We’re pleased to post this commentary, with permission, that was penned earlier today by Amb. Chas W. Freeman, Jr., a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense and former ambassador to Saudi Arabia
by Chas. W. Freeman, Jr.
This war puts paid to israeli-Saudi normalization but that was never a real prospect. The Israeli ministry of strategic affairs (i.e. “hasbara” or propaganda) has touted normalization as a “game changer for the Middle East.” Not so. It would, however, be a game changer for both Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu in their respective domestic politics. But I don’t think the motivation was the prevention of official ties between Jerusalem and Riyadh. This is more like the Tet offensive in Vietnam than anything else.
The Hamas attack on Israel was part jailbreak (from Gaza, the world’s largest prison since the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto) but more than that it was a revolt of the hopeless by the hopeless for the hopeless. Sometimes suffering becomes so unbearable that anything goes. Martyrdom is fatal but politically empowering. And timely surprise reminders of unpalatable strategic realities can be useful. With this well-planned and executed surprise attack on Israel, Hamas:
— mounts a dramatic response to the extremist anti-Arab cabinet assembled by Netanyahu, to the settler invasions of the al Aqsa mosque, and to the pogroms under way in the West Bank, as neither the West nor the Arab states have done;
— establishes itself as the legitimate voice of Palestinian nationalism, while discrediting Fatah, Mahmoud Abbas, and the Palestinian Authority, all of which serve as “kapos” for the Israeli occupation;
— gains credibility and marshals support in both the Arab and Muslim worlds as well as in the global Palestinian diaspora;
— illustrates the bankruptcy of U.S. and other great power policies with regard to Israel’s escalating oppression and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians;
— achieves revenge for Israeli violence against Palestinian civilians;
— discredits the Abraham Accords, by which Israel sought to evade any reckoning with the Palestinians, and, as you suggest, aborts any possibility that normalization (as opposed to piecemeal transactionalism) will occur between Saudi Arabia and Israel;
— ingratiates itself with Iran and other anti-Israeli forces in West Asia like Hezbollah (with which it has nothing in common except a common Israeli enemy);
— highlights the fecklessness of the governments of Egypt, Jordan, and other de facto collaborators with the Israeli occupation that will be reflected in popular pressure on them; and
— gains hostages to use as bargaining chips for the future release of Palestinian political prisoners by Israel.
The geopolitical dangers are that the war may widen to include Lebanon and Syria as well as 1960s-style terrorism against Jewish and other supporters of Zionism abroad, that Netanyahu may see the political answer to the perceived failure of Mossad or Shin Bet to predict Hamas’ attack as a justification for blaming and attacking Iran, and that Israel’s declared intention and attempts to replicate the allied demolition of Dresden in Gaza may lead to it being called to account internationally.
For the time being, however, the sense of peril that ordinary Israelis now feel has had the effect of bringing protests against the destruction of the rule of law in Israel to a halt and replacing it with national unity against the Palestinians. The ongoing exodus of Israelis from their country will accelerate. The idiotic comment a week ago by Jake Sullivan that the Middle East had reached a reassuring level of calm just exposes yet another delusion of American diplomacy, paralleling the unrealism of commentary on Ukraine, China, Iran, etc. Sympathy for Israel is now limited to societies where Islamophobia has become entrenched, though Palestinian atrocities have the potential to restore it. Reflexive U.S. support for Israel’s “right to defend itself” will be read internationally as support for Israel’s continuing oppression, ethnic cleansing, and periodic massacre of Palestinians. There will be global backlash against this position, as there has been against our position on the Ukraine war.
Hamas will lose the military battle but it may well win the war.