Israel, Iran, Hamas, and why it’s not 2014 anymore

Israel, Iran, Hamas, and why it’s not 2014 anymore
Iron Dome in action over Israel in May 2021. WSJ video, YouTube

In analyzing the latest round of Hamas rocket barrages and Israeli counterattacks, it’s not just easy but almost inevitable to be mesmerized by the trees and not see the forest.  Each person from his or her perspective has so much knowledge that mustn’t be ignored or minimized.  Each perspective is a source of good points.

Without arguing that we need to leave out any details, I have concluded, in preparing this article, that it’s easier in turn to see the forest if I let others recount them.  So this will be a top-level treatment with a specific focus: a focus on what has changed since 2014.

As soon as the massed rocket attacks from Hamas began, it was evident that this time, it’s different.  Everyone saw that.  Hamas has never fired so many rockets all at once.  In the space of 12 days, more than 4,300 were launched at Israel.  Hundreds fell inside Gaza, and thousands were intercepted by Iron Dome, but some still found their way into populated areas and killed 12 Israeli civilians (as well as an IDF soldier).  Some 230 Gazans have been killed, approximately 70 of them reported to be civilians.  All these casualties lie at Hamas’s door, as not one of them would have occurred if the rocket barrages targeting Israeli civilian communities had not been launched.

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The first proposition on change, in any case, is just that:  the profile of Hamas’s attack was different.

The second proposition is why that happened.  It was not because of any of the proximate “reasons” being touted as the pretext for the unprecedented assault.  Those reasons don’t make sense as the basis for this decision.

Hamas knew perfectly well that a relentless, all-out rocket assault on Israeli civilians would draw a highly destructive Israeli response, one Hamas had no prospect of countering in kind or surviving without catastrophic losses.

Hamas was not the ultimate decision-maker, of course; Iran was.  (Iran weighed in last week crowing over the “victory” for Hamas of the ceasefire, and bragging of the regime’s support for the terror organization.)  But that’s not a change from 2014.

Nor was the change from 2014 a desire by Iran to “test” the Biden administration.  I hate to break it to the standard Mark 1 Mod 0 foreign policy editorialist, but the mullahs have no need to test the Biden administration.  They’ve had its measure since before the Democratic Virtual Convention in 2020, when Biden was sifted out as the party’s candidate while he wandered in a fog in his basement in Delaware.

Foreign governments with no motive to dissemble to the American public are far clearer on what the Biden administration is than the media in the United States.  We can take it to the bank that Tehran merely had its assumptions confirmed by the “Biden” reaction in May 2021.

Proposition two on what has changed

Rather, the “why” of the massed rocket barrages from Hamas is the Abraham Accords.  The purpose was not for the damage done in Israel to undermine Israeli will, which neither Iran nor Hamas could reasonably expect, nor was it for Hamas to absorb great blows to its war-making infrastructure.

The purpose was to attack the unity of the de facto Middle East coalition – a coalition against radical Iran – forming through the Abraham Accords.  The premise of the attack was that framing the conflict as a response to an outrage against Al Aqsa, and forcing Israel to strike back hard, would peel away the Arab partners to the Abraham Accords.

Abraham Accords signing 15 Sep 2020. Fox News video. L-R: Bahrain. FM Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa. Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu. President Trump. UAE, FM Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan. Fox News video

That reality was visible from day one (I commented on it at the time and have seen no reason to change my assessment).  That, and nothing else, is what Iran could hope to achieve from the effort spearheaded by Hamas.

Hamas had no reason to hope for any decisive achievement.  It was obvious from the start that Hamas was about to lose years’ worth of military infrastructure preparations in Gaza, with no commensurate objective attained.

Thus proposition two:  the proposition that since September 2020 the Accords have interrupted Iran’s priorities and forced a significant reaction from her, with a display of cards face-up.

The third proposition of change is, in one sense, a tier down from the others.  But it will dictate much about which direction the dynamics rumble next, and will probably do so for some time to come, absent a great cataclysm of some kind that might completely alter the regional conditions.

Proposition three: Iran and the correlation of forces

That change since 2014 is Iran’s military-strategic position.  In 2014, Iran was certainly present with elements of the Qods Force in a war-torn, post-2011 Syria.  But Iran had at that point barely begun to make her creeping approach across Iraq to build up the land-bridge to Syria, by dint of “fighting ISIS” on both sides until the proxy forces met in the middle at the Al-Qaim/Al-Bukamal border crossing.

