Thursday, March 05, 2009

Iran is the Real Issue for Israel and America in Middle East

US New and World Report

Mortimer Zuckerman
Posted February 23, 2009 (first posted)

Iran is at the core of a struggle between Islamists and moderate national entities

The arrow that has left the bow never returns. We should keep the Iranian proverb firmly in mind when we hear, as we do now, that some kind of dialogue is opening up between the Obama administration and Iran.
The Iranian arrow is in flight, directed at secular Israel through its proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah, in the common aim of jihad. But the Middle East conflict is no longer one just between Israelis and Palestinians. Iran is at the core of a wider, unfolding struggle between radical Islamists and moderate national entities. Today, most Sunni Arab governments, including those of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and even Fatah—although not Syria and Qatar—are far more worried about Iranian regional dominance than they are about Israel. They know that Israel is not going to undermine or overthrow them, while radical, Iranian-sponsored Islamists just might.

The arrows literally are in flight from Gaza—rockets fired by militants on an almost daily basis, violating the informal truce even as Israel and Hamas are supposed to be seeking a longer-term cease-fire. Where are the protests? Where are the pious street marchers in Europe? In 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza at a cost of $2 billion and the forcible removal of some 8,000 people who had lived there all of their lives, all in the hopes of reigniting the peace process. The result was a rainfall of 8,000 rockets, missiles, and mortar rounds on civilians in towns within Israel proper.The Palestinian Authority, then in control, had a chance to start building the infrastructure of a long-awaited state. It did not. Instead, Gaza became the base for a radical Islamist organization, spawning two separate and rival Palestinian entities and creating another huge barrier to the solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Hamas is radicalizing Fatah. Even Fatah's Mahmoud Abbas will not compromise on the right of return, the so far nonnegotiable demand that all Palestinian refugees and their descendants from the 1948 war be allowed to settle in Israel. The insistence on the right of return would result in having millions of Palestinians on the Israeli side of the divide. The Israelis know that Israel would then become a country with an Arab majority and that Hamas could take over, thus ending Israeli hopes for a two-state solution.

Given the threat from Hamas, which has stated and restated that the Palestinians will continue their jihad until the face of the Zionist state disappears, who can think that Israel would get peace in return for yielding land? Israel's abandonment of Gaza was wholly voluntary, a gesture for peace, but Hamas and many Palestinians chose to see it as a sign of weakness. Withdrawal from the West Bank, once negotiable, now seems to many Israelis to make Israel more vulnerable to yet another generation of Palestinians promising to push the Jews into the sea.

An increasing number of Israelis believe that as long as Iran and its proxies are armed and ready to fight, no number of uprooted Jewish settlements will bring peace. A repetition of Gaza by withdrawals from the West Bank would leave Israel dangerously vulnerable. The whole country would turn into one big Sderot, a community turned into a virtual ghost town because of the terror of daily rocket fire. Fewer and fewer believe that any two-state solution will end the conflict. Many Israelis have become convinced that the real obstacle remains Iranian hostility, reflected in the enmity of proxies—Hamas and Hezbollah—that reject the very existence of the Jewish state, no matter what its borders.

Tehran saw the war in Gaza as the strategic dimension of the Iranian-Israeli-American struggle. For Iran, Gaza is a critical stronghold. The signals from Tehran to Hamas in Gaza were "Do not surrender," "Continue your struggle," "We will replenish your supplies"—just as the Iranians returned their other proxy, Hezbollah, to its previous strength and even doubled it within a short time after the war in Lebanon. Tehran is prepared to resupply Hamas so that it can, once again, fire missiles at Israeli towns and settlements, perhaps even as far away as Tel Aviv. That is why Israel feels it is so critical to halt the weapons smuggling into Gaza. It comes through a network organized by Iran's Revolutionary Guards that passes through Somalia, Sudan, the Red Sea, and the Nile to the Bedouin tribes in Sinai who, through bribery, have neutralized the ability of Egyptian security forces to halt the activity.

What some news commentary does not seem to appreciate is that Hamas is not a competitor for some slice of terrain or for the affection of Washington. Hamas is an existential adversary of Israel. Its ideology, as contained in its 1987 charter, leaves no doubt. The charter enjoins every Muslim to confront the enemy in Muslim lands. "Our struggle against the Jews is extremely wide ranging and grave," it declared. "A woman must go out and fight the enemy even without her husband's authorization, and the slave without his master's permission." Hamas cites Muhammad for religious justification: "The time will not come until Muslims fight the Jews and kill them; until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry, 'Oh, Muslim, there is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill him.' " Hamas believes that there is no place for a Jewish state in its Islamic world and that the killing of Jews is ordained by Allah. It is what Palestinian children are taught in their schools and what a Hamas representative, Fathi Hamad, described this way: "For the Palestinian people, death became an industry at which women excel—so do all people on this land. The elderly excel, the jihad fighters excel, and the children excel." He concluded by saying to the Zionist enemy: "We desire death as you desire life."

