The Middle East at a Crossroads – Hamas, Israel, Middle East Hegemony, and the US – Who Caused the Middle East Crisis?
An Interview with Dr. Peter Berkowitz


Dr. Peter Berkowitz

In 2019-2021, Dr. Peter Berkowitz served as the Director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff and senior adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Since 2007, he has been the Tad and Dianne Taube Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He is the author of “Constitutional Conservatism: Liberty, Self-Government, and Political Moderation” and “Israel and the Struggle Over the International Laws of War” among other works.

(Interviewer: Satoshi Nishihata)


Hamas Determined to Destroy Israel

──Thank you for the opportunity to have this interview with you. My first question is about the Hamas’ attack. Many people have been shocked by the brutality of Hamas who attacked, killed and abducted many Israelis, including other people like Americans. Meanwhile, there are people in Japan or in other countries who feel sorry for Gaza despite the obvious fact that Hamas, who initiated the surprise attack, must first be blamed. How should we tell these people that the main problem does not lie in Israel but in the fundamentals of Hamas who carried out the terrorist attack?

Dr. Berkowitz: It’s an important question. First, we need to understand what Hamas is. Hamas published a covenant, a charter, in 1988. In their charter, they say that their purpose is to raise the banner of Allah over every corner of Palestine. That means the destruction of the State of Israel. That’s their explicit genocidal purpose. The war they launched against Israeli civilians is part of this larger war. They’ve been very clear about their chief aim: to destroy Israel.

Second, yes, many say, for example, ‘Israel keeps the people of the Gaza Strip in an open-air prison, and to break free of that prison, Hamas had to launch these attacks. Or at least, ‘it’s understandable that they launched these attacks.’ But this is to fundamentally misunderstand the situation.

Hamas did not launch attacks because Israel built a security barrier between Gaza and Israel. Israel built a security barrier on its border with Gaza because Hamas seeks to destroy it.

From 1967 to 2005, Israel maintained overall control of the Gaza Strip. But in 2005, Israel left the Gaza Strip. Every Israeli man, woman, and child and every Israeli soldier left. Gaza was now in the hands of the Palestinians to govern themselves as they pleased. In 2006, they elected Hamas. In 2007, Hamas violently seized control, eliminated the opposition, expelled the Palestinian Authority, and imposed a theological dictatorship. If Hamas had wished to focus on developing the Gaza Strip for the benefit of its people, it could have, and Israel would have helped it. Instead Hamas chose to turn Gaza into a military base for conducting a war to destroy the State of Israel.


Three Reasons Why America Should Stand With Israel

──It’s widely believed that Iran is backing Hamas. Iran is also believed to be behind the attacks against the U.S. military bases in Iraq and Syria. So, as it becomes clearer that Iran was involved in the October 7th attack, the more likely it is to escalate into an all-out war between Iran and Israel. If war breaks out between Iran and Israel, to what extent should the United States support Israel? Is there any way to de-escalate this situation?

Dr. Berkowitz: That’s a big question. First, it’s true that we need to worry about escalation in the Middle East. We know that Iran funds Hamas, helps train Hamas, helps prepare Hamas. The Wall Street Journal (headquartered in New York) reported that Iran gave the green light for the October 7th massacres.

Moreover, there’s little doubt that Iran foments instability, and creates dangers for Israel, elsewhere in the Middle East. Hezbollah in Lebanon, which also reports to Tehran, is equipped with more than 100,000 rockets and missiles, all of which are aimed at Israel. Hamas has urged Hezbollah to get involved in this war. Hamas in Gaza has also urged Hamas in Judea and Samaria, also called the West Bank, another area over which Israel exercises control, to rise up and join the war against Israel.

Should the United States support Israel? Yes, and for several reasons. First, Israel is undertaking a just war of self-defense. Hamas launched an unspeakably cruel assault on Oct. 7, and the murderous violence was focused on civilians. Hamas killed 1,200 civilians and took some 240 hostage.

Second, Israel has been a good friend and partner to the United States. And in this moment of geopolitical turmoil – the Russia-Ukraine war and the Chinese Communist Party saber-rattling in the South China Sea and threats against Taiwan – it’s critical, I believe, for the United States to demonstrate that America stands with its friends and partners.

Finally, Iran seeks a more authoritarian Middle East. I think it was your late Prime Minister, Mr. Abe, who first coined the term “a free and open Indo-Pacific.” We’ve adopted the idea of a free and open international order. To stand with Israel against the forces of authoritarianism in the Middle East – Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran – is to stand for principles that we share with Japan.

