NIAS-IPRI | Special Report | 28 May 2024

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NIAS-IPRI | Special Report | 28 May 2024
The War in Gaza: An Interview with Dr Stanly Johny

  By the NIAS-IPRI Course scholars on Contemporary Conflicts, Peace Processes, Theories and Thinkers. Compiled by Ayan Datta.

NIAS/CSS/CRPR/U/RR/04/2024

Dr Stanly Johny is the foreign affairs editor of The Hindu. He was interviewed by the young scholars pursuing the NIAS-IPRI Course on Contemporary Conflicts, Peace Processes, Theories and Thinkers. The following is an edited version of the interview’s transcript.

Sayeka Ghosh: The UNSC still wants to fulfil its dream of the two states for Israel and Palestine. Do you think it will be possible in the future? If so, what do you think should be done?

Dr Stanly Johny: The United Nations Security Council continues to support the internationally recognised two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which envisions an independent State of Palestine coexisting alongside the State of Israel. However, achieving this goal faces significant obstacles at the present time. Establishing clearly demarcated and mutually agreed borders for a future Palestinian state remains a contentious issue. UN Security Council Resolution 242 calls for Israel to withdraw from territories occupied in the 1967 war, including the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip. Yet there are now over 700,000 Jewish settlers residing in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, making a full Israeli withdrawal extremely difficult for any government to implement. The status of Jerusalem also presents a challenging point of dispute. While the Palestinians seek to establish East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, Israel has annexed East Jerusalem. It claims sovereignty over the entire city, which includes some of the holiest sites for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Another major point of contention is the right of return for Palestinian refugees displaced during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and their descendants, numbering in the millions. Any significant repatriation risks altering Israel's demographic balance, which the Israeli government is unlikely to accept given its position as a Jewish nation-state. Security concerns further complicate the situation, particularly Israel's view of Hamas, the de facto governing authority in Gaza, as a terrorist organisation due to its history of violent attacks against Israeli civilians. Prospects for meaningful negotiations between the parties appear dim at this juncture. However, the complexities involved do not negate the need to ultimately achieve a negotiated two-state solution that satisfies the national aspirations of both peoples through the creation of an independent and viable Palestinian state existing in peace alongside Israel. Sustained diplomacy and compromise from all sides will be required to overcome the present obstacles and make tangible progress.

Sayeka Ghosh: What do you think of China’s stance in supporting Palestine, which is the complete opposite of the US’s actions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Dr Stanly Johny: China has consistently backed the cause of Palestinian statehood, a position that aligns with India's longstanding support for Palestinian self-determination despite maintaining excellent ties with Israel since the 1990s. Even after the recent escalation on October 7th, India's votes at the United Nations General Assembly condemned Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the occupation of the Golan Heights while upholding Palestinians' right to self-determination and calling for a ceasefire. China has taken a similar pro-Palestinian stance.

However, there is an additional layer to China's position stemming from its great power rivalry with the United States. As the US is viewed as Israel's closest ally, China likely sees the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian crisis and broader regional turmoil in West Asia as potentially undermining America's ability to focus its foreign policy on the Indo-Pacific, where China's rise poses the most significant challenge to US primacy. With allegations of genocide and mass violence being levelled against Israel over its actions in Gaza, the United States faces challenges to its image and influence in the Middle East region. Some level of controlled regional instability serves China's interests by diverting US attention and resources away from its principal foreign policy objective of pivoting towards Asia to counter China's growing power and influence.

Therefore, while China has historically backed the Palestinian cause on principled grounds, its support is reinforced by geopolitical considerations of ensuring the United States remains bogged down with crises in West Asia and Eastern Europe. This curbs America's capacity to devote maximum effort towards confronting China's ascendance in the Indo-Pacific theatre.

Sayeka Ghosh: What do you think is the reason for the recent escalation of the Iran-Israel conflict since the Gaza war broke out?

Dr Stanly Johny: The dramatic escalation can be traced back to the long-standing "shadow war" between Iran and Israel across the broader Middle East region over the past several years. This state of hostile covert operations and proxy conflicts has its roots in the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in 2020, an attack attributed to Israel, though never officially claimed. Iran had previously targeted Israeli diplomats in retaliation, such as the 2012 bomb attack injuring a diplomat's wife in New Delhi when Qasem Soleimani was still alive. Israel has conducted hundreds of airstrikes against Iranian assets and interests in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and the Persian Gulf over the years as part of this ‘shadow war’.

