- Interview by
- David Sirota
On October 7, Palestinian militants led by Hamas launched an unprecedented offensive out of Gaza into the south of Israel, attacking both civilian and military targets and killing some 1,300 people. In response, Israel has launched an all-out assault on the population of Gaza. In addition to bombarding Gaza — including with illegal white phosphorous munitions — Israel has imposed a total blockade on the densely populated territory, cutting off food, water, fuel, and electricity. On October 13, Israel told over a million residents of northern Gaza that they immediately must evacuate to the south.
On October 12, Lever editor David Sirota interviewed Matt Duss, the executive vice president of the Center for International Policy, and Daniel Bessner, professor of international studies at the University of Washington and Jacobin contributing editor, for the Lever Time podcast. Sirota, Duss, and Bessner discussed the ongoing conflict in Israel-Palestine and its historical roots, including the United States’ support for right-wing Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s extreme policies. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
What is your response to Hamas’s attack on October 10? What do you think may be missing from the conversation when it comes to either the Hamas attack or the Israeli incursion into Gaza?
My own reaction is revulsion, condemnation. I think anyone who values human life and human decency has to be horrified by what we’ve seen there, what we’re still finding out about these attacks.
I think saying that is the way into the deeper discussion that we have to have about the context here — about the history of this conflict, about the situation on the ground today, which is one of occupation and blockade.
It was absolutely terrible. It was revolting, and very tragically, I learned very soon after that I had a personal connection. One of my former students, a man named Chaim Katzmann, who was a peace activist, was murdered in the first wave of attacks. So it hit home very early on. I learned the next day that a childhood friend was also murdered in the first attack.
Beyond that, I have to echo what Matt says: to understand the horrors, you need to understand the longer-term history going back a century
The Israeli defense minister has ordered what he’s called a complete siege of Gaza, cutting off food and electricity and now bombing parts of the city. Israel is calling this its 9/11. It’s been horrifying to see the response to 9/11 somehow remembered as a good response, a productive response, a constructive response. Were either of you surprised by Israel’s response to this?
It was a predictable response to a certain degree, given the far-right nature of the Israeli government and also the securitized nature of Israeli society and the militarized nature [of Israel]. It’s a nation that prides itself on its military. It’s a nation that prides itself on having secure borders.
So this is a real humiliation militarily to Israel. That, coupled with Netanyahu’s domestic weakness in light of recent protest events and also the fact that his geostrategy was to focus primarily on the West Bank — which turned out obviously to be a failure from the Israeli perspective — makes this response predictable.
Moreover, most politicians in the North Atlantic world, in Europe and the United States, have made clear that, at this moment at least — and things might change — Netanyahu and the new unity government have free rein to respond how they want.
I think this has been a tragedy decades in the making on all sides. And it was a fairly predictable response.
This is a government that has been supporting, essentially, militia violence against Palestinians in the West Bank. In some ways, I think you would see a very similar response from any government in Israel in response to an attack like this. But because it was such a right-wing, prosettlement government, you had forces who might have been protecting the Gaza fence line sent to protect settlers in the West Bank.
Others in the Israeli security system have suggested this. Part of what led to this being such a tragically successful attack on the part of Hamas [is that] you had so many forces that had been redeployed to the West Bank, precisely to carry out the wishes of the settler extremists who now make up this government.
Regarding the US response and the allied response, Joe Biden’s view of the US relationship to Israel is characterized as “no daylight.” My own view is that that approach is part of what got us here. Once again, responsibility for this attack lies with Hamas, but as part of the deeper context, US support for Israel’s security, no matter how Israel goes about delivering that security, has been part of the problem.
There’s been speculation that Egyptian intelligence reportedly tried to warn the Israeli government about a potential attack by Hamas. There’s a question of whether the Israeli prime minister’s office and intelligence services received that intelligence and ignored it. Maybe it got lost in the bureaucracy. But there’s also been speculation that maybe Benjamin Netanyahu wasn’t necessarily concerned about that; it might play into his strategy.
There’s no way that Netanyahu knew this was in the works and did nothing. I have not seen the memo; I don’t know what the nature of the intelligence was.
