Palestinians, displaced, Rafah
Palestinians return to their homes in Khan Younis after being displaced from Rafah in Gaza, Palestine, May 7, 2024. William Dowell and Claire Berlinski inset. Photo credit: © Saher Alghorra/ZUMA Press Wire and Courtesy of William Dowell and Claire Berlinski.

The Israel-Hamas conflict’s complexities, campus protests, global impact, and potential outcomes.

Everyone is talking about, opining, defending, or protesting the events in Israel and Gaza. But what are they actually talking about? 

How many of the loudest voices actually understand the history of the region and the reality on the ground today?

In this special edition of the WhoWhatWhy podcast, we address these questions with two WWW insiders, William Dowell and Claire Berlinski. 

Dowell, currently the International editor at WhoWhatwhy, was a former Middle East correspondent and bureau chief for Time magazine, for NBC news in Vietnam, and for ABC news in Paris. Berlinski, a writer, journalist, and policy analyst, received her Ph.D. in international relations from Oxford University and is the author of numerous books.   

Drawing on their extensive experience, they vigorously debate the motivations behind Hamas’s actions, the effectiveness of Israel’s military response, and the potential consequences for both sides.

The conversation also touches on the broader reaction to the conflict, particularly the angry response seen on US college campuses, and how it may shape the events unfolding in Israel and Gaza. 

As the discussion unfolds, Dowell and Berlinski offer competing analyses of the US’s role and obligations in the conflict, as well as the far-reaching implications for the region and for global geopolitics. 

This passionately argued debate will leave you with a deeper understanding of the Israel-Hamas conflict.

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Full Text Transcript:

(As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to a constraint of resources, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like and hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.)

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the special edition of the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. As the conflict between Israel and Hamas continues to escalate, so does the wave of protests that has erupted across college campuses. Students are taking to the streets demanding action and change, but what are we to make of these demonstrations? Are they merely a distraction from the real issues at hand or do they hold any key at all to influencing a better understanding or even moving closer to a solution to the conflicts?

The issues at play in Gaza are deep-rooted and complex. They were so before October 7th and have only become more intricate in the aftermath. The harsh reality is that the fate of this conflict ultimately rests in the hands of Israel and Hamas. Hamas has the power to release the hostages they hold while Israel could choose to end its military occupation or reverse its policies. The protestors on the other hand believe that they can sway Israel’s actions by capturing media attention and pressuring the Biden administration to shift its stance, a position that at best seems anti-historical.

However, the effectiveness of these demonstrations or any serious protest for that matter hinges on engaging with and understanding Israeli politics and culture. It’s a multifaceted situation that demands nuance and in-depth knowledge. As campus clashes and arrests continue to dominate the headlines, we’re left to ponder their role and impact. Are they even a blip on the radar of the larger geopolitical nightmare that encompasses Israel, the Palestinians, and the Middle East as a whole, or are they simply a distraction? And if so, from what?

To help us understand and navigate this complex landscape, I’m joined by two WhoWhatWhy insiders, William Dowell and Claire Berlinski. Bill is currently WhoWhatWhy’s international editor. He’s a former Middle East correspondent and bureau chief for Time magazine, where he covered Southeast Asia. He worked for NBC News in Vietnam and ABC News in Paris. Over many years, he’s covered the rise of solidarity in Poland, the Iranian Revolution, and the civil war in Beirut, and trekked across Afghanistan on foot during the Russian invasion.

Claire Berlinski is an American writer, journalist, and policy analyst, and an academic who, for the past 30 years, has lived and worked in the UK, the US, Switzerland, Thailand, Laos, and Turkey. She now lives in Paris, where she’s the co-founder of The Cosmopolitan Globalist on Substack. She received her PhD in international relations from Oxford and is the author of numerous books, fiction, and nonfiction. It is my pleasure to welcome William Dowell and Claire Berlinski here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. Bill, Claire, thanks so much for being here.

Claire Berlinski: Thanks for having us.

William Dowell: Thank you.

Jeff: Well, it’s great to have you here. Claire, I want to start with you. A little bit like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in physics, sometimes the process of measuring something impacts the thing that you’re trying to measure. To what extent do you think that the global reaction to what has taken place since October 7th, the global reaction against Israel, the protests that we see on campuses, to what extent is that actually shaping and reshaping the events that are taking place on the ground in Israel and Gaza?

Claire: Not very much, I would say. Israelis are quite used to a powerful global reaction to what they do. I don’t think they see it as important. What’s important to them is being able to return to their homes in the Gaza envelope and in the north and to be able to assure themselves that Hamas will not repeat its performance on October 7th. I think it does shape what they’re trying to do insofar as they do not want Biden to hold up arms deliveries. That is a source of concern. And I think they’re appalled by what they’re seeing on American college campuses, but I don’t think Israelis are particularly persuaded by the kinds of arguments that people are making overseas.

