Whom did Israel serve?

In Operation Cast Lead, the situation seemed not that different from that of the Second Lebanon War. The war in Gaza produced a strategic loss for Israel that outweighed any immediate gains in the field. The latter are probably no greater than what Israel could have obtained by launching selective strikes on key Hamas positions.

One wonders if Israel somehow blundered into a steadily escalating war without a clear strategic goal, or at least one it could credibly achieve. Some anti-Iranian factions in Lebanon are asking whether Israel realized that by ending the war as it did it would empower the Iran-Syria axis in political terms even though it defeated it in tactical terms.

Are Israeli decision-makers aware that their actions seriously damaged the US position in the region and undermined the hope of peace while demoralizing moderate Arab regimes and voices in the process? Is it wise for any leader interested in strengthening his or her election campaign to take a tough stand and claim that tactical gains constitute a meaningful victory? If this is all that PM Ehud Olmert, FM Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have for an answer, then they have not realized the extent to which they disturbed the regional balance of power and the damage they have brought upon their country and their associates.

The impact of Operation Cast Lead can be assessed by evaluating the implications of the katyusha rockets that were fired at Israel from Lebanon during the war. Hizballah issued an official announcement that the organization had not carried out this operation and had no idea who fired the rockets. To a great extent this response indicates the strategy of Hizballah and concomitantly Iran in lauding the Arab orientation of the struggle against Israel. Indeed, during Israel’s military operation, and the ground war in particular, Hizballah’s reaction, against the backdrop of the pictures of destruction emerging from Gaza and the wave of protests in the Arab and Islamic world, ensured that the struggle against Israel would be seen as an Arab rather than an Iranian endeavor.

Hassan Nasrallah, who projects himself as not merely a Shi’ite figure but an Arab and Islamic leader, did not condemn the katyusha rocket fire at Israel. He indirectly expressed a view common among many in the Arab and Islamic world, Hamas among them, that the Israeli operation was part of an American-Israeli attempt to impose a humiliating arrangement on Arabs (not Iran) in the region. According to Hizballah, it is a shame that the Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese were left to continue the fight on their own after Egypt and Jordan signed peace agreements with Israel.

This means that there is a strong tendency on the part of Iran, via Hizballah, to exploit Operation Cast Lead to reactivate the entire Arab world in struggle against Israel, ultimately weakening both and embarrassing the new US administration.

The current campaign in Gaza and the Arab world proclaims that resistance in general is the way to bring about Arab and Palestinian rights. In the process, Nasrallah is vigorously attacking pro-American Arab regimes. According to Nasrallah, as was the case during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, now too Israeli military activity is being undertaken with the acquiescence of Arabs, "and in some cases even on the basis of Arab demands". This approach was well-summarized by Hashem Safi al-Din, chairman of Hizballah’s Executive Council ("government"), when he stated that as in the summer of 2006, "the decision is American, the implementation is Zionist and the conspiracy is Arab." The foot-dragging at the Arab summit meeting and the belated Arab appeal to the Security Council strengthen these claims in the view of Hizballah supporters and are very convincing to the Arab masses.

Nonetheless, despite American cooperation with both Israel and the moderate Arab states to exploit the consequences of Operation Cast Lead to their advantage, Iran through Nasrallah benefits from any war launched by Israel against Arabs and proclaims that the issue of resistance will be resolved in the Palestinians’ favor. Nasrallah constantly emphasizes two Israeli weaknesses: first, lack of self-confidence, as evidenced by the absence of clearly stated goals for the operation; and second, the sensitivity of the Israeli public to casualties. This vulnerability, according to Nasrallah, grew after the Second Lebanon War and was at the heart of Israel’s hesitancy in launching the ground campaign, thereby resulting in victory by Hamas.

If both the Israelis and Hamas claim they are victorious, who really are the losers? The Arabs of course. The Arab world emerges from this war far more divided than it has been in decades. Egypt and Syria, the two powerhouses in the Middle East, remain as far apart as they have ever been. Syria has been working overtime trying to convince the rest of the Arab world that it should sever ties with the Jewish state, while Egypt’s approach to the conflict is to keep negotiations with Israel going. Whose side did Israel serve by Operation Cast Lead?