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    Middle East
     Mar 17, 2012


Iran focus blunts Israel's response on Gaza
By Victor Kotsev

As missiles continue to rain on southern Israel from Gaza more than 48 hours after an Egyptian-mediated truce went into effect, the political debate in the country is heating up. The peace movement and the Israeli left are losing ground, and it seems that the main thing holding the hawks back is the belief that the Iranian threat is even more urgent than the Gaza terror.

By understating the Israeli military response to the rockets, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is both creating a sense of a silence before a storm - similar to the silence that existed in the days right before the raid that launched Operation Cast Lead on 27 December 2008 - and playing brinksmanship with his own supporters. The latter, among other things, demonstrates his seriousness against Iran internationally, and ups the ante in that conflict.

Meanwhile, the Western campaign against Iran has reached new

 

heights, even though Israeli attempts to claim all the credit seem a bit amusing [1]. Still, the closely timed announcements that SWIFT, the main financial messaging service for international money transfers, will stop working with Iranian banks and that the United States and Britain are expected to tap into their strategic oil reserves within the next couple of months are clearly fraying the nerves of the Iranian leaders. One sign of the anger of the ayatollahs is the continued rocket fire from Gaza.

An article in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz mentioned above explains that the decision taken by SWIFT "is an unprecedented move, and it means that Iran's government will have to physically relay cash or gold bars to pay for its transactions overseas." Reuters, on the other hand, claims that the alleged US-British initiative is "a bid to prevent fuel prices choking economic growth in a US election year". [2]

Still, the timeframe of the expected release of reserves is highly suspect. It jibes, among other things, with information published by the Russian newspaper Kommersant, according to which the US gave Iran a "last chance" to resolve the nuclear dispute by April, and asked the Russians to relay the message. (The United States subsequently denied this.)

Adding to the suspicions, this week's meeting between US President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron was preceded by a Washington Post op-ed co-authored by the two in which they all but explicitly compared the situation now to that during World War II. [3] Preparations for war have been taking place near the Persian Gulf for some months; the US just announced on Thursday that it would double the number of its minesweepers in the area.

This would explain, in part, why Netanyahu is holding back so uncharacteristically from ordering the army to respond more forcefully to the missiles coming from Gaza. Since the ceasefire took effect at 1 am local time on Tuesday morning, a couple of dozen rockets and mortar shells have reportedly landed in Israeli territory, and a few were shot down by the Iron Dome anti-missile system before they could hit cities such as Beersheba and Ashdod.

Before the truce came into effect, at least 56 missiles were shot down (Iron Dome allows its operators to target selectively only rockets that are likely to cause casualties). In total, more than 200 missiles were fired at Israel in four days or so.

Despite the miraculous lack of fatalities from this barrage - at least one serious injury notwithstanding - this is a major red line for most Israelis. In a country where a million citizens live within range and practically everybody is everybody else's friend of a friend of a friend, the experience of waiting for the random death from above is intimately familiar to all. The Iron Dome helps the statistics, but the feeling of collective danger remains. Suffice it to add that most Israeli extended families have members living in the areas targeted by rockets.

Even the Israeli left was shaken by the onslaught. The Ha'aretz columnist Carlo Strenger captures this in an article framed as an "Open Letter to Hamas":
The other casualty of this further violence is the hope for peace. Israelis, for very understandable reasons no longer care who is responsible for the violence. All they know is that, in the end, there will always be a Palestinian group that will initiate violence. As a result they say "why should we take the risk of retreating to the 1967 borders? Why should we rely on Palestinians to keep the peace? All we'll get is rockets on Tel Aviv, Raanana and Kfar Saba. So the world won't like us for the occupation; we can live with that, but not with rockets on our population centers". [4]
Another prominent Israeli left-wing journalist, Bradley Burston, lashed out against "the hard left media" for the selective omissions and manipulations of its reporting:
When a leftist places quotation marks around the word rockets, when a leftist terms attacks on civilian populations a matter of human nature, when a leftist dismisses rockets as crude, homemade, and unguided, or blames Israelis for their use, when a leftist notes that rockets have killed "only 28" Israelis, or sniffs or jeers at the fact that one out of seven Israelis, one million in all, are currently in rocket range - it may be time to ask, what it is, exactly, that's supposed to make a person a leftist? [5]
On the right, there are only muted grumblings against the government's policy of restraint (bombing empty buildings in Gaza, at night, in response to the continued rocket attacks). This is mostly due to the developments on the Iranian front - even the hawks are sensitive to international pressure and know that an extended operation in Gaza would make a raid against Iran more difficult. It would, moreover, strain the credibility of the Israeli threats, which is seen as an important component of the diplomatic campaign against the Islamic Republic.

Netanyahu, back from his own visit to the US earlier this month, seems to be stirring some of the Iran hysteria himself. According to Ha'aretz editor-in-chief Aluf Benn, "Since his return from Washington, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has mainly been preoccupied with one thing: Preparing public opinion for war against Iran." [6]

Still, it is also possible that the current Israeli restraint in Gaza is an attempt to capture the so-called moral high ground before a wider campaign. The Israeli prime minister is keeping all the cards close to his chest, as is his habit, and is letting various high-ranking army officials tell the media how prepared they are for a ground invasion of Gaza.

Meanwhile, a debate seems to be raging at the highest echelons of government: ever since it became apparent last year that the Muslim Brotherhood would win the elections in Egypt, some have argued that the window of opportunity for major military action in the strip would close soon.

The vote by the Egyptian parliament on Monday to expel the Israeli ambassador brought home this point. While the military is still in control in Egypt, such votes carry only a symbolic significance, but if a transition of power takes place as expected this year, Israel will face stiff opposition to any use of force against the Palestinians.

If the fire from the strip continues but a war with Iran does not appear to be imminent, the pressure on Netanyahu will grow to order a wider operation in Gaza.

Notes:
1. Israeli threats of attack sparked new wave of Iran sanctions, officials say, Ha'aretz, March 16, 2012
2. Exclusive: US, Britain set to agree on emergency oil stocks release, , Reuters, March 15, 2012.
3. An alliance the world can count on, Washington Post, March 12, 2012.
4. Open Letter to Hamas: You are responsible for your people's fate, Ha'aretz, March 14, 2012.
5. To the leftist who has no problem with rocket fire on Israel, Ha'aretz, March 13, 2012.
6. Netanyahu is preparing Israeli public opinion for a war on Iran, Ha'aretz, March 15, 2012.


Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst based in Tel Aviv.



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