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How Israel could be reinforcing a cycle of radicalization

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Benjamin Netanyahu has had one stated goal since Israel began its military campaign in Gaza six months ago.

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PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Our security and the prospects of peace in the Middle East depend on one thing - total victory over Hamas.

DETROW: That's the Israeli prime minister speaking in February.

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NETANYAHU: Peace and security required total victory over Hamas. We cannot accept anything else.

DETROW: Now, most experts say that fully eradicating Hamas isn't possible, but Netanyahu continues to frame it as a realistic goal.

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NETANYAHU: Once Hamas is destroyed, we need to verify that Gaza is demilitarized, that we stamp out any attempt at the resurgence of terror.

DETROW: The longer the war drags on, though, and the more civilians are killed, the larger the question looms of whether all of this might make Israel less secure in the long term. History has shown that the kind of violence Israel has responded to Hamas with is more likely to feed into a cycle of radicalization rather than end it.

DENNIS ROSS: You can defeat these groups militarily. We did that with ISIS. And the truth is Israel is doing that with Hamas.

DETROW: That's Ambassador Dennis Ross, a former Middle East envoy for the U.S.

ROSS: We still have 3,000 forces in Iraq for one reason - to prevent ISIS from coming back. We have 900 in Syria to prevent ISIS from coming back. And the truth is there are pockets of ISIS today because ISIS as an idea has not been eradicated - it's an ideology - any more than Hamas as an idea and its ideology can be eradicated.

DETROW: What comes next, especially for Israeli security after a generation of Palestinians witnesses their families and homes and everything they hold dear being destroyed?

DETROW: H.A. Hellyer is in the region and joins me now to talk about this. He's with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Thanks for joining us.

H A HELLYER: My pleasure. Thank you so much.

DETROW: Let's start with that stated goal of Netanyahu in Israel. Do you think it is possible to, quote, "destroy Hamas?"

HELLYER: I don't think it's possible to destroy Hamas. I think at best you can radically degrade its military capacity, and I'm not sure that that's really what they've managed to do over the past six months. I think a lot of the arsenal has probably been expended and exhausted. I'm not convinced that they've done terribly well in terms of drying up support for Hamas. On the contrary, with the civilian death toll being at where it is, as you mentioned in your introduction, I reckon Hamas will actually have a lot of people that will be willing to be recruited in, in order to defend themselves against further Israeli attacks.

DETROW: So it seems like you do think the open question we started with - this is a real possibility, at the end of this, all of this death and destruction could eventually possibly lead to an even stronger Hamas.

HELLYER: I strongly suspect that that's what the case will be. I don't think in the interim it will mean a more powerful Hamas in terms of weaponry, but in terms of people willing to join, not simply Hamas, by the way, but just any militant group, radical or otherwise, extremist or otherwise, but any group that has the ability to strike the Israelis. I think that you're likely to see a lot of that and, frankly, not simply among Palestinians. But I think that's something that you'll see, internationally speaking. The death toll is incredibly high. The response is utterly disproportionate - the number of children, civilians, as you've laid out.

DETROW: So what do you think Israel should do next? And do you think it's too late to stem this point of view throughout Gaza and throughout the region, given all of the civilian deaths and destruction that we've already seen?

HELLYER: Well, there's quite a lot that the Israelis could do at this moment in time. Unfortunately, I don't think that they will. I think what you've seen over the past 15, 20 years is a move further and further and further to the right. You know, this, as many people have said, is the most far-right government in Israel's history. I think that's true, but I don't think that it's an anomaly. And the political spectrum in Israel, left to its own devices, has no interest in a two-state solution. It has no interest in finding a way to give even credence to a peace process. And right now, I'm afraid that it looks like a very destabilizing force in the immediate region.

And we've seen over the past, you know, few months, a more aggressive posture with regards to Lebanon. You saw the strikes against the Iranians in their embassy in Syria over the last week. But none of this is aiming us towards de-escalating what's going on in the country. It's escalation upon escalation. And I think that we in the international community, particularly in the United States, but also other allies, just need to recognize, you know, that's the Israel we're dealing with, and that's the Israel we're likely to keep on dealing with going forward.

DETROW: I want to ask several questions from the U.S. point of view, and, you know, I'll start with this. For the two decades after 9/11, there's been such a policy conversation in the United States about, you know, for a while, it was referred to as changing hearts and minds - trying to improve relations and image of the U.S. in the Middle East for a variety of reasons - a lot of them having to do with American national security. Given the way that this war is viewed in Gaza and the U.S.'s role viewed in Gaza as being a country that's supplying a lot of the arms to Israel, do you think the U.S. is compromising its own long-term security at this point?

HELLYER: So I'm afraid that, when it comes to America's reputation internationally, I'm not sure that people really understand how much of a hit America's reputation has taken. I think that America stands really isolated on the international stage when it comes to this particular conflict but also more wider than that. The United States has been very clear over, you know, many decades that it upholds a rules-based world order, a world order that is underpinned by international law and norms that apply to everybody objectively and so on and so on.

DETROW: And you're talking about something there that President Biden has made a central goal of his presidency. He talks about that...

HELLYER: Absolutely.

DETROW: ...All the time.

HELLYER: Absolutely. And he made it very clear that he saw Donald Trump be damaging to that sense of world order and that he wanted to restore America's credibility in that regard. I've never seen a situation quite so dire as the one that I see right now in terms of America's reputation, not simply in the Middle East, but internationally - even, frankly, across the West as well. I think the overwhelming majority now of public opinion in the West is that a cease-fire has to come now without any conditions necessarily. So America is really on its lonesome in this regard, and I don't think people realize that. I think people really seem to think that, you know, America is somehow in the right, and it's incredibly isolated.

DETROW: That was H. A. Hellyer of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in London. Thank you so much.

HELLYER: Thank you, Scott. It was a pleasure to be here.

DETROW: And again, we are following a major development tonight in Israel. Iran has launched retaliatory drone strikes against Israel. Will have the latest on the story on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, as well as on npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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