Institutions of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, ISIS, and Islamic Radicalism: Five Minutes with Jonathan Schanzer on the Current State of the Middle East

(Jonathan Schanzer, © Foundation for the Defense of Democracy) The summer of 2014 brought war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, the rise of ISIS, ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran, and the spreading influence of Islamic radicalism. Following a speaker event co-sponsored with the Georgetown Israel Alliance, the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs sat down with Dr. Jonathan Schanzer, Vice President for Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, to discuss the implications of these events for both the future of the Israel-Palestinian peace process and the Middle East as a whole.

GJIA: What were the most significant factors that precipitated this summer’s conflict in Gaza? Did the conflict resolve any of those underlying issues?

JS: In my view, the conflict in Gaza was entirely about Hamas’ attempts to break itself out of political and economic isolation. The fall of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt last summer put Hamas in a position where it was unable to access the tunnels that had previously been its life-blood for the transfer of weapons, cash, and goods. After roughly a year of isolation, it appears that Hamas has made a play militarily for a new paradigm. It did so with the assistance of Qatar and Turkey, its primary financial and political patrons. In many ways this was a political battle that took place on the sidelines of this summer’s military war. Qatar and Turkey were battling against Israel and Egypt over the future of Gaza. As it stands now, with a donor conference that began in Cairo on October 12, it does not appear that any of these issues have been resolved. If anything, Hamas now finds itself in a deeper financial hole and remains politically isolated. As long as Hamas remains the power broker in the Gaza Strip, I don’t see a solution coming anytime soon.

GJIA: What issues did the most recent conflict in Gaza reveal about the ways in which the U.S. media, academic community, and policymakers frame the narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

JS: The biggest blind spot in how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is viewed from Washington is the tendency not to study Palestinian politics. When we examine the conflict, we often look at Israeli motivations but not the decisions made in the Palestinian political arena. We don't look at the schisms that exist within Palestinian society, and when we do, we don’t give them enough credence. In some ways, these schisms led to the conflict we saw this summer, during which we observed an inability —yet again—to reconcile the Palestinian internecine conflict between Hamas and Fatah. Washington spent the year preceding this conflict pushing for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when, in fact, there were three entities that somehow needed to be reconciled—Hamas, Fatah, and the Israelis. This tripartite nature to the conflict has continued to be ignored, and Washington’s insistence on adhering to this paradigm has led to frustration on the part of the Palestinians. In some cases it has led to a heightening of tensions, and it certainly did not prepare us to deal with the issues that, to me, were very plainly evident during this summer’s conflict.

GJIA: What does this political division among Palestinians mean for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and for the future of the peace process?

JS: It means there is no unified Palestinian identity. It means there is no Palestinian polity that is accepted and recognized by all Palestinians. It means there is no interlocutor on the Palestinian side that can shake the hand of an Israeli prime minister and sign on the dotted line to create an agreement. The Palestinian internecine conflict continues to represent one of the major challenges to be overcome if we are to reach a two-state solution. Palestine needs a unified purpose and a unified identity.

GJIA: What implications do the dynamics between Israel and Arab nations have for regional or international response to ISIS?

A rocket fired from the Northern Gaza Strip streaks across the sky toward Israel during the 2008-2009 three-week conflict between Israel and Palestinians in the Gaza (User Amir Farshad Ebrahimi, Flickr Commons)

JS: In my opinion, we’re not going to see much in the way of overt interaction between Israel and the Arab world on the matter of ISIS. It’s quite possible, however, that the Israelis are not only providing intelligence to the United States and to the Europeans behind the scenes but that they’re covertly sharing information with other countries as well. We continue to hear about backchannel dialogue. Not with regard to ISIS, but with regard to Iran. The threat of a nuclear Iran is something that is of paramount concern to both the Israelis and the wider Arab world, and it is for that reason they may be having these discussions behind closed doors, far from the public eye. But the idea that these relations could be overtly solidified is unlikely right now. It’s not impossible, but it’s unlikely until either a framework for peace can be established between the Arab world and the Israelis or, alternatively, until the Israelis take action along with one or more Arab states to neutralize the Iranian nuclear threat.

