FO° Live: Make Sense of the New Israel–Iran Clash

On April 14 and April 19, Iran and Israel struck each other’s national territories for the first time. While both countries’ leaderships want to avoid further escalation, risks of an Israel-Iran war have risen while prospects for a peaceful solution to the Israel-Hamas War seem bleak. Protests have broken out in American college campuses and young Democrats may turn against a president who they feel has betrayed them.

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On April 1, an Israeli airstrike hit the Iranian embassy compound in Damascus, Syria. The action killed seven members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), including the most senior Iranian military officer in the region, Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Zahedi. He was the head of the elite IRGC Quds Force, in Lebanon and Syria, and thus the key liaison between Tehran and its Arab militia allies in the region, particularly Hezbollah.

On April 14, Iran retaliated with a large airstrike of 330 missiles and drones targeted across Israel. This marks the first time Iran has directly struck Israeli territory. Israel came into being in 1948 and has faced attacks from its Arab neighbors in the past. In a historic development, the Arab states have stood by Israel while Iran has attacked the Jewish state.

On April 19, Israel responded with a small missile strike in Natanz, which is in Iran’s central Esfahan province. The attack targeted an airbase close to nuclear facilities.

Iran has not retaliated against this latest strike. For the moment things seem to be calm. However, there is no telling whether this latest escalation will be the end of hostilities between the two Middle Eastern powers.

Fair Observer Editor-in-Chief Atul Singh spoke with retired CIA operations officer Glenn Carle and distinguished US diplomat Gary Grappo who retired as the Envoy and Head of Mission of the Office of the Quartet Representative in Jerusalem.

At that time, Tony Blair occupied this position after he left 10 Downing Street. Blair had success in bringing peace to Northern Ireland but his magic did not quite work with Israelis and Palestinians. Relations between the two had deteriorated by then and Blair himself was damaged goods after the 2003 Iraq War.

Carle played a key role in the War on Terror and has a deep understanding of radical Islamist terrorism. Likewise, few experts and analysts know the Middle East as well as Grappo who was also the US Ambassador to Oman. Singh is no expert on the region but has studied it with avid interest, is an astute analyst of geopolitics and an insightful interlocutor.

Iran shows that it can strike Israel if it wants to

Iran struck Israel with 330 drones and missiles. Many were outdated and slow-flying pieces (or even duds). Unsurprisingly, they fell easy prey to Israeli air defenses. International media were quick to report that Israel and its US, British and French allies successfully shot down 99% of the incoming weapons. 

While technically true, this soundbite misses an important fact. Iran used most of these missiles and drones as decoys. Shooting down these Iranian weapons cost the allies an arm and a leg. More worryingly, Iran struck all the Israeli targets it had identified, signaling its ability to hit any part of Israel anytime. This “swarm attack” tactic may be a harbinger of things to come in modern Middle Eastern warfare.

While Iran achieved tactical success, Israel’s security architecture proved resilient. Its Western allies came to its aid and so did its Arab neighbors. If the Arab states’ tacit support for Israel were not so solid, the situation would be a lot more volatile.

More than two weeks have passed without further incident. For now, the situation seems to be stable. However, Iran and Israel have now crossed a line that they cannot un-cross. What has long been a shadow war or a regional cold war — involving cyberattacks, honey traps, assassinations et al. — has now turned into a hot war.  This is the first time that Iranians and Jews have fought one another since ancient times. 

Despite the fireworks, there are no reported casualties as yet. Iran had broadcasted its attack days in advance, giving Israel time to prepare. In addition, they targeted military assets, not populated areas. The Iranian attack sought to avenge their honor and signal to Israel that Tehran would strike back in a more aggressive manner going forward.

Encouragingly, all sides have pulled back from all-out war. They have let off some steam, and deft diplomacy behind the scenes has prevented the escalation of conflict in the region as well as saved the global economy from another oil shock.

Still, both sides can make mistakes and random incidents can trigger conflict. No one predicted the assassination of Austrian heir apparent, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, that led to World War I. Likewise, a stray Hezbollah missile striking an Israeli village could spark a war.