Jeff: Bill, talk a little bit about this same point and particularly as it relates to, and I know you talked to a lot of people overseas, what you are hearing and how this is playing out in this echo chamber we have.

William: Well, I would say, first of all, I would go back to, basically, time I spent before being a journalist in the US Army. And one of the primary principles in dealing within a confrontation like this is to determine what it is that the opponent wanted to accomplish. In other words, why did Hamas launch the October 7th attack? And I think that the reaction that you see now was really Hamas’ intention.

They knew how Israel would react and they figured that this is the real goal of the attack. And it was premeditated, very well-thought-out, very well-organized. And the basic principle is that a terrorist attack do not create a military victory. What it can do is get the victim of the attack to destroy itself. And I think that’s Hamas’ goal right now is to get Israel to destroy itself. So certainly, nobody can stop Netanyahu from doing what he wants to do.

But if he continues, he would have totally isolated Israel and possibly destroyed it, and the US will be forced to cut off further aid to Israel. The shipment that was stopped just recently was for 4,000 bombs. Half of it was 2,000-pound bombs. The other was 500-pound bombs. How could even Biden deliver those bombs when they’re being used indiscriminately against the civilian population?

Jeff: Claire, you want to comment on that?

Claire: I take issue with a number of things you just said there. First, I agree with you that that was one of Hamas’ objectives. The objective was to provoke in Israel a response that would generate international horror and to delegitimize Israel that way, but that wasn’t the only objective. The other objective was to make Israel unlivable in its border with the Gaza Strip. And the long-term goal is to continue doing this until Israel is squeezed into a smaller and smaller area and until people leave.

People leave out of terror, out of the damage to the Israeli economy. So I think there is both a psychological objective, exactly the one you described, but also a very real military objective and not a completely ridiculous one. Not a ridiculous one at all. Usually, it’s a truism that terrorism can’t achieve anything militarily. It can only achieve something tactical. But in this case, it could, especially if Hezbollah gets in on the act because Israel is such a small country. And its borders are, right now, a dangerous place to live and people don’t want to live in them.

There’s 100,000 people who are internally displaced in Israel and that has massive economic consequences too. The second thing you said was that Israel is bombing indiscriminately. It’s a common thing to say, but I don’t think it’s true. Now, I’m not there. I haven’t been able to see how carefully they’re choosing their targets, but they seem to be bombing places where Hamas is storing weapons, places where Hamas figures are physically located.

And I don’t see evidence that they’re carpet-bombing or bombing in a way that doesn’t make sense in terms of the military objectives. Again, it’s difficult to know, but I don’t see why they would, I don’t see what they would gain from it. And I do know that Israeli military protocol is just like the United States. Every strike has to be approved. They know the laws of war. They are not eager to be hauled in front of the ICC. And I think the phrase indiscriminately is part of what has been a massive propaganda campaign to delegitimize Israel’s actions. And I think we should be very wary of it.

Jeff: Is the Israeli military objective, Claire, realistic on its face? The idea of trying to wipe out Hamas in the way they have, is that a realistic goal, and to what extent? If it’s not, is it really performative and for internal politics inside Israel?

Claire: No, it’s very realistic. They’ve wiped out, they say, 18 out of 24 Hamas battalions. And think about that, battalions? This is a terrorist group that has battalions? The remaining six are holed up in Rafah. If you get rid of the infrastructure, if you make the tunnels unusable, and you kill the top leaders, then, yes, you’ve delivered a very serious setback to Hamas.

It’s certainly possible that new Hamas leaders will rise up and reconstitute themselves, but they’ll be disarmed. That’s one of the major goals is to disarm them. They have an underground city full of, or what’s full of weapons. I don’t know how many have been destroyed. I don’t know how many tunnels have been destroyed. But if you can take out that infrastructure and get the top leaders, yes, you’ve set them back a very significant amount.

Jeff: Bill, talk about the realistic aspect of what the Israelis are trying to accomplish.

William: Well, I would say that the area, the Middle East, has a long, long history. 7,000 years of this kind of conflict. And I think it’s summed up by two ancient Greek myths. The first was the Hydra when Hercules, the multi-headed monster– And every time you cut off a head, you created two more heads until Hercules could figure out how to deal with it. And that’s effectively what Netanyahu is doing because, certainly, he could kill everybody in Hamas right now, but he’s created a situation in which there will be hundreds of Hamas in the future.

