elections to another cycle of elections. And as Israelis have been focused on their internal political squabbles, that has certainly undermined internal social cohesion, which is so critical for warfare. Power is not just about technology. It's not just about military capabilities. It's about spirit. And it is at these moments that the spirit of a nation is tested. We see that in Ukraine. We see how the spirit of the Ukrainian people has allowed Ukraine to face a much more powerful enemy. If that spirit doesn't exist in Israel in the coming weeks and months, that's going to make Israel's challenge all the greater. But I do believe, in times of crisis, Israelis rally. We've seen an incredible mobilization of reservists, Israelis are flying from all around the world to volunteer. The fact is that there are many more people flying into Israel right now to assist than people fleeing or people leaving Israel. And so Israel has this unique capacity for societal resilience. The question now has to be whether there is sufficient level of trust in the existing national leadership to be able to conduct this campaign successfully.

Mounk: Help us understand what is happening in Gaza, what is about to happen in Gaza, and the plan of the new Israeli Government of unity? Again, what Hamas did in a surprise attack—which was just not provoked by any immediate Israeli action; in fact, as you were saying, Israel was trying to facilitate a more cooperative relationship with the Gaza Strip—was one of the worst terrorist massacres that we've seen in the last 100 years. I think that clearly gives Israel a right to battle Hamas in a very decisive way, to attempt what the United States and other allies did with ISIS, which was to dismantle the existence of the organization. At the same time, there are obviously a huge number of civilians in Gaza, including over a million children in the Gaza Strip and two million people overall, many of whom are being used as human shields by Hamas. 

What is the game plan here? How can Israel try to cripple Hamas's ability to carry out such attacks and perhaps dismantle the organization and ensure that it no longer has control over the Gaza Strip, but how can it do that without causing very serious civilian suffering, which would be morally unacceptable and likely to backfire strategically, because of the way in which it would force various governments throughout the Middle East to break relations with Israel and perhaps even prompt them to enter the war?

Magen: You've laid out the dilemma very well. It's a hellish dilemma. It's a Catch-22 situation. There are no easy answers here. On the one hand, Israel, having sustained this terrible blow, feels compelled—not only justified, but compelled—to restore deterrence, to signal to Iran or Hezbollah, to everybody in the region, that it will not stand by as Iran's weakest proxy in the Middle East, Hamas, inflicts that kind of damage. Israel has to change the equation; it has to change the rules of the game. And I think in some respects, Israel also understands that all the relationships that it has cultivated over the last decades, with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, Morocco, continuing the relationship with Egypt, and Jordan, and indeed, the prospect of the historic peace deal with Saudi Arabia, depend on the perception of Israel being a competent and powerful state. And there's also, of course, the public anger and grief and expectation that something like this could never happen. 

Again, let me emphasize: Israelis are not at war with the population in Gaza. Israelis understand that the population in Gaza has really been taken hostage by two callous and cruel terrorist organizations that are abusing the Palestinian people in Gaza in untold ways. And so the war here is not against the Palestinian population. There is no real sentiment of the desire for revenge; there's mainly grief and anger and sadness. But there is a completely understandable Israeli public demand that we cannot go back to the status quo and that this must not be allowed to happen again. 

Mounk: What does that mean in concrete terms? Do we understand at this point what the stated goals of the government are? We’re recording this on Friday, around noon Eastern time. Things may change in the next 24 hours, and certainly in the next 72 hours. But as of this moment, what is Israel trying to achieve in the Gaza Strip?

Magen: Israel doesn't have great options here. What we know so far is that the war cabinet of the newly-established emergency government—it's not a national unity government, it's an emergency government. Its aim, or the declared aim, is to degrade and undermine the capabilities, military and political, of Hamas in the West Bank, and there was also a statement this morning by the Israeli Minister of Defense, Yoav Gallant, who spoke of the goal of bringing down Hamas’ rule in Gaza. 

As far as we know, that is the declared aim of the Israeli government. Whether that can be achieved militarily is doubtful—not impossible, but doubtful, given the constraints that you have just articulated: the population density of Gaza, the difficult humanitarian situation that will quickly evolve there, and the fact that even if you re-occupy Gaza and bring down Hamas’ rule in Gaza, the question the next day is, “Well, what now? Who's going to govern Gaza?” The Egyptians are not interested in doing it. Let me remind everybody that Gaza borders two countries: Israel and Egypt. The Palestinian Authority is fragmented and weak and probably doesn't have the capacity to rule Gaza. So there's no easy option that could give us stability. In the immediate term, it seems as if the plan of the IDF over the next days and weeks will be to conduct a land operation into northern Gaza. A notice has already gone out to the population of northern Gaza, from the northern border of Gaza with Israel all the way to Gaza City, which is about halfway through the Gaza Strip, to evacuate that area and to head south. This is the kind of warning that international humanitarian law requires before a military operation. And it seems as if that is what the IDF is preparing to do. But we'll have to see how this works.

Operationally, the purpose would be to seriously degrade and destroy the military capacities of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which are substantial. Gaza is a giant fortress, with tunnels and bunkers, weapons storage facilities, weapons-making facilities, rocket-making and production facilities: all of these things exist in Gaza. So if the operational goal is to deny their capacity to continue to produce weapons and to and to shoot rockets into Israel, that would be the operational aim of this campaign. Beyond that, there is the strategic goal, which is to change the rules of the game, to make sure that we don't go back to the reality that existed on October 6th, 2023, where we're just preparing for the next round of attack and war. That seems to be the short-term strategic goal. And as I said, this also has regional implications because if Israel is able to effectively remove Hamas’s capacity to conduct this type of warfare, this has important strategic implications vis-à-vis its shadow war with Iran.