Others have suggested that, because so many elements of the military have indicated support for some of the protests that have been ongoing over the past months against the so-called judicial reform effort, parts of this government have talked themselves into this “woke military” bullshit that you hear from our own government and other right-wing populists around the world: the idea that the military is infected by these woke leftists. That may have been part of what made them skeptical.
But also — there are quotes to this effect that came up in transcripts released as part of his corruption trial, where he states it plainly — supporting Hamas in Gaza is Netanyahu’s strategy of keeping the Palestinians divided. Supporting Hamas and making the Mahmoud Abbas–led PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] and Fatah in the West Bank look weak and feckless is part of the strategy.
This is not a strategy that began with Benjamin Netanyahu. This has been an Israeli strategy going back to the 1970s, when the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood was created in Gaza. The military let it thrive with the hopes of creating an alternative to the secular nationalist Fatah. Eventually Hamas grew out of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood.
It highlights the perversities of occupation and the perversities of colonialism that it leads to a strategy when Netanyahu, a very far-right person, is supporting Hamas or states that it’s a strategy. That [leads us] to a larger discussion of the structures that enable something like this to happen. Once Labor lost and Likud became the de facto government of Israel, beginning with Menachem Begin in the late 1970s — this is something that’s been going on for decades at this point.
Haaretz journalist Gidi Weitz wrote, “Netanyahu’s entire worldview collapsed over the course of a single day. He was convinced that he could make deals with corrupt Arab tyrants while ignoring the cornerstone of the Arab-Jewish conflict, the Palestinians.”
His life’s work was to return the ship of state from the course steered by his predecessors, from Yitzhak Rabin to Ehud Olmert, to make the two-state solution easier, [to making it] impossible.
Let’s talk about Netanyahu’s whole theory. Is there a way for Israel to create a lasting peace with its neighbors without the country simultaneously or even first making peace with the Palestinians and ending the occupation?
It’s very difficult, and this is what that event makes very clear. Netanyahu effectively wanted Israel to be considered a normal nation within the larger regional geopolitics of the Middle East, effectively aligned with the United States and its allies. You saw this with recent discussions about normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia — there already is de facto normalization, but making it official.
When you talk to Israelis, particularly compared to the 1990s or the 2000s, when there was a lot of discussion about Israel-Palestine and the potential for a two-state solution, that discussion has gone away over the last ten or fifteen years. There was this notion from Netanyahu and other governments, and among the general Israeli population, that one would be able to shunt the Palestinian issue to the side; that one would be able to continue settlements in the West Bank or to have kibbutzim everywhere throughout the country without solving the Palestinian issue. This is a painful reminder that that’s not really possible.
Preventing a Palestinian state has been one of the guiding missions of Netanyahu’s entire political career. Go back to early books he’s written, the way he’s talked about it. . . . He’s part of a strain of Israeli politics that simply does not recognize the Palestinians as having any legitimate claim on the land.
He’s made some very pragmatic, or cynical, head fakes in the direction of Palestinian sovereignty. [There was] the famous 2009 Bar Ilan speech where he nominally gave support to a two-state solution. But if you look what he was actually doing on the ground, he was doing precisely the opposite, as he has always done: taking steps to physically foreclose the possibility of an economically viable Palestinian state.
His theory was always: We will be strong, we will make peace with the neighbors, and they will just deal with the reality. We will create the facts on the ground, and others will just have to come around to it.
This is the logic of the Abraham Accords, which is not just that we are going to repress and control and imprison the Palestinians — we will make deals with regimes that are suppressing and controlling and imprisoning their own populations.
That is Netanyahu’s theory. Unfortunately, it has also been the theory of the Biden administration. When it came into office, its position was, we’re going to see if we can build on these accords. Then after a few months, the administration pivoted to a full embrace of the accords as a basis for the regional order, a continually US-dominated regional order because its priority has been strategic competition with China. That strategy just blew up.
Let’s talk about Hamas’s connections to Iran. Is Hamas a proxy for the Iranian regime? If they are, should the actions of Hamas be seen as an act of war against Israel by Iran?
