If there is a message to be drawn from Israel’s raid on a Gaza-bound humanitarian aid flotilla it is this: there will be a major war in the Middle East this summer.
The flotilla raid was more than simply a military operation; it was an outward expression of Israel’s ongoing internal political and security debates. Since the modern state’s founding, Israel’s national mythos has been built on the idea that they are an island surrounded on all sides by hostile forces. While this was certainly true during their early history, Israel has enjoyed peaceful relations with two of their next-door neighbors, Egypt and Jordan, for several decades now; Turkey too was one of their closest allies, at least until the flotilla raid. In recent years, though hard-line Israeli governments have expanded this mythos: so now not only do they have enemies on all sides, they also exist in a world that (with the notable exception of the United States) is indifferent to their plight while secretly hoping for their downfall. The generally negative reaction to the flotilla raid around the globe (again save for the US) has only given strength to this idea.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s post-flotilla raid press conference gives valuable insight into the current thought process of Israel’s leadership. Netanyahu was quick to dismiss the flotilla’s stated mission of providing humanitarian aid and instead condemned it as an attempt by Hamas - the ruling force in Gaza that Israel regards as a terrorist organization - to rearm in preparation for a new conflict with Israel. Netanyahu then went a step further, to draw the line from the flotilla through Hamas in Gaza and back to Iran, at one point saying that Iran could not be allowed to “open a port on the Mediterranean [Sea].” It is a sign of how completely Iran is dominating current Israeli strategic thinking. Israel regards their main security challenge today as coming not from the Palestinian Territories, but rather from Iran and their ongoing nuclear program. Israel dismisses Iran’s claims that their nuclear research is meant to establish a domestic nuclear power program; instead saying it is a front for a secret atomic weapons program, which Israel regards as an existential threat to its very existence.
Here, it’s useful to take a look at Amos Oz’s op-ed in the June 1 New York Times. Believing that hostile forces surround them, Israel has responded by building and maintaining a formidable military. The downside to this belief, as Oz explains, is that Israel now acts as though every foreign policy problem has a military solution; Israel’s military campaigns against Hezbollah in 2006 and Hamas in 2008 though, both of which failed to destroy these groups, would seem to argue against this belief. Yet the Israeli leadership remains undeterred, arguing that only military action (namely air strikes) and not a new round of sanctions will prevent Iran’s nuclear program from going forward. Here Israel is buoyed by their success in 1981, when a raid against the research reactor at Osirak destroyed Iraq’s fledgling nuclear program.
To this point, diplomatic pressure and fear of a widespread backlash seem to have kept Israel from ditching the UN-based sanctions scheme and preemptively launching air strikes against Iran’s nuclear sites. I would argue the flotilla raid then should be viewed as a sign that these forces will no longer restrain Israel. Simply stated the flotilla raid is Israel in effect saying: “we’re surrounded, we’re going to act in our defense and we don’t care what you think about it.”
What effect would an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities have? Here it’s useful to look at a war game scenario conducted by the Brookings Institution that examined both the Israeli raid and the probable Iranian response. Rather than retaliate directly against Israel militarily, Brookings predicts that Iran will use their Lebanon-based proxies in Hezbollah (which receives a large portion of its funding from Iran) to strike back against Israel. And here is where the air strikes will spark the region-wide war. In April, Israel accused Syria of smuggling Scud missiles across the border to Hezbollah forces in Lebanon. Hezbollah, Lebanon and Syria have all denied the claims, though that has not stopped Israel from pressing them. Because Hezbollah has seats in the Lebanese parliament, Netanyahu has said that Israel will regard any attack against Israel from Hezbollah as being officially sanctioned by the Lebanese government and will respond accordingly, the same goes for Syria for their role as the transshipment route for the weapons. So, if Iran’s Hezbollah proxies strike out at Israel, Israel will respond militarily against the governments of Lebanon and Syria (it’s also hard to imagine that Hamas, which also receives funding from Iran, won’t launch retaliatory strikes against Israel as well). What started as a series of air raids against a select group of targets in Iran will then quickly devolve into a war pitting Israel against Lebanon, Syria and Gaza.
The United States will find itself involved in the Summer War, by both choice and circumstance. During Israel’s 2006 war against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, the United States provided emergency shipments of precision guided bombs when Israel’s stockpile of these weapons ran low as what they thought would be a series of air strikes and hit-and-run ground incursions turned into a month-long guerilla campaign. It’s logical to believe that the United States will again be called on to provide Israel with war material; US troops based in Iraq (still numbering in the tens of thousands) are likely to become targets of retaliation attacks from Iranian-backed militias within Iraq, or by groups in Iraq sympathetic to the Iranian cause. Since the removal from power of their long-time adversary Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iranian influence in Iraq has steadily grown – Shiites, the dominant Islamic sect in Iran also make up the largest single ethnic group in Iraq as well. If Iran chooses to play the “oil card” by attacking oil tankers and other shipping in the Persian Gulf (a possibility outlined in the Brookings scenario), the United States, with the largest naval presence in the Gulf, will be pressed into the role of securing these vital shipping lanes as well.
Wars have unusual ways of unfolding once the shooting starts. It is impossible really to script exactly how the Summer War would play out – what role Turkey will play, how the populations in Jordan and Egypt will react to the fighting and how the government in Iraq will formally respond all are difficult to predict, as is how long the Summer War will actually last. But even before it starts, we can know the war will be a strategic loss for Israel. Countries go to war with specific goals that define victory – for Israel air strikes against Iran are meant to bring an end to their nuclear program. Israel believes this is an achievable outcome because of their experience with the Iraqi reactor at Osirak. But Iran has studied Osirak as well, and they have learned from the Iraqi experience not to concentrate their nuclear program at one lightly guarded site. Iran has scattered their nuclear sites across the country and some are allegedly buried 75 feet or more underground, protected by anti-aircraft weapons systems. It is extremely unlikely that the Israelis could destroy them with air strikes alone. And the experiences in 2006 and 2008 show that it is also unlikely Israel will be able to destroy Hezbollah and Hamas through military might as well. So long as the Iranian nuclear program, Hezbollah and/or Hamas survive the conflict in some meaningful form, they win/Israel loses.
An Israeli loss will likely (again) spell the end of Netanyahu’s government. Israeli political coalitions are notoriously fragile; fighting another unwinnable war will likely turn Israeli public opinion against Netanyahu and bring down his government. The Summer War will probably spell the end of any meaningful foreign policy efforts on the part of Barack Obama as well. Support for Israel in an unprovoked attack against Iran will undo all of the outreach Obama has conducted with the Islamic world, which started in earnest with his landmark speech in Cairo last summer. It will also drive a wedge between his administration and rising powers, like Brazil and Turkey, who attempted to negotiate a deal that would defuse the Iranian nuclear situation in May – an attempt that was rebuked by the United States; and it will be another irritant in relations with Russia and China, both of whom the United States has worked hard to bring onboard for a new round of sanctions against Iran. Attempting to justify America’s support for Israel’s preemptive strike against Iran and their launching of a wider regional war will dominate Obama’s foreign policy efforts for the rest of his term in office, crowding out other initiatives.
The biggest losers, of course, will be the many, many innocent civilians who will be killed, maimed or displaced by the fighting in an unwinnable war.
3 days ago