I am certain Israel is telling the truth when it says it was hit with rocket fire in the days before the assassination of Ahmed Jabari, the operational commander of Hamas’s armed wing. I am also certain this was not a new reality for the citizens of Israel living along the Gaza border. However, the re-election of President Obama forced Israel’s hand, or so the Israelis say (and some might even believe). Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama are about as far apart on the Iranian solution as two leaders of the US and Israel can be. This relationship, or lack thereof, was the driving force behind Israel’s decision to launch operations in Gaza at this time.
Israeli policy makers believe armed conflict with Iran is coming. By lighting a fire in Gaza, they risk conflagration, but they knew that before they attacked. They are willing to risk a wider conflict now because they believe they have the upper hand. If the Israelis are able to further pacify Hamas without a greater conflict emerging, then a security objective is achieved. It is extremely important for the Israelis to keep Hamas as impotent as possible, and these operations in Gaza have the potential to not only physically hurt Hamas, but also put its benefactors, namely Iran and Egypt, in positions of weakness. The Egyptian leadership is put in a particularly untenable political situation the longer the conflict goes on.
The Iranians overreached with their power grab in the region and they are now trying to secure their foreign policy gains before it all falls apart. Iran is reeling in Syria and their power in Iraq is being checked. They also face growing discomfort inside the country because of economic sanctions. Because of these factors (and others) Israel decided the time was right to go after Hamas. Hamas is using Fajr- 5 rockets in their attacks on Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Again, the security objective of destroying the domestic rocket production sites and disrupting the smuggling routes into the country across the Sinai are valid military objectives. In the larger strategic game, it is also important for Israel to continue to point out that these are Iranian rockets (or based on an Iranian design) being used to kill Israeli citizens. This will help Israel make it’s case to the world that something must be done about Iran and their proxies. The use of Fajr-5 rockets by Hamas against urban centers in Israel begs the obvious question of what would happen if Iran developed nuclear weapons? Israel’s answer is that Iran is capable of anything, and if they had a nuclear weapon it would only be a matter of time before either Iran or a proxy group such as Hamas uses it, most likely against the Jewish state.
The ability to put severe pressure on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is another reason why the Israelis chose to attack Gaza now. Egypt relies heavily on US support (to the tune of $1.3 billion in military aid for 2012). However, the relationship between Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood is well documented. The conflict in Gaza could force the Muslim Brotherhood to make a decision about exactly who they are, and whom they support – especially if the operations in Gaza continue. If the Muslim Brotherhood goes to far one way or the other in their support for Hamas, they could risk losing the backing of the US. A military coup could even become a real possibility in Egypt if the military decides it will not accept the loss of US support. At minimum, it will exacerbate existing fractures between the Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptian military. If the Muslim Brotherhood is forced, by political calculus, to let Hamas fend for themselves, the repercussions from their base could be devastating for the party. Egyptian President, Mohammad Morsi, stated on November 14, “the Egypt of today is not the Egypt of yesterday,” and so far, the Egyptians have kept the Rafah border crossing open. At the same time, they are pushing a cease fire, and quickly, because they know the longer these operations continue, the more likely it becomes they will have to make a few hard choices they would rather not have to make.
The current operations also make it much more difficult for the United States to stay out of the region’s current conflicts. Israel needs the US to attack Iran and their “nuclear sites,” something Obama won’t even discuss without solid, actionable intelligence that proves Iran is developing a WMD program and there is relative certainty of success. Even then, it is not a forgone conclusion that the US would act with force. If Romney had won the presidency, it is very likely Israel would have held off on operations in the Gaza strip until they could discern the new American administration’s intentions towards Iran. With the Obama administration, the Israelis know where they stand, but they have decided to up the ante to force the United States back in the game.
Israel always believes they are fighting for their lives, and that the fight is never over. With the attack on Gaza they are attempting to control the timing of the fight. They believe the pressure they are putting on Hamas, Iran, Egypt, and the United States works to their benefit, regardless of the risk. If the operations spark a wider conflict in the region, they are on the front foot against an enemy they believe they will have to fight eventually. If it doesn’t, it forces the hand of the other players in the game and increases the pressure on each of them. At minimum, they severely degrade the capabilities of a sworn enemy. It is a dangerous game, but one the Israelis are destined to play.