Read more: “This Was Never Supposed to Happen” by Amichai Magen

Mounk: Tell us briefly about the implications here for Netanyahu and the fight over Israeli democracy that's been playing out for the last 12 months or so; those mass demonstrations against attempts by Netanyahu to broaden his powers, in particular by passing judicial reforms that would undermine the role of the Supreme Court. You call it an emergency government rather than a government of national unity. But certainly, it is somewhat akin to a government of national unity in the sense that it unites, within itself, political parties that have been deeply hostile to each other over the last 12 months.

There is deep and very broad anger over Netanyahu's failure to keep Israel safe, something that had always been core to his promise. What do you think the likely future of Netanyahu is? And will Israeli democratic institutions be able to withstand these coming months?

Magen: Well, I think, if anything, Israel just received a very, very painful lesson in the importance of the functionality of the state, and the importance of trust in national institutions, which, in Israel, is inherently tied with questions of legitimacy, democracy, and participation. In the short run, the efforts of the Netanyahu government to push through anti-democratic legislation will be put aside. That has already been stated, in fact; the formation of the national emergency government, the terms and conditions of that include a clause that says that this government will not promote any legislation that is not related to the war effort, which is code for saying they're suspending the so-called judicial reform—or judicial coup, as many in Israel see it. 

In the longer run, there is tremendous loss of trust and anger directed at the current leadership, Netanyahu at the head of it. The buck stops with him. It will be, I think, incredibly difficult for him to wiggle his way out of this situation. If the mechanisms of democratic accountability still function in Israel, and I believe that they do, it's very difficult to see how Netanyahu is not compelled to exit the political scene over the coming months. I'll remind you that, historically, that has been the fate of Israeli Prime Ministers: Golda Meir in 1973, Menachem Begin in 1982. Even Ehud Barak, with the opening of the Second Intifada, had to step aside. And so the mechanisms of democratic accountability have worked in Israel historically, and I can't see a situation where we have such a collapse, or such a failure of accountability, in Israel that those mechanisms will not work again.

Mounk: What does all of this mean for the prospects of any kind of durable settlement or peace in the Middle East? In the last few years, a lot of people have been moving towards the idea of a one-state solution, of the idea of Israelis and Palestinians coexisting peacefully in the same state. That’s certainly a very appealing ideal, and one that I would love to embrace and advocate, but I think the terrorist attack last weekend explains in, I suppose, a more eloquent way than any essay might why that seems to be naïve. Gaza is sometimes called an “open air prison,” but the prison gates were opened last weekend, and we saw what the result of that was, so a one-state solution seems wholly unrealistic. It is also hard to see the prospects for a viable Palestinian state at this point, both because of the encroachment of settlements in the Palestinian territories and because of what is now likely to happen in the Gaza Strip. And then, of course, Israel’s relationships with its neighbors with whom it had managed to accomplish peace and some amount of cooperation are looking more grim than they did in the past as well. 

To leave us with some tiny smidgen of hope in these dark times, if, in 10 or 20 years, we should somehow look back at this moment and say things didn't work out as terribly as we feared, and in some strange, perverse way, they helped move the region towards some form of peaceable settlement, what might that even look like?

Magen: If there is a silver lining in this horrific situation, it is the fact that it's not only Israel that is extremely concerned about Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. It's also Egypt, it's also Jordan, and we've just received—

Mounk: —to add a little bit of context here, there's a reason why Egypt is not allowing people from the Gaza Strip to enter its territory. And that is that the country fears that Hamas will try to topple the Egyptian government and carry out terrorist attacks within Egyptian territory.

Magen: Hamas is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Muslim Brotherhood is a movement that threatens the stability of Jordan, Egypt, and, indeed, Saudi Arabia. And so, if there is a silver lining in these very, very painful days, it is that everybody in the region has received a reminder that global jihad hasn't gone away since the collapse of ISIS’ rule in Raqqa and Mosul six or seven years ago. We seem to have forgotten about the problem of global jihad, we've turned our attention to other problems, to great power competition. We've received the reminder that global jihad hasn't disappeared; it's back with a vengeance. 

By the way, there's a cautionary tale here for every country in Europe and the United States and around the world. And if there is the presence of mind and leadership, the horrible events of the last week will actually bring Egypt, Jordan, Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia closer together. The strategic imperative here is for the pragmatic Sunni Arab world to work more closely with the United States, with the West, and with Israel, to ensure that the axis of chaos, the axis of resistance, the axis of Muqawamah, led by Iran, is not triumphant. 

And so to answer your question of where we go from here, we need to work very carefully, and determinedly, to try to preserve the gains that have been made in Middle East peace-building over the last decades, and to try to move those forward in a way that would create a regional framework that would allow us to, on the one hand, provide the Palestinian people with the dignity and freedom they so richly deserve, and, at the same time, ensure security and stability not just for Israel but also for Jordan, for Egypt, and for the entire region. This is not a Hamas–Israel war. This is a conflict between an axis of stability, an axis of hope, an axis that respects the basic rules of statehood and international law, and an axis of chaos that is seeking to undermine civilization in the Middle East and beyond.

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Podcast production by John T. Williams and Brendan Ruberry.

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The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.