After decades of sparring with and going to war against Iran’s terrorist proxies — Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza — Israel found itself in direct combat with Iran for the first time this past weekend. A series of air attacks, believed to be initiated by Iranian officers in Syria, and counter-attacks from the Israel Defense Forces resulted in direct Israeli strikes on Syrian bases with Iranian personnel, and with an Israeli jet being shot down for the first time since the early 1980s. Each side warned that the situation could escalate dramatically if the other side does not back down.
At the same time, society in Gaza is rapidly imploding under the failed economic and political leadership of Hamas, creating a humanitarian crisis among its population of an estimated two million people. Water is undrinkable, electricity is sporadic, and raw sewage is endangering beaches, which could create environmental problems for Israel as well. The most recent and much-heralded rapprochement between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas is at an impasse because while Hamas seems ready to cede administrative control of Gaza to the PA, it’s not willing to give up its arms. Three times in the past, when Hamas reached a low point, it has opted to go to war against Israel, employing the cruel logic that the resulting damage in human life and infrastructure to its people will evoke international sympathy and relief aid. It could happen again.
That double whammy of two potential wars after years of managing to preserve a sense of stability in the midst of a volatile neighborhood is the prospect Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces on the eve of an expected indictment against him for corruption alleging bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.
Still, there is no panic in Israel. Its leaders are hoping that Iran, Russia, and Syria got the message this weekend that Israel is firmly committed to preventing Iran from establishing a permanent military base in Syria. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may be feeling more confident now that it appears he will emerge from his country’s horrific civil war still in power, with the help of Tehran and Moscow. With the U.S. signaling that it wants to diminish its presence in the region after the defeat of ISIS, Russia — with its military in Syria — has become the dominant force in the region.
After seven visits to Moscow in the last two years, Netanyahu believed he had an understanding with Russian President Vladimir Putin of mutual avoidance of military escalation. Has all that changed? Among the other immediate questions posed by the dramatic turn of events last weekend are whether Iran will continue to provoke Israel, which has tried mightily to stay out of the Syrian civil war next door; and what, if anything, would Israel like the U.S. to do to show support for its ally?
Israel is wary of calling for U.S. military help, which would set off critics in the U.S. But a more muscular statement of support combined with diplomatic pressure on Moscow surely would be welcome.
On the Gaza front, Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar admits that his group has failed in governing. Its ability to smuggle goods through a network of tunnels has largely been thwarted by Israeli ingenuity in identifying and destroying many of them. Egypt partners with Israel in seeking to rid the Sinai of terrorists. And other Arab countries are losing their patience with Hamas and cutting aid. Israel is prepared to spend large sums of money to take part in a major international effort to provide water and electricity for Gaza. But Jerusalem worries that Hamas may conclude that there is nothing to lose by going to war again.
As long as the mindset among Israel’s enemies is that defeating the Zionists takes precedence over giving their people better lives, there is little hope of lasting peace. For now, though, avoiding an escalation of violence on two fronts is a more realistic, if not easily achievable, goal.