In the latest confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians, the interception of supply ships headed to Gaza, the usual lines have been drawn. Those supporting Israel claim the ships represented a danger to Israeli security, while those supporting the Palestinians paint this as just another episode of Israeli evil and brutality.
Now, I’m absolutely convinced that Israeli policy has been misguided for some time. A policy of occupation that humiliates the civilian population and focuses on military security over humanitarian concerns has utterly and absolutely failed. Israel is less secure than it was in 1967, militarist groups like Hamas have grown stronger and used Israeli actions as propaganda, and the international community views Israel as a rogue state. The approach they have taken hasn’t worked — they need to completely rethink their policies and consider ones grounded in a more humanitarian concern for the civilian populations. The economic blockade of Gaza needs to end; Israel is only hurting itself and empowering its most radical opponents with this tactic.
However, that does not mean that Israeli fears are wrong, or that the Israelis don’t have a legitimate fear of Hamas and nefarious activities in Gaza. The smuggling of weapons, firing of missiles into Israel, and the growing possibility of an all out military conflict in the region combine with concerns about Hezbollah and Iran to create a sense of urgency in Israel. In many ways the existence of the Jewish state threatened more than any time since the war of 1948.
The shift from “conventional” warfare to asymmetrical wars and terrorism has come at the expense of Israeli security. Moreover, the rise of Iran as a regional power terrifies Israeli officials. If things continue, it may be possible that nuclear terrorism and an insurgency backed with Iranian power could threaten the continued existence of Israel. So what if Israel is right? What if Iran is plotting the destruction of the Jewish state? What if Hamas and Hezbollah represent a potential to disrupt the region and weaken Israel? What if nuclear terrorism is part of the plot?
If those worst fears of Israeli supporters are accurate, then one could expect at some point a crisis in Gaza or even the West Bank to expand, igniting another war. It could be against Hamas, Hezbollah, or both at the same time. Israel would hold its own in the fighting, but would find that weaponry sent by Iran would give Hezbollah the capacity to do real damage. There would be real temptation for Israel to expand the war and attack Iran. That could be playing right into the hands of the Iranian conservative leadership.
Consider Iran to be akin to the rising Prussia of the late 19th century. Prussia fought two wars to unify Germany and become the dominant central European power. However, Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was smart enough to realize that if Prussia invaded other states it would be seen as the aggressor and condemned by all European states. As strong as the Prussian military had become, it wasn’t strong enough to counter all of Europe! So it suckered Austria and France into each declaring war in Prussia. Prussia was seen as the victim and benefited from the aggression of others. If Israel were to attack Iran outright, it could be akin to the French invasion of Prussia — a gift to a country that wants to expand its power, but doesn’t want to appear an aggressor.
If Iran has nuclear weapons, it also would not use them first. Israel has lots of nuclear weapons, and might be tempted to destroy a number of Iranian sites. If so, then Iran theoretically could use Hezbollah to launch nuclear terrorism (or missiles) into Israel. Israel’s small size would allow even a small number of weapons to devastate the landscape and essentially destroy the country. Israeli counter strikes into Iran could escalate, but that would yield massive civilian casualties and world pressure would be against Israel. Israel would be seen as getting what it deserved, since it used nuclear weapons first. Even the US at that point might wonder why it should support a state that is nothing but ashes — and could even turn against remnants of the Israeli military. Iran would emerge as dominant in the region, while Israelis and Palestinians would ironically share the same fate — their lands poisoned and their people dead.
Note: I do not think this a likely scenario, I actually don’t believe that the worst Israeli fears are accurate. But it’s nonetheless a feasible scenario, and I may be wrong and they may be right.
So what should Israel do? First, don’t make Iran the modern Prussia — do not strike first, especially not with nuclear weapons. Israel is too vulnerable to the possible responses. Second, recognize that there are splits within the terror networks, and even between Hezbollah and Iran. The fear Israel has of Iran is only slightly greater than the fear the Arab states have of their Persian neighbor. Nobody wants Iran to dominate the region.
Israel needs to work with the Arab states to balance Iranian power. That’s only possible if there can be a peace agreement allowing a viable Palestinian state, and ending the brutal treatment of the Palestinian people. Israel has a strategic interest in finding a long term solution to this crisis as the existence of the Jewish state becomes more tenuous the longer the situation remains as it is.
The biggest block to that peace is not the Palestinian people or the Palestinian Authority. The problem, again, is Hamas and Hezbollah. As long as violent terror organizations which openly wish to end the existence of Israel have strength, Israel cannot risk a Palestinian state. With Hamas governing Gaza, this roadblock is immense. So Israel has attempted to use force and economic pressure to weaken Hamas. Just as in 2006 Israel hoped to use military force to weaken Hezbollah, the effort has failed. Terror organizations are different than armies; they cannot be defeated in the usual way. The flotilla fiasco, a PR nightmare for Israel, shows the problem — it’s easy for the extremists to play the entire situation for propaganda purposes.
Israel needs a new approach. Besides lifting the siege of Gaza, a major humanitarian offensive should start with the goal of lifting up the Palestinian people. Israel needs to try to recast the situation as a humanitarian problem to be solved, rather than a conflict to be won. Israel cannot win this kind of asymmetrical struggle, and over time becomes more vulnerable. But working with the international community, Israel could reconfigure the discourse surrounding the conflict and undercut the extremists. The bottom line remains the same: one cannot be pro-Israel without being pro-Palestinian. The two peoples’ destinies are linked, they’ll sink or swim together.