Argument

Israel, Gaza, and what happens next

By Eurasia Group Analyst Geoff Porter As the Israeli military winds down its latest assault on Hamas, it’s clear that the risk of future conflict extends well beyond Gaza. Despite the recent violent escalation in Gaza, we’ll probably see a ceasefire within the next few days. The Israelis don’t want to withdraw so quickly that ...

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By Eurasia Group Analyst Geoff Porter

As the Israeli military winds down its latest assault on Hamas, it’s clear that the risk of future conflict extends well beyond Gaza.

Despite the recent violent escalation in Gaza, we’ll probably see a ceasefire within the next few days. The Israelis don’t want to withdraw so quickly that it appears they’ve caved to international pressure. Nor do they want to leave before inflicting enough damage on Hamas to credibly call the operation a success. The Kadima-led government certainly wants to avoid the domestic handwringing and recriminations that followed the end of hostilities with Hizbullah in Lebanon in 2006. But Israeli troops will pull out soon enough, because national elections loom.

That’s one more reason why Israelis want to quell the near-term threat of further Palestinian attacks. The elections, now scheduled for February 10, figure in every security calculation. For the moment, more than 80% of Jewish Israelis support the Gaza offensive. If the Israelis withdraw and significant numbers of Palestinian rocket attacks quickly begin again, the Kadima-Labor governing alliance is finished.

Tzipi Livni (the current foreign minister and Kadima’s candidate for prime minister), Ehud Barak (the current defense minister and head of the Labor Party), and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (now looking toward his legacy) know they must show the Israeli public tangible results from the attack on Gaza. Each of them wants to be seen as ready to fight when necessary and to talk when a Palestinian partner proves he’s willing to listen.

At the same time, though, the Israeli government is making serious preparations for a broader conflict. Since the fall, Israelis have been called for military service in higher numbers than during the last major conflict in Lebanon two and a half years ago. There aren’t any official numbers to look at, but the anecdotal evidence suggests the largest mobilization in many years.

Why is this happening? There is reason to believe that Israel might take military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities this year. It’s not likely, even if elections swing the Israeli government in a more hawkish direction. But Iran’s presidential election (in June) could play a role, as well. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has taken plenty of blame for the sorry current state of Iran’s economy. Facing reelection, it’s not tough to imagine that he might again turn up the rhetorical heat on Israel and the United States to divert attention from 25% inflation and gasoline rationing and to rally the Iranian people to his government. A spike in the tough talk from both sides could jangle nerves and even lead to inadvertent military confrontation.

But…and here’s the key point…even if there’s no direct military conflict between Israel and Iran, the Israelis may already have calculated that the coming months offer the last real opportunity to badly weaken enemies in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon before Iran effectively goes nuclear. Iran is a key source of support for Hamas and Hizbullah. Israel may want to weaken the two groups as much as possible before they enjoy a degree of protection from a nuclear-armed sponsor in Tehran.

A growing number of analysts, policymakers, and diplomats around the world are preparing plans for how their governments can live with a nuclear Iran. It’s true among the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. It’s increasingly true in the United States and in Europe. Israel fears a future of isolation. And that raises the likelihood that Israel might try to weaken its rivals and enemies before its position deteriorates further.

That may not be enough to provoke Israeli airstrikes on Iran. But it helps explain what’s been happening in Gaza-and raises an important warning about the risk of a new Israeli conflict with Hizbullah in Lebanon. That would prove a much tougher fight than Hamas can wage in Gaza, and one that could stoke turmoil and instability in the broader Middle East.

PATRICK BAZ/Getty Images

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