So land for peace is not the issue. The Hamas-Iranian goal is to kill as many Jews as possible and wait for God, or Iran, to complete the job. As a Hamas poster put it, "A Palestinian who kills one Jew will be rewarded as if he killed 30 million." No wonder Osama bin Laden stepped into the verbal fray in a 22-minute broadcast by al Jazeera, calling on Muslims to wage a holy jihad against Israel over Gaza.

There can be no moral equivalence between the victims who defend themselves by killing Hamas terrorists and the perpetrators who kill innocent civilians. Hamas is trying to maximize civilian casualties; Israel is trying to minimize them. To treat both sides on an even-handed basis draws into question the moral judgment of those who have trouble distinguishing between the two.

Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah don't want to kill Jews because they hate Israel; they hate Israel because they want to kill Jews. Hamas has no interest in making peace. For Hamas, peace is the enemy. That is why there is a convergence of interests among Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and the Sunni Arab countries. They all want to see Hamas weakened because Hamas is the extension of Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. They understand that a perceived Hamas triumph against Israel has the potential to ignite the Arab street and destabilize not just Fatah but a slew of moderate Arab states, from Egypt to Jordan and Saudi Arabia. A victorious Hamas would bolster Iran, which seeks regional hegemony and a Taliban-style regime under Hamas built on the ashes of Israel.

The Hamas strategy was to wage a war of attrition, using relatively advanced weapons supplied by Iran to pressure Israel into accepting a cease-fire so that Hamas could claim victory, in the hopes that this could ignite the West Bank and sweep away the PA and President Abbas.

Does this mean that peace is no longer possible? Does it mean there will not be a two-state or even a three-state solution?

Hamas and Iran seek one state, from the river to the sea.

Their oratory is not just anti-Israel but an eliminationist, anti-Semitic rhetoric. The sense is that if they cannot eliminate Israel, they would rather nurse their honor, their pride, and a sense of righteous victimhood than engage in the business of compromise. Fatah may wish to make peace but doesn't have the power to deliver; Hamas has the power but doesn't want peace. Ironically, it is now up to the Israeli Defense Forces to guarantee the survival of Fatah and Abbas against Hamas's jihad and its Iranian sponsors.

The Israeli-Palestinian dispute is less than ever the core of conflict in the Middle East. The real issue is Iran and its reach for regional hegemony. Iran seeks to intimidate America's Arab supporters and to eliminate Israel as America's strongest regional ally.

What is to be done? There are several parties that need to understand what is going on. First, the United States must actively support a broad international coalition to back up Egyptian-Israeli countersmuggling efforts to prevent the rearming of Hamas and the renewal of the Iran-Somalia-Sinai arms trade.

Second, the United States should continue to train and equip Palestinian security forces, under the leadership of Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton. With administrative reforms to snuff out corruption, gangsterism, and terrorism within it, the PA might achieve the ability, and the will, to prevent and refrain from terrorism and thus become a suitable partner for a two-state solution.

For its part, Israel must continue to make it clear that opposition to an Israeli state is a road to nowhere. It was that determination that broke radical Arab nationalism in the 1960s and led to the Egyptian-Israeli peace.

Force can be effective. Operational capabilities can reduce terrorism, just as they can reduce crime. The destabilization of Iran's protégé in the Middle East, Hamas, is a major achievement. During the war in Gaza, most of the Arab world stood by Egypt and saw a common interest with Israel against Iran, for most Arab governments know that the prospect of Iran fomenting revolution, wars, and insurrection throughout the region under the cover of a nuclear umbrella is infinitely more terrifying than a Jewish state in the Arab heartland.

And then there's the important role of the media, which keep failing to understand the radical nature of Hamas and Iran and their enmity to the West. On Wall Street, Lionel Tiger points out, they say, "You can't fight the tape." In the Middle East, Israel, as a Western outpost, will have difficulty fighting the videotape—that is, TV pictures that may reflect a moment of reality but do not capture the full truth of the nature of Israel's radical enemies, thereby undermining the Western support neces-sary for a long-term struggle with the radicals.

The essence is that today Hamas and Iran know that Israel will not accept an Iranian terrorist base next to its major cities, any more than the United States could accept an al Qaeda base next to Washington. And that is what the United States and the Western world must understand and support. It is in our interest to contain the radicalism emanating from an ideologically expansive Iran on the verge of crossing the nuclear threshold.

There is an Arab proverb that applies: Do not stand in a place of danger trusting in miracles.


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