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Why Hamas Tried to Sabotage Arab-Israeli Peace Prospects With a Massive Unprovoked Attack

15 minute read
Sonnenfeld is the Lester Crown Professor of Management Practice at Yale, the President of the Yale Chief Executive Leadership Institute, and author of The Hero’s Farewell and Firing Back. Tian is the research director of the Yale Chief Executive Leadership Institute
Dan Raviv, a former CBS News foreign correspondent, is co-author of "Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel's Secret Wars."

Exactly 50 years ago, two authors of this commentary raced out of Yom Kippur prayer services to cover the last surprise attack on Israel for news radio. Now we see Israel taken by surprise once again. The radical Palestinians of Hamas, governing the Gaza Strip since Israel’s withdrawal in 2005, managed to carry out an unprecedented and unprovoked attack by land, sea, and air—and the results that prompted Israel to declare all-out war included massacres of hundreds of innocent civilians of all ages in their homes, at children’s parties, and at concerts. Scores more were taken hostage. President Biden and leading U.S. Republican voices alike are vowing to stand strongly behind Israel.

History again echoes, as the predicate for Hamas’ attack had less to do with anything that the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have done—now is not the moment to blame the victim. Rather, the trigger to the attack was likely that the prospect of a wider Mideast peace was almost at hand through an impending deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Hamas’ sabotage parallels the disruption of the prospective Israeli-Palestinian peace plan in 2000 on the heels of a Camp David Summit when the devastation of the Second Intifada ruined any dreams of normalization and resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians.

This time, by all accounts, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States were inching closer towards a transformative three-way deal, which would have seen Israel and Saudi formally recognize each other within a security, defense, and economic partnership with the U.S. Just a week ago, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman said that “every day we get closer” to a deal, while Netanyahu similarly stated that he was confident of forging “a historic peace” between his country and Saudi Arabia, with Israeli cabinet ministers already landing in Riyadh to “nurture blossoming ties.”

Saturday’s invasion of Israel by Hamas seems to derail that in the near term, just as Hamas intended. But by sabotaging imminent peace, Hamas sadly derails the transformation of the region which had started with the Abraham Accords shepherded by Jared Kushner, which the first author helped advise and participated in, and the worst loser in all this is the Palestinian people, who will lose out on the promise of economic and security revitalization that just days ago seemed so possible.

Below, are ten questions drawing out the strategic context of how history has been repeated, and what it means moving forward.

1. Do the statements put out by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, blaming Israel for the Hamas invasion, jeopardize normalization of diplomatic relations between Saudi and Israel?

Clearly that was the intent by Hamas; and indeed it now appears very unlikely there will be any near-term normalization of diplomatic relations as was expected. When there is a major Palestinian crisis, it becomes impossible for the leadership of Saudi Arabia to publicly break ranks from the Islamic and Arabic camp, and it is even more unlikely to think Qatar might break ranks.

During moments like this, across the entire region, voices of hardline Islamic clerics gain preeminence over more progressive voices such as that of Mohamed Allabar, founder of Emmar Properties and one of the world’s largest commercial builders, who told the first author of this article, during private talks leading up to the Abraham Accords, that “the younger generation will not let us continue to be trapped by our past. Palestinian people are our people. We get up every morning positive, and we want to do more….by generating jobs, income opportunities and filling gaps in delivering basic services, the private sector can help build momentum behind a fragile economy and instill hope in the people of the region.” But now that opportunity seems lost for the time being.

However, privately, Saudi leaders are likely celebrating the reality that Iran will face increased global rejection for funding Hamas, and that the U.S. especially, and Israel, will be even more motivated and mobilized to engage Iran as their single largest regional threat. It is possible that the prospects for diplomatic normalization in the longer term remain promising, as Iran remains the single largest common security threat in the region and Israel and Saudi are clearly stronger standing together against Iran than individually.

2. What is the role of Iran and how will the country respond moving forward?

Iran’s biggest rival in the region is Saudi Arabia with military, diplomatic, cultural, and religious hostilities dividing them. The prospect of Saudi recognition of Israeli sovereignty after 75 years of statehood would have undercut Iran’s voice in the Islamic world while uniting two of Iran’s foes. Iran has always been Hamas’ single largest sponsor, providing 70% of the financing for Hamas including upwards of $100 million in military aid every year in addition to military training and humanitarian assistance. It is highly unlikely that Hamas’ invasion of Israel could have happened without at least tacit support from Iran, whose regime was celebrating the attacks on Israel openly on Saturday with impromptu fireworks and festivals.

As Iranian-American author-journalist Roya Hakakian noted to us, “Iran needed this conflict very badly, as the hardline regime has been facing its fair share of domestic challenges, especially since the killing of Mahsa Amini last year. It has lost legitimacy in the eyes of many of its own people amidst domestic discontent, economic woes, and international isolation, and its survival depends to a large degree on symbiotic relationships with other extremists who will do Iran’s bidding.”