Indeed, Hezbollah and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have been exchanging strikes across the Israel–Lebanon border. This conflict has already threatened to break out into war more than once. At the beginning of the Israel–Hamas war, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu wanted to mount a preemptive strike against Hezbollah. Only with difficulty did the US persuade him not to. The resulting two-front war against both Hamas and Hezbollah would have dragged Israel’s ally Uncle Sam into the conflict.

Hezbollah is Iran’s oldest and dearest ally in the Levant. The two powers share the Twelver Shia Muslim faith. Iran views its other Arab partners, like Hamas (which is Sunni) and the Houthis (which belong to a different Shia sect), as pawns. They may be expended to gain Tehran an advantage. Hezbollah is not a pawn but a queen on Iran’s geopolitical chessboard. Tehran would not risk Hezbollah’s destruction unless there was an existential threat to the Iranian state.

Hezbollah does not all-out want war either. This Shia militia still remembers the savage beating the IDF gave them in the 2006 Israel–Lebanon war. Although Hezbollah survived that conflict, its leaders have no desire to see another war devastate southern Lebanon and damage their dominance in Beirut.

Still, unless Israel and Iran somehow decide to live and let live, the tit for tat will continue, and a serious incident can easily happen. To prevent this scenario, the two sides must negotiate. But they cannot do so without a trustworthy mediator that can credibly speak for each side’s interests. Neither the UN nor the US is capable of doing so, and it is not clear who this mediator could be.

Hawks are in charge from Tehran to Jerusalem as US campuses erupt

While things are calm for a moment, the prospects for peace look poor.

Iran struck Israel in revenge for IRGC officers. This echoes similar events in 2020. On January 3, the US assassinated Major General Qasem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force. Iran took revenge by striking an American airbase in Iraq, injuring more than 100 US soldiers. Like the April 2024 attack, Iran was striking its adversary directly for the first time, and for the same reason: to defend the honor of the IRGC.

This suggests a disturbing possibility. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei does not want war. Yet he has twice compromised, allowed direct attacks and risked war. At least as far as war policy goes, the Supreme Leader may no longer be in the driver’s seat. The hardline IRGC seems to be directing things.

Hardliners are also running the show in Israel. Israel has a unicameral legislature elected by proportional representation. This creates a fragmented multiparty system. The main political parties need the support of small extremist parties to form a coalition government. These extremists can easily make or break a coalition, giving these small parties outsized influence. Any coalition leader would be beholden to extremist allies in the Knesset (Israeli parliament). Bibi is especially beholden because he is desperately clinging to power. He is accused of corruption and has pending proceedings in court. When Bibi’s prime ministership ends, so will his immunity from prosecution and he might end up in jail.

Bibi, who is already a right-wing Zionist himself, relies for support on far-right leaders like Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir. These religious Zionists still harbor the hope of incorporating all of Palestine into the Jewish state. Israel thus finds itself led by a cadre of nationalists with an extreme, even messianic commitment to the war.

Unfortunately, Israel has committed itself to the impossible. It has found that, despite its first-class intelligence capability and its overwhelming superiority in firepower, the IDF cannot achieve its stated war goal of destroying Hamas. Israel has failed to learn a lesson that Iraq bitterly taught the United States earlier in this century: armies are only good for destroying other armies or cities or other physical targets. However, they cannot build a society, change minds or even contain extremism.

After seven months of brutal fighting, the IDFhas failed to destroy Hamas or liberate the hostages this extremist militia kidnapped on October 7, 2023. Yet the Jewish state is fanatically devoted to fighting a brutal war, regardless of the cost. So, the IDF has killed tens of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza, and degraded the lives of over two million people..

While most Israelis despise Netanyahu, a majority still support the war effort. Most are not right-wing extremists, yet they do not seem to understand how their ongoing war is unwinnable. The longer the war goes on, the more Palestinian resentment rises. Reports of abuse against Arab civilians in the West Bank, where reservists perform primarily law-and-order duties, are increasingly frequent. Note that most of these IDF reservists are secular Jews, not religious Haredis (a community of Orthodox Jews). Clearly, anti-Arab sentiment in Israel is on the rise. 

Israel’s actions have led to public outrage not only in the Muslim world but also the West. Attitudes are shifting in the international community and particularly within the US, which has long been Israel’s guardian angel. Protests have broken out in US college campuses, reminding many of the upheaval in 1978. 

