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Harvard Prof. Noah Feldman ’92 Discusses Geopolitical Consequences of Israel-Hamas War at Law School Event

Harvard Law School professor Noah R. Feldman talked about the geopolitical impacts of the Israel-Hamas War at Wasserstein Hall last week.
Harvard Law School professor Noah R. Feldman talked about the geopolitical impacts of the Israel-Hamas War at Wasserstein Hall last week. By Truong L. Nguyen
By Adina R. Lippman and Dhruv T. Patel, Contributing Writers

Harvard Law School professor Noah R. Feldman ’92 discussed the potential broader effects of the 2023 Israel-Hamas war on geopolitical tensions in the Middle East at an HLS event last week.

The event, titled “The 2023 Israel-Hamas War: A Historical Perspective on Causes and Consequences,” was hosted in Wasserstein Hall on Nov. 21. Harvard History professor Derek J. Penslar was scheduled to speak alongside Feldman, but he was unable to attend due to health issues.

Feldman argued that while significant and consequential, the Israel-Hamas war may not result in any major shifts in the ideological or geostrategic goals of its participants.

“The overall geopolitical situation is likely to change much, much less than anybody on either side right now psycho-emotionally feels that it will,” he said.

Feldman said he believes the larger question is whether the war will be confined to Gaza or spill over and fuel conflicts in the Middle East. Feldman pointed to existing tensions between Hezbollah — an Iran-backed militant group — and Israel, estimating a 20 percent chance of a war between Israel and Hezbollah within the next six months.

“Those within Hezbollah who want there to be a war with Israel for effectively ideological reasons also think they should take advantage of the possibility of a preemptive attack, especially when Israel is fighting a war on another front,” he said.

Feldman also said international relations between Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States may have played a role in the timing of the Israel-Hamas war. Under the “grand bargain” deal, the U.S. would give Saudi Arabia access to its civilian nuclear program and a security guarantee in exchange for Saudi efforts to normalize relations with Israel and pursue talks outlining a path toward a Palestinian state, according to Feldman.

“Although it’s impossible to state this with any certainty, I would say probabilistically that the prospect that such a deal is within the realm of possibility was a major factor contributing to the timing of the Hamas attacks,” he said.

Feldman said he believes it is likely that one of Hamas’ goals in its Oct. 7 attack was to hinder the possibility of such a deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

“This is how the logic would have gone from Hamas’ perspective: Attack Israel; motivate a wildly significant Israeli response; which will kill many, many, many civilians; generate substantial pro-Palestinian sentiment and anti-Israel sentiment, leave out the rest of the world,” Feldman said. “And thereby make it much more difficult for Saudi Arabia to cut a deal with Israel.”

Hamas’ best-case scenario, according to Feldman, was that their attack would lead to an open war on the Lebanon-Israel border, which would create a third front to attack Israel.

“The overall effect would have been transformative with respect to Israel’s capacity to function to exist,” Feldman said.

Following the Oct. 7 attacks, Saudi Arabia may be “heartened” by Hamas’ weakened position in Gaza, Feldman said. Before the attacks, if a Saudi-Israeli deal had passed, the Palestinian Authority would be the spokesperson for Gaza regarding the creation of a Palestinian state — despite having no “practical authority at all” in the region.

“There are parts of people in the Saudi world who think that that is actually going to be a blessing with respect to doing a deal where the PA would be able to assert actual authority in Gaza,” Feldman said.

Feldman said while this view has been voiced by White House officials, he is unsure whether it is accurate.

“That view is being encouraged in Washington by the Biden administration and by people who want to see this as a horrific tragedy that they can then use to motivate change, strategic interests and a higher probability of the deal,” Feldman said.

“Yes it’s wishful thinking, but wishful thinking sometimes has some truth to it,” Feldman added.

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