As Israel focuses on neutralizing Hamas’ ability to carry out terrorist attacks, there will be elevated scrutiny on Iran from the international community in the days ahead; and Iran will likely come under increasing pressure, especially through the potential withholding of the sanctions relief that Iran so desperately needs.

3. How will Egypt, Jordan, the West Bank/Palestinian Authority, Hezbollah, and other Arab nations respond?

So far, thanks in large part to President Biden’s strong deterrence, it appears other Arabic nations, especially Egypt and Jordan, are not rushing to support Hamas in any substantive ways, rhetorical flourishes aside. These nations along with the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco have increased peaceful trade and economic cooperation with Israel over the last few years.

So, it appears a repeat of the Yom Kippur War scenario fifty years ago today, in which the Arab nations joined into a unified military coalition against Israel, is unlikely. Surely Islamic hardliners and extremist clerics across the region who believe Israel has been an unjust occupier are celebrating that Hamas has been able to hit mighty Israel so hard. But the leadership of these countries are practicing restraint, and it appears Hezbollah in Lebanon did not exploit Saturday’s chaos to launch a much-feared simultaneous attack of Israel from the north even as the Iran-backed Shi’ite militia continues to have thousands of rockets aimed towards Israel.

4. How will the U.S. respond?

President Biden and GOP leaders are expressing total, bipartisan support for Israel and endorsing Israel’s right to respond—what Israel calls “restoring deterrence," which requires Israelis to prove they are much stronger than Hamas and any Palestinian factions. There will likely be domestic pressure from some Democratic Party progressives as well as possibly Republican isolationists to limit Israel’s response in the weeks ahead, with some already calling for de-escalation. It appears that for now, those voices are confined to the fringe. An immediate bipartisan consensus appeared, supporting Israel in whatever response it chooses, with some voices calling for the full-scale destruction of Hamas.

The U.S. provides over $3 billion in defense assistance to Israel annually, with Israel the single largest recipient, and that number could conceivably increase—because otherwise, any regional vacuum left by the U.S. will clearly be filled by a stronger Iran, and potentially by China and Russia, both of whom have remained relatively quiet so far in response to Hamas’ attack. But the bipartisan consensus appears to agree that the U.S. cannot afford to draw back its support for Israel now; if Hamas and Iran are not sufficiently punished for this round of violence, there are likely only larger provocations ahead. Even isolationist Republican voices such as Vivek Ramaswamy and Marjorie Taylor Greene have come out in strong support of Israel, suggesting that at least for now the U.S. stands united behind restoring Israeli deterrence through a strong response.

However, another key lesson of the Yom Kippur War bears remembering moving forward. The last surprise invasion of Israel fifty years ago made an accidental winner out of Saudi Arabia through U.S. mistakes, even though Israel recovered from the initial setbacks in that war and triumphed over Egypt and Syria.

The U.S. was so worried that Israel would be too quick to win in 1973 that it essentially took steps to hamper Israel while simultaneously surrendering far more than it needed to the losing Arab side. The Saudis led an oil embargo, banning sales to the U.S. and key Western allies, yet America capitulated soon afterward to the Saudi nationalization of the world’s largest oil supplier, Aramco, which until then was a U.S. entity owned by Texaco, Exxon, Mobil, and Chevron, when the U.S. could have merely sliced them a piece of the enterprise as Occidental Petroleum’s Armand Hammer did with Libya’s Mummar Gaddafi. Let us hope the U.S. does not make the same mistake of panicky hesitation in supporting Israel’s security—and that agenda begins now with neutralizing the brutal terrorist dangers of Hamas.

5. What is the Israeli end game?

As the Israelis say, “Hamas started this war, and now Israel has to win it,” which is already engendering strong support from across fractious political divides with Netanyahu adding leading opposition leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz to an emergency cabinet.

Many in Israel are calling for the destruction of Hamas and the full neutralization of its ability to engage in terrorist attacks against Israel—although this is complicated by the fact there are now Israelis being held hostage by Hamas in Gaza, including dozens seized Saturday, according to reports. To “restore deterrence,” and to prove Israel’s overwhelming force would require a lot of destruction within the Gaza Strip, where Hamas has thoroughly embedded its operations within civilian infrastructure. That is why Prime Minister Netanyahu is already declaring that Israel is prepared for a “long and challenging” conflict.

Hamas is not and has never been interested in compromise, unlike their rival, the Palestinian Authority run by Mahmound Abbas which governs much of the West Bank but not in Gaza. Many in the Palestinian Authority were said to welcome a Saudi peace plan as well the offer of financial assistance to improve the lives of Palestinians before Hamas sabotaged those plans Saturday.

6. In terms of Israel's access to weaponry, will the U.S. be torn about allowing access to caches of weapons, reminiscent of the U.S. domestic debates 50 years ago amidst the Yom Kippur War?

