The enigma of recent geopolitical events—from rising global terror threats to the uncertain future of Gaza and the limitations of Middle East accords.
In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, we explore the intricate landscape of global terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the geopolitical reverberations of recent events.
Our guest is Kenneth Katzman, a senior adviser with The Soufan Group and a preeminent expert on the Middle East. Specializing in Iran, the Persian Gulf states, Iraq, and Afghanistan, Katzman has previously served as a senior analyst at the Congressional Research Service and an analyst at the CIA.
Katzman contends that the world may not have become significantly more dangerous since Hamas’s October 7 attack, but the stakes for Israel and the Palestinians have undeniably escalated. He lumps Hamas together with al-Qaeda and ISIS, arguing that the group’s terrorist actions have placed it in a pariah category that justifies military intervention.
Discussing the future of Gaza in a post-Hamas landscape, Katzman speculates that the Palestinian Authority could potentially regain control. However, he notes that their standing among Palestinians is tenuous.
Turning to Israel, he suggests that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s lengthy tenure may be drawing to a close, particularly in light of recent intelligence failures.
As for Iran’s role in the current geopolitical climate, he believes the nation’s capabilities are limited, despite its aggressive posturing, and any Iranian involvement would likely manifest through proxies like Hezbollah, rather than direct military engagement.
Lastly, Katzman critiques the Abraham Accords and similar diplomatic initiatives, describing them as overly optimistic and neglectful of the Palestinian issue. More hopefully, he believes that the ongoing crisis could serve as a catalyst, refocusing global attention on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and potentially paving the way for more substantive negotiations.
Full Text Transcript:
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, is a man who keeps a close eye on global events. His business depends on it. He recently described our world as at the most dangerous time we’ve seen in decades. Every day, we witness alliances shifting at an almost dizzying pace. On one side, Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran are forming a block that challenges the Western narrative.
Recent events like Putin’s visit to China and Biden’s visit to Israel underscore this evolving dynamic. In light of the war in Ukraine, Western alliances have solidified with NATO and the EU moving closer together. Meanwhile, Africa has become a focal point of China’s ambitions. Taiwan remains a contested territory and the race is on to win the hearts and minds of India and the Global South, but the Middle East is a bomb whose fuse is lit.
While diplomatic efforts are underway to prevent a wider conflict, countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE are grappling with a geopolitical identity crisis, raising the stakes considerably. High-level shuttle diplomacy is more active than ever, prompting the question, “Who truly understands the full chessboard and can make sense of all the moves?” We’re going to talk about precisely that today with my guest, Dr. Kenneth Katzman. He sees that chessboard.
He’s a senior advisor with The Soufan Group and a leading Middle East expert with a focus on Iran, the Persian Gulf states, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He has served as a senior advisor with the Congressional Research Service, an arm of the US Congress. He’s appeared on numerous regional media outlets and was previously an analyst at the CIA. He holds a PhD in political science from New York University. He’s the author of the book, The Warriors of Islam. And it is my pleasure to welcome Dr. Kenneth Katzman here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Ken, thanks so much for joining us.
Dr. Kenneth Katzman: Thank you, Jeff. Thank you for inviting me.
Jeff: Well, it is a delight to have you here. First of all, is the world a more dangerous place since October 7th?
Dr. Katzman: Well, it’s the same place. Obviously, the September 11 attacks in the United States were devastating to the United States. ISIS’s caliphate of 2014 was a big threat, terrorist threat. And now, Hamas. This attack on October 7th basically has put Hamas in the same category as Al-Qaeda and ISIS as a terrorist group that simply needs to be defeated. We sense the Israeli point of view, the US backs that point of view, and yes.
Jeff: Should we be thinking of Hamas the same way we thought of Al-Qaeda?
Dr. Katzman: Well, I think they’ve taken this attack on October 7th certainly puts them at that level. A severe attack on civilians, indiscriminate attack on civilians, disregard for human life, civilian human life. I think that they’ve put themselves in the same category. And unfortunately for them, they’re going to probably suffer the same fate, which is unrelenting military pressure until they’re completely defeated. I don’t predict there’s going to be any negotiations with them, except maybe to get hostages out. I think the Israelis have made a decision that they cannot live with this group in control of the Gaza Strip. They need to be completely defeated.
