The Israel-Hamas War: the Role of Leadership (Hard Questions, Tough Answers- November 20, 2023)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. Are you referring to Netanyahu, Sinwar and Biden, leaders of Israel, Hamas and the US respectively?

A. We can start with them. But additional Middle East actors like King Abdullah of Jordan, Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and President Sisi of Egypt are playing increasingly important roles. Besides Sinwar, two Palestinians, Mahmoud Abbas and Mohammed Dahlan, deserve mention. And Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah is one decision away from changing the entire course of this war.

Q. Bad leadership on the part of Netanyahu and Sinwar started this war.

A. Not surprisingly, neither would agree to define his leadership role as ‘bad’. Benjamin Netanyahu is desperately rewriting his leadership record of the past 15 years to blame the Israeli security community for not warning him of the approaching Hamas attack that he in fact encouraged and to glorify his record as a Hamas-fighter. Meanwhile his day-to-day leadership of Israel’s war effort is worryingly inconsistent, particularly in the context of humanitarian gestures and fuel supply to Gaza and Israel’s zigzags in deciding on the parameters and timing of a prisoner-for-hostage swap.

As for the post-war era, Netanyahu is singularly unconstructive. He says ‘no’ to Biden’s advocacy of a Palestinian Authority role and a renewed peace process, yet without advocating an alternative course for pacifying Gaza beyond an endless IDF presence. His right-messianic-Kahanist coalition with its racist-annexationist agenda is a huge burden on his decision-making. There are willing alternative wartime partners on the Israeli political center yet Netanyahu, still on trial for corruption, dares not dismantle or even challenge that coalition for fear of losing his ‘get out of jail free’ card.

Yihya Sinwar’s definition of leadership does not include the welfare of Gazans (‘let the UN worry about their housing’) but does focus on his ability--as yet evident--to motivate his terrorist troops to fight to the finish for the greater glory of Islam. Sinwar also seeks to ignite a broader conflict led by Islamists, but that objective looks increasingly distant. Nor is he a very willing partner for hostage-for-prisoner swaps when it looks like he may have no territory left to repatriate freed terrorists to beyond his bunker, deep beneath a Gazan city.

Sinwar is a mass murderer of fellow Palestinians; allegedly, he murdered 22 of them singlehandedly for collaborating with the Israeli enemy while using countless others as human shields to be sacrificed to Israeli bombing attacks. His enemies describe him as a psychopath and a monster. Is that how he holds onto power, under fire, in deep hiding? Is that why no Gazan inside Gaza dares challenge him or at least challenge his leadership ideology? Right now, Hamas is Sinwar.

Q. Can Biden realize his war aims: helping Israel defeat Hamas decisively, dealing with Palestinians’ humanitarian needs, preventing spread of the war to Lebanon, reinstalling the Palestinian Authority in the Gaza Strip, and restarting a two-state peace process?

A. Biden appears to have more specific objectives in this war than either Netanyahu or Sinwar. Clearly he and his advisers see a grand-strategic opportunity here: End the war with a win for a US-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian peace process and for the moderate Sunni Arab bloc. Reestablish the United States as the pre-eminent Middle East power, with its prestige overflowing to the anti-Russian and anti-Chinese geostrategic arenas. Combat related hate and violence inside the US. And of course, give Biden’s reelection chances a boost.

So far, Biden’s leadership has been far more impressive than that of Netanyahu or Sinwar, even if this is not necessarily reflected in American opinion polls. Bolstering US military forces throughout the Middle East was a bold stroke, particularly vis-à-vis Iran. America’s military and diplomatic maneuvers have kept the Russians and the Chinese far from the conflict. Close liaison with Israel (despite the huge gap in approach to a post-war two-state solution) and with Egypt and Qatar appears to be moving the parties toward a first hostage-prisoner exchange. Yet note: none of Biden’s broadest war aims has as yet been decisively achieved.

Q. And of the regional leaders: who stands out?

A. The leaders of Israel’s closest sovereign neighbors, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The first two stand out for their war-related concerns. The third for grasping an opportunity.

Egypt’s President Sisi is determined to avoid the war’s spillover into Egyptian territory in Sinai. Accordingly he has vehemently rejected any and all Israeli proposals to ‘warehouse’ Gazan Arabs in Sinai (‘transfer’ and ‘relocate’ are the blatant terms used by far-right Israelis) while Israel clears Hamas out of Gaza. Not only does Egypt not wish to be responsible for Palestinians again (it was, in Gaza, from 1948 to 1967). It also fears that the presence of Hamas sympathizers in Sinai, near Israel’s Negev, could generate violent tensions between Egypt and Israel.

