Israel did not destroy Hamas in Operation Cast Lead, but it placed the Islamists on the defensive, and delayed their plans to take control of the West Bank. Is there a model here for the face-off against Iran?
In an interview late last month on Al-Jazeera, Saeb Erekat, the long-time chief Palestinian negotiator, recalled that Yasser Arafat had rejected the Clinton administration-brokered peace accord at Camp David in 2000 because he would not concede any Jewish claims to the Old City of Jerusalem and specifically the Temple Mount area.
Arafat, according to Erekat, "adhered to Jerusalem... Arafat said to Clinton defiantly: 'I will not be a traitor. Someone will come to liberate it after 10, 50 or 100 years. Jerusalem will be nothing but the capital of the Palestinian state, and there is nothing underneath or above the Haram Al-Sharif except for Allah.'"
Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas, took the same position late last year, Erekat went on, when presented with yet more generous terms by the outgoing Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert. Olmert, Erekat acknowledged in the interview (as translated by MEMRI), "offered the 1967 borders, but said... 'There is a problem with the Haram and with what they called the Holy Basin.' Abu Mazen too answered with defiance, saying: 'I am not in a marketplace or a bazaar. I came to demarcate the borders of Palestine - the June 4, 1967 borders - without detracting a single inch, and without detracting a single stone from Jerusalem, or from the holy Christian and Muslim places.' This is why the Palestinian negotiators did not sign..."
Pressed by the interviewer as to whether, in the past, he himself had signaled at least some readiness for a permanent accord that might include an Israeli role at the holiest places in Judaism, Erekat was adamant: "They will never have this."
Arafat's derision for the very notion that a Jewish Temple stood in Jerusalem, and by extension for the Jewish historical claim to sovereignty here, is all too familiar. It has also become all too clear over the years since Arafat's death that Abbas is unwilling to publicly contest that stance - to face his own Palestinian public, that is, and tell them that the Jews do have sovereign claims to Palestine.
Where Erekat's comments break further dismal ground is in confirming that, in private too, in the critical forum of the negotiation room, Abbas is similarly unprepared to acknowledge Jewish historic rights in this land - and thus to accept viable principles and terms for its division into the two peaceful entities that the international community always envisaged, that Israel's founding leaders endorsed and that those who spoke for the Palestinians never accepted.
This insistent blindness to Jewish history, as displayed and acted upon by the ostensibly moderate Abbas, only underlines the gaping distance any Palestinian leadership has yet to travel to meet Israel halfway along the road to genuine reconciliation.
It also places Abbas and his regime on the path to oblivion - too impossibly obdurate for even the most dovish of Israeli governments, yet too old, corrupt and manifestly unsuccessful for the Palestinian public.
Since the fundamental message of both main leadership hierarchies is that Israel has no legitimacy, why would the Palestinians stick with the fading Fatah as the vehicle for securing their independence, when Hamas offers so vibrant and violent an alternative?
The Palestinian public has made this preference increasingly clear in recent years - awarding Hamas victory after victory in a series of local elections. It gave Hamas the majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament. And polls repeatedly indicate it would choose Ismail Haniyeh to replace Abbas if only afforded the opportunity.
It is hardly surprising that Gazans have reversed cause and effect, and overwhelmingly blame Israel (responding to relentless rocket fire at its civilians), rather than Hamas (which fired the rockets), for Operation Cast Lead.
It is more depressing, and telling, that so many Palestinians accepted with equanimity Hamas seizure of full control in Gaza in June 2007, despite the ruthlessness the Islamists employed against their own people.
For Hamas, such support has merely fed ambition. Emboldened by its successes at the ballot box and with the gun, and strategically encouraged by Iran, Hamas had intended 2009 to be the year in which it replicated its Gaza achievements in the West Bank.
Therefore, when assessing the results of winter's Operation Cast Lead, and calculating the balance of pros and cons, an additional factor should be taken into account.