──According to our sources in Iran, the Iranian general public does not have much sympathy toward the Iranian government’s support for Hamas. They have been more concerned about their daily life rather than the war. As you know, Iran’s Consumer Price Index (CPI) has increased more than 40% compared to last year. It might be probable that the Iranian government may want to resort to a war using proxies to distract public attention from those issues, including women’s protests and the rising consumer prices in their country. Do you have any thoughts on this point?

Dr. Berkowitz: It’s possible that their intention is to distract, although the consequence could just as easily be the opposite. If Iran gets dragged into military conflict, it could turn more of its own public against Tehran. We don’t know how many, but we have good reason to believe that there’s some significant sized group in Iran that wants to live an ordinary life, wants to earn a living, wants to care for its children, wants to enjoy friends, wants to worship or not without wanting to conquer the Middle East.

But we must understand that spreading terror and Iranian power throughout the Middle East is consistent with the principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The quest for hegemony in the Middle East flows from those principles. So, when the Ayatollahs fund Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon and various Shiite groups in Iraq and Hamas in Gaza and the Houthis in Yemen, we can’t just say that this serves certain domestic political interests. It reflects the ideology to which the regime is devoted, and it’s extremely dangerous.


Biden’s Policies in the Middle East Show Incoherence

──I see, thank you. The next question is from the perspective of foreign policy, and specifically, regarding the series of policies by the Biden administration such as the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, the strategy of trying to bring Iran back to the nuclear agreement and making light of Trump’s Abraham Accord. They may have led to this mass attack indirectly. Why do you think Hamas attacked Israel at this precise timing, and how do you evaluate the Biden administration’s foreign policies?

Dr. Berkowitz: Another good question. First, let’s address the matter of timing. It seems to me likely that Hamas chose this period for an attack.

The hope, I suspect was that the onslaught and Israel’s response would undermine the extension of the Abraham Accords to include Saudi Arabia. Iran wouldn’t like Saudi Arabia’s inclusion in the Abraham Accords because that would strengthen the anti-Iran coalition in the Middle East. Also, it would increase American power and influence if two of America’s good friends in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, enhanced their cooperation. Iran tends to think, “What’s good for the United States is bad for us. Let us prevent it from happening.”

However, that’s a proximate reason. There is the larger goal shared by Hamas and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The larger goal is Israel’s destruction.

Hamas has been planning to strike Israel for a long time. Iran has been arming and equipping and training Hezbollah in the south in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip for many years. The attacks could have come on Nov, 7 rather than October 7th, but Hamas would have attacked eventually.

We need to concentrate on the larger ideological goals that have been driving Iran and Hamas to wage war on Israel. Before the media began reporting about a possible Saudi deal, which was only September of this year, Hamas was planning the present attack. Perhaps they accelerated their schedule for an attack to also undermine Israel-Saudi normalization, which they thought would damage their interests.

──And how do you evaluate the Biden administration’s policies regarding these attacks?

Dr. Berkowitz: My own longstanding view is that the Biden administration has shown weakness in coddling Iran and entreating it to resume negotiations over its nuclear program.

In contrast, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, under whom, as you know, I served, sought to put the United States in a position of strength. I reported to Mike Pompeo as head of the State Department’s policy planning staff. Pompeo intensified sanctions on Iran to compel Tehran to come to the table on terms that were favorable to the United States.

There was a kind of incoherence in the Biden administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East. On the one hand, coddling Iran, on the other hand, trying to strike a deal with Saudi Arabia. Why does Saudi Arabia want to strike a deal to normalize relations with Israel? In part at least to work together with the United States and Israel to deter Iran. How, then, does the United States induce Iran to negotiate if it’s also antagonizing Iran by strengthening Saudi Arabia and Israel? It’s difficult to reconcile those two Biden administration goals.

──Yeah, it doesn’t seem to be coherent. Secretary Blinken spoke at the UN Security Council and stated, “The United States does not seek conflict with Iran. We do not want this war to widen. But if Iran or its proxies attack US personnel anywhere, make no mistake, we will defend our people. We will defend our security swiftly and decisively.” What kind of impact do you think his statement had, and what are your thoughts on this statement?

Dr. Berkowitz: That’s strong language. The words are good words, but I worry that when both our friends and our adversaries hear them, they say to themselves, “Wait a minute. Hamas killed more than 20 American citizens in its October 7th attacks. They’ve abducted around 10 Americans. What has the United States done to win the release of the American hostages? What has the United States said in criticism of Hamas for killing and kidnapping Americans?” Perhaps it’s best to give some benefit of the doubt to the Biden administration. Perhaps they’re working behind the scenes furiously to free those Americans who are held hostage. But Americans have been killed and kidnapped abroad by a foreign power’s proxies, and the United States has not taken any strong public measures.

