A strategic threat

Throughout its history, Israel’s wars have been with Arab nationalists: from the seven Arab League founding members and the Palestinian national movement in 1948, through Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Baathists in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, and on to Fateh and Saddam Hussein in the last two decades or so. By the by, what we might today call Islamist figures also participated: Haj Amin al-Husseini and the Saudis come to mind; Egyptian Muslim Brothers took part in the 1948 war. But in the main, the conflict has been with Arab nationalism, not Arab Islamism. The question now before us is thus of historic importance: is all that about to change?

Israel finds itself flanked on three fronts by Islamist movements that represent a broad regional trend: Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank; Hizballah in southern Lebanon. Hamas is a branch of the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood, which supports it. Hizballah is largely a proxy of Islamist Iran, with the connivance of Syria. Iran, mainly through Syria and Lebanon, also supports Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza and the West Bank and a variety of Fateh dissidents in the West Bank. On yet another front, al-Qaeda is infiltrating Egyptian Sinai and, from its new base in Iraq, increasingly targeting both Egypt and Jordan. Above and beyond this worrisome Islamist deployment, Iran’s nuclear program adds an element of regional and even global escalation.

Taken separately, none of the Islamist forces bordering on Israel or infiltrating Palestine constitutes a strategic threat to Israel. Taken together, and factoring in Iran, this is indeed a strategic threat.

Looking to the months ahead, this deployment suggests a number of possible scenarios. Deterrence rarely works against determined terrorists, especially Islamists who champion suicide operations. But because Hamas is in a transition process from terrorist movement to government, it (or at least its "internal" leadership) is risking the most if relations with Israel seriously deteriorate. Hence Hamas presents the only serious prospect of an Islamist movement in Israel’s vicinity moderating its policies and seeking peaceful coexistence with Israel; Hizballah has successfully resisted international and Lebanese pressures in this regard. Because the situation is without precedent in the annals of the modern Middle East, how far Hamas could conceivably diverge from the pan-Arab Islamist line remains for the moment a subject of speculation. What, if anything, Israel can do to influence Hamas’ attitude toward it is also unclear.

A second scenario focuses on Syria, the regional base for Hamas and Islamic Jihad and a key link in Iran’s support for Hizballah. Thus far, President Bashar Assad’s regime in Damascus has successfully rebuffed international demands that it cease supporting terrorists in both the Israeli and Iraqi arenas. But Assad’s regime is secular, hence not an organic element in the Islamist infrastructure, and it is weak. Indeed, it is the weak link in the Islamist ring emerging around Israel. If it could be bought off and brought into a peace process with Israel this would help fragment the Islamist forces. At a time when peace with the Palestinians is in any case not a likely option, this might constitute a logical move for Israel, if Assad is willing and the United States could be convinced to support Jerusalem despite its misgivings about the regime in Damascus.

Yet a third scenario focuses on the regional Islamist reaction to a military offensive against Iran’s nuclear program. In this event, Hizballah is liable to fire a barrage of katyusha rockets against the northern half of Israel, with Hamas and Islamic Jihad escalating terrorist operations. Iran might launch a missile strike against Israel from afar. Regional stability, and particularly the status quo in Lebanon and Syria, could be affected by Israel’s response.

Finally, and inevitably, there is continuation of the status quo: Israel and Hamas adjust to one another, with Fateh conceivably presenting a viable alternative if and when it carries out the necessary internal reforms; Israel, Egypt and Jordan prevent Hamas and al-Qaeda from expanding their regional presence; and Israeli and American deterrence vis-a-vis Syria constrains Damascus from supporting its and Iran’s Islamist clients and proxies too enthusiastically. This is where the forces for moderation are currently focusing their efforts. This is the "safe" alternative–though hardly the most creative.