By William Beecher
The punditocracy, in analyzing the mounting belligerence between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, misses its larger strategic significance.
The TV talking heads and the amen chorus of columnists start by conceding that no nation need placidly tolerate the firing of hundreds of rockets directed at its citizens.
But they warn that Israel tried a ground assault on Gaza four years ago, only to see the threat rebuild in spades. They note also that this time, the Hamas government has a larger base of political support after the Arab Spring in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab/Muslim world. They conclude that the two sides would be much better off to cool it and agree to an extended cease-fire.
All that is true. However it misses several salient points. Among them:
· Israel is largely eliminating the retaliatory capacity from Gaza should it decide to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities within the next six months or so.
· Ahmed al-Jabari, the top military commander of Hamas, was targeted and killed. He had cleverly planned and orchestrated the surreptitious supply of relatively sophisticated missiles from Iran through Sudan and the Sinai Peninsula by way of underground tunnels into Gaza. He is also credited with helping create a weapons fabrication and assembly industry.
· The dust up has provided Israel with the opportunity to thoroughly test its so-called Iron Dome missile defense system, designed to intercept weapons that might hit population centers and ignore those destined to fall harmlessly on vacant desert.
· Through heavy air strikes (and potentially, ground operations), Israel is attempting to eliminate most of Gaza’s stock of missiles, rockets, storage depots, and manufacturing facilities. Those rockets, that is, which aren’t being fired off in anger every day.
· No doubt strategic planners in Iran comprehend the significance of what’s underway. Conceivably, that could increase the chances, combined with biting economic sanctions, of convincing its leaders to seriously consider a diplomatic deal to hold off construction of nuclear weapons.
· If that turns out to be the case, that would obviate the need for a preemptive assault on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.
But Iran, which time and again has feigned a reasonable willingness to accommodate the world’s concerns about its uranium enrichment (and its accompanying missile and warhead development), only to back off and harden its stance, must be persuaded that time is running out.
There are plausible rumors that Washington and Tehran are secretly conferring on this score, outside the multilateral grouping of interested parties. Whether the Obama Administration is believably warning that if all else fails, it will back Israel’s military preemption is hard to say.
Iran must be persuaded to accept a firm arrangement in which international inspectors would have free access to all enrichment facilities to ensure that no enrichment beyond five percent is permitted, and that stocks above that level be maintained outside its borders.
If Iran is allowed to develop an arsenal of deliverable nuclear weapons, however, this will no doubt trigger a nuclear arms race in an unstable region by those nations feeling threatened by Tehran or jealous of its supposed enhanced global standing as a new member of the nuclear club.
It is impossible to predict whether Iran seeks, as its rhetoric suggests, to obliterate Israel, especially given Israel's undoubted capacity to turn Iran into an irradiated moonscape.
Countless contingencies notwithstanding, this is the larger strategic landscape that current events in Gaza underscore.
William Beecher is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Washington correspondent for the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. He’s an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland. His blog can be accessed at http://williambeecher.net
[Photo courtesy of ChameleonsEye]