The United States did strike Iranian military depots in Syria today in response to many attacks on American forces. The Biden administration admirably moved to the Eastern Mediterranean two carrier strike groups. These are fearsome collections of ships and each carrier itself contains about 75 fighter aircraft. But I worry that it sends the wrong message when Americans are killed in cold blood and taken hostage and the United States declines to speak forcefully about what steps it’s going to take to free American hostages. A few have been freed, but it’s almost three weeks later. Most are still held captive. And I don’t think that we have clarified the consequences of Hamas’ gunning down in cold blood more than 20 American citizens.


America Must Demonstrate to Global Allies That The United States Can Be ‘Counted Upon In Times of Distress’

──The next question is very basic and fundamental. Can you explain why the United States’ support for Israel is in the national interest of the United States?

Dr. Berkowitz: It is in the national interest of the United States to contribute to the deterrence of terrorism and aggression around the world. I say contribute because the role of the United States will differ from place to place. But we are now in a worldwide competition with China, a competition that takes place in every region of the world. The United States must stand on the side of those who seek freedom and democracy.

Israel is committed to freedom and democracy. Hamas stands on the side of Islamic theocracy, authoritarianism, mass atrocities, mass murder, war crimes, and more. So, because of America’s interest in freedom and democracy, we stand with Israel in general. At the same time, a Middle East that’s dominated by Iran and its proxies threatens U.S. interests in the free-flow of commerce and political stability in the region.

Some people complain that too much of American policy is focused on Middle East and Middle Eastern oil. I think focusing on protecting the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf is in America’s vital national security interest. It’s true that America has considerable supplies of oil and gas, but we have many friends and partners that don’t: India, Japan, some European countries.

It’s in America’s national interest – because it’s important for the American economy – that our friends’ economies can acquire the energy they need. Therefore, maintaining peace and order in the Persian Gulf and the wider Middle East is vital to U.S security while advancing the interests of America’s friends and partners in the region, And regional stability strengthen the wider global order.

But as I mentioned before, and will mention again in this context, with so much instability in Europe with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in the South China Sea with the CCP’s threats to seize Taiwan, and in the Middle East with Iran and its many proxy forces, it’s important that America’s friends and partners believe that in moments of peril the can count on America. Israelis believe that their war against Hamas is a fight for their very existence. By demonstrating support for Israel, the United States shows reliability to friends and partners around the world


Hamas’ Use of Palestinian Civilians as Human Shields is Contrary to International Law

──Thank you for the great answers. One of the grave concerns is that Hamas is hiding among the civilian people. The international community, including the UN, has been more critical of Israel’s response. This may be one of the tactics of Hamas, as the strategy of the weak, because they are not superior in terms of military strength. How do you think the international community should respond to these Hamas’ tactics of maneuvering international public opinions?

Dr. Berkowitz: I believe that responsible members of the international community should unequivocally condemn Hamas’s conduct. The international laws of war are clear. Fighters are not permitted to locate their military operations in civilian areas. Not only are they prohibited under international law from attacking civilians, but also they are forbidden from using their own civilians as human shields. But that is what Hamas has done. At the same time, in using civilian areas of Gaza for their military operations, Hamas converts those civilian areas into military areas. Since the only way for Israel to end the existential threat presented by Hamas is to enter Gaza City and destroy Hamas’ leadership and capacity to wage war, Israel is entitled under the laws of war to do it. The first right of international law is the right of self-defense.

Israel has an obligation to attack only military targets, use no more force than is necessary to destroy Hamas, and spare civilians and civilian infrastructure to the extent possible, consistent with its legitimate military objectives. If using the necessary force brings collateral damage and civilian casualties, the moral responsibility and legal liability for the loss of civilian life and infrastructure are on Hamas. People who genuinely care about the lives of innocent Palestinians in the Gaza Strip should be denouncing Hamas, demanding that Hamas stop operating from civilian centers and calling for Hamas to release the hostages.


Hamas, Hezbollah and the Iranian Regime: ‘Their Aims Are the Spread of Islam, Including by Sword’

──Okay, thank you. My next two questions are about the problems of Islamic nations. What do you think is a fundamental problem with militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah and the Iranian regime behind them? For example, within Iran, as you already know, a woman named Amini was tortured to death a year ago for just wearing a hijab inappropriately. Protests grew and women raised their voices, but they were silenced by the government. So how should we view their terrorism and violence-affirming mindset?

