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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Israel’s endless loop: War, timeout, war

Holes in the roof and floor at the home of a 7-year-old girl who was injured by missile shrapnel outside Arad, Israel, on Sunday, April 14, 2024. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)

By Ross Douthat, Thomas L. Friedman, Carlos Lozada and Lydia Polgreen

Over the past few weeks, Israel and Iran have engaged in a military standoff. Israel struck the Iranian Embassy in Syria, killing several top Iranian military officials. Then last weekend Iran sent hundreds of drones and missiles toward Israel. Early on Friday, Israel retaliated, striking a military base in Iran. For the podcast “Matter of Opinion,” four New York Times columnists discussed tensions in the Middle East. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Ross Douthat: People say, “No one wants a wider war.” But there are people who want a wider war, right?

Thomas L. Friedman: Definitely.

Douthat: Who are they right now, and what are they thinking?

Friedman: So, Ross, one is Yehia Sinwar, the Hamas leader who is hiding somewhere in the Gaza Strip. He needs a wider war, because he’s out to destroy Israel. The thing people need to remember about Sinwar is, Sinwar actually doesn’t know the Arabs very well, which is why I think he was surprised by some of them not joining in. But he knows Israelis really well. In fact, he learned his Israeli studies in prison. He learned all his Hebrew in prison. And he spent years observing Israel and all its weaknesses, and he put them all into play in this war. And he wants Israel wiped out. So he’s certainly one of them.

I always go back and remember what Ayatollah Khomeini said when he came to Tehran from Paris in 1979 and took over, basically, Iran from the shah. He said: We didn’t make this revolution to lower the price of watermelons. This is a truly ideological movement with an agenda that it is ready to prioritize over advancing the well-being of Iranians.

And we’ve seen that now since 1979. And so you have to take these people very seriously. They want to destroy Israel out of conviction and ambition. Whether they think they can actually do it is a whole other question, but they’re not playing around.

Lydia Polgreen: So the Iranians — what are the Palestinians to them? Are they just an instrument trying to humiliate Israel? Because there’s not a natural alliance. How is Iran positioned vis-a-vis the Palestinians?

Friedman: So Iran is not popular among the West Bank. Remember a big part of the Palestinian community are Christians — not a majority, but they have a significant Christian minority. In the Palestinian Authority, Iran is not popular. Iran is extremely adept at cultivating underground networks. And so Palestinians are to them the same as Houthis are to them, the same as Hezbollah is to them, the same as Shiite militias in Iraq are to them. They’re instruments, and they are how Iran projects power.

And by enabling these militias with resources and money to either take over these countries or eat away at the systems there, you can’t get a majority against them. Lebanon hasn’t been able to elect a president now for a couple of years because Iran can’t, within the Lebanese system, get the man it wants, but it can make sure that no one else can get the person they want who would be hostile to Iran.

And Hamas, — one has to remember, Hamas launched this war because there was a big political struggle going on inside Hamas between more moderate forces led by Ismail Haniyeh and Sinwar and because Hamas was in a giant rivalry with Fatah in the West Bank and Fatah seemed to be lining up with Israel and Saudi Arabia to do a giant normalization deal. So take a step back from all the sort of Hamas ideology charter — this was also very much local politics at work.

Douthat: In your narrative of the Iranian desire for a wider war, it seems like what constrains Iranian leadership is fear. They would happily go to war with Israel tomorrow if they thought they could win it. So if you are in the Israeli Cabinet right now, are you thinking, “We must strike back to restore deterrence and maintain fear”? Or are you thinking, “Iran failed sufficiently that they will be deterred from trying this again”?

Friedman: I don’t know, Ross. I’ll just say what I’ve been thinking from Day 1 of the war: that Israel needs to ask itself what its worst enemies want it to do and do the opposite. And it’s rooted in a larger framework that I have, which is that I can write the history of this conflict for you long. I wrote a whole book, “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” about it. Or I can write history really short, and it fits on a business card: war, timeout, war, timeout, war, timeout, war, timeout, war, timeout, war, timeout, going back to 1929, if not earlier. And the difference between the two sides is what each did in the timeout. Israel built one of the strongest economies in the world. Hamas dug tunnels and nursed a grievance. And my view is that the No. 1 Israeli objective should always be to get to the timeout whenever they can, as much as they can.

Carlos Lozada: I wonder if you could talk about what the next timeout might look like if we’re able to get there. Back in January, which feels so long ago, you wrote a column saying that Oct. 7 had propelled a fundamental rethinking of the Middle East inside the Biden administration. You outlined what you thought was an emerging Biden doctrine for the region. Given how the conflict has evolved since then, how is the administration thinking about the region, broadly speaking, now?

Friedman: I would say the administration has a broad doctrine, which is Israel should find a way to finish the operation of dismantling Hamas in a way that spares as many innocent civilians in Gaza as possible. It should then work with the PA, with the support of countries like the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, when they are of sufficient capacity and strength. The PA plus allied countries — Jordan, Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia — should then be the ones to govern Gaza, maybe even with some American logistical help.

And then Israel should provide some political horizon for the Palestinians, so Israel can then normalize with Saudi Arabia. And we then find ourselves with a broad inclusion network in the region, stretching from Egypt through Gaza, the Arabian Gulf countries, and we’re in a whole new Middle East.

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