And I disagree with Claire. I think Israel had more than the capacity to protect its borders from further Hamas. The fact that the October 7th attack took place was because the borders were largely left to automated machine gun posts. And the army wasn’t really protecting the border at all, but it could if it wanted to. So it didn’t have to really go into Gaza. That was a conscious decision. But I think that Mohammed Deif, who was the Hamas military commander, he was born in a Gaza refugee camp.

And the problem with these Islamic movements is that most of the population is sitting on a fence and hasn’t decided which way it wants to go. After this attack, there is no doubt in the minds of whoever’s left to the two million Gazans that Israel has rampaged across in its effort to capture a few thousand members of Hamas, all of them are going to be against Israel. And the whole region is going to be against Israel, so the loss is enormous. And that’s exactly what Hamas wanted.

And I think the problem here is not one of Judaism or Islam or anything. The problem is whether violence is the right approach to dealing with an insurgency. And I think there are certain times when you need to have violence, but it should be surgical. It shouldn’t be a blunderbuss, “Let’s go bomb everybody back into the Stone Age,” approach. And that’s what they’ve done basically.

Jeff: Claire, I know you want to respond to Bill’s point. One of the things that’s interesting is that the reaction domestically, the reaction here in the US particularly, what we’ve seen on college campuses, has been almost more aggressive than what we’ve seen from other countries in the region. Talk about that within the context of answering what Bill had to say.

Claire: Absolutely. Two points. The first is that, empirically, what we’re seeing is the opposite, Bill, of what you’ve suggested, holes that have been conducted in a similar fashion. So we know we’re comparing like-to-like show that in Gaza, at least, Hamas’ popularity has declined as has, and this is important, the willingness to consider a two-state solution as opposed to the rejection of any kind of two-state solution. And it’s gone down significantly. So you can interpret that as you’d like, but it doesn’t suggest that the result of this action is to create more support for Hamas. In the West Bank, support for Hamas has risen, but in Gaza itself–

William: Who’s seeing the survey in Gaza right now? I mean, how can you possibly do a poll in Gaza?

Claire: We can put the polling data in the show notes. They do it during the ceasefires and they’re Palestinians–

William: No, I strongly doubt that frankly. I mean, that’s just not reasonable. Being bombarded, you can’t go out and take a poll that has any meaning in that situation.

Claire: They’re not being bombarded every second of the day. The other point that is very important is you said the entire region will be against them. Some countries, they’ve whipped themselves into a frenzy in Turkey. Obviously, Iran and the so-called Axis of Resistance are very much against them, but the rest of the region is not against Israel. In fact, they’re quietly extremely supportive. The Saudis certainly. And with the Saudis, the Egyptians, certainly.

I don’t think that you’re really taking into account the degree to which these regimes loathe Muslim Brotherhood. And that’s what Hamas is obviously. There’s a reason that Egypt isn’t opening the border to let Gazans in because they’re at war with their ideological kin, and the last thing they want is more jihadis in the Sinai. So I think the region is more complicated than what you’ve suggested.

Now, as far as this relates to American college students, what’s going on in American college campuses, I don’t think it actually has a thing to do with Israel and Gaza. I don’t think that the people involved know very much about the conflict. There are some people who are perhaps Palestinian or who come from a background that they’re Arabic speakers. They are maybe connected to a number of Muslim Brotherhood organizations in the US, but they’re not the bulk of the protesters.

The bulk of the protestors look to me like nice upper-middle-class kids who have latched onto the idea that this is something like the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa who know very, very little about the conflict. I would love to see more interviewing actually because the interviewing has all been so partisan that I can’t really get a sense of what’s motivating these protestors, but we’ve all seen the clips of the protestors being asked, “Well, which river and which sea?” And they’re having absolutely no idea.

But generally, I haven’t seen any interviews that make me think they’re very well-informed. And the energy seems to me, the same one that inspired the protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. It seems to be providing some kind of important emotional outlet for lonely kids, maybe even kids who aren’t having the same kind of sexual experiences. We know that college students have in the past. There’s a sort of an orgiastic dimension to it.

And I think this is an American phenomenon, not a response to something happening internationally. There’s absolutely no reason that this should be happening in terms of reacting rationally to events that are happening overseas. We saw nothing similar, no similar protests against Russia, or what’s happening in Ukraine. We’ve seen nothing, not a word about what’s happening in Sudan, which is an absolutely cataclysmic crisis, suffering that dwarfs what’s going on in Gaza.

We don’t see any protests against Egypt, even though anyone who’s concerned with the plight of Palestinians, you would think would also protest against Egypt. We never saw these kinds of protests for Syria. We never saw them for Yemen, even though American weapons were being used there too. I think it’s some kind of domestic explosion. What the reasons for it are, I don’t know.