Dr. Berkowitz: We should view that mindset with trepidation because we see the results. The Islamic Republic of Iran, and its partners Hamas and Hezbollah, are engaged in jihad — religious war for the sake of spreading Islam. We have been witnessing the results throughout the wider Middle East for decades ever since the emergence of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979 out of the Iranian Revolution. We see it with Hezbollah in Lebanon. We see it with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. We see it in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. We should start taking seriously the jihadists’ professed aims.

Their aims are the spread of Islam, including by sword. They reject basic ideas of the international system, such as respect for national sovereignty and human rights. And they have demonstrated this in their conduct for decades.

I want to emphasize that I’m talking about an extremist interpretation of Islam — not all interpretations of Islam. But the leaders of Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah have for decades been telling us that their aim is to spread Islam by means of sword and fire and have been acting on their aim. We should at long last take them seriously.

──I’’s a very, very difficult issue. It also seems that people in the Communist Bloc and the Islamic Bloc are very suppressed. Both seems, in a sense, totalitarian.

Dr. Berkowitz: Yes, they have authoritarianism in common.

──What are your thoughts on this view that Islamic nations have a totalitarian nature in its character?

Dr. Berkowitz: I don’t want to pronounce on Islam as a whole. I am speaking about a certain geopolitically influential strand – Islamists, Islamic extremists – who advance an extreme version of Islam. These Islamists – the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon, Hamas in the Gaza Strip – promulgate a theocratic and imperialistic authoritarianism.

The Islamists, the extremists, tend to reject our notions of human beings as endowed with fundamental rights. This empowers them to form alliances with communists and other forms of authoritarianism including Russia, which is an authoritarian state.

What do the authoritarians have in common? In the Middle East, often what unites authoritarians is an interest in foiling America’s interests. That’s what brings Iran and Russia together. And for that matter, China. Don’t forget that China signed in 2021 a deal worth around $400 billion with Iran over 25 years.

As you know, communism differs in dramatic ways from Islamic extremism. It differs from Russian nationalism. And it differs from the specifics of “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” What they all have in common, however, is authoritarianism. These authoritarian powers are united in their disposition to see the United States as an adversary and act against American interests, not least America’s interest in a free and open international order.

──Yes. It’s very interesting because they have a very different regime, but they have a common character.

Dr. Berkowitz: Exactly.


Israel as a Jewish, Democratic, Rights-Protecting State

──My last question is about Israel. There was a tendency to emphasize a universality in the Jewish way of thinking and in the founding spirit of the State of Israel. Recently, however, Israel seems to have its own problems such as the conflict in the governance of the West Bank or the Arab population in the country. What do you think is needed for Israel to move forward as the only democratic country in the Middle East, or as you say, invigorate its nation’s founding balances?

Dr. Berkowitz: The priority now, the overwhelming goal for Israel, is to defeat the jihadists who attacked the nation on Oct. 7. Israelis are now united and focused on defeating Hamas and destroying its ability to wage war and govern. I hope sooner rather than later, the guns will fall silent, and Israel will be able to return to mending the ruptures within its own society.

As you know, before the October 7th attacks, Israel was torn by a great internal debate about judicial reform. When the enemy is defeated, Israelis will return to debating, as do all free and democratic nations, the proper structure of political institutions, the extent of judicial power, and how to achieve the right balance among the separate branches of government.

Israelis must keep in mind that Israel is a Jewish state, but not only a Jewish state. Israel is a democratic state, but not only a democratic state. And Israel is a rights-protecting state, but not only a rights-protecting state. It’s all three at the same time. Israelis must once again come together and understand, as they understood at their founding and as they’ve often demonstrated in practice, that their difficult but wonderful task is to be all three – Jewish, democratic, and free — at once. The nation-state of the Jewish people. A democracy in which all citizens participate – remember, 20% of Israel’s citizens are Arab. And a Jewish and democratic state that protects equally the fundamental rights of all its citizens. That’s a huge and defining challenge, and one which I believe Israel will meet.

──Do you think any innovation regarding judicial reform will be needed in Israel?

Dr. Berkowitz: No doubt. A period must pass before Israelis return to the question of judicial reform. But I have thought since the debate began in early January that the conservatives who advanced the judicial reforms were correct in part: significant judicial reform is necessary. And the critics of the right-wing government – which includes the center-right, center, and the left – were also correct: the proposed reforms went too far. I’m in favor of a compromise, which involves significant reform but significantly less than the government proposed. That’s what Israel needs to retain the best balance as the free and democratic nation-state of the Jewish people.

──Thank you very much.

The Middle East at a Crossroads – Hamas, Israel, Middle East Hegemony, and the US – Who Caused the Middle East Crisis?
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