One hopes that the Obama administration is connecting the dots in response to the sudden escalation of violence against Israel. Big Iranian weapons shipments seized off the coast of Gaza; an Israeli family of five slaughtered in their beds; a barrage of more than 90 rockets fired at Israeli population centers over the past few days. And yesterday’s horrific terrorist attack at a bus station in Jerusalem. These are not isolated events. Nor are they outbursts of random violence by otherwise peace-loving Palestinians driven to despair by a stalemated peace process.
On the contrary, these outrages are better understood as part of a strategic campaign by hardened terrorist groups, closely tied to Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah, to divert attention from the popular uprisings that have targeted tyrannical governments across the Middle East. While feigning confidence in the face of Jasmine revolutions that have toppled pro-American autocrats, Iran’s mullahs know full well that the bell tolls for them, as the contagion of popular uprising now at work across Muslim lands threatens to reignite the Green Movement that in 2009 shook the Islamic Republic to its core.
Thousands of young people in Gaza and the West Bank have already taken to the streets in focused anger at the dueling despotisms of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. In Lebanon, the recently deposed prime minister, Saad Hariri, has rallied hundreds of thousands calling for Hezbollah’s disarmament. And most recently, of course, the tremors of the earthquake that is the Arab Spring have erupted in Syria, where the residents of a heretofore unknown border town named Daraa, are courageously calling their countrymen to challenge the Assad dynasty and bring an end to Syria’s long Baathist nightmare.
Add to all this a U.S.-led military intervention on behalf of a Libyan revolt that threatens to topple Moammar Qaddafi, one of the charter members of the Middle East’s league of terrorist-sponsoring totalitarians, and you’ve got an awfully compelling reason for Iran, Syria, and their allies to want to change the subject as fast as possible. The easiest way to do that, of course, has always been to trigger a major dustup with Israel, preferably one that leaves in its wake as many innocent Palestinian or Lebanese corpses as possible. It’s the oldest ruse in the playbook, a murderous attempt to draw the moths of the international media back to the light of Palestinian suffering, and redirect the anger of mobilized Muslim masses away from their current laser-like focus on the brutal and ruinous regimes that rule over them.
One fervently hopes that this transparently cynical gambit will fail. As many others have remarked, for all their individual differences, the dozen or so mass movements that have emerged across the Middle East over the past three months have all been distinguished by the near total absence of anti-American or anti-Zionist sentiment. Even in the Palestinian territories, the issue has been less Palestine and more the pathological inadequacies of their own governing structures that make normal civic life largely unbearable.
But relying on the political maturity and sophistication of angry young Arab protesters will likely not be enough. American leadership and a strong U.S.-Israeli alliance are also essential. The Obama administration should, of course, be loudly condemning the Palestinian attacks. But it should also be working tirelessly to condition world public opinion and the international media to the pattern, context, and aims of this terrorist campaign, especially as it relates to the sabotaging of the Arab Spring. The Syrian regime, in particular, should be put on notice privately that we’re wise to its efforts to use Palestinian surrogates to create a diversion, at the same time that we turn up the heat publicly on the atrocities being committed by Assad’s forces in Daraa. Such a public diplomacy campaign will also help establish the legitimacy and necessity of Israel’s inevitable effort to defend itself, preserve its deterrent, and degrade Palestinian terrorist capabilities.
For its part, Israeli retaliation should, to the extent possible, avoid playing into the extremists’ hands. Israeli strikes should aim to do as much damage as possible against terrorist targets, inflicting maximum pain with minimal civilian casualties in as brief a time as possible. Yes, I know, much easier said than done at a time when tens of thousands of Israel’s people are being targeted by rockets on a daily basis. That said, while it may eventually become unavoidable, it’s hard to see at this point how Israel’s interests would be best served by another long, drawn-out ground conflict in Gaza, especially given the larger strategic transformation at work across the broader region — which, there is no doubt, now has the biggest enemies of Israel and America across the Middle East scared. Very scared. The Obama administration should be doing everything in its power to keep it that way.
— John Hannah is a former national-security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney.