What Israel does next — in conversation with Dennis Ross

  • Themes: Geopolitics, Israel-Palestine, Terrorism, War

EI’s Angus Reilly talks to Dennis Ross, former Middle East Envoy for the Clinton administration and Special Assistant to President Obama, about Hamas’ attack on Israel, the impact on the politics of the region, and Israel’s response. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rockets are fired toward Israel from the Gaza Strip, Sunday 8 October 2023.
Rockets are fired toward Israel from the Gaza Strip, Sunday 8 October 2023. Credit: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

AR: Israel and Hamas have fought numerous times in recent decades, with major outbreaks of violence in 2014 and 2021. Why is this time so different?

DR: Well, firstly, the nature of Hamas’ attack is so fundamentally different. Israel has never suffered these kinds of losses within the State of Israel since its original War of Independence in 1948. Every war that was fought with conventional armies never looked anything like this. Nothing like this has ever happened in Israel before.

It is a colossal surprise from two standpoints. Israel was caught completely unaware, notwithstanding a remarkable security and intelligence establishment. In addition, it’s clear that there was a very slow military response. You’re dealing with something that is not only unprecedented, but also is going to affect the basic sense of security in the country.

Israel is not going to take a conventional approach to responding to Hamas. This crossed all lines, and one can expect that the Israeli reaction is going to cross lines as well.

So you believe that not only was there an intelligence failure in terms of prediction, but also a military failure in terms of the slowness of the response?

Yes, I think at a certain level, it’s hard to imagine how this many communities in the south of Israel could be affected. In some cases, you had small Israeli units able to get down there immediately, but they were overwhelmed because the numbers they were facing were vastly greater than those that were being immediately shuttled in. There was obviously confusion about what was happening. There was some disruption of the Israeli command control structure; at least one base, again with minimal personnel, was quickly overwhelmed. This helps to explain why we didn’t see any use of Israeli air power, or even the use of attack helicopter gunships.

Is this also a failure on the part of the political leadership, as well as the military and intelligence services?

It’s inconceivable that, in a circumstance like this, the failure is limited to the security and the intelligence establishment.

You cannot have a strategic surprise without taking into account the failures of the political leadership. You can go back to the 1973 Yom Kippur War, when Golda Meir’s government was forced out for its inadequate preparations.

There was a broad failure this time and that’s inescapable. The focus now will be on restoring security. What Hamas has done is unprecedented, so how does Israel respond in a similarly unprecedented way? Much like after the Yom Kippur War, there will be a commission that will look into all of this. That time will come, it just isn’t now.

What were Hamas’ aims with its attack?

I do think the most important objective was to disrupt the possibility of a Saudi-Israeli breakthrough, because I think Iran, as well as Hamas, understood that if there is this breakthrough it is transformative for the region. It is transformative at one level because you’re largely taking the religious content out of the Arab-Israeli conflict – the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques is making peace with the nation state of the Jewish people. This, from a psychological and religious standpoint, is huge.

But there’s also something else that I think needs to be understood. Here, you take two countries that are highly focused on the economic, digital revolution taking place. There is great ambition here in terms of making these societies responsive to the challenges of the 21st century. A partnership between Israel and Saudi Arabia would build a network of successful states within the region.

That contrasts greatly with what Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas represent. Iran obviously prefers to build resistance capability in place of a society that could be successful. Hezbollah has a hold over Lebanon which it has turned into a bankrupt state. Gaza is completely impoverished, with little prospect of any change and Hamas puts its premium on building underground tunnels with all the materials that could be useful for building above ground.

Hamas is not popular within Gaza. In the last month there were demonstrations that were brutally put down. There was an animated video produced called Whispered in Gaza with testimonies distorted for the witness’ protection that told stories of real life in Gaza. It had hundreds of thousands of views in Gaza.

Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas prioritise military forces and resistance over construction. Therefore, the last thing they want is this image of the success of others to contrast with what they offer their own population.

Was this, therefore, an act of desperation by the Hamas leadership and their international supporters?

They clearly thought that they had to create an earthquake. They felt they needed to shift the focus, to disrupt what might be happening. And so this was clearly planned for some time as well – this wasn’t spur of the moment.

We know that Iran was putting money into the West Bank, to promote acts of terror and violence, and Israel had greatly increased its military presence in turn. Earlier this year, Islamic Jihad – another Islamist organisation in Gaza – fired rockets into Israel and Hamas didn’t intervene. In September, in Gaza, there were demonstrations by Palestinians along the border with Israel negotiating through Egypt with Hamas to stop it. Those demonstrations were clearly doing surveillance work to prepare where the barrier might be breached.

Hamas was clearly doing this to mislead the Israelis. Because of the barrier around Gaza, the Israeli military presence there was really bare bones and the focus had shifted to the West Bank and the north, near Lebanon.

For the Israelis, it was not that they didn’t have the facts, it’s that they interpreted them through a prism based on the assumption that Hamas wasn’t looking to wage war and that they were focused on improving the dire economic situation in Gaza.

You have known and negotiated with Prime Minister Netanyahu for many years. What is he thinking, what is his approach to the question of responsibility and the military response?