Weighing the negative impact on Israel's international image, and the growing evidence of a failure to stop the flow of arms into the Strip, against the success in largely halting the rocket fire for now, Israelis should be aware of a further, highly significant benefit: The confrontation pushed Hamas firmly onto the defensive, and delayed its West Bank agenda. Israel's resort to force slowed the Islamists' march to power throughout the Palestinian territories.
Is there a precedent here as regards the face-off with Iran?
Israeli officials whose job it is to ensure that Hamas not take greater control in the West Bank have no doubt that this ambition has merely been delayed, rather than abandoned.
Israel's challenge now, the new Israeli government's challenge, is to ensure that this goal is quashed, and that circumstances can gradually be created in which moderates are encouraged and empowered - Palestinian leaders who, evidently unlike Abbas and his Fatah colleagues, are prepared to reconcile to the fact of Israel's existence.
The heart of that challenge, and thus the root of the solution, lies in Iran.
AS WITH Gaza and the West Bank, so too with Lebanon.
On Israel's northern border, the Olmert government's previous war, against Hizbullah, merely set back, rather than forced the abandonment of, an Iranian proxy's hegemonic ambition. Three years on, Hizbullah is now a markedly more robust military threat, and it may be only weeks away from establishing itself as Lebanon's dominant political entity.
More than a decade after it showed its international terrorist capabilities with two devastating attacks in Buenos Aires, at the Israeli Embassy and the main Jewish community offices, furthermore, Hizbullah is now demonstrating its open opposition to the mainstream Arab political establishment by operating terror networks in Egypt, directly challenging Hosni Mubarak's regime.
As its Islamist offshoots bolster their domination of the Palestinian territories and Lebanon, and spread terrorist tentacles ever wider, their Iranian state-sponsor is now widely acknowledged to have cleared all the technical obstacles to the manufacture of nuclear weaponry.
And rhetoric aside, there is no indication of remotely sufficient international will to prevent the project's completion. North Korea stands as a case study in obfuscation, manipulation and defiance en route to membership in the nuclear club.
IN AN extensive, radical article on slate.com last week, David Samuels, a veteran New Yorker, Harper's and The Atlantic feature writer, outlined Iran's rapacious regional ambitions, assessed the threat they pose to Israel, and concluded that Israel might well bomb Iran, quite possibly within the next year.
(Samuels, memorably, wrote a devastating profile of Arafat for The Atlantic in 2005, "In a Ruined Country: How Yasir Arafat Destroyed Palestine," which featured this unforgettable assessment of the late Palestinian leader from Defense Ministry heavyweight Amos Gilad: Arafat "loved smoke and blood and ruins. This is where he felt most comfortable. He believed that Israel was a temporary entity. To talk about him as a pragmatic person is utter nonsense. His goal was to destroy us, and he almost succeeded. He wanted to ride on his horse up to heaven.")
An Israeli attack on Iran, Samuels argued, "lines up quite well with Israel's rational interests as a superpower client." Israel, he recalled, "earned its role as an American client with a series of daring military victories won by a tiny embattled country with a shoestring budget and its back against the sea: the capture of the Suez Canal from Nasser in 1956, the audacious victory in 1967, and the development of a nuclear bomb." But an Israel that had "lost the capacity to project destabilizing power throughout the region would quickly become worthless as a client."
An attack on Iran would "do wonders for restoring Israel's capacity for game-changing military action," Samuels claimed, and he played down the notion that Iran could effectively retaliate - significantly understating, to my mind, the complexity and consequences of any strike against facilities that have been painstakingly constructed by Iran with Israel's 1981 Osirak attack uppermost in mind.
"Any Israeli air raid on Iran is likely to succeed in destroying masses of delicate equipment that the Iranians have spent a decade building at enormous cost in time and treasure," he wrote, albeit having invoked certain caveats. "It is hard to believe that Iran could quickly or easily replace what it lost. Whether it resulted in delaying Iran's march toward a nuclear bomb by two years, five years, or somewhere in between, the most important result of an Israeli bombing raid would be to puncture the myth of inevitability that has come to surround the Iranian nuclear project and that has fueled Iran's rise as a regional hegemon."
