With its strike on Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari today, Israel may have opened the first of what could soon be three fronts against Iran.
The Israel Defense Force described the strike as the first of many in a campaign against terrorist targets in Gaza–and took care to note that Hamas as a “forward Iranian base.” The other two likely battlefields are the Iranian-controlled Hezbollah infrastructure in Lebanon, and the Iranian nuclear sites.
The usual protests were sounded from expected quarters–from Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, from the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt, and from Iran itself. Hamas warned that Israel had opened the “gates of hell.” Israel’s reply was that its civilians had been living in hell under a barrage of Hamas rocket fire, and that it intended to stop the problem, regardless of complaints from the perpetrators.
The last time Israel launched an assault on Hamas on anything like this scale was in December 2008, during Operation Cast Lead. After Hamas failed to renew a cease fire, Israel launched an assault against terrorist targets in Gaza which lasted three weeks and ended before President Barack Obama’s inauguration.
With Obama’s re-election, Israel may have decided it can no longer wait for a friendlier climate in Washington.
It is possible that Israel is preparing for hostilities in the north of the country–either as a pre-emptive attack against Hezbollah, or in response to a Hezbollah attack. In 2006, when Israel attacked targets in Gaza in Operation Summer Rains after the abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, Hezbollah opened a second front. The Lebanese border was quiet during the Gaza War, but is already tense due to the ongoing Syrian civil war.
Hezbollah’s ability to launch rocket attacks on major population centers in Israel is the most potent deterrent Iran possesses against a possible Israeli pre-emptive strike on its nuclear facilities. It is commonly understood that Israel would have to remove that threat as part of any attack on Iran. The attacks in Gaza may be a prelude to such an attack, or may lead to such an attack if Hezbollah decides to intervene on its own initiative.
Israel has suggested that the “red line” beyond which Iranian progress toward a nuclear weapon would be unstoppable is likely to be crossed in the next several months. The Obama administration has refused to impose any such red lines. With Obama secure in office for the next four years, Israel has lost the chance to work with a more cooperative U.S. administration but may at the same time feel less constrained by U.S. prerogatives.
There is a precedent for Israel launching pre-emptive strikes on its own, in defiance of U.S. wishes, when it feels its own security is at risk. In September 2007–even with a far friendlier administration in the White House–Israel quietly destroyed a North Korean-built nuclear facility in Syria, though it had been denied the green light for the attack by President George W. Bush. Global protest was muted, and Israel achieved its aim.
It is entirely possible that Israel’s immediate goals are limited to Gaza alone, and that its broader objective is limited to sending a signal to Iran, and to the Obama administration, that it remains prepared to take matters into its own hands.
Yet the time remaining for Israel to launch an effective military operation against Iran–one that the White House has made clear it opposes–is running out, and so has Israel’s trust in President Obama.