However, the October 7th, 2023 Hamas attack on Israeli soil, the worst on Israeli civilians inside Israel proper since 1948, fundamentally shifted the conflict dynamics. With 1,200 Israeli civilians killed in the assault directly backed by Iran's arming and funding of Hamas, Israel began viewing Iran as an imminent threat to its homeland security rather than just a distant adversary. In response, Israel intensified its offensive operations against Iran's regional presence and personnel. The assassinations of senior Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commanders Syed Reza Mousavi in December 2022 and Mohammad Reza Zahedi in April 2023 represented this escalation.  

Initially, Iran responded in a measured way by retaliating through its regional proxies while outwardly exhibiting strategic patience. However, the April 1st, 2023, Israeli strike on Iran's embassy complex in Damascus proved to be an unacceptable redline for Iran. This attack on its diplomatic mission prompted Iran to convey that Israel's previous "free hand" to target Iranian interests and forces would no longer be tolerated without severe repercussions. Iran backed up this warning on April 14th by launching an unprecedented massive missile and drone strike of 340 munitions directly from its territory against targets inside Israel. By demonstrating a willingness to directly strike Israeli territory and escalate the conflict dramatically, especially after the strike on its embassy, Iran aimed to re-establish deterrence and forcefully punish Israel for its operations against Iranian regional interests and commanders. Providing an advance warning to the United States about the April 14th strikes suggests Iran seeks to re-impose redlines while avoiding an all-out regional war that neither side ultimately desires at this stage.

The direct threat to Israeli homeland security from Iran's backing of militants like Hamas has now been starkly illustrated. However, the potential for further miscalculation remains high on both sides going forward. Israel may continue its operations against Iran's regional presence despite the heightened risk of Iranian retaliation. Conversely, Iran could interpret future Israeli actions as an unacceptable escalation, prompting a response that rapidly deteriorates into a direct military confrontation between the two nations. In essence, Iran's willingness to strike Israeli territory has heightened stakes and risks in an already volatile environment prone to escalatory cycles. Sustained restraint backed by open communication channels appears vital to avoid a larger armed conflict that neither protagonist ultimately desires to provoke.

Ayan Datta: My question was related to a policy question broader than the conflict itself. One of the most important actors in this region that we need to understand is the Americans. So, in your view, what explains American entanglement in the Middle East after 9/11? In the International Relations world, there are two explanations circulating. One is the democratic peace theory explanation: that the Americans went into the Middle East to promote democracy and that once they toppled Saddam, they expected the rest of the dictatorships in the region would throw their hands up and bandwagon with America. A second explanation goes that the actions of the Americans after 9/11 are really the work of the various lobbies within the US, like the Israel lobby, the Saudi lobby, the arms manufacturing lobby, and so on, and all talk of democratic peace is just ideological cover fire for the interests of these lobbies. In your view, what is the appropriate explanation that helps us make sense of America’s Middle East policy? Do you have a third and different interpretation of your own?

Dr Stanly Johny: Actually, no single theory makes sense when it comes to US policy towards West Asia, especially in the last 20-25 years, you know. Because if you see Biden’s policy towards Israel, it doesn’t make any sense to me! I’ve been studying this region for the last several years. If you look at it from an IR or a strategic point of view, it doesn’t make any sense to me! But in any case, policymakers make policy; our job is to look at it and try to understand it. You see, the United States, when it looks at the region, I think the democratic peace theory makes some sense because the US’ basic intention was not to promote democracy. American neoconservatives, who were in power in the early 2000s, wanted to reshape West Asia, and their first stop was Iraq because the neocons believed that, and I think they genuinely believed at that point in time, that a deficit of democracy, as per their interpretation of democracy, was promoting terrorism. They also saw Saddam Hussain as a major threat; Bush had reasons to think that Saddam Hussain was a threat, so he wanted to topple him. And then they also wanted to go to Iran. This is not a secret anymore because if you look at Bush’s Axis of Evil speech, you know, Iraq, Iran and North Korea were three countries that made up the Axis of Evil. The neocons were really and seriously planning to attack Iran. It is another matter that an attack on Iraq did not make any sense because the US attack on Iraq gave Iraq on a platter to the Iranians. The Iraq invasion became completely counterproductive for the United States in the long run. But I think the point is that the United States wanted to reshape the region, completely reshape it, minimise the threatening regimes, and then bolster the security of Israel, and basically control the Arab lands. This was kind of the neocon plan. And the United States at that point in time, was also a very confident power, which I don’t think is the case today. Today, it is not as confident as it used to be after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Basically, if you look at the theory of offensive realism by John Mearsheimer to understand America’s behaviour, that theory makes some sense, I repeat, some. If you look at the United States after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, you know, if you look at the international system historically, there had always been multiple power centres, but after the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States emerged as the sole superpower of the world, which is actually a rarity in the history of the international system. And the United States was very powerful, and in 1990, the United States went and bombed Yugoslavia. So, there was no country that stood up to America’s might, right? And the United States seriously believed in the early 2000s that they could reshape West Asia and Iraq was the first stop. But the problem is that this strategy backfired. The so-called 9/11 wars backfired. Because in Iraq itself, the United States toppled Saddam Hussain’s regime. But what came after Saddam was a complete disaster. So, they definitely could not go to Iran, and then the US got stuck in Afghanistan, and you can see that finally, the US had to withdraw from Afghanistan after 20 years, giving the country up to the hands of the Taliban. But my point of view is that they wanted to reshape West Asia through force, and this, I think, was the original neocon intention, but that intention backfired. This approach was also rooted in the strategic reality of the early 2000s that the US was the world's sole superpower, the most powerful country in West Asia. But their strategy backfired. But now, if you look at the subsequent years, the US was also trying to hang on to this policy. Obama sent troops to Libya as part of the NATO plan to “liberate” Libyans from Muammar Gaddafi, and you know what happened to Libya later, right? So, this interventionist policy in West Asia, which the United States continued over the early 2000s, was intended to serve America’s interests in all of these countries. In Syria, when the civil war first broke out, the US’ early policy was that Assad should go! President Obama had made it known publicly that Bashar-al-Assad should go. The CIA was also running a clandestine operation in Syria against Assad’s regime. But that also became counterproductive.

