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Winners & Losers

The Gaza war and its fallout.

Dec 3, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 12 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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Both Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerge as winners. Polls last week showed that Netanyahu’s support in Israel (which will hold elections on January 22) had risen, and conversations with Israeli leaders confirm the poll numbers. A large majority of Israelis supported the airstrikes on Gaza but also supported the decision not to go in on the ground. Netanyahu is widely viewed as having shown the proper combination of strength and caution, and none of his rivals broke into double digits in polls asking “who is fit to handle Israel’s security challenges” or “who should lead.” For this reason former prime minister Ehud Olmert will not (and perhaps by the time this article is published will have announced that he will not) try for a comeback by running against Netanyahu. Israelis have appreciated that Netanyahu avoided bombastic statements, and used the days of conflict to reach out to President Obama and restore a working relationship with him. Israelis realize this conflict did not “solve” the problem of Hamas control of Gaza and that in a few years there may be another round. But they did not expect Netanyahu to pull off a magic act; they wanted sensible, competent leadership, and they got it.

Israel was a winner for two reasons. First, the countries about which Israelis care—the United States, Canada, and European nations—understood Hamas made this war happen and Israel had no choice but to defend its population. These governments did not want to see a ground war and now credit the government of Israel with prudent management of the conflict. Netanyahu may not be personally popular, and of course most EU leaders favor Israel’s left-of-center parties, but Israel will have gained a reputation for moderation. Much of the European media may echo Hamas propaganda and dwell on injuries to civilians in Gaza, but the prime ministers and foreign ministers know better. 

Second, it is a real gain for Israel that the supply of Fajr missiles by Iran to Hamas may remind European leaders and our own—as does the presence of Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah soldiers in Syria—that Iran lies at the heart of the region’s troubles. Once the Israeli election is over and Netanyahu forms a new coalition, roughly around March 1, he will no doubt travel to Washington to discuss the central issue facing the Middle East and his own country: the Islamic Republic. The nuclear program is the top problem, but it is not the only one. Netanyahu will be able to remind the president of something that Gulf Arab leaders have insistently been saying: that the Iranian regime, and not just its nuclear program, is the problem. A nuclear deal that leaves Iran free to engage in subversion throughout the region, sending soldiers to Syria or missiles to Gaza, eliminates only one form of danger—though the greatest and most pressing one.

Rerun the Gaza war in your mind, only this time with Iran rolling out nuclear-tipped missiles and threatening that “an Israeli ground assault in Gaza would be viewed as an attack on all Muslims,” “the Zionist entity must be wiped off the map,” and similar threats. Just words today, but how does Israel handle them if Iran actually has a nuclear bomb and a workable delivery system? This war is likely to lead Israel’s leaders to press ahead with all their missile defense programs, but also to confirm their belief that Iran must be stopped—at all costs. 

If one or two years from now Iran has attained a nuclear weapon and Hamas has a few hundred Fajr missiles in its warehouses, this war will rightly be seen as just one more step toward control of the region by radical forces and toward the undermining of Israel’s strategic situation. But if this week of conflict has persuaded Egypt’s new leaders that their border with Hamas must be policed, and has reminded Arabs, Israelis, and Americans alike that Iran must be stopped before it sows more conflicts in the region and gets the bomb, it will have proved a historic miscalculation by Iran and Hamas. 

That outcome is possible, and depends substantially on what President Obama made of it all. He saw his “pivot to Asia” interrupted by war in the Middle East—and was forced to talk about Gaza when he spoke in Bangkok, and to break his secretary of state off the trip. The administration’s rhetoric, from Obama down, was solidly behind Israel throughout the war. What policy toward Iran that portends for 2013 will determine whether Israel or the Islamic Republic emerges as the ultimate winner or loser.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His new book, Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, is due out in December.

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