That process of “fighting ISIS,” which has resumed since shortly before Donald Trump left office, scattered war materiel, including missile and drone caches, across Iraq and eastern Syria.  It also left Iran-sponsored forces in control of significant logistical infrastructure in the same territory, and a long-building modus vivendi in place with the Iraqi national government, which today would need powerful impetus and backing from the U.S. to repudiate the ties to Iran that lurk just below the surface.

The patron of Hezbollah and Hamas thus has shorter-range, handier methods of reaching out and touching Israeli territory than ever before.  In 2014, Iran might have tried lobbing intermediate-range missiles at Israel from Iran, or something silly and suicidal like flying aircraft from Iran to Israel.

(This is a series of maps from my previous articles at LU following the progress of Iran’s bridge-building across Iraq and into Syria.)

An outdated view of Iran’s geomilitary situation vis-a-vis Mesopotamia and the Levant, from 2011. Reality is very different now; see next map. (Google map; author annotation)
The Iranian push into Iraq orchestrated by Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani, 2014-2016. (Google map; author annotation)
High payoff: Iran dominates far more territory now than she had to gain through direct maneuver and control – because a “unified Iraq” makes that possible. (Google map; author annotation)
Syria already has Iran’s Fateh-110 SSM. This map depicts how Iran could deploy it to affect the ground fight in eastern Syria, using launch positions over the border in Iraq. (Google map; author annotation)
How Iran could deploy the Zelzal-3 SSM to support ground fighting in Syria, from across the border in Iraq. Note the threat range affecting Jordan and Saudi Arabia. (Google map; author annotation)

(The last two maps had to be recovered from an archive and show distorted range rings.  Please imagine them corrected — round, not oval — and the missiles, SRBMs, launched from positions — e.g., in southwestern Syria — close enough to hit Israel.)

In 2021, Iran could launch short-range ballistic missiles from Syria, or even western Iraq, and fly massed fleets of drones against Israel from the same locations.  Those weapons actually present harder intercept problems than either the rockets from Gaza or the IRBMs from Iran.  They would give significantly less alertment time than the longer-range missiles, and test intercept systems Israel rarely has a chance to use for real-world purposes.

This is why Israel has been to so much trouble attacking Iranian weapons shipments in Syria in recent years.  Of course the Israelis don’t want Hezbollah up-armed.  But that’s not all Iran has been doing.  Iran has been working to militarize Iraq and Syria as battlespace from which to operate against Israel.

We caught a glimpse of that this past week in the announcement by Benjamin Netanyahu about intercepting an armed Iranian drone at the border with Jordan.

It’s not the first time Iran has launched a drone from adjacent territory; in February 2018 the IAF intercepted one that was launched in Syria and briefly entered Israeli air space before being shot down by an Apache helicopter.

But the most recent drone event was the first time Iran has taken an overt action of such a kind during an Israeli conflict with Hamas.

It won’t be the last.  I would suggest analysts consider what the Iranian intelligence facility inside Syria, near the international airport southeast of Damascus, was doing during the 12 days of the rocket assault.  (That facility, or dispersed satellites of it.  After being attacked by the Israelis in 2019, it was reported to be back in operation in mid-2020.)

Not twiddling its thumbs, would be my guess.  We don’t have specific knowledge of the capabilities aggregated there, but if there are landline network connections and a microwave antenna, Hamas was probably getting more intelligence support than ever before.

At the very least, Israel is presented with an information warfare problem that didn’t exist in 2014, 2012, or 2009.

Proposition three is a key reason proposition two is important to Iran:  because the radical regime has plans for what to do with a strategic battlespace carved out around Israel, and unencumbered by the obstacles the Abraham Accords could solder in place.  Those plans are not limited to sneaking the odd drone over toward the Jordan River to see what happens.

That, in turn, is why proposition four is exceptionally significant.  Proposition four is the very basic one seen clearly by right-wing supporters of Israel in the U.S., although it’s disputed by some (perhaps many) on the left.  It’s that the stance of the U.S. Democratic Party on Israel has changed since 2014.

The “squad” holds a press conference. MSNBC video

In approaching this final proposition, we’re going to listen with our ears.  It isn’t useful to tag merely formulaic responses from the Biden administration, of which there were basically two that differed in no noticeable way from Barack Obama’s.  One was the oft-reiterated U.S. position that Israel has a right to defend herself.  The other was fending off anti-Israel moves in the UN, using our Perm-5 veto power.

Proposition four: Israel and the party in power in the U.S.

The difference, rather, lay in three trends in the party, the third of which is the culmination of the other two.