So, if you look at the USA’s interventionist policy, it was aimed at reshaping West Asia, and it failed or turned counterproductive. This is partly what we have seen. But then, the United States learned from its mistakes, which is why it remains the world’s most powerful country. From the second Obama administration’s time, we can see that the US understood its limitations in West Asia. They went ahead with the Abraham Accords because they realised that Iran had already become a major threat. Obama tried to neutralise Iran through the Nuclear Deal. And Trump dumped that deal. Instead, what Trump did was that he tried to bring the two pillars of America’s foreign policy in West Asia, which are the Arab countries and Israel, closer together. This was the basic idea of the Abraham Accords. And Biden, more or less, is trying to follow the same thing when he is trying to strike a deal between the Israelis and the Saudis. Basically, he is trying to build on the Abraham Accords. So, the Americans realised by that time that their interventionist policy did not help to meet their objectives; quite the contrary, the United States was facing a lot many limitations in the region. Now, Iran has emerged as a powerful rival. So, what do you have to do to maintain your presence in the balance of the region, and at the same time, while your interest is also shifting elsewhere, like tackling China and tackling Russia? So, what the US decided to do was bring its two allies together, and you saw that in the Abraham Accords. But then on October 7th, Hamas comes, attacks Israel, and tells the whole world that you can’t do this unless you address the Palestinian question. Hamas basically sabotaged the American plan to bring the Saudis and the Israelis together. That is not going to happen any time in the future after what the Israelis did in Gaza. So now the Biden administration, according to the Wall Street Journal, is still trying to maintain some kind of an equation between the Saudis and the Israelis. 

Cris Fernando: Many countries recognise Hamas as a terrorist organisation. Why is there no perspective of looking at Hamas as a liberating army against the Zionist ideology that is being spread around?

Dr Stanly Johny: The United States, Europe and Israel have recognised Hamas as a terrorist organisation, but most of the countries in the global south have not, including India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted after the October 7th attack, declaring support for Israel against the terrorist attack, and if you look at the MEA, the MEA keeps referring to the attack as a terrorist attack, even Foreign Minister, Jaishankar stated that make no mistake, what happened on October 7th was a terrorist attack, but the Ministry of External Affairs has not designated  Hamas as a terrorist organisation in that case, and with the case of other countries, most of the global south countries also haven't done the same thing, but it is a complicated matter because if you look at October 7 attack, it is a terrorist attack, what happened was a massive attack on civilians in Israel south, I was in Israel last week, right before the Iran attack. I was there in the south of Israel. Here, children and others had been attacked, and about 100 people were killed. But what Israel is doing on the other side is more or less the same thing because now about 34,000 people have been killed in the last six and a half months, and of these 34,000 people, the vast majority of them are women and children, who are not combatants. This is often a grave issue; that is why there is a case against Israel in the UN court for genocide; Israelis are afraid that the court will issue an arrest against Netanyahu, which looks like a possibility at this point in time, so it's a very complicated matter. If we look into the literal definition of terrorism, which is to use terror against civilians who are not combatants, then I believe that both states are making the same mistake. But the position that most of the global South countries hold is to eventually have both sides start negotiations; as a part of Oslo records, the state of Israel had to recognise the PLO, which was once recognised as a terrorist organisation. And recognised PLO as the legitimate representative of the people of Palestine, so this thing happened. Eventually, if you want a solution, both Hamas and Israel have to talk and forget about the political solution; even if you want the hostages released, 130 hostages are still in Gaza, and Israelis want them back, and even if you want them to be released you need to talk to Hamas. This is a really complicated situation because both the states have used terror as a means of counter-attacks, so when we look at the US or the EU, we look at them to be supportive towards Israel and therefore claim Hamas as a terrorist organisation, but at the same time if you need a peaceful diplomatic development you have to make both the parties talk. I would like to distinguish Hamas from other terrorist organisations in one way. For example, Israeli keeps saying that Hamas is like ISIS. Both have a sense of violence, but there is a difference. ISIS is a transnational terrorist organisation. It's a cult and doesn't have a political home or political base, but Hamas is a nationalist organisation that was established for the liberation and the formation of the Palestinian State and its cause. The tactics they use are terror. I am not denying that if you want to term Hamas as a terrorist organisation, you can. I have no objection, but this critical difference they need to understand is that Hamas doesn't pose a threat to anybody apart from Israel. Hamas is significantly limited to one geography. That's what makes Hamas different from other terrorist organisations.

