Ever since the war started on October 7, it's dominated the airwaves. It's probably one of the most complex geopolitical themes of our times and this war is going to make it even more complex. It's pretty difficult to figure out what's going on because the coverage so far has been very polarised—it’s difficult to sift what really is going on through the fog of war.
But we've got help at hand. Sundeep Waslekar, in conversation with Jay Vikram Bakshi, will help us figure out what lies at the root of this conflict and where it's heading.
Waslekar is president, Strategic Foresight Group, and has many different areas of specialisation, especially the Middle East. He played the role of a mediator between Israel and Palestine from 2011 to 2016. He worked with both the Hamas and the Israeli delegations.
Bakshi is a former journalist who worked with The Economic Times, Business Standard and Business Today, and then moved to the corporate world and later took the plunge into entrepreneurship.
A select group of subscribers from our FF community joined to listen and after the session engaged with Waslekar in a special off-the-record interaction with him. These included Ilmas Futehally, Piya Bose, Vivek Patwardhan, Anmol Srivastava, Bipul Kiran Singh, Sanghamitra Shastri, Devangshu Dutta, Debashis Bhattacharya and Vivek Singh.
Edited Excerpts from the Masterclass
Yes, it is Israel's 911 moment. But this has been building up for some time. What are the triggers?
Israel was given independence in 1948. In the original proposal, the Israel state would have more than 50% of the territory, Palestine more than 40% of the territory, and Jerusalem and Bethlehem were entrusted to an independent trusteeship, and would not be under either Israel or Palestine.
But when Israel declared its independence on May 15, 1948, Palestine also declared its independence on the same day. However, the neighbouring Arab states of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon attacked, and when the war concluded in 1949, Israel took over almost 100% of the territory, including West Jerusalem. The war ended not by Palestinians creating their own state in the remaining territory, but by Jordan taking over the entire West Bank, and Egypt taking over the southern areas, including Gaza. Israel threw a lot of Palestinians out of their homeland, but the Arabs also deceived the Palestinians.
In 1967, again the neighbouring Arab states attacked Israel. Israel won the war and managed to expand the territory further—it took over the entire West Bank (from Jordan), Gaza and Golan Heights (from Syria), Sinai peninsula (from Egypt).
In the 1973 war, again launched by the Arabs, Israel repelled the attack but there was not much territorial expansion.
So, from Israel's point of view, since the birth of the nation, each war was started by the neighbouring Arabs. Also, the neighbouring states didn't help the creation of the Palestinian state, which was mandated by the UN. Rather, they used the territory for themselves.
"Until 1967, Israel had a moral high ground because it was being attacked. But after 1967, Israel became the perpetrator of injustice."
Eventually, Israel gave up the Palestinian territories it acquired, but it retained effective control. Israel started treating the Palestinians in an inhuman manner. In the West Bank, they created almost 500 checkpoints, and Israeli settlers started taking over territories in the West Bank and Gaza. There were separate laws for Israeli settlers and for the Palestinians. It was almost like apartheid in the occupied territories.
Until 1967, Israel had a moral high ground because it was being attacked. But after 1967, Israel became the perpetrator of injustice. And then the Israel - Palestine conflict started and the Palestinians revolted.
In 2005, under the most hardline Prime Minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, Israel decided to give independence to Gaza. So, Gaza got sovereignty, but Israel surrounded it and created a blockade. So, Gaza became like a prison. They had to depend on Israel for everything, including supplies of food, water, infrastructure, energy, everything. And so the Gazans started protesting against that.
In 2006, in democratic elections in the Palestinian territory, Hamas won. This was an opportunity to create lasting peace. But Israel, Europe, and the US refused to recognise the outcome of the election. They announced an economic blockade of Hamas, and Hamas also made a mistake and refused to recognise the existence of Israel. Israel refused to recognise Hamas.
This conflict has been going on with constant Palestinian complaints of injustice, which are true. And then Palestinians took to terror tactics, though the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had taken to terror in the 1970s.