GJIA: How has ISIS changed the greater landscape of the Middle East, especially in regard to regional or international response to radical Islamic ideology?

JS: ISIS has reawakened the world. Over the last six or so years, there has been a tendency for the United States and its European partners to wish away this ideological conflict. The seemingly endless battles that would need to be fought to contain the radical strain within Islam, along with the financial crisis of 2008, soured the world to this fight. There has been an attempt by some, certainly by President Obama, to wish away this conflict, to look away from al-Qaeda in the hopes that it would look away from us. There was the idea that we could render al-Qaeda dead or decimated based on drone strikes or the killing of a single leader. We have since found this not to be the case, however. ISIS was a wakeup call to the world that the fight against this dangerous, radical ideology is not over. This doesn’t mean that we have to go back to fighting these ideological movements in the same way that George W. Bush did. It means that we haven’t found the right solution yet—we haven’t found the right balance. But it’s very important for students of this region—and for the American public—to know that this battle is not over and that we’re going to have to go back to the drawing board.

GJIA: Several Arab nations have banded together with the United States to fight ISIS. Is this a rejection of radical Islam even by nations within the Middle East, or is it simply an example of rational balancing undertaken in response to the threat of a rising power?

JS: I don’t see this as an overt rejection of radical ideologies. Consider the countries involved: one is Qatar, which is a sponsor of Hamas and other jihadi groups in Syria, and hosted a Taliban embassy within its borders. This is not a country that supports moderate Islam. Similarly, Saudi Arabia is part of this coalition, and we know their history of propagating a radical brand of Islam known as Wahhabism. The United States is even wooing Turkey to join, which makes this an interesting coalition. The Turks have allowed Hamas to maintain a headquarters inside Turkey itself. Also, it was Turkey’s lax border policy that allowed for the rise of ISIS over time. Finally, Turkey has been involved in a massive sanction-busting scheme with the Iranians. Clearly, there are many problems with the partners the United States has enlisted in this fight, but creating such a coalition is primarily for optics. The United States does not want to go charging into the Muslim or Arab world and start bombing; it needs to enlist partners to make the effort look more legitimate in the eyes of the world. Thus, although this coalition will undoubtedly be problematic over time, it’s understandable why the United States has pursued it for the immediate term.

GJIA: How should the United States respond to the seemingly growing public influence of jihadist groups? Is there a balance between the “war on terror” approach of George W. Bush and other ways of mitigating the spread of radical Islamic ideology?

JS: I’m sure there is. The problem is that we haven’t even had the discussion yet. The United States and its allies have put that discussion on the back burner for a very long time. It is imperative now for students of the Middle East and policymakers to begin to have this discussion again. Look at the case of Syria, for instance: the idea of attacking ISIS while allowing the Assad regime to continue to drop barrel bombs or chemical weapons on its own people is very difficult to swallow. The notion that we might consider working with the Iranians or Hezbollah because we need their help against ISIS is very difficult to swallow. The United States needs a more holistic approach to the region, and it lacks that right now. Here’s hoping that the frustration of the American public and President Obama’s low approval ratings on foreign policy will prompt a discussion. We’re in the beginnings of a new presidential election cycle right now—this is when we will hopefully start to see new ideas on this matter pushed out there into the bloodstream.


Dr. Jonathan Schanzer is a scholar in Middle Eastern studies and Vice President for Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. Before joining FDD, Schanzer was a terrorism finance analyst at the U.S. Department of the Treasury and a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Dr. Schanzer was interviewed by Sydney Jean Gottfried, Jacob Haberman, and Ian Philbrick on 1 October 2014 in Washington, D.C. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.