Pummy Lathigara: What historical and socio-political factors have contributed to the rise of Hamas as a significant political and militant force in Gaza?

Dr Stanly Johny: Hamas was founded in the late 1980s during the first Intifada. Before that, there was no Hamas, but there was this organisation called The Islamic Centre, which was run by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi. Both were the founders of Hamas. The Islamic Centre operated mainly from Gaza, basically from the Islamic University of Gaza, established in the 1970s. The fun fact is that the Islamic Centre was recognised as a charity by the Israelis in the 1970s. Because, you know, back in the 1970s, Gaza was directly under Israel's military occupation and without Israeli government support, you would not be able to raise funds from outside Gaza. Israel saw the Islamic Centre as a counterweight to the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization). So, back then, the PLO was the main threat, the main Palestinian movement. The Islamic Centre, which was an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, challenged the PLO secular nationalism at Yasser Arafat. So, the Israelis at that time saw the Islamic Centre as a counterweight because they wanted to divide Palestinian society. So, they recognised the Islamic Centre. The Islamic Centre raised funds and built the Islamic University of Gaza, now a Hamas hotbed. And then, you know, basically, throughout the 1980s, the Islamic Centre became a very powerful Islamist movement among the people of Gaza.

Then, after the first intifada broke out in 1987, the Islamic Centre transformed itself into Hamas, which is called the Islamic movement of the Palestinian people. So this is when Hamas started directly participating for the first time in the struggle against, in the fight against the Israelis. But still, Hamas at that time was a very small movement because the PLO was the most powerful entity. Also, in 1993, the Oslo Agreement was signed. Basically, the promise of the Oslo Agreement was that a Palestinian state would be created diplomatically. So as part of the Oslo Agreement, the PLO recognised the State of Israel. So, I said this earlier, the State of Israel means here, based on the 1967 border; and based on the 1967 border means 75 to 77% of the historical Palestine.

So, until the Oslo Agreement in 1993, what the Palestinians claimed was that they wanted to liberate the whole of Palestine, which means the PLO had never accepted the State of Israel. They had claims to 100% of Palestine. So, by accepting the State of Israel in 1993, what the PLO did, they made a huge compromise. They agreed to accept a future Palestinian state in 25% of the historical Palestinian land. This is a huge compromise, right? But they promised that. This was Yasser Arafat's promise. This was signed in 1993 between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin. And what happened in 1995? Rabin was assassinated. And in 1996, who became the Israeli Prime Minister? Benjamin Netanyahu. That was his first term. One of the first things Netanyahu did was to scuttle the Oslo process. Oslo was actually thrown down the tube. So, the Palestinians made a huge compromise in 1993 by accepting a future Palestinian state within 25% of historical Palestinian land. But even that did not come through. Israeli occupation continued, deepened, and extended in the subsequent years. Hamas opposed the Oslo Process. Hamas said the PLO was making a huge compromise. Hamas never recognised the State of Israel. And when the Oslo Process collapsed, when the PLO lost its face, Hamas basically emerged as a more legitimate and powerful opposition group in the Palestinian National Movement. It was the collapse of the Oslo process that legitimised Hamas, which until then was a minuscule player in the Palestinian liberation movement.