Jeff: We’ve heard several times when Israeli officials have been asked about what happens the day after Hamas is defeated. Who controls Gaza? What happens then? What is your sense of that?
Dr. Katzman: That’s an issue I’m trying to talk to a lot of people about. And I think that was the point of President Biden was going to meet. It got canceled, but he was going to meet with King Abdullah in Jordan and the Palestinian Authority President Abbas in Amman, I guess it was. And, unfortunately, that was canceled, but I think the purpose of that meeting was to discuss who takes over and control of Gaza after Hamas is defeated.
And my base case, my most likely scenario is that the Palestinian Authority that’s based in the West Bank would basically reinstate their authority over the Gaza Strip. Remember, they did have authority over it until 2007 when Hamas, after winning a legislative election there, militarily kicked the PLO, the Palestinian Authority, out of Gaza and took it over. So they were in control before 2007. I think the most easily envisionable solution is to have the Palestinian Authority take back control of the Gaza Strip.
Jeff: Do they have the credibility to do that among the Palestinian people?
Dr. Katzman: Well, that’s the issue. I’m not saying it would be easy for the Palestinian Authority or Abbas. They didn’t do well in the 2006 elections because they’re viewed as corrupt. They’re viewed as too quick to compromise with Israel. And now, with passions inflamed, that’s perhaps even more so in the Gaza Strip attitude. The propensity to want to compromise with Israel is perhaps even less than it was before this attack, this war.
So it’d be rough, but at least they are a Palestinian entity. So to my mind, that’s a more easily envisionable solution than having some Arab force or Western force as a peacekeeping force, or an Israeli occupation, reoccupation of Gaza, or at least the Palestinian Authority are Palestinians. And so they might be able to build credibility and have legitimate leadership there in Gaza.
Jeff: On the other side of the coin, what happens with the Israeli government? There’s this unity government, this war government now. What happens after that?
Dr. Katzman: That’s very hard to see. There’s been speculation that Netanyahu’s long-running prime ministership is probably going to end, that the intelligence failure was hard to swallow for the Israelis. Netanyahu always has advertised himself as what he says is the one man who can keep the Israeli people safe. Obviously, failed on October 7th, so he’s got a tremendous credibility problem, adding to the problems over his court reform, judicial reform, which has divided the Israeli public. So he’s got a lot of problems. He’s got a window here while the war is going on that people in Israel are rallying around him. But if indeed Israel succeeds and Hamas is defeated, then afterwards, I suspect you might get a change in political leadership in Israel.
Jeff: What is your sense of the timing of all of this? How long do you think a war in Gaza lasts? And to what extent does the length of that war really determine, in large measure, how this plays out after?
Dr. Katzman: Well, I think we’re talking months. Israel still hasn’t gone in on the ground. They’re trying to soften up targets, key targets, weaken Hamas before they go in there. They’re trying to find out where these tunnels begin and end. And that’s going to be a big problem, so they’re going to go slow. I don’t think this is going to be finished in weeks. I think we’re talking several months here.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about an area that is certainly an area of expertise for you, and that is Iran and what they do next in all of this. We’ve certainly heard a lot of bellicose rhetoric. Is that meaningful and should we be concerned in terms of this escalating into a wider war?
Dr. Katzman: Well, I would be concerned, but Iran does have constraints of its own. Obviously, the United States has warned Iran not to get involved. I think the Iranian leadership should take that warning seriously. Usually, their playbook is to use surrogates and armed factions that they support to do their work for them. They’re probably going to do that again. Hezbollah is already doing some of that by shelling Northern Israel, trying to keep the Israeli military tied down in the north, take pressure off Hamas in the south and in Gaza.
So Iran is already pursuing some of that strategy. But an all-out attack on Israel by Iran or Iran-backed forces, I think, is problematic given the US stated willingness to get involved if that happens, if Iran does really escalate and get directly involved. Iran makes a lot of threats, but at the end of the day, their ability to back up those threats when you compare it to the US military, for example, is pretty limited.
Jeff: What are the dangers then? When we hear this rhetoric and talk about a wider war and the potential escalation of this situation into a wider war in the region, where are the flashpoints? What specifically should we be looking for?
Dr. Katzman: Well, anything is a potential flashpoint. We didn’t expect October 7th and then that happened, and I’m with most experts on this. We’re looking at Hezbollah pretty closely. That’s the most likely avenue to escalate. Hezbollah has a lot of rockets and missiles, many, many more than Hamas, and more precise and more fighters, just more wherewithal than Hamas does. So Hezbollah coming in in a major way would create problems for the IDF definitely.
