BEIRUT: As the cease-fire between Israel and Palestinian groups in Gaza continues to hold, analysts are debating whether the broader basis of the weeklong conflict was motivated by looming Israeli elections or perhaps as a test for a possible strike against Iran.
Israel holds elections on Jan. 22 and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party is expected to fare well.
Pre-election military offensives by Israeli leaders against Israel’s enemies are not uncommon as an attempt to build up the government’s security credentials and send voters to the polls amid an atmosphere of martial triumph.
But they do not always go according to plan.
Perhaps the most infamous example is the 16-day Grapes of Wrath offensive against Lebanon in April 1996 when the electoral lead of then-Israeli premier Shimon Peres was being whittled away by Netanyahu, his then-Likud challenger.
Under pressure, Peres launched a broad air and artillery blitz against Lebanon with the tacit support of the United States. However, Peres’ political calculations came undone when Israeli artillery gunners shelled a base for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon in Qana, killing over 100 Lebanese refugees who had sought shelter there. An international outcry hastened an end to the campaign, which concluded with an agreement that enshrined Hezbollah’s right to resist the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon and, four weeks later, with Peres losing the election.
The results of inconclusive conflicts such as those waged in recent years in Lebanon and twice in Gaza leaves the perception of victory open to spin and the eye of the beholder.
Hamas was quick to claim victory against Israel while Netanyahu has been criticized by the Israeli right wing which was clamoring for the thorough crushing of Palestinian militants in Gaza.
But some analysts view the Gaza campaign through the prism of the Israel-Iran confrontation, suggesting that it has weakened one of Iran’s retaliatory options in the event of an Israeli strike against Tehran’s nuclear facilities.
Salman Masalha, writing in Israel’s daily Haaretz, said the Gaza conflict could be called “the little Iranian operation” as it was designed to “paralyze Iran’s southern wing” while the next one could be dubbed “the little northern Iranian operation” against Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Such analysis may be a little premature, however. The weeklong aerial bombardment may have killed some of Hamas’ top military figures and smashed some military infrastructure, but it is negligible in the broader context of the Israel-Iran confrontation.
Gaza is not a principle means of Iranian retaliation against Israel if the Islamic Republic is attacked, partly because of the limited retaliatory assets at the disposal of Palestinian groups but also because Tehran’s influence with Hamas is not as strong as its influence with Hezbollah. Iran and Hamas have divergent views on the civil war in Syria and, while there is still cooperation between the two, the Palestinian group is unlikely to jeopardize its political interests in Gaza for the sake of assisting Tehran defend its nuclear ambitions.
While Israel can attack Gaza with some impunity, launching an operation in Lebanon to neutralize Hezbollah ’s military assets ahead of an attack on Iran is a very different matter.
Since 2006, a genuine deterrence has emerged between Hezbollah and Israel in which both sides have been preparing for another round of fighting while being fully aware of the terrible consequences for Lebanon and Israel should a new war erupt.
Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary-general, established his party’s deterrence strategy through a series of carefully phrased speeches between 2008 and 2011 in which he spelled out the consequences of any Israeli attack on Lebanon: If Israel bombs Beirut, Hezbollah will bomb Tel Aviv; if Israel imposes a naval blockade on Lebanon, Hezbollah will sink Israeli ships; if Israel invades Lebanon, Hezbollah has the means to invade Galilee.
Nasrallah wastes little opportunity to reinforce this deterrence posture. At the Ashoura commemoration Sunday, he asked “how will Israel tolerate ... thousands of rockets that will rain down on Tel Aviv and other areas if it attacked Lebanon?”
A battle with Lebanon would reach all Israel “from Kiryat Shemona [in the north] to Eilat [in the south],” he added.
These are threats that Israel is obliged to take seriously and that Hamas and other Palestinian groups in the West Bank and Gaza cannot replicate.
Even the relative success of the Iron Dome anti-missile system at intercepting Hamas’ rockets cannot really be considered a test-run for dealing with the consequences of a strike on Iran, as some U.S. commentators have posited. Hezbollah’s arsenal of rockets include systems of a size and range beyond the present capabilities of Iron Dome. Israel is developing a second anti-missile system called David’s Sling which is supposed to be able to cope with the larger rockets in Hezbollah’s possession. Israel held a successful test last week of David’s Sling’s Stunner interceptor missile, but the system is not expected to be operational until 2014 or 2015.
Israel also has the Arrow 2 anti-ballistic missile system capable of intercepting Iranian Shihab-3 missiles and is developing a third generation version of the Arrow to knock out ballistic missiles in space. But the Arrow 3 is two or three years away from entering service.
Rather than a calculated precursor to an Israeli attack on Iran, the Gaza offensive appears simply to have been another of the pummelings by air and artillery that Israel mounts every few years against Hamas and other Palestinian groups. Israeli right-wingers cynically refer to these periodic offensives as “mowing the grass” to degrade Hamas’ military assets and kill commanders, sparing them the need to make the compromises necessary for a balanced and durable peace. The military weakness of Palestinian factions in Gaza allows Israel to carry out such offensives at relatively low-risk, something that cannot be said about a strike against Hezbollah in Lebanon or against Iran.