But then, in 2000, you have the second Intifada. So, in the first Intifada, if it was the PLO that was driving the Palestinian movement, In the second Intifada, it became Hamas. The second Intifada lasted from 2000 to 2005 and was a very violent resistance to the Israelis. In 2005, Ariel Sharon decided to pull back Israeli troops from Gaza unilaterally. And Hamas celebrated that as a victory. That has cemented Hamas as the most powerful Palestinian authority. In the following elections, Hamas wins, hands down, not only in Gaza but also in the West Bank, and Hamas forms a government. But under pressure from the United States, Europe, and Israel, the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, dissolved the Hamas government. That would lead to civil strife between the Palestinian factions, and Hamas would militarily take over Gaza in 2007. Fatah, which is Mahmoud Abbas’s party, would keep the West Bank. So, ever since, the Palestinians remain divided. But you can see how Hamas, which was established as an Islamist movement which was on the sidelines, on the margins of the Palestinian society, transformed itself into the most powerful Palestinian organisation. And definitely, I think, after October 7, Hamas has, unfortunately, emerged to become the most powerful Palestinian national liberation movement, which is a fact now. So, this is how Hamas has evolved.

T. Shiva Kumar: My question was, what is India’s stand on the Israel and Palestine conflict, as India accepted Palestinian statehood after 41 years of India's Independence, and does India believe in the Two State Theory?

Dr Stanly Johny: Yeah., The short answer is that India supports a two-state solution.

Historically speaking, India was a champion of the Palestinian cause. In November 1947, a few months after we got independence, when the partition plan was put above in the UN, India voted against partitioning historical Palestine. At that, our Prime Minister Shri. Jawaharlal Nehru said, “India, a country that suffered lots of partitions, would not support the partition of another country.”

India did recognise the State of Israel in the early 1990s but refused to establish full diplomatic relations or ties with the State of Israel.

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the world was changing, and India was tilting towards the US. The new world was in the US, so India recognised Israel in the early 1990s (1988). Since then, India had excellent ties with Israel. As we can see, India is the world’s largest buyer of Israeli weaponry, and Israel's top consumer for military supplies is India, which takes a share of 37 per cent of Israeli exports. India was Israel's third largest trading partner in Asia. Israeli cooperation with Indian agriculture is helping farmers multiply their income by the adoption of modern agri-technologies to increase productivity. Haifa Port, which the Adani group acquired, will be India's largest revenue generator outside of India. Nearly 99 per cent of Israeli goods go in and out of this port.

India’s stand till 2014 was in favour of a separate Sovereign state of Palestine with East Jerusalem as the capital based on the 1967 borders. Later, in 2015, President of India Pranab Mukherjee visited Palestine, and he reaffirmed the creation of a separate state of Palestine on the basis of the 1967 border. But in 2018, when PM Narendra Modi visited Palestine. He supported the idea of separate states with no specific mention of capital and border.

Overall, India's stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict is focused on Promoting a two-state solution that ensures the security and sovereignty of both Israel and Palestine. India continues to support the Palestinian cause while also maintaining strong bilateral relations with Israel.

Bishwarupa Kar: My First question: As we know, the Palestinian state never completely came into existence. But does that mean that Palestinians have no right to self-defence? If they have such a right, what are they allowed to do to protect it? Is any violence committed by a people without a state automatically an act of terrorism, or is there a need to relook at the definition of Terrorism in international law? My second question: According to the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1958, territory is considered occupied when it is actually placed under the authority of the hostile army, be it with or without resistance. But Israel has declared that it will not assume the responsibilities of an occupying power. In international law, what can be done for the citizens of that territory if the hostile power disagrees to take up responsibility?

Dr Stanly Johny: Yeah, under International Law, if you look at the definitions, it’s simple. Yes, I think Palestinians, as a people who are living under occupation, have the right to resistance. If you look at international law, they have the legitimate right to resistance. The Israelis might call it terrorism; that’s a different matter. 

But the question is, the kind of October 7 attack, does it have the protection of international law? I would say no because, on October 7, 1200 people were killed, of which more than 80% were civilians: women and children. I think that is weakening the Palestinian cause, that kind of an attack. And that kind of an attack doesn’t have the protection of international law. This is the problem. That’s why this attack is called a terrorist attack. But if it is an attack on an Israeli military outpost, if it’s a conflict between the Israeli forces and Hamas, it is very much an act of resistance against the occupation because irrespective of what the Israelis say, the State of Israel is an occupying force and it backs bankrolled settlements in the West Bank. The settlers are unleashing unspeakable violence on native Palestinians in the West Bank. So, definitely, the Palestinians have the right to resist. It’s not even the right to self-defence because they’re not a State. They have to first resist to create their own State.