And now with Hamas in Gaza, the organised terrorism increased.
Lately, the Israeli leadership, from Palestine’s point of view, violated the Al-Aqsa Mosque and that became the trigger for this attack.
Shlomo Ben-Ami, former Israeli foreign minister, said Netanyahu is responsible for this tragedy and the incompetence of the Israeli response. There are demonstrations taking place in Tel Aviv which the Indian media doesn’t cover, against Netanyahu—they want their relatives who are held hostage to come home.
Al-Aqsa Mosque is in Jerusalem. The attack on Ramallah happened in the West Bank. The West Bank is under Palestinian Authority, which is a different organisation from Gaza, which is run by Hamas. But the current operation is being called Al-Aqsa Flood…
Its location doesn't really matter. Al-Aqsa is one of the holiest places in Islam, but it [the Old City of Jerusalem] is also the location of the Dome of The Rock, which is a holy place for the Jews. So, it has become very contentious. That is the problem.
"While the Israelis and Palestinians have been in conflict, the Arab states have also not been fair to the Palestinians"
We have to also keep in mind the history—while the Israelis and Palestinians have been in conflict, the Arab states have also not been fair to the Palestinians. In the 1980s, the Palestinians moved to Jordan; they were thrown out of Jordan. They went to Lebanon and were thrown out from there too. They went to Tunisia… Palestinian refugees have been going from country to country, but no Arab state is ready to take them.
But Palestinians too have been very unreasonable and incompetent in handling their affairs.
First, they have taken to terrorism—and lost any sympathy. Second, there has been a split within them—the Palestinian Authority is dominated by the PLO, and then there is Hamas. And they’ve had bloodshed between them. Third, they are really not being practical in finding a solution.
I was negotiating between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. My purpose was very limited. The Palestinians said they wanted justice in the distribution of water, because they depend on Israel for water supply. So when Shimon Peres, the then President of Israel, and I spoke, I presented him with the Palestinian demand. The officials in charge of the issue in the Israeli army and I had very hard negotiations. And in the end, when the Israelis accepted the Palestinian demand, the Palestinians just walked out of the negotiation. After Israel had accepted. Then they started telling me no, this is not enough, they should deliver us the whole independent Palestine state. I mean, I'm running a think tank out of Mumbai, I can't deliver an independent Palestine state which the UN, the US, the UK and Russia, all of them together have not been able to deliver. And this happened twice in two different aspects. The second time it happened, it was about giving permission to the Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank to dig more wells and supplying extra desalinated water to Gaza. I had tough negotiations with the Israelis and they agreed to allow the Palestinians to dig wells in two out of the three spots they have demanded. And they agreed to supply extra water to Gaza. This is what I negotiated. And then after the negotiations were successfully concluded, the Palestinians walked out. This sort of thing has been happening again and again.
It seems that the power centres of Hamas at least, and the PLO or the Palestinian Authority, are Qatar and Iran. So, it doesn't matter whether Jordan or Egypt or Syria or Lebanon, which are the immediate neighbours, whether they are exerting authority on them or not. It seems that the remote controls are in the hands of other parties. Is that true?
It is more complex. When I was negotiating between Israel and Hamas in 2010, Hamas was operating out of Damascus. I was part of a six-member mediating team led by Lord Alderdice, and we met them in underground barracks in Damascus. At that time Syria was very keen on finding a solution with Israel. Because Syria was keen, Hamas was also keen to find a solution, and that they will settle with Israel and even recognise Israel, which is Israel’s main demand, which is the 1967 border—the pre war 1967 border. But that was because the Syrians wanted to find a solution. And politics was very different at that time.
Today, Turkey and Qatar are Israel's enemies. And Israel is friendly with Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Jordan. In those days, Turkey and Qatar were Israel’s best friends. And Israel was okay with Egypt and Jordan, and didn't have much of any kind of dialogue with Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain. Israel, Turkey and Qatar fully trusted each other. That was the situation at that time.
We are now one week into this war. What are the scenarios that you see unfolding?