I expect that there will be a National Emergency government within Israel that will bring in the opposition because the politics are going to be put to the side for now.

For Netanyahu, as prime minister of Israel, nothing like this has ever happened; this is an emergency. If we take a step back, Israel fought wars in 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982 and it had the two Intifadas. With Hamas it has fought in 2008, 2009, 2012, 2014, and 2021 and there have been skirmishes in between and since. The fighting in 2021 went on for 50 days. Yet there has been nothing like this. Nothing like this has ever happened within Israel itself. The focus of the prime minister right now is on security and inflicting a defeat on Hamas of an unprecedented scale.

If Hamas’ aim is to disrupt the relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia, how will Saudi Arabia react?

I think for now, that possibility of a breakthrough will be put on hold, partly because that’s not what Israel is thinking about at present. Saudi Arabia is also going to take a step back. I wouldn’t say that it’s over, however. It’s on hold. But bear in mind that Saudi Arabia is not going to allow Hamas or Iran to determine its future or give them a veto.

What is the view of the Palestinian Authority on the invasion by Hamas?

Whatever it says publicly won’t be the same as what it thinks.

It will be out there emphasising the need to protect Palestinians, the need for solidarity, the need for unity. It has a narrative – and even what I would call a mythology – that it won’t betray in this moment, especially as the price paid by Gazans goes up.

But what it’s actually thinking is that it hopes the Israelis will go in and destroy Hamas. It’ll never say it, but that’s what it’s thinking. It doesn’t want to ride in on the back of Israeli tanks, but what it wants in the end is the destruction of Hamas.

Its biggest fear is that there will be an early ceasefire and Hamas could claim an enormous victory. That will be the view of most of the leading Arab states because that puts them in a position where they will be more on the defensive and more vulnerable to Iran. No one in the Arab world will say it, but none of them want Hamas to win.

Do you think that the Netanyahu government will try and move closer to the Biden administration after a period of tense relations?

There has been a quick demonstration of support by the United States because it is dealing with something fundamental to the security of Israel.

I think the Netanyahu government wanted to be close to the Biden administration. The issues of judicial reform created some gaps between them, and the prime minister has not been to the White House.

That’s gone for the time being. The politics in Israel is focused on security and the same thing will happen in the US. President Joe Biden is the only American president who has ever called himself a Zionist. He has a deep-seated belief that the Jewish people have a right to a state of their own. And that’s an emotional belief, not just an intellectual one. He was very quick to call Prime Minister Netanyahu after the invasion happened and he has sent forces to the eastern Mediterranean as a demonstration that others should stay away.

Since the attack on 7 October, what of your initial beliefs have changed as circumstances have unfolded?

My view of the options facing Israel has expanded as it begins to consider those that were not originally on the table. Reoccupying Gaza was not an option before, it will be now.

None of the options will be easy to carry out. For example, decapitating Hamas is going to be extremely difficult. Every Hamas leader is deep underground and they tend to hide under hospitals or inside or under mosques. They have miles and miles of tunnels. So it will not be easy and the price will be high.

Unfortunately, as is often the case with Hamas, it doesn’t care about the price it inflicts on Palestinians. In fact, the worse the IDF’s attack, the better from its standpoint, because it wants to stigmatise Israel.

Maybe Hamas succeeded beyond its expectations. Maybe they didn’t anticipate that it could be as successful as it was. Israel is not going to allow Hamas to emerge with a sense of victory from this and it is not going to put itself in a position where this could happen again. Hamas must never be able to pose a threat again.

Do you believe that there will be a ground invasion of Gaza?

You’re going to see a variety of actions and some feints, too, but Israel is not going to act in a way that simply plays into what Hamas thinks it is going to do.  

A ground invasion is going to come at some point, but no one should assume that the Israelis will act in a predictable way. They may not act in a manner that plays directly into Hamas’ hands. Although a full ground invasion of Gaza is likely to happen, you will see air strikes designed to destroy everything the Israelis know about Hamas’ military infrastructure. Then you will see different commando units go in. On 8 October, naval commandoes seized one of Hamas’ deputy commanders; that isn’t for hostage-negotiation purposes, that’s for intelligence.

Israel may end up re-occupying Gaza for a period of time and then offering to turn it over to an international trusteeship. Since Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, nobody in Israel, on the left or right, wanted to go back in, but that is now an option that is back on the table. Israel can no longer live alongside Hamas. After all those conflicts I mentioned, you had ceasefires that allowed Hamas to rebuild, retrain and resupply for the next round. It doesn’t rebuild Gaza, it rebuilds its own capability to go to war again. The thinking in Israel, therefore, will be very different this time.

It has occupied Gaza before. This time it will be going in against a different kind of opposition and a resistance it has never yet faced. I wouldn’t assume it wants to go in for permanent occupation.

The situation is fraught. Even with the Israelis telling civilians to leave and go to safer areas, the death and destruction in Gaza is going to be high, but the one responsible is Hamas.

I’m so saddened by what I see happening in Israel, but it doesn’t make me any less sad when I think about what is going to happen to the Palestinians in Gaza. It just shows the complete disregard that Hamas has for its own public. You look at the level of human suffering and it breaks your heart.


Angus Reilly