How the Middle East Conflict Leads Back to US National Security

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In the Biden Administration’s highest-level face-to-face visit, Secretary of State Antony Blinken is traveling to the Middle East to seize momentum created by last week’s Gaza ceasefire in what could be the first step back toward peace talks.

The Biden Administration has been criticized for not taking more aggressive action to try and end the back-and-forth attacks prior to the agreement as some in Biden’s own party called for the US to take a tougher stance against Israel’s actions as it responded to a series of rocket attacks.

The Cipher Brief tapped our expert Norm Roule for a look at how an intelligence professional is looking at recent events in the Middle East and how they lead back to US national security.

Norman T. Roule served for 34-years in the CIA, managing numerous programs relating to Iran and the Middle East.  He served as the National Intelligence Manager for Iran (NIM-I) at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence from November 2008 until September 2017.  As NIM-I, Norm was the principal Intelligence Community (IC) official responsible for overseeing all aspects of national intelligence policy and activities related to Iran, to include IC engagement on Iran issues with senior policy makers in the National Security Council and the Department of State.

We asked Norm to begin by sharing his top observations about what’s happened to date.

Roule:  A handful come to mind.

First and foremost, the world has just witnessed another spasm of violence in the Middle East that has left hundreds of civilians – including dozens of children – dead, more than a thousand wounded, and thousands homeless, without any meaningful change in the status quo. The post-conflict situation virtually guarantees that similar violence will reoccur.  Unfortunately, there is no sign that the international community – or Israeli and Palestinian leaders – are prepared to devote the diplomatic and political capital to achieve a settlement that would relieve the well-documented suffering of the Palestinian people and lethal threats to Israeli citizens.

Second, Israeli Arabs and Jews have engaged in inter-communal violence and social entropy to an extent not seen in decades, perhaps not since the founding of Israel. These long-simmering domestic tensions erupted in the view of the world, shattering Israel’s image of peaceful relations among its citizens of different faiths. We may be witnessing a taste of what a one-state solution might mean in practice.

Next, I think we have witnessed the consequences of years of Iranian support to Hamas to develop its weapons technologies. Despite successes in ending much of the arms smuggling from Sudan via Egypt, Israel’s repeated attacks in Syria to reduce Palestinian and Lebanese militant ability to acquire precision-guided weapons, and the constraints that maximum pressure placed on Iran’s resourcing of Hamas and the Palestine Islamic Jihad, Hamas’ offensive capabilities gradually developed into one of unprecedented reach. Hamas certainly lacks the capability to destroy Israel but it can shape the psychology of the conflict and threaten a large portion of Israeli territory. A new nuclear deal with Iran will almost certainly increase the funding, training, and weaponry Tehran provides these militants.

Fourth, the Biden administration has seen how hard it is to avoid involvement in Middle East crises. In the last few days, the President and senior officials have reached out to Israeli, Egyptian, Saudi, Jordanian, and Qatari leadership in efforts to end the violence. I don’t think this episode will change the administration’s views on the need for America to devote less energy to the region, but it may accelerate the creation of architecture to manage its problems.  Related to this, an unprecedented number of Democrats criticized Israel and spoke of blocking U.S. military support to the Israeli military. This shift can’t be ignored by an administration that must be wondering how to sustain Democratic control of the House of Representatives in 2022.

The Cipher Brief:  How do you see this latest conflict in comparison to previous Israeli-Palestinian conflicts in recent years?

Roule:  Since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, there have been six Israeli-Palestinian military conflicts, about one every eighteen months. Each event followed a similar path, but I can think of a few differences with this latest conflict.

First, Hamas succeeded in firing thousands of rockets at a greater number of civilian targets threatening millions of innocent Israelis, Americans, and other nationals, to include Palestinians.  Around 360,000 Palestinians live in Jerusalem, and Arabs in Israel number about 1.9 million, about 21% of the population.  Also, of the more than 4,000 rockets fired by Hamas and the Palestine Islamic Jihad, almost 700 landed in Gaza itself.

The conflict provoked unprecedented inter-communal violence in Israel that will take years to overcome.  Finally, Israel demonstrated an intelligence capability that drove air operations that targeted militant military architecture and the individuals behind it.

The Cipher Brief:  Can either side claim a strategic victory at this point?

Roule:  Each side will claim that it demonstrated an ability to defend its people through stand-off tools, but neither can claim a strategic victory. Perhaps there is no better example than the iconic photographs of Palestinian rockets and Iron Dome defenses jousting in the night sky.  Each will point to such pictures as a defeat for the other.

The Cipher Brief:  How will the conflict impact the political fortunes of Israeli and Palestinian leaders?

Roule:  In general, the leadership of Hamas and Israel will likely see a temporary spike in popularity that will fade in passing weeks.  Right-wing leaders are likely to dominate their respective political spheres for the foreseeable future.  If I had to assign a winner in this category, I would say it was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Only days before the fighting began, Netanyahu appeared likely to lose office. This would probably have meant the end of his political career.  However, he once again proved correct the adage that “cats wish they had as many lives as Netanyahu.”  The conflict collapsed efforts by Israeli politician Yair Lapid to form a new coalition and forced such rivals as Naftali Bennett to support Netanyahu’s handling of the crisis.  Israel now faces the prospect of a fifth general election in two years and Netanyahu has another chance at leadership.

On the other side, Hamas will argue that it restored the Palestinian issue to the front burner of the world’s attention. It will also claim that, unlike the Palestinian Authority, Hamas has the leadership and ability to defend Palestinian rights, especially in Jerusalem.  Abbas was largely irrelevant in recent events but will likely find the international community eager to engage in an unlikely effort to enhance his stature against Hamas and find some way to restore momentum to the moribund peace process.

The Cipher Brief:  What about tactical successes?

Roule:  Each side can list important tactical successes, and both demonstrated a capability to strike adversaries using long-range weapons.

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