Press Briefing: Latest Insights on Israel-Hamas War

This transcript is from a CSIS press briefing hosted on October 13, 2023.

Andrew Schwartz: Thanks very much, Josh. And welcome to CSIS’s press briefing. We’d like to offer you today our latest insights on the Israel-Hamas war and all the challenges surrounding what’s happening right now for Israel and for the Palestinians.

We have a terrific lineup of my colleagues. We’re going to lead off with Dr. Jon Alterman, who’s senior vice president at CSIS, Zbigniew Brzezinski chair in global security and geostrategy, and director of our Middle East Program. Jon is going to deliver some remarks, we’re going to go down the order after Jon, and then we’ll open it up to your questions. Jon, take it away.

Jon B. Alterman: Thanks very much, Andrew. Thank you all for joining the call.

The images of the last several days have been wrenching. And like you, I’m bracing myself for the weeks to come.

We think we know the script: a ground invasion, high civilian casualties, weeks of fighting, and an eventual Israeli victory. I’m not confident it’s all going to go according to the script. Hamas has departed from the script that Israel assigned it for years last Saturday, and last Saturday was surely only the first act that Hamas had planned. They knew it was going to be followed by airstrikes and a ground invasion. They arguably have been preparing for an Israeli ground invasion in Gaza for 15 years. What other surprises do they have planned? How successful will they be? And after Saturday, we should have humility about how much we understand about Hamas, its capabilities, and its planning.

While Hezbollah isn’t looking to fully enter this war in my judgment, it’s also preparing to. My assessment is they’d like their contribution to be limited to distracting Israel and drawing resources to the north, but I can certainly see circumstances where Hezbollah is drawn into full-scale conflict. And that would have devastating impacts on both Israel and Lebanon.

Just this morning, I was reviewing Fred Iklé’s book “Every War Must End,” and I think it’s a book that a lot of people should be picking up this week. As the war starts, we need to pay attention to the piece of how this war is going to end. I had a piece in Time magazine yesterday that argued that the winners and losers of this conflict are going to be determined less by the fighting than the aftermath, and the fighting isn’t a satisfactory outcome by itself; it needs to create leverage to obtain the desired outcomes. There is going to be a role for diplomacy here, and Arab states in particular may play an important role helping create a better postwar reality and legitimating it, and we need to start paying attention to that potential role now.

Before that happens, there’s going to be a lot of fighting. A lot of people are going to die in the next week. This may be the most transparent war the world has ever seen. We’ve already seen social media explode with images. I’m afraid that next week it’s going to be full of clips of mutilated bodies and unspeakable horrors. Disinformation and propaganda are always part of warfare, but our media-consumption habits are going to completely supercharge this. People are going to feel completely informed when they’re only getting a sliver of truth and the resultant polarization is going to be supercharged, too.

As I see it, when the fighting dies down Israel is going to be dealing with two simultaneous problems. It’s going to be dealing with political battles about accountability for the failures that led up to this war and political discussions about what an acceptable outcome with the Palestinians might be and what should be pursued.

That’s going to be very hard to do and one of these political battles can undermine the other but both are really vital discussions. I think that’s going to be where we are in sort of – in the winter and it’s going to be tough to disentangle.

The Israeli writer David Grossman had an important piece in the Financial Times today asking what Israel will be after this was over and he writes, quote, “If I may hazard a guess, Israel after the war will be much more right-wing, militant, and racist. The war forced on it will have cemented the most extreme hateful stereotypes and prejudices that frame and will continue to frame all the more robustly Israeli identity.”

I’d argue that’s not inevitable. It might not even be likely. But for Israel supporters in the United States and around the world and for Palestinians as well that will be a very difficult outcome if it comes to pass and all of those outside parties have an interest in trying to ensure that it does not.

Why don’t I end my comments there, and I’d be happy to add comments after all of my other colleagues have spoken. Thanks very much, Andrew.

Mr. Schwartz: Jon, thanks very much.

And next I’d like to introduce Dr. Seth Jones, who is the senior vice president at CSIS. He’s our Harold Brown Chair and director of the international security program here at CSIS. Seth, the floor is yours.

Seth G. Jones: Thanks, Andrew. Thanks, Jon. Great to be on what is an all-star panel and an honor to be on it.

Let me just briefly touch on one military and one political issue and I’ll try to be brief and leave room for the discussion. Israel has announced that its military objective is to destroy Hamas, largely, with its political and military leadership dead, captured, or underground and much of its infrastructure and weapons demolished.