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Israel’s actions in Gaza are designed to deal with more than the present challenge presented by Hamas – there are long term existential issues at stake. If Israel is to deter its neighbours from becoming involved in wars in the future, it must set back the strategic penetration of Iran and its radical axis.
By Asher Susser, Tel Aviv University
Photo by Amir Farshad Ebrahimi
This article is part of a RUSI.org forum containing different perspectives on the crisis in Gaza and the Middle East
Appearances can be misleading. The war in Gaza might seem to be solely about the rockets being fired by Hamas into Israel, but that is only part of the picture. For Israel there are long term existential issues at stake.
The Middle East region has undergone dramatic change in the last twenty years or so. The Sunni Arab core of countries, led by Egypt, has contracted and declined in regional influence. This trend was exacerbated by the crushing of Iraq by the US and its allies. The removal of Iraq as the ‘gatekeeper’ of the Arab East (mashriq) has exposed the region to increasing Iranian strategic penetration, the likes of which we have never experienced in the modern era.
Iranian hegemonic design and regional penetration has changed the face of the Middle East. Iran, hitherto part of the so-called regional periphery, is now very much part of the centre. As the states of the Sunni Arab core have weakened the role of non-state actors, from Al-Qa’ida to Hezbollah and Hamas, has increased. Exploiting the new circumstances, Iran has become more than a Persian Gulf power; it now also possesses strategic outposts on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean: one in Lebanon in the form of Hezbollah and the other in the form of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza.
Israel’s war in Lebanon in 2006 against Hezbollah was the first indirect regional encounter between two relatively new hegemonic powers of the region, Iran and Israel.The war in Gaza is another. Israel cannot accept the rocketry of Iran’s surrogates, which sends hundreds of thousands of its citizens scurrying for the shelters at any time of their choosing, as a way of life. All Israel’s neighbours must be deterred from following Gaza’s example by the recognition that the price to be paid for such provocation will be unbearable. If Israel demonstrates a lack of resolve and an unwillingness to fight it will prove itself to be incapable of delivering such a message to the neighbourhood and its long term survival will be in serious doubt.
When long term survivability in a very tough and cynical neighbourhood is hanging in the balance, what exactly is a proportionate response? The discussion of proportionality should therefore consider Israel’s overall perception of threat and whether the action taken is proportional to the threat in question. Israel is not only fighting the present Hamas challenge but it seeks to prevent, by deterrence, future wars that might inflict an eventually insufferable loss of life on Israel.
When Israel elected not to retaliate to the rocket attacks from Gaza it was understood by Hamas not as an act of restraint, but of weakness and lack of resolve. This produced the Hamas miscalculation of the Israeli response and the trigger for all out war, as was the case with Hezbollah in the summer of 2006. Israel’s resort to force in 2006 was well executed in the air but poorly executed on the ground by a less than mediocre political-military leadership. Even so, it produced at least part of the desired result – the deterrence of Hezbollah and two and a half years of quiet on the Israeli-Lebanese border. So far Hezbollah has been very careful to stay out of the present war, and it remains to be seen if this abstinence will last. If it does, this too will be an added achievement of the so-called disproportionate Israeli response in 2006.
In the present campaign it is crucial for Israel, as well as for the states of the Sunni Arab core, that the strategic penetration of Iran and its radical axis is set back. Hamas must be cut down to size to the extent that it will accept a stable and durable cease fire. A verifiable system of control over the Egyptian-Gazan border is also needed to prevent the rearmament of Hamas. Israel will do its utmost to secure these objectives and will seek to persevere until it assesses that these objectives are indeed within reach.
Asher Susser is Director for External Affairs and Senior Research Fellow at the Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former Director of the Centre.
The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.