I think one of the most notable aspects of the protestors, there’s something very infantile about them, something very childish. And I think everyone looking at them is just really struck by that. How indulged they seem, how pampered, and how childish, not particularly attractive look. I’m just wondering why that is, if you have any thoughts. I’m inclined to think, maybe something’s going on now that Americans are having fewer children, that these kids are just being kept in an infantile state, well into adulthood.

Jeff: Bill?

William: I think the protests are really a distraction from the real issue. I mean, there are many reasons why college kids like to be involved in something, in a cause, and this was a readily accessible cause. But there is pro-Islamic groups in the country that would like to rev up the protests and there’s also Russian disinformation and everything that would like to exacerbate any kind of racial differences, but I don’t think that really is a key consideration as far as what’s happening there now.

I disagree with Claire about that. Certainly, Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s biggest problem is Iran. They’re competing for influence in the region. And so that makes them, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But I don’t think that anybody in the region is going to be pro-Israeli after this thing is over. And in fact, I was just in New York with a friend who’s an Egyptian ceramicist who had an exhibition at a gallery in New York. It was quite good. The gallery is owned by a fellow who’s Jewish. And so he also owns a gallery in Jerusalem.

So he said, “Well, why don’t I show your work in Jerusalem?” And he said, “I don’t think that’s possible under the circumstances.” You could show in New York, but I think Israel will become untouchable to the rest of the region if this continues. And it didn’t have to continue. I mean, I think a lot of people in Israel are very open-minded, very liberal, and are not for this kind of thing. There’s been protests all over. This is basically Netanyahu’s strategy. It’s the wrong strategy. It has nothing to do with Judaism or Israel.

Jeff: Claire?

Claire: I really disagree that it’s just Netanyahu. The support for the operation has been cross-party. His cabinet is a war cabinet. It’s not just Netanyahu. Cabinet has approved everything and it’s the cabinet not Netanyahu that makes these decisions. I have not spoken to a single Israeli who has told me that he thinks that the war is unjustified. There have been protests, but they’ve been protests about getting the hostages back and accepting a ceasefire for that purpose versus continuing to go into Rafah. Empirically, I just don’t think that’s correct.

William: Well, I guess we probably disagree on that point. There was a minor demonstration by pro-settlers trying to block aid going into Gaza and stuff like that.

Claire: Yes, those guys are just gross.

William: Yes, and the whole settler’s actions in the West Bank and everything are highly questioned. Certainly, there are people that support Netanyahu, what Netanyahu is doing, but he’s doing it in the wrong way. This is not necessary and it’s not really going to be effective. And here, the US has made a lot of mistakes also. But if you take the battle of Algiers, which the French put down the Front National de Liberation, the FLN in Algeria, they killed literally all of the FLN in Algiers. And within a year, it had reconstituted itself. That’s why I say the image is the Hydra really. In other words, you can murder everybody in Hamas now, just kill them all, and it would reconstitute itself based on the carnage that’s happened since October 7th. And this didn’t have to happen. It didn’t have to be handled this way, but it was.

Jeff: Claire?

Claire: Your idea was that Israel should just beef up security on its border and do nothing apart from that? Just leave Hamas then?

William: No, the British faced a terrible situation in Aden in South Yemen. And British officers said, “If you’re dealing with an insurrection, the best weapon is a knife.” In other words, it has to be done surgically. It cannot be done using tanks and bombers and stuff like that. It’s like trying to chase a fly with a sledgehammer. You miss and you cause enormous damage everywhere else.

And what they should have done and had they thought about it more carefully was to beef up their defenses along the border with Gaza and then send in tactical teams to take out Hamas directly, but not to just bomb the entire population. That was just playing into Hamas’ hands basically. And in guaranteeing, Hamas may reconstitute itself under a different name, but it would have gained enormous power next to Netanyahu.

Claire: Did you feel the same way about ISIS?

William: I think ISIS had to be dealt with surgically also. And when it tried to occupy territory, then you could deal with it on a main battle unit basis. But until then, no. This is really more of an intelligence counter-terror program than something using the army. And in fact, the only successful defeat of an insurrection was the British in Malaya. And what the British did was pull out the army and send in civilian police to handle the situation because they were much more able to deal with the terrorist situation than the actual army. The army is a blunt instrument. It doesn’t know how to make the judgment or decisions on this. You need people that are experienced in dealing in counterterrorism. And this is just sending the army like this and it’s foolish.

Claire: I do not think that the right way to think of this is as an insurrection. Gaza is a hostile state on Israel’s border with the leadership that has–

William: Well, it was made a hostile state by Israel.