Samuels also minimized the likelihood of a "mass public outcry" in the Muslim world against Israel, relying, erroneously, on the purported precedent of the "public backing of the Gulf states and Egypt for Israel's wars against Hizbullah and Hamas." In truth, this was less "public backing" than the tacit support of those at the helm of the regimes themselves.
More convincingly, he noted that, "As the only army in the region able to take on Iran and its clients, Israel has effectively become the hired army of the Sunni Arab states tasked by Washington with the job of protecting America's favorite Middle Eastern tipple - oil."
In short, he asserted, "Bombing Iran's nuclear facilities is the surest way for Israel to restore the image of strength and unpredictability that made it valuable to the United States after 1967 while also eliminating Iran as a viable partner for America's favor... Shorn of its nuclear program and unable to retaliate against Israel through conventional military means, Iran would be shown to be a paper tiger."
Concluding his piece with a flourish, Samuels stressed that an Israeli strike on Iran would simultaneously weaken Iranian "local clients like Syria and Hamas" and suggested that it could even enable Israel, acting from a position of newly demonstrated strength, to offset American and European criticism, and advance its own interests, by moving post-attack to impose viable conditions on a cowed Palestinian leadership for the establishment of a Palestinian state.
After all, wondered Samuels, who could argue "with the idea of trading the Iranian nuclear bomb for a Palestinian state? Saudi Arabia would be happy. Egypt would be happy. Bahrain, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates would be happy. Jordan would be happy. Iraq would be happy. Two-thirds of the Lebanese would be happy. The Palestinians would go about building their state, and Israel would buy itself another 40 years as the only nuclear-armed country in the Middle East. Iran would not be happy."
SO SPECULATIVE a notion also assumes that Abbas, or a successor, would be ready, even under these changed circumstances, to shift away from the uncompromising attitudes of the Palestinian leadership to date, as so recently restated in that Erekat interview, and finally, honestly, come to terms with the legitimacy and the fact of a Jewish state.
But what is particularly striking about Samuels's piece is the degree to which it accords with some notably outspoken recent remarks from Israel's most experienced diplomatic operator, President Shimon Peres.
Speaking in the context of Iran's nuclear progress and Hizbullah's exposed terrorist operations in Egypt, Peres in the last few days has declared that, "Sooner or later, the world will realize that Iran wishes to take over the Middle East, and that it has colonial ambitions."
He has highlighted the commonality of interests between Israel and relative Arab moderates in thwarting those ambitions, noting: "[Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad recruits forces against us, but there are also forces against him. What happened [with Hizbullah] in Egypt created a fierce opposition and we must unify all his opponents - the Sunnis and the Europeans, as well as those afraid of nuclear weapons and terror."
And in the bluntest comments of all, Peres has warned that while he hoped US President Barack Obama's efforts at dialogue with Ahmadinejad to halt the Iranian nuclear drive would prove productive, if they did not soften the Iranian president's approach, "we'll strike him."
By contrast, Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told The New York Times this week that "Israel would be utterly crazy to attack Iran. I worry about it. If you bomb, you will turn the region into a ball of fire and put Iran on a crash course for nuclear weapons with the support of the whole Muslim world."
And after US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned that an Israeli attack would unify Iran, "cement their determination to have a nuclear program and also build into the whole country an undying hatred of whoever hits them," the ever-malleable Peres on Thursday recalibrated his own earlier comments by dismissing talk of Israeli military intervention as "nonsense."
FOR THE record, even as they continue their re-evaluation of Israeli foreign policy, officials of the new Binyamin Netanyahu-led government remain committed to the notion that Iran can yet be stopped, and its proxies Hamas and Hizbullah consequently weakened, through a combination of intensified diplomatic and economic pressure on Teheran. They are not opposing Obama's efforts at dialogue, though they stress that time is in very short supply.
Away from the microphones, however, there most definitely are key Israeli officials who believe that the window of non-military pressure has already closed, and that the international diplomatic community, quite simply, is not going to stop Iran.
All that is left now, these officials believe, if Iran's nuclear program is to be thwarted, and with it the relentless drive to dominate this region at Israel's emphatic expense, are more radical options.