Israel, Iran Practically At War

Israelis take cover after a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip by Palestinians militants hit a building in Ashkelon, Israel, Monday, March 3, 2008. Three rockets hit Ashkelon, a city of 120,000, on Monday morning, Israeli rescue services said, with one hitting an apartment building. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit) AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

This column was written by Yossi Klein Halevi.

Immediately after the massacre of eight students in a yeshiva library in Jerusalem last week, speculation began within the Israeli security establishment and the media about who had dispatched the lone murderer. Was it Hamas? Hezbollah? Perhaps a new, unknown organization claiming to act on behalf of the "liberation" of the Galilee? In fact, the speculation was pointless. Regardless of the affiliation of the actual perpetrator, the ultimate responsibility for this attack, as for almost all the terror attacks on Israel in recent years, lies with Iran.

The Palestinian struggle is no longer about creating an independent state. It is about being a front-line participant in the Iranian-led jihad to destroy Israel, evolving from a nationalist to a religious war. The thousands of celebrants in Gaza who, following the yeshiva massacre, offered prayers of thanksgiving in the mosques and distributed candies to passersby weren't only indulging in feelings of revenge for Israel's recent military incursion but heralding the coming jihadist victory over the enemies of God. A real solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict can only be reached by dealing with its primary instigator: Iran.

Israel's seventh war began in September 2000, and was launched by Yasser Arafat, who transformed Fatah into a quasi-Islamist movement, nurturing the rhetoric and martyrology of jihad. Arafat no doubt assumed he could manipulate Islamist trappings for nationalist aims. But then he went one step farther: He initiated an alliance with Iran's Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Until then, Iran's only client within the Palestinian national movement had been the Islamic Jihad, the smallest of the Palestinian terrorist factions. According to a former chief of Israeli military intelligence, Arafat promised the Iranians that he would turn Gaza into a second southern Lebanon, and Iran began providing weapons and funds to Arafat's Fatah. But then, in January 2002, Israel intercepted the Karine A, a ship carrying Iranian-supplied Katyusha rockets and mortars and C-4 explosives for use in suicide bombings. Exposed and under international pressure, Arafat severed the connection.

Ironically, Hamas was initially more reluctant than Fatah to enter into an Iranian alliance, precisely because the Sunni Hamas takes religion more seriously than Fatah and was loathe to accept the authority of the Iranian Shiites. But that squeamishness ended three years ago with a formal alliance, orchestrated by the Damascus-based Hamas leader, Khaled Meshal, and today Hamas is an integral part of the Iranian war against Israel. Iran has trained hundreds of Hamas operatives -- and, according to the former intelligence chief, continues to fund individual members of Fatah's Al Aqsa Brigades. Iran's goal is twofold: to extend its influence in the Arab world, and to transform itself, via proxies, into a frontline confrontation state with Israel.

The jihadist war against Israel has shifted from one front to another -- suicide bombings inside Israeli cities until 2004, Katyushas on Haifa in the north in 2006, and now Katyushas on Ashkelon in the south. All are battles in the same war. So far, it is a war without an all-encompassing name, and that linguistic failure reflects a larger Israeli failure to treat this as a unified conflict. We still refer to the suicide bombings of 2000-2004 by the Palestinians' misnomer, "the second intifada" -- which falsely implies a popular uprising, like the first intifada, rather the orchestrated slew of terror attacks that it was. Awkwardly, we call the 2006 battle against Hezbollah "the second Lebanon War," a name that places the conflict in the wrong context -- the first Lebanon War against Palestinian nationalist terrorism in the early 1980s rather than one more front in the Iranian war against Israel. And now we are calling the daily rocket attacks against southern Israel "the war of the Qassams," even as the Qassams are augmented by the far more deadly Katyushas

In contending with Hezbollah and Hamas, Israel is trying to treat the symptoms, rather than the cause. Not surprisingly, it finds itself repeatedly stymied in efforts to stop the attacks on the home front. All of Israel's options in dealing with Hamas seem unbearable. Allowing rockets to continue to fall on southern towns creates despair among Israelis, who see their nation's sovereignty unraveling. Engaging in limited but costly military operations in Gaza, as Israel did last week, creates international outrage and little lasting security gain. Re-conquering Gaza and its dense refugee camps will result in a devastating number of causalities, both among Israeli soldiers and Palestinian civilians. And even if Israel succeeds in destroying the Hamas infrastructure, Israelis will confront the same dilemmas that forced them to leave Gaza two years ago.

A ceasefire with Hamas -- which Prime Minister Ehud Olmert seems to be implementing even as he denies it -- may well be the worst option of all. Hamas will likely use that interim period to turn itself into a second Hezbollah, equipped with Iranian weapons. And when Hamas feels empowered to break the ceasefire and resume its attacks, Israel will face a far more formidable enemy.

To deal effectively with the jihad requires an awareness that Israel is in fact at war with the Iranian regime, which manipulates proxies along Israel's borders, supplying them with weapons and training, and energizing them with the promise of imminent victory.

Understandably, Israel has avoided a confrontation with Iran, which could result in the most devastating war Israel has fought. But as the siege around Israel's borders tightens and as the Iranian nuclear program quickens, that direct confrontation becomes increasingly likely.

According to a just-released strategic assessment by the Israeli intelligence community, 2008 will be the "Year of Iran." The Lebanese government, warns the assessment, could collapse in the coming months, allowing Hezbollah to take power. Meanwhile, Hezbollah and Hamas are considering a coordinated rocket assault on Israeli population centers, almost all of which are within rocket range of either group. And, according to the strategic assessment, sometime within the coming year, or by early 2009 at the latest, Iran will achieve nuclear capability. The threat that emerges from the intelligence assessment may well be the most acute that Israel has ever faced.

Following the yeshiva massacre, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown speculated that the gunman was attempting to "derail" the peace process. Brown's implication, widely shared in the West, is that the best way to defeat the jihadists is to create a Palestinian state.

But a viable Palestinian state living peacefully beside Israel will not be possible without disconnecting Iran from these groups who are attacking Israel on its behalf. This may require destabilizing the Iranian regime -- hopefully through intensified sanctions against its nuclear program, and by military force against its nuclear installations if sanctions fail. Without stopping the momentum of the Iranian-led jihad against Israel, the appeal of Hamas among Palestinians will grow. So long as the international community tries to create a Palestinian state without seriously confronting the jihadists, Iran and its proxies will continue to make peace impossible -- not by "derailing" negotiations, but by making those negotiations irrelevant.
By Yossi Klein Halevi
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