So, if it is a struggle or violence between Hamas and Israeli troops, I would call it resistance, but if it is violence by Hamas on Israeli civilians, then it is difficult to say. But as I said earlier, if you look at Israel’s military response, it’s the same thing. This is not the first time. There’s something called the Dahiya Doctrine. In the 1980s, when the Israelis went to Lebanon, what they did was bomb the neighbourhoods of Beirut, completely bombed them and wiped them out. This is what their policy was. They wanted to create deterrence like this. Even in the West Bank, if a Palestinian teenager goes and knives an Israeli soldier, the teenager would be shot down immediately, and the IDF would go and demolish his home and turn his entire family homeless.

While in Israel, I was talking to an Israeli journalist. He was telling me that everybody is now talking about the displaced Palestinians going back to their homes in Gaza because, from northern Gaza, more than a million people have been misplaced and pushed to the South, to Rafah. And Hamas says they should be allowed to go back. But nobody is asking the critical question: where will they go back? Israel has practically demolished all the buildings. I’m quoting again: all buildings in Northern Gaza. There is not even a single building standing in Northern Gaza. And it is inaccessible for us journalists; we could go only to the south in Rafah, and we don’t know what’s happening in the North. Basically, it has been completely destroyed. This is the kind of violence that Israel is committing. This kind of violence is there on both sides.

I think if you look at it from the point of International Law, it is simple and clear, but the actual problem is much more complicated. 

Ronakk Tijoriwala: How much of the Israeli state and public behaviour stems from historical trauma, and how has the historical trauma of the Middle Eastern people played in the conflict? Would you say that both parties are acting out of insecurity due to that trauma?

Dr Stanly Johny: Yeah, I think it plays a role when it comes to Israel’s foreign policy. We say that Israel is a country that has existential anxiety because Jews are the people who have survived the holocaust and went through a lot in Europe. So, they always have this really deep-rooted existential threat. So, if you look at their foreign policy from the very beginning, it has basically been driven by deterrence theory. But the problem is that, again, existential anxiety plays a major role in Israel's foreign policy. My professor used to say, “Israel is a country that doesn’t have a foreign policy and has always had a security policy”. Basically, security drives Israel's foreign policy.

But the problem again is that no country can live or survive in permanent warfare. Basically, war is an extension of diplomacy, which is the classical realist take. You need to look at conflict as an extension of diplomacy because you need to have the need to talk to your enemy. The Americans talked to the Taliban. Ronald Rumsfeld said in 2001, “We will never have talks with the terrorists”, and in 2019,  the Trump administration appointed Zalmay Khalilzad as a special envoy to hold talks with the Taliban. And this is what people do to bring conflicts to an end. Your enemy might be a terrorist today; tomorrow, he could be a partner; at least you'll have to talk to him. So, no country can survive in permanent conflict; I think this is a critical lesson the Israelis do not understand. But there were Israeli leaders who understood this; for example, Menachem Begin, who was a right-wing prime minister, struck a deal with the Egyptians and gave the Sinai Peninsula back to the Egyptians. Yitzhak Rabin struck a deal with the PLO; he recognised the PLO and the future state of Palestine. But Benjamin Netanyahu, somehow, has taken this maximalist position, which is, in effect, hurting Israel's own interests. That's what I would say.

I think a future Israeli leader will have to look at things differently because Israel is now facing this aggressive maximalist position that has hurt Israel's security interests badly; it has lost its interests. Not just Hezbollah, not just Hamas, even Iran is more directly attacking Israel. This is a sign of weakness, and the Gaza war remains unfinished. Israel is facing internal challenges, so I think a future Israeli leader will have to look at things from a tactical point of view and a point of step back and take a holistic view of the crisis. 

Prithiviraj Murugan: Samuel Huntington says that 21st-century conflicts will be between civilisations. Do you see the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict as also a civilisational conflict? 

Dr Stanly Johny: The quick answer is NO. This conflict is all about the political occupation of territory, and it does not possess any civilisational character. In fact, the Ottoman Empire was peacefully coexisting with the Jews. Religion is the byproduct of this conflict. The fundamental problem here is complex geo-political issues with international players involved. There are also multiple factors involved in this conflict where the role of religion is minimal. The conservatives from both sides consider it as a civilisational conflict, but the actual factors driving the conflict are not religion. 

Monika Valipi: My first question: How does this Gaza war intensify the existing tensions with the neighbouring countries? Secondly, in your opinion, what would be the end game of this war?

