Former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams writes that Hamas’s eagerness for war is a bid for attention and relevance in the Middle East, but it comes with a big risk:
For so far, Hamas has not done much damage to Israel. The swimmers were killed the minute they came out of the water. The tunnels have been discovered and bombed. The missiles are causing Israelis to flee to bomb shelters, but thank God (and Iron Dome) they have so far not caused much property damage and no loss of life. Meanwhile Israel targets Hamas’s missiles and especially its missile launchers, headquarters, arsenals and warehouses, and leaders. There is not much Hamas can call a victory except proving the range of its rockets. . . . Hamas wants more than calm: it has demands. It wants the men who were freed in exchange for Gilad Shalit, and recently re-arrested, to be freed again by Israel, and even has demands of Egypt—to open the border with Sinai far wider.Hamas may have reached the conclusion that it must soon abandon those demands and agree to a truce, but be unwilling to stop until it can point to some “achievement” like hitting a major tower in downtown Tel Aviv or killing a large group of Israelis. But if there are no such “victories” and the Israeli assaults continue, that will change. This appears to be Israel’s assessment: keep increasing the pressure until Hamas, which started this war because it saw too many threats to its survival and dominance in Gaza, comes to see continued war as the key threat. Those who want the violence to end must realize that the larger is the Israeli effort now, the sooner Hamas will conclude this round must be ended.
Meanwhile, the clock ticks down on the P5+1 talks, with nervous onlookers concerned that President Obama, desperate for any foreign policy success, will promise to lift sanctions without dismantling (not simply freezing) Iran’s enrichment program, agree to let Iran “re-purpose” (not destroy) its heavy water reactor and stop short of requiring intrusive inspections anywhere in Iran. In other words, the president may break the back of sanctions but not of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
That would set off a number of key decisions:
Will long-time Israel supporters on the Democratic side once again circle the wagons around the White House or decry the deal as a fraud? There are only so many times Democratic Sens. Bob Menendez (N.J.) and Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) can crumple under White House pressure, do its bidding and avoid the difficult task of putting national security above party loyalty — as they have so often done (e.g. confirmation of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, refusing to force a vote on sanctions this year).
Will the White House unilaterally try to relax sanctions, and, if so, will Congress act in response? The president has tried the patience of lawmakers, but a decision to ignore sanctions passed and signed into law so he can claim a face-saving victory will likely enrage a good many in Congress.
Will Congress refuse in the face of an inadequate deal to vote for full and permanent sanctions relief? The result may be a sort of stalemate — a final “deal” that can’t be implemented because Congress won’t lift sanctions and new sanctions can’t get by Sen. Harry Reid and the White House.
The Gaza conflict is distracting attention from the main event in the Middle East: Iran. There are no hearings in the offing on Iran; no new push for sanctions has begun.
Congress would do well to stiffen its spine and declare outright that no sanctions will be lifted absent the conditions previously set forth in bipartisan resolutions. If straggling lawmakers really want to “stand with Israel,” they would support sanctions, cease any talk of containment and make certain Israel has all the necessary equipment not simply to battle Hamas but also to take the fight if need be to Iran. (To fixate on cutting aid to the Palestinian Authority — which has not been requested, is not in the pipeline and would never get through House appropriators — is pure grandstanding.) Standing with Israel means standing there on its existential threat and halting indulgence of the administration (how unwise was it to give the administration room to negotiate?), which has shown no capacity to stand firm on the biggest national security challenge of our time. House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Edward Royce (R-Calif.) had it exactly right in a written statement calling on Obama to publicly condemn Iran for providing these missiles to Hamas. That alone should be reason to increase, not decrease, sanctions.
A final deal, if there is one, that fails to achieve previously defined aims will raise a tricky issue for Hillary Clinton. If she is really going to separate from Obama and define her legacy as distinct from the passive tolerance of Iran’s nuclear capacity, she will need to register her concerns. However, if she does that, the Democratic left will skewer her. Given the choice between primary viability and foreign policy nerve, you can bet Hillary Clinton will choose the former. Republicans who want to be president should start exerting some leadership by taking meaningful action to turn up the heat on Iran.