Claire: It wasn’t made a hostile state, for goodness’ sake. Hamas has had a program of the complete eradication of Israel from its founding. Hamas runs Gaza. And as such, it’s possible to get them out of there. And it might reconstitute itself, but that ensures a long period of time while it’s doing that. You can certainly say that the 2006 Lebanon War was a ghastly, horrible war, but it got a long period of quiet on Israel’s border, which is probably what they’re hoping for. At the very least, a long period of quiet.

Perhaps, during which time, Palestinian politics will change in some way. This is not really a counterinsurgency. It’s a war. It’s a war with a hostile army. And the other thing that you said that I think should be challenged is you’re saying that this is Netanyahu’s war. It’s not. It’s the whole of Israel society. I would also wonder what would happen if the response was simply to say, “All right, we’re just going to enhance our border and try to deal with this surgically.” Do you think that would encourage or discourage Hezbollah?

Do you think it would encourage or discourage Muslims from doing something similar? Maybe they wouldn’t be able to do the same thing exactly, but what happens if they get their hands on chemical weapons? What happens if they get their hands on biological weapons? They’ve demonstrated that it’s not just genocidal rhetoric. It is a willingness to carry out genocidal action. I think having something like that in your border is unacceptable. I don’t think anyone would feel secure living in Israel unless something was done to, if not eradicate Hamas, to leave them disarmed for a good period of time.

Jeff: How much of the Netanyahu reaction do you think, Claire, is from the sense of failure of the Netanyahu government to prevent something like October 7th?

Claire: Oh, a lot. Netanyahu, his days are numbered, and he knows it. The interesting thing is just as I’ve encountered complete unanimity among Israelis about the necessity of going into Gaza, encountered equal– just from the same people, complete unanimity about the urgency of getting Netanyahu out of there. He’s just loathed for this failure. And it’s not just Netanyahu. It’s the top command of the IDF. It’s the intelligence services of Shin Bet. People are furious about this. Absolutely furious. And there’s going to be a major reckoning.

And the failure was obscene when you learn the details of it, that there were girls up and down the border. They’re called “scouts” in the outpost that look into Gaza, seeing Hamas practice this every single day and trying to get their superiors to take this seriously. And they just wouldn’t listen because they had it in their head that Hamas was not interested in pulling something like that off. They were so arrogant that they didn’t listen to these young women and those young women paid for their lives.

Jeff: How do we then figure out, and, Bill, you can respond to this and then, Claire, we’ll come back to you, the nexus between the very government that allowed October 7th to happen being the same government that is prosecuting this war right now?

William: Well, it’s a problem. And that’s why in saying all this, I think the Israelis are more– they’re more correct than the Arabs are. The Arabs have just made one mistake after another. Just done themselves in and taken the wrong approach. And I interviewed the heads of Hamas when I was based in Cairo. And I found them to be similar to Christian fundamentalists. They’re unthinking fanatics, so they needed to be isolated.

And that was the second ancient Greek myth that is, to me, the key to counterinsurgency, which is Hercules’ battle with Antaeus, the Libyan giant, whose mother was the earth. And Hercules would throw Antaeus to the ground. And since the earth was Antaeus’ mother, it would take strength from the earth. So what you needed to do in a counterinsurgency, and I think this is a counterinsurgency because these are really political problems more than religious ones, is to isolate these groups from the mainstream of the public.

And Israel could have done that had they developed Gaza. But instead of developing it, they turned against the Palestinians and tried to isolate them and humiliate and make them less than powerful. But Israel, in the beginning, a great deal of its strength came from Jews that were living outside of Israel, and especially in America. And then there is a strong bond there just as there was a bond between Americans of Anglo-Saxon who stayed in England during World War II. But now, you have Palestinians throughout the entire Gulf region doing most of the key administrative posts.

So you have a similar situation in which a lot of the Palestinians’ strength is coming from outside of Palestine. Just as a lot of the Israeli strength came from outside of Israel. So we have to find a different way of dealing with this than just violence and that may happen after Netanyahu’s gone. In other words, the two groups may be able to reconstitute a kind of relationship, but Israel can’t isolate itself from the entire region. There are about six million Jews in Israel. There are 450 million Arabs in the region, so it’s just overpowering. So it just doesn’t make any sense.

Claire: But Israel isn’t isolating itself from the entire region. It really isn’t. There’s reports now that the Saudis are actually arresting people for being critical of Israel and, obviously, that suggests that’s not a wholesome political development. It’s not a democratic political development, but it suggests the extent to which the Saudis are determined to have that security relationship with Israel. And this is true, I think, throughout the Sunni world. Israel has been working in fairly close cooperation with Jordan and with the Saudis.