Dr Stanly Johny: Egypt will go under increased pressure if Israel launches an operation. Egypt is the only country that faces the heat of the operation. But I don't think that the current operation would lead to any conflict with Israel. Hezbollah, which is in southern Lebanon, has a possibility in future to wage a war between Iran and Israel. To your second question, I don't know. Maybe Israel will have to declare a ceasefire. Because if Israel invades Rafah, that could be a disaster. Israel has already killed 34 thousand people, and an invasion of Rafah would just multiply the count of deaths. People have already been displaced from Northern to Southern Gaza if Israel attacked the South. Where will they go? I think there's one option, i.e. declaration of ceasefire, reaching a diplomatic agreement through regional channels with Hamas and getting the hostages released. I think Israel will have to make some compromises. Otherwise, it will have to go all in over Rafah and face the consequences. So, I feel the more practical option is to go for a compromise and get the hostages released.

Nandini Khandelwal: My first question: The conflict has been going on for six months now. Given that you have been to Israel on multiple occasions and that you were there most recently, I would like to know what the Israeli perspective is on the Gaza War. Have you noticed any changes in their way of thinking following the attacks on October 7? My second question to you is: what are the convergences and divergences between the nation's Arab and Jewish citizens?

Dr Stanly Johny: I was in Israel the last time in November of '2022, exactly a year before the Hamas attack, and recently I was there on the sixth month anniversary of the Gaza war around April 7, 2024.

Jaffa is a prominent Arab town in Israel. It is an extension of Tel Aviv, noted for its coastline, and has served as a port since British times. Let me share an anecdotal experience that I noticed. That town was extremely congested in 2022, making it difficult to simply go through the streets. When I returned on April 7, 2024, the town was completely deserted. Shops were closing by 4 p.m. There was practically nobody. Wondering, I asked the locals, who told me that this had been the case for the past six months. The local economy is down the drain. I frequently chat with locals to get a sense of the ground realities. When I questioned my driver, who was helping me get around, about his family, he told me, "My boys are in Gaza". Israel practices conscription, meaning that at least one member of the family is mandatorily part of the military. This way, it affects every family in one way or the other. So, following the October attacks, the government mobilised 300,000 reservists, expecting a rapid military operation, but they are still stranded in Gaza. Outside the Tel Aviv airport is a large graffiti writing "Bring them home". War-weariness has set in. There are massive protests calling for Netanyahu's ouster, elections, a deal with Hamas, and the release of the hostages. Netanyahu's approval rating has tanked to the extent that both the opposition and his allies are calling for elections. So, there is major internal pressure in the country.

Palestinians living under occupation have little sympathy in the country, despite the fact that everyone wants the long-running conflict to end. Arab Israelis are viewed as second-class citizens. Yet, Israel lacks a constitution and only has "basic laws" that explicitly proclaim "Israel is a state of Jewish people". Although Arab Israelis make up 20% of the population and have the right to vote and form political parties, they experience systematic discrimination. As a result, they have long shared historical solidarity with Palestinian Arabs. Contemporary Israel has different communities. The most interesting section is of the Settler politicians who consider Arab citizens in the fifth column and want the Arab population to be expelled from Israel. Hence, the cracks in the society are wide open now.

Nupur Priya: My first question: The UNSC resolution of March 25, which called for the immediate ceasefire and release of all hostages held by Hamas, was surprisingly not vetoed by the USA. Britain also voted for the resolution. Why do you think we see this change of policy towards the war by these countries? My second question: amidst the war in Gaza, the surge of alternative news media outlets and social media has significantly bolstered support for the Palestinian cause. This has had a strong effect on domestic politics in many countries. Can you shed some light on how far this can affect the decisions of nations?

Dr Stanly Johny: Yes, there is a change in the public opinion, or at least there is a growing voice in the United States that is critical of America’s policies towards Israel, but I don't think that it is strong enough to influence Biden’s thinking because for now Biden has given a carte blanche to Israel and he is not going to change it. It is an election year in America, and I think Biden’s priority is not to lose the Israeli lobby. I think that he wants to make sure that he enjoys the support of this lobby because otherwise, his policy doesn’t make sense to me from a foreign policy point of view because Israel's continuing war has basically affected America’s interest and standing in the region, but Biden still is unable to exert any pressure on Israel. Also, as you can see, yesterday’s conference passed a huge bill that would give 17 billion Dollars to Israel. Also, the Wall Street Journal reported the day before yesterday that Biden was planning to authorise weapons worth 1 billion dollars to Israel, and after October 7, the Washington Post had two different reports saying that there were at least a hundred shipments of bombs to Israel, which were very lethal ammunitions. Israel is a very powerful country and a nuclear power as well, but at the same time, Israel cannot fight prolonged wars without America’s support because it is a very small country both geographically and demographically. Our idea is that Israel is a very powerful country, which is true as its air force is very effective, but it is also true that it needs America’s support. America is the engine of Israel’s military. And, Biden has made sure the United States’ support to Israel stays intact irrespective of the allegations Israel is facing. This policy of Biden towards Israel is completely contrary to that towards Ukraine because Biden is saying that Putin is an evil man, Ukraine is being attacked, and Putin is violating international laws and norms. So the United States has to support democracy in Ukraine, oppose aggression, etc., but when it comes to Israel, Biden’s unbridled support to Israel continues. So, the domestic angle is there, but I don't think that would change Biden’s thinking. 