Compared with the Yom Kippur War in 1973, when Israel was taken by surprise and was running low on ammunition and airplanes, Israel’s arms industry and storehouses are more advanced today and much larger. It is doubtful Israel will run out of munitions, with one major exception—the Tamir missiles with their brilliant compact radar, which chases incoming rockets across the skies. Raytheon makes a version of that Iron Dome interceptor, and the Israelis may need more supply soon. But regardless, it appears that munitions supply or capabilities limitations will not constrain Israel’s response today the way they did fifty years ago.

7. Was Russia involved in seeking to distract from its conflict in Ukraine?

Russia has a long history of being involved in Middle East conflicts, such as when Putin essentially single-handedly propped up Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in 2014. Russia has also nurtured extremely close ties to Iran in addition to Hamas—including with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hosting top Hamas political leadership in Moscow just a few weeks ago. There is still much about the coordination of Saturday’s surprise attack that is not known, including to what degree Russia was involved or knew about the attack in advance. It seems plausible that Russia, at a minimum, did not disapprove of Hamas fostering chaos in the Middle East, perhaps to divert U.S. and international attention away from Putin’s struggles in Ukraine.

8. Did the attack catch Netanyahu’s government off guard due to an Israeli intelligence failure or does it speak to a lack of Israeli preparation?

Israel invests huge resources in monitoring Gaza, and for years seemed to know what Hamas and other militant groups were planning—and where they were located. But in this case, Israel was taken by surprise. The key intelligence agency within Israel is Aman—the Military Intelligence Directorate, of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)—with tons of technology and Arabic-speaking experts. Hamas appears to have plainly fooled them by relying on old-fashioned human-to-human planning sans technology, making use of its hundreds of miles of extensive underground tunnels including those as deep as 230 feet, and leaving no traceable footprint detectable to technology.

But it may be too simple to call it an intelligence failure, as the scale and scope of Hamas’ boldness were truly unprecedented. The IDF evidently did not believe this kind of attack was even possible. The Gaza border has a long security fence, but Palestinian fighters were able to poke holes in it and find areas that Israel does not monitor thoroughly with sufficient manpower to deter a sudden large-scale attack. Israelis living in civilian towns nearby, such as Sderot, close to the Gaza Strip, thought that they were OK—living with the ever-present danger of Palestinian rockets and mortar-shells fired from Gaza, but they were relying on the Iron Dome missile-defense system to protect them. The Iron Dome was plainly overwhelmed with thousands of incoming rockets, and that was just “cover” for the Hamas special forces who swarmed into Israeli towns, murdering hundreds of civilians in the streets in broad daylight, reportedly massacring 20 cops during a siege of a police station and stuffing hostages into vans. Israel has never had to cope with this multi-level assault.

9. Did the Biden Administration’s decision to release $6 billion in frozen funds to Iran play any role in the Hamas invasion?

Already, the Biden Administration is coming under attack for its decision to release $6 billion in oil revenues frozen in overseas escrow accounts to Iran in exchange for the release of American hostages, with some Republican voices arguing that this money is being used to fund Hamas’ invasion of Israel.

It appears that the $6 billion specifically in question has not even been released from the Qatari and Korean escrow accounts yet. Furthermore, the Biden Administration argues that there will be guardrails limiting the use of these funds to humanitarian purposes only.

At the same time, there is no doubt Iran provides significant financial support to Hamas. It is hard for some to see how this does not encourage Iran’s radical aspirations and could well trigger the seizing of more hostages. Perhaps the greater tragedy is that had the Saudi-Israel normalization been better managed and more expedited, it is possible that the regional power balance within the Middle East would have already been sufficiently different to deter Iranian and Hamas aggression of the scale we have tragically just witnessed.

10. Was it a misstep to allow hardline Israeli supporters of Netanyahu into crucial security decision-making?

Israel was clearly dangerously distracted by internal judicial changes threatening its government’s balance of power, coupled with Netanyahu’s effort to undermine bribery and corruption charges against him, while placating settlers focused on expanding their hold on the West Bank—all this taking Israel’s attention away from the dangers posed by Hamas in Gaza. Israel’s own defense minister warned of the distraction risk of Netanyahu’s own antics, but few are likely discussing that now in Israel.

The tough aura of Netanyahu’s leadership coalition is as the most right-wing ever in the history of Israel, with key ministers who want to keep the West Bank forever and want to block any hopes of an independent State of Palestine, yet their bravado did little to protect Israel with greater vigilance and preparation along the Gaza border. While those right-wing ministers may have aggravated peace-seeking parties among Israelis and Palestinians, Hamas is a group dedicated to wiping out the Jewish State of Israel and refuses to recognize Israel’s legitimacy. Blaming the victim does not work here since the predicate for Hamas’ attack had less to do with anything Netanyahu did or did not do, and everything to do with Hamas and Iran intending to sabotage the potential normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. This is a bloody, murderous way of saying, “Don’t forget us, we are Hamas. We’re still here, and we’re still angry.”

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