"[T]he Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades." This is how Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden's National Security advisor boasted about the administration's claimed successes in advancing the cause of peace in a region that hasn't enjoyed it for more than 100 years.
Sullivan's Pollyannaish statement came just days before Hamas launched its deadliest attack on Israel so far, triggering the kind of crisis that even Middle East pessimists, such as this writer, thought belonged to the past.
The attack prompted two immediate analyses.
The first was that on 7 October (10/7) Israel experienced its version of America's 9/11. However, Israel's 10/7 is worse than 9/11 in US. The Al-Qaeda attack on the US claimed 3,000 lives while Israel mourns over 1,300 lives lost. Adjusted for difference in the two nations' populations, Israel lost the equivalent of 48,000 US citizens in one day.
The second analysis pointed out the failure of Israel's intelligence services, supposed to be the best in the world, to have been as ineffective in learning about what was afoot as the CIA was before 9/11.
What is important to note, however, is that 7/10 has ended the status quo that had taken shape between Israel and Hamas in Gaza since 2009 when it was Israel that broke the previous status quo.
A status quo between two belligerents is broken when one of them feels it to be intolerable.
In 2008, Israel could no longer tolerate almost daily barrage of rockets and missiles against its towns and villages in the south. At the time, Israeli military leaders talked of "mowing the lawn" in Gaza or cutting off Hamas's poisonous herbs.
That campaign reached its peak in 2008-9 with "Operation Cast Lead" that turned a good part of the enclave into a heap of debris but left the poisonous herb almost untouched.
At the time, Israeli leaders said they wanted to "break the bones of Hamas" but not to knock it into a wheelchair.
They ignored one of the advice of the Florentine clerk that "Don't wound a deadly enemy and let him live to recover. Either turn him into a friend or kill him!"
Israeli leaders tried to apply to Hamas the strategy they had used against hostile Arab neighbors since 1948: "Taking them to the dentist every 10 years to defang them."
The error the Israelis made was not to see the difference between classical state structures that have to run a country and respond to the minimum needs of their society and a non-state actor that has little concern about the people under its rule.
Hamas has been in a position to totally ignore the needs of people living in the enclave. Essential needs as food, education and health care are covered by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), over 100 NGOs from some 30 countries and frequent donations from countries wishing to show solidarity with Palestinians. In some cases foreign, donors even pay the salaries of the personnel in the local administration.
Thanks to "gifts" from "certain friendly powers", Hamas and its junior partner, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, even don't have to buy their arms.
Hamas's attack may have been prompted by sheer opportunism. Its leaders could not have ignored the unprecedented political crisis triggered by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's attempt at reforming Israel's judicial system. Nor could they have not noted President Joe Biden's thinly disguised campaign to direct Netanyahu towards the exit. Grumblings by sole foreign donors that Hamas was getting huge sums of money without doing much to advance "the cause" may have also contributed to the group's decision to break the status quo.
The question now is: what next? Breaking a status quo could be an effective means of ending a stalemate provided the party that does the breaking demands something that the adversary may be able to offer. By breaking the status quo with the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Egypt was able to recover its lost territories. In a similar context Jordan achieved the security of its demarcated borders on the path to normalization with Israel.
In the case of Hamas, however, neither if those outcomes can be envisaged. Hamas doesn't want just territory; because Israel had already evacuated Gaza in 2005. Had it been in the business of nation-building, Hamas could have used the past two decades attracting foreign investment, including from wealthy Palestinians across the globe, to turn the enclave into a bustling mini-power on the Mediterranean. It is possible that, in the context of such a scenario, Israel and its friends would have also helped, if only to attenuate Palestinian revanchist sentiments.
But Hamas, as its charter clearly states, is not in the business of nation-building: what it seeks is the elimination of Israel, something that Israelis are unlikely to offer.
Thus Hamas may end up with an even worse status quo, with the enclave suffering further destruction, its arsenals depleted and its best fighters dispatched to Valhalla. The threat of executing hostages, that include citizens of several countries other than Israel, could sap much of the sympathy that there is for the Palestinian "cause," especially in the West.
Worse still for Hamas, Israel may end up regaining the image of the victim that it had lost partly thanks to the efforts of sundry anti-Semitic figures and currents across the globe. In exchange, the latest Hamas attack restores the old image of Palestinians as terrorists and hostage-takers.
In shaping a new status quo, the initiative remains largely with Netanyahu.
Sensing that, whatever happens, his checkered career as prime minister is bound to end, he might be tempted by the option of maximum destruction. If he opts for that, he would be acting against character as, so far at least, he has always been cautious in using the military option.
The current showdown also shows the inability or unwillingness of the Biden administration to discard then President Barack Obama's disastrous Middle East policy of cold-shouldering friends in the hope of getting warmth from foes.
Note to Jake Sullivan: In the Middle East, it is when things appear to be hunky-dory that you ought to expect bad news.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe.
This article originally appeared in Asharq Al-Awsat and is reprinted with some changes by kind permission of the author.