Jeff: Was there a fundamental mistake in Israeli-US policy in thinking that all of these other methods of outreach, the Abraham Accords, the effort to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia, that all of these efforts to go around the Palestinians and ignore the Palestinian issue while making peace in the region, was that a mistaken policy?
Dr. Katzman: I think it was the expectations for that strategy were too high. I think there’s a grain of truth to that that I agree with, that there was a thinking that the Arab states and Israel would normalize without any Israeli concessions to the Palestinians, that the Palestinians would simply be left behind in the region and left to fend on their own. And so, yes, there were some assumptions made in the Abraham Accords and other policies that have shown to be perhaps not completely thought through. Yes, sir.
Jeff: Are there nations right now that can be honest brokers in all of this to the extent that things do escalate? Is it Egypt who we’ve given huge amounts of aid to? Is it Qatar? Are there countries that can be honest brokers here?
Dr. Katzman: Well, it depends on the degree to which Hezbollah and Iran get involved because, obviously, Qatar has ties to Iran, but not a lot of leverage. Egypt does not have ties, has not rebuilt ties to Tehran, so that’s not going to work. Russia can’t be a mediator, obviously, given its invasion of Ukraine and how isolated Russia is on the world stage. China conceivably could talk to the Iranians.
They did broker the Saudi-Iran Accord in March. But, obviously, China is not trusted by the United States, so it’s difficult. Qatar, Oman, sultanate of Oman is a potential choice. They have very strong ties to Iran and, obviously, they are an Arab state, so they’re part of the Gulf Cooperation Council. So they have strong ties on the Arab side as well. So that’s a possibility, I suppose.
Jeff: Is there any kind of connection as you see it, either directly or even indirectly, between what happens next in Ukraine with the players there and the way things play out in the Middle East?
Dr. Katzman: Well, I don’t think there’s a direct connection, but it’s indirect in terms of the United States trying to help both Ukraine and Israel at the same time at a time when the US Congress, particularly the House of Representatives, is in disarray. So that’s a problem. There’s already been questions about the amount of US resources spent on Ukraine. So there’s more support probably for spending on Israel, which needs less than Ukraine does, but it’s presumably a smaller war involving fewer forces. But there’s a strain on US bandwidth, US resources, and then that’s what I see as the connection between those two theaters.
Jeff: To what extent do you think that the internal divisions within Israel caused them to take their eye off the ball in terms of security?
Dr. Katzman: I don’t think it was internal divisions as much as I think there was unrest in the West Bank, particularly the Jenin camp, where Hamas and other radical factions had been gaining influence, and Israel had to devote some forces to that. There’s been Hezbollah. Even before October 7th, Hezbollah was moving in on some disputed territory in the north and I think moved in on some checkpoints.
So Israel was looking at Hezbollah. Obviously, Israel’s been bombing inside Syria every few days for a very long time, bombing Iranian infrastructure around back militia factions. And so I think Israel had its forces and its eyes on a lot of different parts of its border and perhaps maybe deemphasized Gaza. And so I do see that more so than internal divisions within Israel.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about what you see as the next steps once Israel goes into Gaza in terms of the reaction on the Arab street and, really, the pushback that we’re going to see against this.
Dr. Katzman: I think it really is going to be a function of how slowly Israel goes and how much attention they pay to minimizing civilian casualties. The more care Israel takes to minimize civilian casualties, the lower the reaction the anger on the Arab street will be. I think Israel made a good decision today overnight on allowing humanitarian aid in without concessions.
I think that’s going to help the image. It’s really going to depend, again, as we’ve seen with this hospital thing, even though it looks like that was not Israel that did that, any episode like that where a humanitarian facility is destroyed or harmed, the civilian mass casualty events, that’s going to create more anger against Israel. So I think Israel probably needs to go slow and be very, very transparent about what it’s doing to minimize civilian losses.
Jeff: There was arguably a direct line between the war in ‘73 and what ultimately became the Camp David Accords. Positive things came out of that war. Do you see anything potentially positive that can arise from this current situation?
