Perhaps the biggest hero of Operation Pillar of Defense is the Iron Dome missile defense system. Its impressive interception rate blunted the rocket threat from Hamas. saving countless lives and buying crucial time for the Israeli government to calculate its next steps. Having been put to the test, the Iron Dome has proven to be another example of Israeli military ingenuity in the face of ever-changing threats to the country’s security. However, Operation Pillar of Defense also demonstrated that the region’s diplomatic and political landscape is shifting, with uncertain and potentially dangerous results. Future calm will largely depend on navigating these changes successfully. To achieve this, our leaders must exhibit a diplomatic armory characterized by the same resourcefulness associated with the country’s military arsenal.
For the past several decades, Israel has been forced to tackle constantly evolving armed threats to its citizens. From airplane hijackings in the 1970s to the more recent age of suicide bombings and now rocket fire, Israel’s military echelon has adeptly found inventive and effective methods of thwarting the murderous intentions of its enemies. Just as the West Bank security barrier largely defanged the danger of the suicide bomb, today’s Iron Dome has dulled the threat of rocket attacks. Sadly, we can be sure that just as quickly as Israel develops antidotes to the security threats it faces, our foes will be manufacturing and modifying new instruments of death. Given that few believe the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas is anything other than a temporary lull in violence, staying one step ahead of the next armed threat will be crucial to the wellbeing of the country.
Just as important though will be ability of Israel’s leaders to anticipate the strategic changes in the Middle East. In many ways, Operation Pillar of Defense gave the first real indication of the new demarcations in the region following the Arab Spring. Significantly, there can be cautious optimism over the role of the new Egypt, even with the Muslim Brotherhood at the helm. Although a natural ideological bedfellow to Hamas, President Morsi’s government has been praised internationally for spearheading the efforts to negotiate a cease-fire. It appears that Cairo has at least for the time being calculated that satisfying a United States which furnishes Egypt with huge financial assistance, is more important to its wellbeing than a gambit on Islamist solidarity. Interestingly though, in the early stages of negotiations with Hamas, Egypt entered the talks as part of a Sunni triumvirate alongside Turkey and Qatar. Having previously enjoyed at best a backseat role in Middle East diplomacy, this may be an indication that Turkey and Qatar are set to become increasingly important players in the region. More to the point perhaps, their close cooperation with Egypt signifies the possible emergence of a new strategic Sunni bloc in the Middle East, designed to counter the influence of Iran and its Shiite allies.
Similarly noteworthy are the regional players who were conspicuous by their absence during Operation Pillar of Defense. Far from exacerbating Israel’s security concerns, the bombastic leader of Hezbollah, Sheikh Nasrallah refrained from declaring unswerving support for Hamas, instead focusing on criticism of Egypt for its role in bringing the conflict to a peaceful conclusion. Hezbollah’s reluctance to overtly aid their sidekicks in Gaza is likely the result of Hamas’ snub towards Syria’s president Assad, considered a close ally of Nasrallah’s patrons in Iran. And what of Israel’s designated ‘partner for peace’ the Palestinian Authority? PA President Mahmoud Abbas has almost certainly lost popularity on the Palestinian street in favor of his bitter Hamas rivals as a result of the latest round of fighting. Aside from a courtesy call from Hillary Clinton, Abbas was almost entirely sidelined during ceasefire negotiations, with Hamas the center of world attention.
Strategically, where does all of this leave Israel? Is the region coalescing into two distinct blocs – A pro-Iranian Shiite coalition including Hezbollah and Syria’s President Assad opposed by an Egyptian-led Sunni grouping including Turkey, Qatar and possibly additional Gulf States? How would the fall of Assad impact the region’s delicate balance? And even if peace with the PA is attainable, can Hamas really still be ignored in the final analysis? Then of course, there is the overarching and grave question of Iran’s nuclear development, which shows few signs of abating. In short, a whole host of perilous unknowns remain in the wake of Israel’s first post-Arab Spring conflict. Consequently, we face an uncertain future.
What is crucial though is that Israel’s leaders are able to use to their advantage whatever new Middle East configuration emerges. Just as the country has adapted to new military realities over the past several decades, Israel must now also be able to harness innovative diplomatic approaches in order to nullify the dangerous uncertainty in the region. With new alliances, leaders and powers emerging, the diplomatic status quo which has seen Israel lurch from one armed conflict to the next over the past decade may no longer suffice. Our leaders must be able to anticipate the strategic changes taking place before our eyes. Failure to do so could leave Israel horribly isolated and increasingly threatened. On the other hand, successfully courting new allies and partners in the region will place us in a stronger position ahead of the next seemingly inevitable crisis. It may well be just as important as the next Iron Dome.