In fact, when Iran sent rockets and drones flying over Israel, they had cooperation, historic cooperation with Jordanians and the Saudis. I think that it would be a big mistake to take what American college campus protestors are saying about this as indicative of what people in the region are saying about this. Turkey is certainly very hostile, but I don’t think Iranians are. The Iranian regime is very hostile, but the Iranian people loathe the regime. And as a symbol of loathing the regime, they are on the side of Israel.

William: I was based in Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm and American troops were there. They basically saved Saudi Arabia, but they were not allowed to have Christian services. They had to be psychological conferences presented as. So I’ve got a pretty good idea of where the Saudis are coming from. And it’s not pro-Israeli, I can tell you.

They may see some business advantage of doing deals with Israel, but they’re leading a kind of Islamic campaign throughout the entire region from this very, very conservative version of Islam. And they’re after regional power. So they might do a deal with Israel, but they’re not going to be pro-Israeli. And Israel can’t really look at them as friends in any way. I spent quite a bit of time in Iran and the reaction to Israelis there is totally visceral, emotional. There’s no reasoning.

Claire: From the regime or from the people?

William: Both. I spent time interviewing Arafat and a lot of members of the PLO and they could, more or less, deal with Israelis. They could talk to them. The Iranians, you can’t. When you bring up Israel, they become physically ill. And so the reason there are changes in the region since I was based there, I’ve been in all of these areas. And I’ve talked to all these people and I think I’ve got a pretty good idea where that’s coming from.

Claire: I think there have been a lot of changes since that period, first. Second, I’ve never been to Iran and I don’t pretend to have a deep knowledge of Iran. But speaking to Iranian friends, I have heard about a huge popular support for Israel as a protest against the regime if that makes any sense. I don’t know how deep that goes. I don’t know how well we can do polling there. Just take that for what it’s worth. I think there is enormous concern in Lebanon and a lot of hostility to Israel. Egypt, I think there’s a lot of visceral hostility to Israel definitely. Jordan, probably quite a bit of hostility to Israel.

But I think you got to factor in how much hostility there is to Hamas as well. Think about how much damage the PLO and other Palestinian organizations have done to the countries where they’ve become politically active in Lebanon, in Jordan. There’s no love lost for the Palestinians. There’s a lot of hypocrisy, of course, but everyone basically understands what Hamas is and what its goals are. They know that that charter isn’t a joke. I think they understand full well what Israel’s doing and why it has to do it. They just don’t want to say so publicly.

William: If you’re in Paris and you’re talking to people that are living there or are mostly living outside of the country, they’re fairly reasonable and level-headed and everything. But if you’re in the region, it’s totally different. And I think another aspect that we haven’t talked about is, really, the anti-colonialism. The Muslim brothers started as a reaction to British colonialism. And they were started by a guy named Hassan al-Banna, who was sent as a school teacher of Ismailia. And he was to teach children.

And the parents of the children came out and said, “We are helpless against the British. We don’t know how to drive them out. Could you teach us?” And so Hassan al-Banna went off for a little while. And he came back and he said, “We’re all brothers. We’re brothers under Islam.” So it was a social movement, not a religious movement, and it was basically anti-colonialist. And most of the regions sees Israel as a colonialist fabrication by the United States really to break out the Arab region.

Claire: To say that the Muslim Brotherhood and Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb wasn’t a religious movement is absurd. That’s just flat wrong. This is a religious movement. It is infused with a complex and hostile relationship with the West, for sure. These movements or this movement in particular, the Muslim Brotherhood, it is a reaction to the humiliation of being colonized.

But the larger problem in their minds was that Islam had burst into the scene in the seventh century and conquered this wide range of peoples and countries. Well, they weren’t countries at the time, but it had been extremely successful religion. And the glory days of Islam in the eighth, ninth centuries, and well into the Middle Ages when it was the leading civilization in the world, suggested to Muslims that they were on the right track, that God was favoring them, that they had understood their religion properly.

Looking at the state of Islam in the early 20th century, the humiliation of being colonized, the question that Muslim Brotherhood asked itself, al-Banna, and all of his imitators and acolytes was, “Why are we in this abject state?” And their answer was, “Because our faith needs to be renewed because we are not being faithful enough in the way that the earliest followers of Muhammad were being faithful.” But the slogan of the Muslim Brotherhood is, “Islam is the solution.”

William: That’s the general public perception, but I think the real problem in the region was that the region was under the Ottoman Empire, which eventually was reduced to Turkey. But the Ottomans controlled everything and the Arabs had no identity. So when World War I basically ended the Ottoman Empire, the Arabs were left without any political structure at all. And the history since then has been an attempt to define something that they can base a political identity on.

Claire: I think that’s right.

