A Pillar of Defense

Israel’s biggest foe resides beyond the Gaza Strip: Iran has almost encircled the government in Jerusalem. Israel – the West’s only reliable ally in the Middle East – finds itself in a tactical bind.

Many observers make a connection between Netanyahu’s intervention in Gaza and Israeli electoral politics. On social media websites, Israelis are sharing a table that lists the dates of the country’s previous elections and the dates of military interventions. There is some evidence for a correlation. Many say the military operation of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) is supposed to distract attention away from economic problems before the January 2013 elections.

But we must also recognize that the frequency of Israeli military operations means that some of them will inevitably fall before an election. We should thus also consider the political and military context for operation Pillar of Defense. After all, Netanyahu did not need to boost his ratings through a costly military operation. His center-right Likud party enjoys a sizeable advantage – together with Avidgor Lieberman’s nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party – over the Labor party. Polls estimate that the incumbents would enjoy an 11-seat advantage (out of 120 seats) if elections were held today. Netanyahu intervened in Gaza because he could count on such an advantage.

There is at least one strictly military reason for intervention in Gaza: Hamas and its acolytes have dramatically increased their fire power. In the year of the large-scale operation in the Gaza Strip, operation Cast Lead in 2009, militants fired some 200 grenades and rockets into Israel. Since then, the annual number of rockets has increased: first to 600, and up to 700 before the current Pillar of Defense operation. On average, three rockets or grenades were launched per day in the last ten years.

The progress in military capacity is even more evident if we consider the resilience of the Gaza Strip’s militants during days of intensified warfare. On November 16th alone, 100 rockets were launched from the Gaza Strip. In the first days of the current operation, a total of 500 rockets were launched (including those that landed at sea or were destroyed by Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system. During operation Cast Lead in 2009, an average of 23 rockets and grenades were launched per day (776 attacks in 23 days). This time around, up to 160 per day were launched during operation Pillar of Defense.

There is also a technological component to consider. Gaza’s militants have showcased a new version of rockets “inspired” by Iranian technology. the “Fajr-5” is capable (at least in theory) of hitting targets at a distance of 75 kilometers. The Fajr-5 isn’t just a grenade or rudimentary missile launched from a pipe: it is a real rocket whose operation required advanced training and which can reach Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. This means that all of Israel can now be reached by extremist forces. The most important city in the North, Haifa, has twice been hit by Hezbollah rockets from Lebanon in 2006.

There’s also a political (although not an electoral) reason to consider. Israel isn’t fighting Hamas but a collection of extremist groups inside the Gaza Strip. Some of them are Salafists, who now count on newly forged connections with Salafists from Egypt. They don’t coordinate perfectly with Hamas and use rockets as a political weapon against Israel and Hamas. The Salafists and Hamas both hold the Palestinian population of the Gaza Strip hostage. Indeed, the impossibility to control the firing of rockets in 2012 is a clear signal that the Strip isn’t under anyone’s control.

All these aspects combine for a worrisome tactical situation: Iran has encircled Israel in the North and South. In Southern Lebanon, the Shiites of Hezbollah receive vital financial and military aid from Iran and have recently been able to fly a drone over Israel’s territory. In the South, rocket technology is also smuggled into the Gaza Strip from Iran. We have clear evidence for a commercial route that runs through Sudan and Egypt and is used to deliver components into the Gaza Strip. Although Palestinians are Sunni (and thus differ from Iran’s Shiite majority), Tehran is allying with opposing groups to achieve its own goals in the region. In Egypt, Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brothers have proven inept at controlling the political forces in Cairo and the desert and waterways of Sinai, where missiles are smuggled.

Pillar of Defense has the purpose of revealing Iran’s scheme to the world. In a post-revolutionary (and post-imperialist) phase, local powers normally pursue dominion in a region (like Pakistan did after the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan in the late 1980s). Israel is demonstrating that Iran has no qualms arming anarchist and extremist organizations to hit Israel – in addition to pursuing its own development of WMDs. Israel is also demonstrating that the new governments of the Middle East are not reliable, and that it servs as the West’s last remaining ally in the region. As Ronald Reagan’s first Secretary of State Alexander Haig once declared, “Israel is the largest American aircraft carrier in the world that cannot be sunk, does not carry even one American soldier, and is located in a critical region for American national security.” This has never been more true than today.

The current conflict points towards the reorganization of big power interests in the Middle East. Russia has been an outsider ever since the Red Army’s defeat in Afghanistan and the Soviet collapse in 1991. For years, Moscow has pursued a comeback attempt that has been based on support for the Shiite Crescent, from Iran to Syria and Southern Lebanon. The Kremlin is trying to control this hydra to have a stake in the Palestinian conflict and to prevent American domination in the Middle East – especially in the delicate post-Arabist period, when the future of many countries is shaped.

The United States has decided to back Netanyahu’s decision. The US Department of State has issued an official communication taking the side of Israel against Hamas. Indeed, Washington doesn’t have many other options in the region. Even Turkey, historically a member of NATO, has transformed itself in recent years. The half-moon on Turkey’s flag is turning into a question mark as the country flirts with Moscow and its over-ambitious policy of “neo-Ottomanism.” Netanyahu had to wait out for the US presidential election before he could order the operation. Obama, on the other hand, cannot allow the Middle East – the center of global struggle between world powers – to slip from his hands. For better or worse, Pillar of Defense may be the beginning of a rapprochement between Netanyahu and Obama, and the real comeback of the US in the Middle East.

Read more in this column Stefano Casertano: Steady as she goes

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