The Gaza Offensive and Obama’s Opening with Iran

As is always the case with the designs and aspirations of Great Powers, whether they be of nations or multinational corporations, the little people – the civilians caught in the crossfire, or the workers shut out of management decisions affecting their fates – bear the brunt of the actions of decision-makers holding the cards.

Eyes are turned again toward Gaza as the Israeli Defense Forces amass troops in southern Israel and secure the Sinai border between Gaza and Egypt. The IDF and Hamas are exchanging rocket fire following the targeted assassination of Ahmed Jabari, a Hamas military leader. Jabari was a hardcore Hamas leader who refused to negotiate with Israelis directly, but who was described by Aluf Benn in Haaretz, a leading Israeli newspaper, as a “subcontractor, in charge of maintaining Israel’s security in Gaza.” His death sparked rocket attacks into Israel that targeted the cities of Tel Aviv, Ashkelon, Ashdod. Jabari was engaged on the day of his assassination in efforts to secure a permanent cease-fire being brokered by Gershon Baskin, the Israeli peace activist who had helped obtain the release of captured IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. Baskin reports that top Israeli officials knew of this effort but conducted the assassination regardless.

My take on what is happening in Gaza revolves around Israel’s well-stated position on Iran’s nuclear program. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made Israel’s hostility toward Iran acquiring a nuclear capability, thereby upsetting the balance of power nuclear-armed Israel holds in the Middle East, very clear. Netanyahu sought assurances from President Obama that a “red line” not be crossed by Iran on the uranium enrichment cycle issue, and President Obama wisely denied committing to any red line triggers to military action, choosing rather to pursue the tough international sanctions regime and attempts at diplomacy and negotiation with Iran. There are good indications this line of thinking will work for the better with Iran, barring an already dangerously unstable Middle East further erupting in violence. More on this below.

The private global intelligence firm, Stratfor, reports that at least one of Israel’s concerns in Gaza, which likely prompted the assassination of Jabari, is evidence that Hamas had acquired from Iran long-range Fajr-5 rockets that are able to target the Israeli cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Short-range Qussam rockets, which factions not necessarily under Hamas control have fired against targets in Israel many times in the past, have had the effect of terrorizing the population but causing few deaths and little damage. Retaliatory strikes on these occasions against targets in Gaza by US-supplied fighter jets have caused many more deaths and much greater destruction among the captive Gaza population, prompting outcries of a disproportionate use of force by Israel. The presence, however, of Fajr-5 rockets in Gaza represents a significant escalation in capability by forces in Gaza, and in the event of an Israeli strike against targets in Iran, a threat Israel would not ignore. It appears Israel is taking measures to neutralize this threat now.

Hezbollah in Lebanon has so far remained cautious of the military actions taking place in southern Israel. It is reported by Stratfor that they are preventing Palestinian rocket fire into northern Israel from refugee camps in southern Lebanon in response to the Gaza offensive. It is well understood that Israel upon attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities would suffer retaliatory attacks from Hezbollah, which makes no secret of its connections with Iran. But turmoil in Syria has weakened Hezbollah’s position and its ability to be supplied by Iran through Syria. The captive Palestinian population in Gaza are once again caught in the vice of much larger geopolitical forces vying for power in the Middle East to either keep the status quo or shift that power away from Israel.

The good indications that negotiations may avoid another catastrophic war in the Middle East come from Reza Marashi, Director of Research at the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), and Sahar Namazikhah, Iranian journalist and Director of Iran Programs at the George Mason University’s Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution. Reza Marashi is also a former State Department staffer who worked on the Iran desk. They write on the Al Jazeera website that the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) has publicly differentiated Obama from leaders in Israel, a first in publicly-stated internal Iranian opinion, articulating that they recognize that Obama “is not willing to rush into war.” MOIS opinions are reported to be read daily by top Iranian regime officials and for such opinions to be publicly stated is a significant development. MOIS is reported by Iranian journalists as “one of the most trusted sources of information among key Iranian decision-makers.”

Such a development indicates that within the Iranian state politics play a role; Ahmadinejad’s fiery rhetoric and bellicose pronouncements are not representative of a monolithic regime bent on only one thing, the destruction of Israel. Pragmatism and national security (survival) temper the regime’s thinking. Obama’s foreign policy team would be wise to exploit this opening.

As for the Israeli offensive against Gaza, I hold out little hope the US will have anything but platitudes to say about the captive Palestinian population caught in the crossfire as Israel attempts to rid itself of the threats of violence coming from Gaza’s militarized factions.

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