Hamas is a part of Palestinian politics. It’s not a movement I like or support. I find their views reprehensible; I find their actions reprehensible. This is a right-wing, very politically conservative, religious, fundamentalist militant group.
It has a relationship with Iran going back to the ’90s that has ebbed and flowed. There was a break when the Hamas leadership, which had been based in Syria, broke with Bashar al-Assad over his brutal suppression of the revolution in Syria. That chilled relations between Iran and Hamas.
So Hamas has independence. Does it take guidance? Do they get resources? Do they engage with and talk to Iran? Certainly. But it is not simply a pawn of Iran, despite the efforts of some to present it that way in order to gin up a war with Iran that they’ve wanted for years.
Do you believe an entity like Hamas can ever be a negotiating partner in a peace deal? Not just a cease-fire, but a long-lasting peace deal?
In the wake of [the October 7 attack], I think any kind of agreement with Hamas is off the table for a long time. This was a generational event.
Now, as a matter of history, we don’t have to look very far for terrorist leaders joining government. Israel has had two prime ministers itself, Yitzhak Shamir and Menachem Begin, who were leaders of terrorist groups who eventually made their way into politics. It took some time, but these were terrorist groups that carried out multiple atrocities in the conflicts that led to the creation of Israel.
But I think that will not be the case with Hamas for a while now. That’s part of the problem. Again, this goes to Netanyahu’s strategy of keeping the Palestinians divided: there is no one person, there is no one movement, that can actually speak for and make commitments on behalf of the Palestinian people. Keeping the movement fractured has been a strategy of the Israeli government, and a tragically successful one.
This is where our language fails us, because when we talk about this conflict, we act as if it’s a state-to-state interaction. But it’s really not. There’s one state, and there’s a divided people. So it’s very difficult to use the language of diplomacy or the language of international engagement to describe this conflict, even though we don’t really have a better language.
The Biden administration response has been basically unequivocal in its support for Israel. What is a rational response to the crisis from the US government?
I think the perceived US interest is that the United States needs to remain regionally hegemonic in the Middle East for a variety of reasons: the famous one being oil, and particularly oil resources that go to Europe, but also geostrategically. This is a region of incredible importance in the context of the grand strategy of primacy.
It’s a region that’s situated in the middle of things; it provides a lot of pathways to various countries. The de facto position is that the United States should be the world leader or world empire. Given that, it makes sense for the United States to be involved heavily in the region.
I disagree with that position. I think it is materially not realistic. When the United States made the choice to become the prime world power during World War II, it was very powerful. It was responsible for half of the world’s exports, and that’s a situation where you could genuinely dominate the world.
I don’t think that’s the world we live in any longer, so materially it’s a fantasy at this point. But also ideologically, I don’t think it’s good for the United States or its society to run a global empire. It contributes to militarization domestically — we see that very much in the police. We see that in the rise of hyperpartisanship. We see that in the distrust that Americans have for one another. It’s internally corrosive.
I don’t think there’s any real US interest in remaining regionally hegemonic. From there, you have to reassess the United States’ relationship with Israel, which has not always been as close or as friendly. In particular, Harry Truman and Richard Nixon had been more skeptical of the US-Israel relationship. But for the past thirty or so years, it’s basically been a blank check and the idea of “no daylight” between the nations.
We know based on recent polling, and this has been developing for a long time, Americans and Democrats in particular — I think a majority of Democrats — now support an evenhanded position with Israel and Palestine, recognizing that Israelis have rights, Palestinians have rights. The goal of the United States should be to help broker and create a situation where these people can share this land, with security for all.
I think there are elements in American politics and in the Democratic Party that see this as a threat. They cannot countenance any kind of sympathy for the Palestinians, and they see that as de facto anti-Israel.
I reject that characterization. We have to ask some hard questions: What is our strategy for the region? What kind of role do we want the United States to play in the world? If it is going to continue to be global hegemony and primacy, let’s look at the record of the past twenty, thirty, forty years about the costs and benefits. I do not think that [balance sheet] works out very well.