Israel’s war with Gazan-based Hamas is a faithful expression of its broader dilemma with militant Islam. That dilemma is being played out against the backdrop of Israel’s complex relations with a troubled Arab world.
As with Hizballah in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, Israel is now fighting a non-state actor, backed by Iran and operating out of a sovereign no-man’s land or "black hole" from which Israel had previously withdrawn unilaterally. Both the 2005 Gaza withdrawal and the current fighting reflect Israel’s military problem: none of the classic strategies for dealing with a military enemy seem to work. Occupation, removal of occupation, deterrence, tit-for-tat punishment, economic blockade–all have failed. The enemy welcomes extreme hardship and loss of life ("martyrdom") and seemingly would welcome reoccupation. Anything that highlights Gazans’ human suffering sells well in the Arab world and among human rights activists in the West. Any opportunity to wage a war of attrition against Israelis–soldiers and civilians, there is no difference in militant Islamist eyes–drives home the militant Islamist message that the Zionist enterprise is doomed.
The leadership in Israel’s Sunni Arab state neighbors is torn between its sympathy for the plight of Palestinians, its anger with the militant Islamists, its fear of Iran and its concern lest the Arab masses support Hamas, Hizballah and Iran. The regime in Egypt, in particular, is being targeted by Iran because it (correctly) blames Hamas for this conflict and because of its silent complicity with Israel in keeping the Rafah crossing closed. Silent, because the entire Arab state system, which to its credit has agreed to normalize relations with Israel once peace is achieved, appears to be too weak to take serious action against the Islamist threat.
The ghoulish nature of the militant Islamist campaign was perhaps best illustrated a few days ago when a suicide bomber in Iraq targeted an anti-Israel protest there. The non-Islamist psyche is hard put to grasp what is going on. That’s why Israel’s official war aim of punishing Hamas in order "to bring about an improved and more stable security situation for residents of southern Israel over the long term" is probably based on faulty logic. Hamas might accept these terms under duress, but not sincerely or for any length of time.
Hence, however successful from Israel’s standpoint the current ground offensive is in Gaza, in its search for longer-lasting remedies Israel is once again, as in 2006, reaching out to the international community. It wants to see some sort of international force deployed as part of a solution to keep Hamas from rearming. Hizballah’s reluctance thus far to join the fray and open up a second Islamist front against Israel by firing rockets over the heads of UNIFIL II offers silent testimony to the efficacy of the arrangements instituted in southern Lebanon through UN Security Council Resolution 1701.
But Hizballah’s silence also apparently reflects its aspiration not to spoil its chances of becoming the dominant political power in Lebanon in next May’s elections. Herein lies a warning for Israel and its neighbors, including the Fateh leadership in the West Bank. Hizballah parleyed its survival in the 2006 war into a political victory in Lebanon, assisted by Qatari mediation (and bribes). One political solution to the current Gaza conflict offered by Egypt, Qatar and Fateh is renewal of Hamas-PLO unity talks. If Hamas, riding on a wave of Palestinian and broader Arab sympathy, accepts to return to such talks, it is important both for Israel and the moderate Arab leadership that it not be allowed to exploit them to ride to power in the West Bank as well.
Few Israelis and Arabs hold out the hope that Operation Cast Lead will actually lead to the elimination of Hamas, whose true leadership is in Damascus and whose Palestinian supporters easily number in the hundreds of thousands. If Hamas’ Gaza-based leadership and armed cadres can be significantly weakened and a blow struck against one of Iran’s two Mediterranean bases, this operation will have to be considered a moderate success but not a decisive victory.