December 30, 2023No Comments

ITSS Verona 2023/2024 Webinar Series – A Constructive Dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

For our second Webinar of the 2023/2024 season, we were truly honored to host Dr. Magen Inon, an Israeli educator who lost his parents during the October 7 attacks. Magen told us about his work as a peace advocate, through which he is trying to forge a safe space for dialogue and mutual understanding between everybody who is affected by the conflict, rejecting hatred and polarization.

Following his contribution, our ITSS Verona researchers from the Middle East Team, Omri Brinner and Chantal Elisabeth Hohe, together with our ITSS Verona Director, Dr. Michele Groppi, analyzed other important dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian issue: the question of a two-state solution, the need for imagination and creativity in geopolitics, the involvement of regional actors like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iran, Israel's strategic culture, and finally, the understated role played by emotions on both sides.

November 6, 2023No Comments

Israel’s Possible War Scenarios: From a Temporarily Restrained Conflict to a Prolonged All-out War

Author: Omri Brinner - Middle East Team

With the beginning of its ground invasion into the Gaza Strip, Israel is at a crossroads it hoped it wouldn’t be in. It can be argued that any route Israel would take in this historic intersection would lead to regional escalation, even if only in the long-run. It is safe to assume, then, that even if there is no immediate backlash to the Israeli ground invasion, another front, sooner or later, will follow. 

The most popular Israeli approach in responding to the October 7 Hamas attack is that the IDF’s infantry and armored brigades would invade the Gaza Strip, backed by heavy artillery, actionable intelligence, and preceded by intense aerial bombardment (as is happening). Israel, it has been argued, must respond forcefully, or else it would project to its enemies that it would refrain from war at all costs. 

The ground invasion itself is meant to root out Hamas from the Gaza Strip and to disable its military capabilities. The other objective is the release of the 239 Israeli and foreign hostages, most of whom are civilians. Ideally – from Israel's point of view – the IDF would achieve its goals in the Gaza Strip without having to fight on another front simultaneously, as its capabilities in fighting multiple fronts at the same time are limited, and such a scenario will necessitate Israel to change its objectives. However, this is the least likely scenario. Total victory against Hamas is not guaranteed – and even unlikely  within the limits of military power – and the ground operation can last for months. What is more likely is that Israel would embark on a limited ground incursion (due to American pressure and the possibility of another front elsewhere), achieve some tactical victories against Hamas, and will force a ceasefire on better conditions – which would lead to the release of some hostages (most likely women, children, and the elderly). However, the restrained war efforts in Gaza will surely be followed by war and terror on other fronts, and possibly simultaneously.

One ongoing front is in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where Hamas, armed militias, and lone-wolf terrorists take arms against Israeli civilians and security personnel. At the time of the Hamas attack on October 7, most of the IDF was stationed in the West Bank, demonstrating its symbolic and strategic importance to Israel. The latter would have to react forcefully to any significant development there. It is in Hamas’ interest to start a new intifada in the West Bank, and possibly in Israeli cities, in order to destabilize and weaken Israel.  

The other ongoing front, where Israel might face a full-scale war, is from the north. Hezbollah, with its arsenal of 150,000 projectiles (of close, medium, and long range) and army of approximately 100,000 soldiers, most of whom are well-trained and with some battle experience, pose a strategic threat – even bigger than the one Hamas poses. 

Thus far, Hezbollah – which is backed by Iran and serves as its most strategic proxy in the region – has been reacting to Israel’s limited ground invasion, albeit with restraint. While Hezbollah needs to show it is committed to the Palestinian cause, it aims to avoid an all-out war with Israel. 

Source: https://twitter.com/IDFSpokesperson/status/1721014635623522767/photo/4

According to Israeli calculation, an all-out war is not fully in Hezbollah’s interests, nor is it in Iran’s. According to this theory, both Iran and Hezbollah would rather open an all-out war with Israel only once Iran guarantees applicable nuclear military capabilities, which, in the long run, seems inevitable. This means that from Israel’s point of view – and contrary to the best-case scenario described above – it would be better for Israel to engage with Hezbollah and Iran before the latter becomes a nuclear power. 

Israel, then, might choose to attack Hezbollah and either drag it into the war – and by so eliminating the surprise element of Hezbollah’s reaction – or, if Hezbollah chooses not to retaliate, to reestablish its deterrence up north.  While it may seem like an act of self harm, the Israeli public would view a Hezbollah surprise attack as another failure of the government, IDF, Shin Bet and Mossad. In a way, then, these institutions hope to project to the public that Israel is on the front foot, and that if a war with Hezbollah and Iran is inevitable in the long run, then better now than later. It is important to note that while Israel calculates that the two Shia powers would rather avoid an all-out war prior to Iran’s nuclearization, Israel’s working assumption that Hamas was deterred and would have opted to avoid an armed conflict fell apart with the October 7 attack. Therefore, there are no guarantees that any theory that existed before the attack is still relevant.

Would Iran and Hezbollah wait peacefully for an Israeli strike, or for it to finish its fighting in Gaza? Unlikely. From their point of view, Iran and Hezbollah are happy to let Israel keep guessing whether they would join the war or not. From Israel’s standpoint, it cannot afford to be surprised again. While it is less likely that there would be a ground invasion from the north following the one from the Gaza Strip on October 7, an extensive missile attack on central Israel would be just as bad.

