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Former U.S. ambassador to Israel on latest violence


As we have heard, this is an escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that we have not seen in decades. And to get a better understanding of what is unfolding, we spoke with Edward Djerejian today. He is a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center Middle East Initiative and is the former U.S. ambassador to Israel under President Clinton, and he joined us by phone from his home in Boston. So we're talking about a surprise attack on a Jewish holiday. And it comes the day after the 50th anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which was, of course, another conflict which Israel was not expecting. Fifty years on, Israel seems to be blindsided again here. What does this say about the state of Israeli intelligence and military readiness?

EDWARD DJEREJIAN: Well, it is evidently a failure of Israeli intelligence, certainly military intelligence. And I think it points out the lack of HUMINT, or human intelligence, not really having an espionage network in which you can determine with some success the intentions of your adversary. Israel has very sophisticated technical capabilities in terms of surveillance and intelligence methods. But you really - at the end of the day, human intelligence is a critical factor that has been obviously lacking here.

DETROW: And that's going to be one of several huge storylines over the coming days. But I also want to ask your thoughts on Hamas and its goals here because, look, this fits into a wave of violence that has been continually unfolding over recent decades, and that always seems to end with a much heavier toll for the Palestinians. So given that, what do you think the motivation for Hamas was here to launch this type of widespread attack, knowing it's going to be met with such a harder response?

DJEREJIAN: Well, this is the modus operandi of Hamas. We've seen it in the past in several wars between Israel and the Gaza Strip and Hamas. And Hamas will periodically choose, in its eyes, the opportune time to maintain its leading position as the most militant force against Israel and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. So it is playing by its well-established card deck. As to the timing now, one can speculate - and I've seen a lot of speculation - it's difficult to discern what actually triggered this, but it was an operation that was very sophisticatedly planned well in advance. So it wasn't an afterthought or something that was planned within the last 48 hours a week.

But there are a lot of things going on, as you well know, in the Middle East. There's the talks between the Israelis and the Saudis and the United States on possible reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Israel, an extension of the Abraham Accords. There is the constant threat in the north of Israel of Hezbollah that has been making very threatening sounds of late. And there's the continuing occupation, which - of the Palestinian territories and, really, the lack of hope for the Palestinians for any political horizon in any settlement.

DETROW: And, of course, there's the fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu has returned to government with a much more hard-right coalition this time - many factors to talk about. I want to ask about something you did just mention, and that is the recent Israeli diplomatic efforts with other Gulf states. Have you seen a - have you seen that reflected in the way that countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar and others have responded to this?

DJEREJIAN: So far, we haven't had any clear indications that I've seen. I think the Saudi foreign minister appealed to the EU to use its influence to help end the violence in the Gaza Strip. But it'll take a little time to determine exactly what the positions of these other Arab states. But you pointed out something. Another - a critical factor is the internal situation and the steep divisions within the Israeli body politic, which Hamas may have interpreted as a weakness in the government and a weakness in Israel's military posture because a lot of the military units in Israel have been assigned to the West Bank and protection of settlers and taking care of violent incidents elsewhere. And one has to ask - I do not know - but one has to ask, was the southern border of Israel with Gaza sufficiently protected?

DETROW: What do you think the U.S.'s role is moving forward? We heard from President Biden today. He pledged rock-solid support for Israel, saying that he will make sure Israel gets everything it needs, and that comes at a time where many members of his own party have been more critical of Israel's military operations in recent years.

DJEREJIAN: Yes. I mean, President Biden's statement was very predictable, demonstrating strong support. And I'm sure there'll be whatever military support they wish to give to Israel at this time to bolster their capabilities. But the important thing here is really the lack of a political horizon, the lack of any - any - movement on negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, this hard-right-wing government that has ministers who really are proponents of annexation of more territory in what they call Judea and Samaria, the West Bank. All of this points out to a framework of allowing the extremists like Hamas to gain advantages, and this cycle will continue unless the core issues are addressed.

DJEREJIAN: That's Eric (ph) Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel under the Clinton administration, now a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center Middle East Initiative. Thank you so much.

DJEREJIAN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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