Attacks on Israel likely set off a new era of slaughter in the Middle East

By Matthew Gagnon

Over the weekend, Israel was shattered by a series of vicious, unexpected attacks by the militant terrorist organization Hamas.

In the aftermath, Israel formally declared war against Hamas, and is in the midst of one of the most stunning military mobilizations seen in modern times. Already more than 360,000 reservists have been called up, an offensive against the militants in the south has begun, missile attacks have been launched against Hamas targets, and preparations are being made for a ground invasion of Gaza. 

When you read about the horrifying things that were done to the Israelis by Hamas in the assault, it is hard to feel that any response is too harsh. The Israeli military has been discovering shocking horrors committed against their people, including a grotesque scene where soldiers discovered 40 dead babies, some of which were decapitated.

Israel’s response, though, is just the beginning of what could very well become a larger regional war. Or worse.

Hamas did not take this action in a vacuum. The U.S. intelligence community is already investigating whether or not Iran had any direct role in the planning or execution of the deadly attacks, but whether or not they find anything is at this point almost immaterial. Already we know that Hamas has for years received weapons and training from Iran, as the regime has sought to inspire and support exactly this kind of violence against Israel. Tehran has long had the goal of surrounding Israel with paramilitary groups that will strike, as a proxy, at Israel and deal significant damage against a state that they believe should be eradicated.

Given this, is Iran’s explicit blessing or participation in the planning or execution of the attack on Israel necessary for us to lay blame at their feet? When a state like Iran sends weapons, trains militants, and gives tens of millions of dollars to terrorist organizations to carry out attacks precisely like the ones that just happened, does it matter whether or not they “gave the green light,” to the attacks, as senior members of Hamas and Hezbollah claimed?

I don’t think it does. 

Regardless of the level of involvement by Iran in this specific incursion, this was the very essence of what Tehran wanted. They have been doing what they’ve been doing for years because they were hoping for something exactly like this. When their dream becomes a reality, we can be neither surprised nor fail to hold them to account for it.

But what does holding Iran to account look like?

America, for its part, is awfully weary of getting dragged into another war in the Middle East, particularly one that would likely have the goal of “regime change.” Given our experience in the first decade of the 21st century, the country isn’t in much of a mood for that. 

But Israel may be. The initial stages of this war will be dedicated to destroying Hamas in Gaza and beyond, but afterward they will likely turn their attention to Hezbollah and the states like Iran that sponsor these organizations. Does Israel then launch some kind of Persian offensive?

It was already a possibility before the Hamas attack. Now that possibility may turn into a probability.

If they do attack, what happens next? In the past, when Israel has signaled its willingness to directly attack the Iranian nuclear program, the United States would leverage its significant influence to de-escalate the situation and warn Israel not to go too far. 

But now? At least 14 Americans were killed in the Hamas attacks, and the White House has confirmed that U.S. citizens are among those that have been taken hostage. Both President Joe Biden and former President Barack Obama were interested in engaging and dealmaking with Tehran, but now even Democrats are calling on Biden to abandon that approach and to freeze the $6 billion that it had agreed to release to Iran, and to take a more aggressive posture in response to the bloodshed. 

Biden may very well do that, especially given that he is in the midst of a re-election fight, and his likely opponent ripped up the Obama-era Iran deal, and forcefully called out the regime in Tehran at the United Nations six years ago. Could Biden, seeking to shore up a perceived political vulnerability — like the about-face on the border wall and deportation of Venezuelan nationals last week — give his approval to Israel to attack?

That is a great unknown at this time. But what is clear is that if such an attack happens, the consequences could be frightening, and could presage a new era of slaughter in the Middle East.

Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.

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