Israel is going to completely decimate Hamas, and it's going to result in a huge humanitarian tragedy.
Right now, the situation is that Hamas has killed 1,300 Israelis in terrorist attacks, 200 have been kidnapped, 2,500 have been injured—so at least 4,000 Israelis are casualties. This is the worst that Israel has suffered. It is not likely at all that Israel will show any kind of mercy or listen to the pleas of the international community. It is very clear that Israel will go for complete decimation of Hamas and it will result in a huge humanitarian tragedy with thousands of Palestinians being killed, injured, maimed.
"Hamas may no longer exist as an organised unit. But as a terrorist organisation it will rise not only in the Middle East, but around the world"
Maybe Hamas infrastructure will be destroyed and it may no longer exist as an organised unit. But what will happen as a result of that, is that some of the Hamas operatives who are alive or who are outside of the Middle East, might take to terrorism. What we will see is the spread of terrorism around the world, particularly in European capitals. So, Hamas as a terrorist organisation will rise not only in the Middle East, but around the world. Attacks on Israel will now take place not necessarily in Israeli territory, but on Israeli assets outside. Just yesterday, there was a small terrorist attack in Paris and there was a huge rumour that there maybe something bigger and the Louvre Museum had to be closed.
So this will now become an international problem. It will not go away; it will change its form.
"The Gulf states cannot have normal relationships with Israel—there will be major protests in those countries if they try"
The biggest geopolitical implication of this conflict will be—beyond a direct bilateral conflict between Hamas and Israel—is what I was saying earlier. That 10 years ago, the Middle East was split in a way that Turkey and Qatar were Israel's friends and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states were Israel's enemies. Since 2016 it is exactly the opposite—Turkey and Qatar have become Israel's enemies, and the Gulf states have become Israel's friends. Now, what will happen as a result of this conflict, the Gulf states cannot have normal relationships with Israel—it will be impossible for them. There will be major protests in those countries if they try. Turkey and Qatar anyway continue to be enemies and Israel considers Iran as enemy number one. So, for the first time in the last several decades, Israel will be without a friend in the Muslim world. Israel, even though it's a Jewish state, has always had some friends in the Muslim world in the Middle East.
Israel had normalised a little bit with Turkey, and even Qatar, and they were going full speed in normalising with Saudi Arabia. Now, all of that will go away. So the political conflict will spread between Israel versus the rest of the Arab world.
One of the comments you had made in The World in 2023 masterclass was that the world has seen long wars—10-year-long wars in Iraq, etc. What’s the kind of scenario you're seeing? How long can this get protracted out? Are all options like a two state solution, state within state, off the table now?
Looking at 2025, [the economic cost of this conflict since 1991] will be more like $30-40 trillion. What it means is that per capita income in 2010 would have been double of 1991 in all Arab states, and in Israel. It didn't happen because of this opportunity cost.
The conflict—and not just a direct war, but all kinds of warfare—will go on for at least 10-15 years or more.
We're getting into a state of perma war. We're looking at Ukraine - Russia, the Afghan situation after the US withdrawal, and China… And what does this mean for the US and the West?
"In these two theatres of war alone, you have nuclear powers in Israel and Russia. So we're really approaching the nuclear threshold"
Look at the two major wars that are going on. Israel - Hamas for the time being, but it’s soon going to be Israel and its Islamic neighbouring countries in the Middle East—with state actors as well as non-state actors. Ukraine - Russia is the other theatre of war. In these two theatres alone, you have nuclear powers in Israel and Russia. So we're really approaching the nuclear threshold. And don't forget the tension between the US and China. So we are approaching one of the most dangerous periods in human history because of the [potential for] nuclear wars. Multiple wars, in different theatres coexisting at a time of prevalence of nuclear weapons, and the growing interface between artificial intelligence and nuclear weapons. And therefore, what the world has to worry about is if in one of these wars, if some miscalculations take place, you could cross a nuclear threshold, and then the entire human civilization will be at stake.
I would only summarise this whole discussion in one line. And that is what UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said: The world is one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation.