As Israel focused on forging ties with Saudi Arabia to create a “new” Middle East of free trade and high-tech innovation, it sought to keep Palestinian influence to a minimum.
(Bloomberg) — As Israel focused on forging ties with Saudi Arabia to create a “new” Middle East of free trade and high-tech innovation, it sought to keep Palestinian influence to a minimum.
Managing longstanding tensions had become “sort of a check box,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an interview with Bloomberg TV earlier this year.
Yet the weekend’s unprecedented attack by the militant group Hamas on Israeli civilians has quickly upended that notion. The deadly incursion from the Gaza Strip may even be an attempt by the group — and perhaps that of its sponsor Iran — to stop the Saudi deal in its tracks. It also shows that the old Middle East will not disappear so easily.
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“Nearly all of our preconceptions collapsed yesterday,” analyst Ben Caspit wrote in Israeli’s Maariv newspaper on Sunday. “The idea that the Palestinian problem can be swept under the golden robes of the oil princes from the Persian Gulf went kaput.”
The conflict has left hundreds dead on both sides in just two days, while Hamas has abducted dozens of Israeli civilians to be taken into Gaza as hostages.
Israel has officially declared war and says it won’t stop until Hamas’s military infrastructure is dismantled, a task that seems likely to include a ground invasion and take months.
The US is sending a group of warships to the eastern Mediterranean and considering Israeli requests for additional military aid. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US was also looking into reports that Americans were killed or taken hostage and into whether Iran may have been directly involved.
In one fell swoop, Hamas has reordered Israeli priorities for the foreseeable future, while dealing a major setback to ambitious plans by US President Joe Biden and the Saudi leadership to form a complex three-way alliance. Little diplomatic progress on a new regional order can take place while Israel carries out a major military operation.
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This may well be what Iran wanted. Although there’s yet no evidence that the Islamic Republic played a role in the attack, it has been increasingly vocal in its support for Hamas and warned Saudi Arabia and other Arab states not to engage with Israel. Iran has also stepped up aid and arms for Palestinian militants in Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon and Syria.
Israel has often called attention to that Iranian role, yet may have grown complacent about the prospect of a major Hamas assault because every previous attempt has resulted in terrible losses for the attackers. Authorities had started to embrace the idea that Hamas was changing from a violence-focused organization to one that was growing into its role as ruler of Gaza, content with outside financial aid and the availability of job opportunities in Israel.
“We made a huge mistake — and I am including myself — by believing that a terror organization can change its DNA,” General Yaakov Amidror, a former national security adviser to Netanyahu, told reporters on Sunday. “We heard from everyone that it was more responsible. And we began to believe it.”
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Israel must now use “full force” to end Hamas’s military capabilities.
“Fifteen years ago, as Head of Southern Command, I came close to ‘breaking the neck’ of Hamas,” he said in a statement issued by his office. “I was stopped by the political echelon. This phenomenon will not continue. We will change reality on the ground in Gaza for the next 50 years. What was before, will be no more. We will operate at full force.”
Many Israeli analysts said the Saudi deal would be put on hold rather than scrapped completely, to allow Israel time to focus on its goal to destroy Hamas. Should it succeed, talks could restart.
“Hamas came out and butchered and murdered people,” said Miri Eisen, a former military intelligence officer who runs a counter-terrorism program at Reichman University in Israel. “This scares the Egyptians and Saudis just as much as it does us. Hamas called on Palestinians everywhere to join them, and in Israel and Jerusalem, they didn’t.”
The unprecedented failure of Israel’s intelligence over the weekend, along with the humiliation and pain of seeing children and the elderly taken hostage, has triggered a lot of soul searching in Israel.
Some are asking whether Netanyahu’s divisive domestic policies — such as attempts to reduce the power of the courts — led the military to be less prepared because some officers have taken part in pro-democracy protests. Others suggest the divisions inspired Hamas to launch the attack in the belief that Israel was weaker than before.
Yet the national mood is broadly united on one thing: Israel must apply the full force of its military to driving Hamas operatives from the south and crippling the organization inside Gaza.
Hamas is “preparing for the grand battle,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political science professor at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University. There were “clear indications that Hamas was going toward a truce, and now it’s clear that it was a big trick. What happened is beyond imagination.”
(Updates with US response in seventh paragraph.)
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