William: And the British gave them monarchies. There was the kings, Iraq, whatever. That didn’t work. Then they turned to communism. That didn’t work. So finally, they turned to Islam. What they were trying to do or what these movements were trying to do is use Islam as a structure on which to build up a political identity and it hasn’t worked. I’ve had a lot of discussions with Ayatollahs and Imams and everything about– And they say, “Well, Christianity and Judaism are weak religions. You believe in forgiveness. We’re a strong religion. We believe in an eye for an eye and striking back.”

And I generally said, “Well, you can see the results of that.” If you follow it over time, you’re going to see it doesn’t work. And it doesn’t work, but the point is, how do we deal with that and how does Israel? Israel has a lot of support because, basically, it started off as a European country. There were European Jews and they had a Western European way of looking at things. They’re gradually becoming more and more Middle Eastern as time goes on. And the Middle East has caught in an endless spiral of violence against violence in retaliation for the last atrocity that was committed. And somehow, it’s got to break that chain or it will never get out.

Jeff: With respect to breaking that chain, before we run out of time, let’s talk a little bit about what the US’ obligation could be or should be in this situation. Bill, start with you this time.

William: Well, I think that since we are trying not to be the policeman of the world and I think we never wanted to be the policeman of the world, we just basically wanted to do business and we needed stability to do business. So we sent in the US Army to establish stability so we could continue doing business, but we never had any colonial intentions. But the fact is that we are now no longer the policemen. We no longer have credibility and we may not have the military resources to actually change the situation.

So I think if Israel continues as it’s doing with Netanyahu, we will have to detach ourselves, and they’re on their own. We can’t continue to provide 2,000-pound bombs if they’re just going to bomb everything in sight, which is basically what they’ve done as far as Gaza’s concerned. And Israel has made it clear that they don’t want to listen to what the White House is saying. They’re going to do what they want to do.

So at that point, we may have to let them just go ahead and do it on their own. I attended a B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League luncheon in New York with an Israeli consul. And he said to the American-Jewish community, he says, “Your problems are your problems. We’re a country. We’re independent. We have to do what we think is best for our country. And we’re going to do it regardless of what you think.” But if they’re going to do that, it means they’re going to have to do it on their own.

Jeff: Claire?

Claire: First, one thing. Listeners may not realize that more than half of the Israeli population is not from Europe but from the rest of the Middle East, where the Jews were expelled from every other Middle Eastern country. That’s the first point. The second point is that our relationship with Israel has always been predicated on the value that Israel provides us militarily and that hasn’t changed.

We are still reliant on Israel for intelligence, for intense, close military cooperation in a region that we’re never going to be able to get out of completely. Israel’s enemies are our enemies. Iran is not going to lose interest in us just because we cut Israel loose as you put it, but also we have a treaty commitment. We are bound to Israel in formal ways and legal ways and by long tradition.

If we tell the Israelis, “You’re on your own now,” that will not encourage other allies to think that we’re reliable, certainly won’t encourage the Saudis to think we’re reliable. And there’s a big problem in the Middle East that we need to deal with and we need allies to deal with. And that’s the prospect of a nuclear Iran. Just from the cold, hard logic of what’s in our interest, it doesn’t make any sense to cut Israel loose.

It would also be morally obscene. Israel was savagely attacked by jihadist lunatics. And I think its response, contrary to what you said, has not been bombing everything in sight. It’s pretty much as we did when we were fighting ISIS and to pretty much a similar kind of threat. And to say, “We’re going to cut you loose because American college students are up in arms about something that has nothing to do with the real conflict,” no, that’s ridiculous. That’s ridiculous. The world is watching.

Jeff: Bill?

William: Well, I think the American college students don’t matter one way or another. I think the real question is we cannot be involved in doing something that we consider to be morally and strategically wrong. And I think that causing 40,000 or 50,000 casualties, mostly more than half women and children, is wrong. The United States cannot do it. It’s not what the United States stands for.

Claire: I don’t believe it.

William: And if Israel decides that it wants to do that because it believes that that’s going to make it safe in the future, then that’s Israel’s choice, but it can’t be our choice.

Claire: We have no idea how many casualties have actually been involved. The only figures we have are the ones that Hamas provides us. We don’t know if they’re accurate. On the face of it, that can’t be accurate because they make no sense. It could be more. It could be less. From photos and videos of the region, I would be perfectly prepared to believe it’s more. I would also be perfectly prepared to believe it’s a lot less.

But you say we find it morally objectionable. I’m part of this “we” and I don’t find it morally objectionable. I think Israel is defending itself and it’s defending itself in an existential fight, a genuinely existential one against the worst people in the world. There’s nothing worse than Hamas. And to see Israel defeated by a bunch of seventh-century jihadist, anti-Semitic socio-psychopaths would be catastrophic. It’d be catastrophic.