Some student protests have turned violent, with fistfights between protesters and counter-protestors. Many protesters are wearing Palestinian keffiyehs — black and white cloth head coverings — and some have even waved Hamas flags. Protesters have dramatically occupied university buildings and police have entered campuses to make mass arrests.

Importantly, these incidents are just the tip of the iceberg. Many young Democrats harbor a deep animosity for Israel, which they perceive as a white imperialist project, and have unprecedented solidarity with Palestinians. Many of these young Democrats come from Arab or Muslim backgrounds, and do not feel the instinctive sympathy with Israel that many Americans have felt for decades. Even white Americans who are the children of Baby Boomers increasingly see Israel as an apartheid state that has grabbed the land of dark-skinned Palestinians and continues to exploit them.

US President Joe Bide is a Democrat and now faces a revolt within his own party. He is avowedly pro-Israel and has even described himself as a Zionist. While pro-Palestinian Democrats are unlikely to nominate a rival candidate, many of them feel betrayed by Biden and will not vote for him again in November. This could tip the scales in favor of the Republican frontrunner Donald Trump whom Biden replaced as president. In 1968, similar college campus protests in support of the civil rights movement and against the Vietnam War harmed the Democratic campaign of Hubert Humphrey and clinched the election for Republican candidate Richard Nixon.

What would it take to resolve the conflict?

With hardliners in charge of Israel and Iran, it is hard to imagine what negotiations would look like. Any peace settlement would require Israel to have a credible Palestinian interlocutor, a role which neither the terrorist Hamas nor the hopelessly corrupt Fatah, which governs the West Bank, can play.

Yet negotiations will be necessary for any sort of lasting solution. Israel’s failure to destroy Hamas has proven that a one-sided Israeli solution is not feasible. Indeed, the IDF has already partly withdrawn from Gaza and peace talks have intensified.

There are ways to end this conflict. If Hamas released all the remaining hostages, that would take the wind out of Israel’s war sails. Hamas’s allies like Hezbollah and the Houthis say that they will stand down in case of a ceasefire. While we cannot take the statements of these two Iran-backed Shia militias at face value, there is good reason to believe they might be telling the truth.

Ultimately, Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands and poor treatment of Palestinians fuels Arab and Iranian hostility towards the Jewish state. If Israel were to grant Palestinians a state, such bitter hatred for Israel would not exist. Israel’s relentless nibbling of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza is the raison d'être for the rise of extremist groups arrayed against the Jewish state. A two-state solution — towards which a ceasefire would be a necessary first step — would resolve decades-long Israeli-Palestinian tension.

In this conflict, no one’s hands are clean. Both Palestine and Israel have passed up chances for peace before. In 2000, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian National Authority President Yasser Arafat came closest to peace at the Camp David Summit with US President Bill Clinton. Yet Arafat ultimately refused all proposals and began the Second Intifada (uprising) later that year. Israelis perceived this as a slap in the face after what they say as a generous offer of peace. Yet, in the following years, Bibi himself scuttled the possibility of a two-state solution. Notably, Israel committed a strategic blunder by covertly supporting Hamas to undercut Fatah. In hindsight, this move was spectacularly shortsighted.

For now, those in charge in Israel need the war to continue. The Israeli far right will not contemplate a two-state solution because it would involve renouncing forever their ambition to unite all of Eretz Yisrael (Land of Israel). Perversely, Iran and its extremist allies need the conflict to continue too in order to justify their pavlovian hatred of Israel. It also helps the mullahs to retain their vice-like grip on power by whipping up public support by taking on Israel. The existence of a Palestinian state, giving Palestinians both a physical and symbolic home, would undercut hardliners in both Jerusalem and Tehran.

The peace process cannot begin until Israelis take back their country from the ilk of Bibi, Smotrich and Ben-Gvir — no small feat in Israel’s proportional system. Yet even then, only heroic leaders on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides, capable of forcing their own peoples to give up on cherished aspirations and agree to a realistic deal, could possibly conclude a peace agreement and find a solution to a so-far intractable problem.

[Anton Schauble wrote the first draft of this piece.]

The views expressed in this article/video are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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