But initiating war with Hezbollah – and Iran – would force the US into the conflict, as it would be extremely challenging – on the verge of impossible – for Israel to conduct an all-out war with Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran simultaneously. At the same time, if US forces end up fighting alongside Israel, then it is likely that other Iranian allies would occupy the US forces elsewhere in the region (such as in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria). While a recent poll shows that the vast majority of Americans are against US military involvement in the Middle East, the US would feel it has to protect its allies and interests in the region. 

It seems, then, that the region is ahead of a long period – whether months or years – of an armed conflict.

June 10, 2021No Comments

Winds of Change? Possible Transition from War to Peace in the Middle East

By: Omri Brinner, John Devine, Martina Gambacorta and Angelo Calianno.

The most significant development from the latest round of violence between Israel and Hamas is the warming of relations between two rival camps in the Middle East, which is a hopeful sign of things to come. If developments such as the recent Saudi-Iranian negotiations and the seeming end of the civil war in Libya continue to characterize regional affairs, then the region might very well be on its way to rehabilitate from more than a decade of continued wars. 

The two countries representing the rival camps are Egypt and Qatar. Regionally, Egypt is in league with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), while Qatar is linked with Turkey and Iran. Egyptian-Qatari relations have significantly improved since the Egyptian-brokered ceasefire and the Qatari promise of increased financial support to the Gaza Strip. Egypt and Qatar are in a unique position to bridge geopolitical gaps through the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - Egypt as the only Arab country that borders the Gaza Strip and therefore controls the crossings to and fro Gaza; and Qatar as the only regional country that has both the funds and well-established relations with the authorities in Israel and the Gaza Strip.

Until recently, the two countries and their camps were on a head-on course of action, best characterized by the 2017 blockade on Qatar, which focused to a large extent on Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), and not by chance. Since its inception in 1928 the MB has challenged and at times terrorized the Egyptian state, with the rivalry climaxing in 2012 when the organization won the Egyptian elections and became the ruling party. However, the old regime soon retook power through a military coup and began persecuting, jailing and executing MB members. 

A notable portion of Qatar’s support to the MB has been delivered to its Palestinian branch, Hamas. As a MB affiliate, in recent years Hamas has challenged Egyptian sovereignty by building underground smuggling tunnels and connecting with Egyptian terrorists in the border area. Egypt’s fierce anti-MB policies, which include a joint Egyptian-Israeli blockade on the Gaza Strip, have resulted in Hamas’ dependency on Egypt for humanitarian support. Hamas is, therefore, willing to make concessions that will essentially, in light of its dire state, benefit both itself and Egypt. In other words, in coordination with Israel, Egypt decides when and what to give to the Gaza Strip. 

However, Egypt has competition for both peacemaking and patronage in the Gaza Strip by one of its regional foes, Qatar. Qatar is in a distinct position as it is the only regional country that has both the funds and well-established relations with both Israel (albeit unofficial) and Hamas. Other regional countries have either relations with the two parties or funds to spare, but not both. Therefore, Qatar has two prominent roles in supporting the Gaza Strip. The first is financial. Since 2012 Qatar has transferred to Gaza around 1.5 billion USD with Israel’s approval, with Hamas directly receiving the lion’s share. Despite this fact, it is in Israel’s interest that the Gaza Strip will be politically and economically stable. Israel calculates that stability reduces the chances of a coup by more extreme local groups, such as the Islamic Jihad, and that Palestinians will want to maintain a relatively good lifestyle and low unemployment rates, as opposed to times of poverty and recurring clashes. The other Qatari role is providing Gaza with energy. With the electricity infrastructure all but functional, Hamas found in Qatar a patron for petrol - the latter being the world-leading exporter of liquefied natural gas

So far, it seems that the shared interest of Egypt, Qatar, Israel and Hamas to stabilize the Gaza Strip has strengthened relations between Egypt and Qatar. An indication for this state of affairs took place a day after the ceasefire agreement was reached, when the exiled Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh spoke from Qatar, thanking Egyptfor its role in brokering the ceasefire. It should be noted that Haniyeh could not have congratulated Egypt on Qatari soil without the authorities’ blessing. However, while Qatar has been in the driving seat with regards to financing the Gaza Strip thus far, Egypt is now challenging the former by organizing a regional donors conference. It also recently announced the allocation of 500 million USD of its own funds for the reconstruction of the strip. That said, Egypt needs to carefully calculate its financing schemes to maintain the Qatari-Egyptian cooperation in Gaza. Otherwise, it will push Qatar to either transfer more funds directly to Hamas or to stop the flow of cash altogether, leaving itself as Gaza’s sole provider.

When examining Egyptian-Qatari relations in a wider geopolitical perspective, it can be stated that each country represents its camp in terms of competition, but also cooperation and diplomacy. The improved Egyptian-Qatari relations signify improved relations between the camps. Other developments include Egyptian-Turkish talks, in which the sides discussed various disagreeable issues (such as Turkey’s favourable policies towards the MB), the apparent end of the Libyan civil war, the Saudi-Iranian negotiations and, consequently and hopefully, the beginning of the end of the Yemenite civil war, the revival of the JCPOA and the end of the blockade on Qatar. 

Comparing today’s regional state of affairs to that of a year ago will show that calculated and mutually beneficial diplomacy is arguably a better ingredient for regional stability and peace than hardline and uncompromising policies.