William: Well, I like Israel as a country. I’ve traveled all over it. I like it very much. I like Israelis, but I feel that they’re being led in a wrong direction. And it’s a suicidal direction. And I feel very bad about that because I care about what happens to the country, but it’s not going the right way. I think Biden is an honest, nice person. He tried to give them solid advice and Netanyahu and the crew that’s around him now just ignored it. And not only ignored it, but basically just disdained it.

Claire: It’s not Netanyahu. It’s the cabinet, which comes from a–

William: Well, if Netanyahu picks the cabinet, for heaven’s sakes–

Claire: No, but this doesn’t–

William: Look, this is Netanyahu’s group. And he may have been forced to be a little more right-wing than he was before by–

Claire: Benny Gantz is Netanyahu’s–

William: Well, Benny Gantz is trying to save the situation, but it’s crazy. And Netanyahu has been doing this all along. I was at conferences with Netanyahu and the Palestinians of the World Economic Forum in the Dead Sea. And he was clearly wrong from the beginning that this is the wrong approach to take. And he’s taken Israel down a dark hole and it’s unfortunate because they really are good people.

Claire: I completely agree with you that Netanyahu is a figure who disgraces the Israelis as I think most Israelis agree, but I don’t think you’d be seeing a different policy if anyone else were the prime minister.

William: Well, the question is, how do you deal with violence? And if you deal with violence by doing just random war violence and you end up killing a lot of people that had nothing to do with it, to begin with, then you’re going to have problems. And the region has had that for 7,000 years. It’s going to continue to have it until people change their direction.

Jeff: Bill, start with you. How does this war end?

William: Well, it’ll probably end in everybody being furious with everybody else and feeling that they should take revenge. And I hope at that point that out of the rubble that remains that people will start trying to put things together, but it’ll probably take decades to do it. And it’s too bad, but it wasn’t necessary. And I blame the Arabs for isolating Israel and refusing to talk and for turning the violence themselves. It never would work.

Claire: By the Arabs, do you mean the Palestinians?

William: The Arabs in general, but, yes, the Palestinians particularly. But the Palestinians are victims of the Arabs as much as they’re of the Israelis. The other Arab countries haven’t done that much to help anybody who’s Palestinian. And in fact, I used to go to Wengen in Switzerland, where a lot of Holocaust survivors from New York went and because they loved German culture, but they couldn’t stand to go to Germany because of the Holocaust.

And the Jewish personality and Palestinian personality are virtually the same. They’re both type-A people in a type-B environment. The rest of the environment is much slower and much more disorganized than they are. And if the Palestinians and the Israelis could get together, they would be a dynamic force. And there’s really nothing keeping them apart, except this ongoing feud that they’re trying to grow out. So somehow, the feud has to stop. People have to get together, work together, but this violence is not helping.

Jeff: Claire, last word from you.

Claire: The responsibility for the violence is on Hamas. And this is what really disturbed me to tie everything up. What really disturbed me about the protests in the US is that if they were taken to the streets and shutting down campuses to protest Hamas, it would actually be useful because Hamas is getting a signal from them that it should go ahead. It’s being encouraged to try to hold out, to try and keep hold of the hostages, to try and survive. And they shouldn’t get that signal because Israel’s not going to let them.

And it’s also morally completely twisted. It was Israel that was attacked. It was Israelis who were slaughtered like animals by 2,000 men who crossed the border and shot everything in their sight. Men, women, dogs even. This is not a war that Israel wanted, not a war that Israel started. So I would like to see more of a recognition of that on our college campuses, but I don’t think that’s going to happen because I don’t think this actually has anything to do with Israel.

William: This is a classic Middle Eastern pattern. Somebody does something terrible to somebody else. That other person says, “I will do something more terrible to you.” And then the first person says, “I will do something even more terrible to you.” And it goes like that alternating, keeping the whole thing in motion. And probably, the answer to it is in the Old Testament saying, “Leave vengeance to God, but don’t engage in it yourself.”

Jeff: There is this human nature thing, though. It’s not unusual. It’s not indigenous just to the Middle East.

William: Civilization is learning how to control human nature.

Jeff: Bill Dowell, Claire Berlinski, I thank you both so much for doing this today, for being part of this special WhoWhatWhy podcast.

Claire: You’re very welcome.

William: Thank you.

Jeff: 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


  • Jeff Schechtman

    Jeff Schechtman’s career spans movies, radio stations and podcasts. After spending twenty-five years in the motion picture industry as a producer and executive, he immersed himself in journalism, radio, and more recently the world of podcasts. To date he has conducted over ten-thousand interviews with authors, journalists, and thought leaders. Since March of 2015, he has conducted over 315 podcasts for

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