In Jordan, King Abdullah II--never a fan of Netanyahu, with whom he refuses to meet-- confronts a groundswell of sympathy for Gazans among Islamists and Jordanians of Palestinian extraction (often one and the same). To cover his flanks, he is tilting heavily against Israel, even to his country’s detriment. Jordan just canceled a lucrative triangular desalination-solar energy deal with Israel and the UAE. Queen Rania, herself of Palestinian origin, has declared that Hamas never attacked Israel. Abdullah has accused Israel, with its pinpoint attacks, of “indiscriminate shelling of Gaza”.

Yedioth Aharonot’s Smadar Perry, who is close to the Hashemite Kingdom, estimates that Jordan and Israel are “one small step” away from a total break in relations. Once again, as so often in the past, regional instability is threatening, first and foremost, Jordan.

Finally, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), infamous for his butchery of regime critic Jamal Khashoggi, has been playing his cards astutely. Ten days ago he convened a double summit conference of Arab leaders and Muslim leaders to discuss the war. None of the attending leaders expressed sympathy for Israel or even mentioned the Hamas slaughter that launched the war. Yet MbS engineered a concluding statement that left open the road to normalization with Israel once the war is over and even avoided trade and aviation sanctions.

In the process, MbS presented himself as both a regional and a Muslim leader. He even persuaded the leaders of Iran and Syria to sign off on the mild concluding declaration--which in many ways is intended to leave open the door for Saudi-Israeli collaboration against them.

Q. Apropos MbS, where is his neighbor and rival, the Emirates’ leader MbZ in this war?

A. Like Mohammed bin Salman, Mohammed bin Zaid is playing his cards carefully.  And he has a stalking horse, Mohammed Dahlan. The latter, some may recall, was Yasser Arafat’s security chief in the Gaza Strip. He and Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) had a falling out and Dahlan fled the PA and took refuge in the United Arab Emirates, where he has apparently made a lot of money and important friends. Now he seems to be offering himself as some sort of leader for a post-war Gaza Strip, backed by the UAE’s MbZ, who is already channeling humanitarian aid to the Strip via Egypt.

Could an MbZ-Dahlan partnership appeal to both Bibi and Biden as at least an interim solution for Gaza?

Q. Hold on, what about Abu Mazen?

A. He appears to be too fragile and too unpopular to actually come riding back into the Strip on anyone’s coattails after the war. The US seems to understand this when it talks about “revitalizing” the PA (see Biden’s Washington Post oped article of November 19).

The advent of the Palestinian Authority, born of the 1993 Oslo Accords, represented one of the most democratic developments in the entire Arab world in recent decades. Today it is hopelessly corrupt. It has not held elections in 18 years. Hamas deposed it from rule of the Gaza Strip by brutal force in 2007. Yet the PA still cooperates with Israel on security issues in the West Bank--a virtue recognized by the Israeli security community but not by PM Netanyahu.

To revitalize the post-war PA, President Biden will need the cooperation, and funding, of all of Israel’s Arab neighbors and particularly of an Israeli leader who is not, and is different from, Netanyahu.

Q. And Nasrallah?

A.Hassan Nasrallah is still very much the leader of Lebanese Hezbollah and the strongest politician in Lebanon. His speeches from his Beirut bunker--two since the war began--are virtuoso appearances watched by the entire Middle East. In them, he has skillfully explained why Hezbollah does not do more by way of attacking Israel in order to relieve pressure on Hamas--regardless of whatever promises he and Iran might have made to the Hamas leadership in the months leading up to October 7.

It looks like the IDF has thus far successfully deterred Nasrallah, whatever his excuses, from launching tens of thousands of missiles at Tel Aviv. The current Israel-Hezbollah mini-war along the Lebanese border may ultimately be remembered as a mere side-show to the Israel-Hamas war. But it will not settle accounts between Israel and Iran’s long arm in southern Lebanon.

Q. One leader you have not mentioned is Osama bin Laden. He is long dead, but he seems to have made a comeback lately.

A. I recall the resurrected bin Laden letter that blames Israel and its oppression of Palestinians for the 9/11 al-Qaeda attack. It was written a year after 9/11 and appeared to reflect a late recognition by bin Laden that, from a public relations standpoint, blaming Israel could help him sell his anti-US Islamist cause. At the time of the actual 9/11 attack a year earlier, Israel was actually nowhere to be found on the al-Qaeda agenda.

Something similar happened in late 1981 when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated. His murderers, Egyptian Islamists, issued a manifesto outlining their reasons for killing him. Their opening complaint concerned the western life-style and women’s rights advocacy of Sadat’s wife, Jehan. Egypt’s peace with Israel was number 18 on the list. Yet today, many Islamists would explain that Sadat’s biggest sin was making peace with Israel.

Q. Bottom line?

A. There is a corollary here concerning Hamas and its leaders. To be sure, they are anti-Israel and are Palestinian patriots. But like Iran and Hezbollah, they have a larger Islamist (and anti-Semitic) agenda for the entire Middle East that in many ways takes precedence. It is that agenda, alongside President Biden’s genuine affection for Israel, that explains why Biden supports Israel striking a major blow against militant Islam in the Middle East.