The first trend is the overt and obvious one toward outspokenness in appeals against Israel by factional leaders inside the Democratic Party.  The political affinities connected with it are Palestinian radicalism (e.g., that of Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar) and far-left progressivism (e.g., Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders).

On a number of occasions, anti-Israel sentiment has betrayed itself as antisemitism with Tlaib and Omar.  In May 2021, the antisemitism has been practically unveiled, coming out in classic language like describing Israel as an “apartheid” state and accusing Israel of heinous crimes – in the manner increasingly seen from street agitators.

What differs since 2014 is that sitting members of Congress are joining the chorus of antisemitism, with the party’s leaders making no effort to rein them in.

Indeed, as Caroline Glick noted, “So great is the Democrats’ fear of their anti-Semitic members that this week every single Democrat voted against supplemental aid to Israel and every single Democrat voted against sanctioning Hamas.”

The Democrats being in control of the House, supplemental aid and sanctions against Hamas are thus DOA, at least as matters stand today.

That may be an incremental change, but it’s one that has a real impact.  It’s changing outcomes.

It is accompanied by an appalling rise in oddly thematic, seemingly coordinated street thuggery against Jews in American cities – crimes committed by radical “pro-Palestinian” protesters this past week (often in drive-bys); or, in other words, if we can just cut the crap already, not “white supremacists” of any variety.  (The “white identitarian” types are a problem of their own, but they are not this one.)  This horrifying development in American society is distinctively a pattern of the left.

The second trend is perhaps not a trend so much as a rendition of evidence, or the answer to a question.  The question was how the Biden administration would perceive and perhaps use the Abraham Accords framework in approaching the usual ceasefire effort.

A deflating moment in U.S. policy

Now we know.  The Biden administration perception, as stated: the Abraham Accords are useless.  Use of them: none.

On two occasions, spokespeople for the administration went out of their way to make disparaging remarks about the Abraham Accords.

One way to hear that is as a blister rubbed raw by annoyance at anything Donald Trump did.  Sure.  But another way – remember, we’re listening with our ears – is as an echo of the Iranian regime’s sentiments about the Abraham Accords.

It’s gratuitous, for the Biden administration to be actively dismissive and negative about the Accords.  It was unnecessary; diplomatic language could have been found for the administration’s choice not to invoke them as a vehicle for negotiation.  Instead, Team Biden attacked them.

That tells us a whole lot more than the ritual statements about Israel having a right to self-defense, and the step into the UN breach with the threat of our veto one more time.

But it’s President Biden’s latest statement that tells us the most of all about the trends inside his party.  Once again, we’re listening with our ears – not with the package of preconceptions we have about meanings.

Image: C-SPAN screen grab

On Friday 21 May, Biden affirmed his support for Israel in the following manner:

“There is no shift in my commitment to the security of Israel. Period. No shift, not at all,” Biden said during a press conference with South Korean president Moon Jae-in, who was in Washington to discuss the fraught situation on the Korean Peninsula.

“We still need a two-state solution,” Biden added. “It is the only answer. The only answer.”

Alexander Nazaryan of Yahoo! News continued with this explanation:  “That statement put him at odds with progressives who argue that Arabs and Jews should live in a single nation. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., the only Palestinian member of Congress, favors that approach.”

There are two things to hear.  One, of course, is that the posture of progressives like Tlaib is given weight within the Democratic Party, such that it matters to policy that they and the president are at odds with each other.

But the other is less noticeable, yet more important.  The other is how this framing shifts the proposition for a two-state versus a one-state “solution.”

A two-state solution has been almost universally acknowledged in recent years to be a dead letter now.  That’s an indispensable point before closing in on the final summation.

What it all comes down to

But where once a two-state solution was argued as necessary if there is to be a Palestinian state, President Biden’s emphasis on Friday makes a two-state solution “the only answer” if there is to continue to be an Israel.

His expression of the point may have been merely hapless.  He’s done a lot of that lately.  But at least one member of the media was there to put the frame around it and sneak-shift the theoretical burden of the proposition just over the center line.  There will be more of them.  (See this for reinforcing context, on the demands the Biden administration reportedly made of Israel in seeking to negotiate the ceasefire.)

The point is not that proposition four changes everything.  It’s that proposition four changes things sufficiently to put in question what the U.S. will do, if pushed hard enough.

Proposition three clarifies that Iran is laboring in the mines to be ready to push, from the most advantageous terrain she can manage.

Proposition two illuminates where Iran perceives the obstacle:  the Abraham Accords.  Proposition one is evidence that the game has already changed.  The first blow in a new campaign has been administered.

And so your gut was right.  It’s not 2014 anymore.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.

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