Dr. Katzman: Well, I really do. First of all, if Israel defeats Hamas, which I expect them to, that’s going to remove one leg of Iran’s “axis of resistance.” So right away, once Hamas is defeated, Iran is weakened. Iran’s whole strategy to pressuring Israel with Hamas, with Hezbollah, is going to be weakened, and Hezbollah will be more on its own against Israel. So that could be a benefit.
The other potential benefit is the global community, including US policy, is going to return, I think, to a focus on trying to broker some sort of a long-term solution between the Israelis and the Palestinians, realizing that there’s not been really meaningful negotiations in some time and it’s stagnated. There’s been no real new proposals made. President Trump made some attempts with his economic-based strategy, investment-based strategy with Jared Kushner, and that didn’t really go anywhere, but there has not been a focus on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. And I think we’re going to get a renewed focus on that after this.
Jeff: Is there a concern that Israel can overstep with respect to what it does vis-à-vis Iran? Certainly, there have been lots of covert efforts that Israel has taken to slow down Iran’s nuclear program. Can Israel go too far in what it does in Iran?
Dr. Katzman: Well, going too far would be probably an all-out strike on Iran’s nuclear or other facilities, a strategic airstrike. That obviously would get a reaction from Tehran, but I think we have to be the media to some extent. I’m an expert. You mentioned my book, The Warriors of Islam. The real title is The Warriors of Islam: Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. So my academic work is focused on the Revolutionary Guard of Iran. And I think the media sometimes overhypes Iran’s capabilities.
Yes, they had some drone capabilities that got missiles, but Iran is not in the same category as the United States of America. Let’s be real here. They’re not even in the same category as Israel, so I think we have to be careful not to overstate. Iran does not have a multiplicity of options here. They have some options as a spoiler. They have Hezbollah. They have missiles. They can do damage here and there, but I think we have to be careful not to overinflate Iran’s capabilities.
Jeff: Why do you think that there’s a tendency on the part of the media to do that?
Dr. Katzman: Well, I don’t know. I think it makes for a good story to try to paint it as some sort of even match-up between the United States of America and Iran. I don’t know. You tell me. It’s baffled me a little bit. Iran does have capabilities. They attacked some commercial shipping several weeks ago and the US Navy showed up and they ran away. Iran is not a rival to the United States of America. We got to get that on the table here.
Jeff: And where are the Saudis in all of this?
Dr. Katzman: The Saudis, they want to focus really on MBS, Mohammed bin Salman’s economic diversification, the Vision 2030. The problem is they keep getting forced off that by these conflicts. They’ve been forced off it somewhat by Yemen, which was somewhat of their own making. They went into Yemen and then got bogged down. They didn’t win. They thought they were going to win quickly and did not, so they got bogged down in Yemen. That threw them off.
Then they had this pact with Iran, which they thought was going to solve Yemen and do all sorts of other things for them, and it didn’t. They thought it would maybe cause Iran to be a little bit more constructive, and it hasn’t. Now, they’re hit with this crisis in Hamas-Israel crisis. So the Saudis, they want to normalize with Israel. Now, that’s derailed by this crisis. So they’re trying to de-escalate, they want to de-escalate to be able to focus on their economic diversification, but they keep getting drawn into these various conflicts and can’t get out of it.
Jeff: And finally, getting back to the Palestinians, is there a chance from all of this for there to emerge a new generation or at least some new voices in Palestinian leadership?
Dr. Katzman: Well, absolutely. Absolutely. And I think that’s going to happen if, what I’ve said before to you, that some sort of Palestinian Authority governance is going to be reestablished over Gaza, I think you are going to see new leaders get involved in that. You’re going to see new Palestinian commanders potentially sent into Gaza. Let’s see how successful they are. You’re going to have pressure on Abbas to reform the Palestinian Authority and eliminate corruption.
That’s really why the Palestinian Authority lost out to Hamas in 2006 and ‘07 is because they were perceived as corrupt, whereas Hamas was not, and that’s really what did it. And so the Palestinian Authority needs to clean up its act. And then I think you’re going to see pressure within the Palestinian Authority to do that with new leaders, with leaders that are committed to eliminating corruption. And so I think there could be positives, new voices, new Palestinian voices emerging from the ashes of this conflict here.
Jeff: Dr. Kenneth Katzman, I thank you so very much for spending time with us today here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Dr. Katzman: Thank you, Jeff. Appreciate having me.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to WhoWhatWhy.org/donate.