A cease-fire at the end of last week brought the latest flare-up between Israel and Hamas to a close, or at least to another pause. Yet it seems likely that this exchange was only shadowboxing ahead of the real conflict potentially still to come between Israel and Iran.
While some residents of Gaza celebrate the “success” of having fired missiles in the direction of Israel's large cities, they and their neighbors are left to deal with the realities of lives lost, property destroyed and living standards further reduced, all with no discernible advance toward their goals of either genuine self-rule or an end to the Israeli embargo. Gaza health officials have reported over 150 Palestinian fatalities, as opposed to Israel’s self-reported six.
In fact, the long-term barrage of missiles from Gaza into Israel, and the escalation in targeting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, was just about the only thing that could have shifted a substantial chunk of world opinion back in favor of Israel’s policy of physically isolating Gaza as a self-defense measure. I don’t expect to see any more embargo-running flotillas coming out of Turkey with official support any time soon.
Gazans now have a better idea of the price and the consequence of allowing themselves to be used as Iranian pawns. They get to fire the missiles that in turn draw Israeli return fire. While Gaza suffers the consequences of Israel’s retaliation, the Iranian-supplied Fajr-5 rockets they aim at Israeli population centers are knocked out of the sky by Israel's Iron Dome at a very high rate, perhaps approaching 90 percent. Serving as Iran’s proxy is not doing much to advance the Palestinian cause. It is not entirely clear that Hamas will be eager to act as Iran’s launch pad again, in the event direct conflict breaks out between the governments in Jerusalem and Tehran.
The New York Times reported that Michael B. Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States and a military historian, compared Iranian missiles in Gaza to the Cuban Missile Crisis, saying, “In the Cuban missile crisis, the U.S. was not confronting Cuba, but rather the Soviet Union. In Operation Pillar of Defense, Israel was not confronting Gaza, but Iran.”
I wrote about the potential escalation between Israel and Iran back in February. While the situation continues to hold for now, the two powers continue to inch toward the possibility of open conflict. Yet this most recent skirmish may cool things off on Iran’s end, at least for the immediate future. Iran, having seen how few of its missiles actually managed to cause significant damage in Israel even when fired from close range, can’t be very pleased with the prospects for any missiles that it would launch from its own territory, hundreds of miles farther away. The perceived price in Israel for a strike against Iranian nuclear facilities has just gone down. Iran knows as much.
If Syrian President Bashar al-Assad falls and Iran’s ability to operate through Lebanon-based Hezbollah is diminished, that price will decrease even further. As a result, Iran has a little more incentive to negotiate over its nuclear program. But incentives have not generally had much effect in the past, because the Iranian regime has good reason to believe that without the ultimate doomsday threat of a nuclear arsenal, its own days are numbered. So although the Iranians may be more willing to talk about their nuclear program, I don't expect much in the way of concrete action.
The continued boldness of Iran’s regime is partly contingent on its Chinese and Russian support in the United Nations Security Council. This support may be less than ironclad. The Iranians have threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz if they are attacked, blocking oil exports from the Persian Gulf. These days, China happens to be a lot more dependent on Middle East crude oil than is the increasingly self-supplied United States. The U.S. Navy has taken responsibility for keeping the Persian Gulf oil lanes open for now. It might be worth mentioning to China, and it’s certainly possible the administration already has, that the U.S. might just let the Chinese worry about getting oil out of the Gulf in the event of conflict. The Chinese are not well equipped to do this. Such a reminder might be just the incentive the Chinese need to pressure the Iranians to back down from their nuclear program.
The brief and bloody exchange between Israel and Hamas did not settle anything, and unless Gaza-based rocket fire diminishes almost to zero, it won’t satisfy Israeli public opinion very long. Despite having to head for bomb shelters an average of 21 times a day in some areas, many if not most Israelis were more concerned with stopping Gaza-based attacks in the long run than putting a quick end to the conflict. This exchange was just one move in a long chess game. At first blush, it seems to have put the Israelis in a stronger position than they were before.
Here’s hoping, for everyone’s sake, that the Palestinians conclude quickly that their own strategic interests do not include fighting Iran’s battles.