So, on the UN voting, the United States finally let it go because it was coming under a lot of pressure. Even Britain supported the resolution. Biden looked very bad, very unpleasant because they vetoed 4 resolutions at the UN Security Council, so finally, they let this go, but without enforcing it on Israel; that is the policy. They let the resolution go, but they did nothing to enforce the resolution; they exerted no pressure on Israel to declare a ceasefire. Even now, they don't call for a lasting or permanent ceasefire. So, this is all what the United States says. 

Leivon Victor Lamkang: Considering the potential for regional destabilisation, how would you address the risk of proxy conflicts or military interventions by external actors seeking to advance their interest in the region?

Dr Stanly Johny: I think the proxy war will go on in the region because if you look at the fundamental contradiction in West Asia today, it is the struggle between the Iranians and the Israelis, so it is going to stay. This is what April 14th has taught us: the region has changed. And if you look at Iran’s foreign policy, Iran has built a network of proxies in the region, and Iran will continue to use them, and these proxies are very powerful, thanks to the chaos in the region. Iran has Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza and the West Bank. It has Hezbollah in Lebanon. It has Shia mobilisation units in Syria and Iraq. It has the Houthis in Yemen, and it also has some political factions in Bahrain. So, it is basically a network of Shia, including Sunni. Hamas is a Sunni Islamist militia group in Iran that will continue to use them to extend its advantage. And Israelis and the Americans would continue to target them if not directly attacking Iran; they would continue to target the proxies. So, this proxy battle in West Asia will go on in the foreseeable future.

Devi Chandana M: In light of the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, how does Israel assess the potential benefits of this decision for its national security interests and regional dynamics? Could you elaborate on the specific ways in which Israel expects the withdrawal to be helpful or challenging in the current scenario?

Dr Stanly Johny: The JCPOA, I would say that Israel campaigned against the JCPOA. Israel wanted the JCPOA to be dumped. And Israel was so happy when Trump unilaterally decided to pull the United States out of the JCPOA. But I think if there were realists in Israel, they would now be thinking that JCPOA was a better bet than this proxy conflict with Iran. Now that this conflict between Israel and Iran is escalating, this is also giving an excuse to Iran to openly declare that they might even pursue the bomb. If you look at the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) of Iran statement the day before yesterday, they said that the current conflict might influence the Iranian leadership to review their nuclear doctrine. Because their existing nuclear doctrine is that they don't want bombs. I don't believe that. Americans don't believe that. They may not want the bomb, but I always thought that the Iranians wanted to reach the nuclear threshold. They may not make the bomb, or they may not announce the bomb, but they certainly wanted the capability to make the bomb. Whether they have the capability, now we don't know. But now that the conflict with Israel is escalating, the Iranians can publicly, even publicly, say that they might want to reach the threshold, or they can accelerate their nuclear program. So, the JCPOA, which sought to dial down tensions and induce a new kind of equilibrium in West Asia, was a saner attempt by the Obama administration to establish some kind of cold peace in the region. But Trump threw it in the dustbin, and the region is now on fire.


About the Authors

Sayeka Ghosh is an Undergraduate Student at the Department of International Relations, Peace and Public Policy, St Joseph’s University. Chris Fernando is a Bachelor’s Student of B. Journalism, International Relations and Peace Studies at St Joseph’s University, Bangalore. Pummy Lathigara and Ronakk Tijoriwala are Master’s Students of Politics and International Relations at Pandit Deendayal Energy University, Gandhinagar. Monika Vallipi and T Shiva Kumar are Master’s Students at the Department of South Asian Studies, Pondicherry University. Bishwarupa Kar is a student of Pondicherry University. Prithviraj Murugan is a Master’s Student at the Department of International Relations and Politics, Central University of Kerala. Nandini Khandelwal, Nupur Priya and Victor Kamkang are Master’s Students in Politics and International Studies at Pondicherry University. Devi Chandana M is a Master’s Student at Mahatma Gandhi University in Kerala. Ayan Datta is a Master’s Student at the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad.

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