I cannot be the only person wondering whether we would have watched a rather different presidential debate on foreign policy had the last Obama-Romney encounter been held not on the night of Monday, Oct. 22, but in the latter half of that week.
I say that because both President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney went the extra mile—when they were actually discussing foreign policy, that is, and not education or healthcare—in emphasizing that Israel is our closest ally in the Middle East. But even as they sparred over the danger that an Iran armed with nuclear weapons poses to Israel, they were dealing with hypotheticals, not concrete threats. Had they come together on, say, Thursday Oct. 25, then both candidates would have been compelled to discuss the barrage of rocket fire from Hamas-ruled Gaza into southern Israel the previous day.
By late afternoon Oct. 24, more than 80 rockets and shells had landed around Sderot, Ashkelon and other population centers in the area. Some of the rockets were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defense facility near Ashkelon, but the system is less effective when it comes to intercepting short-range missiles and mortars. Bottom line: as welcome as the Iron Dome is, it cannot fully protect Israeli citizens in the south from Palestinian acts of terrorism launched from Gaza.
The onslaught continued Oct. 28, with two rockets fired from Gaza exploding near the southern Israeli city of Beersheva, prompting the mayor to cancel school. Fire then continued overnight Sunday, with more than 15 rockets exploding in Israeli communities bordering Gaza.
In military terms, Israel’s leaders have reacted cautiously, at least so far. At the same time, they have effectively put Hamas on notice that the kind of aggression that resulted in Operation Cast Lead at the end of 2009 cannot be tolerated. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that the terrorists should be aware that “they have sealed their own fate.” Defense Minister Ehud Barak was possibly more blunt, telling Army Radio, “[I]f we need a ground operation there will be a ground operation.”
This latest Palestinian escalation occurs in a very different political context to that which prevailed three years ago. In December 2009, Iran and Syria were the main backers of Hamas, while Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt largely turned a blind eye to the smuggling of weapons into Gaza via underground tunnels from the Egyptian-controlled Sinai. Now, however, Mubarak is no more, Syria has been convulsed by the lethal violence unleashed by Bashar al Assad against his own people, and Iran is struggling under the growing weight of international sanctions.
Hamas has instead gathered a different set of friends—a group whom the Obama Administration and the European Union would doubtless portray as moderate, responsible international citizens. To begin with, there is Turkey. Under its Islamist Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has established itself as a stalwart diplomatic ally of Hamas, aiding the terrorist organization in its bid to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza, and even arguing within NATO circles that vital intelligence should not be shared with Israel.
Then there is Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood regime of President Mohammed Morsi is, not coincidentally, warming its own relations with Turkey. Hamas, of course, is the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and has therefore received an enormous boost from the political transformation of Egypt. The transfer of military equipment from Egypt to Gaza has increased, as has concern that a Muslim Brotherhood-led purge of Egypt’s own military will deepen the blossoming alliance with Hamas.
Finally, there is Qatar. Its Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, visited Gaza amid great fanfare just hours before the terrorist assault upon Israel began. The richest country in the world, Qatar has been keen to pull Hamas from outside of Iran’s orbit. Given the seemingly unlimited supply of cash from Qatar, along with a global influence that manifests in such projects as the Al Jazeera satellite broadcaster and the Qatar Foundation’s sponsorship of the Barcelona soccer team, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Hamas has welcomed al Thani’s embrace.
The critical point is this: the shift from the radical Arab nationalism of Assad and the Shi’a Islamism of Iran towards more conservative Sunni regimes has not moderated Hamas. To the contrary, it has emboldened the terrorists, who also calculate that with a forthcoming presidential election in the United States and looming parliamentary elections in Israel, Jerusalem’s reaction will be necessarily tepid.
Hence, had Obama and Romney debated in the wake of the latest attacks from Gaza, one or both of them would have been compelled to observe that the myriad threats to Israel are arguably worse now than at any other time in its history. The hope of American diplomats that Israel would find a modus vivendi with the region’s Sunni powers has not come to pass. And as we saw on Monday night, there is a painful absence of a cogent policy that places the defense of Israel at its core.
Meanwhile, the Arab press remains filled with cartoons, opinion articles and statements portraying the U.S. election as the plaything of a nefarious, shadowy Jewish lobby. Sudan, under the leadership of the indicted war criminal, Omar Hassan al Bashir, is banging the war drums against Israel, having accused the Jewish state of bombing an arms depot outside Khartoum, the capital, which was allegedly controlled by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. And even though a truce has been brokered in Gaza, no one seriously expects it to last in the current climate.
Whoever wins on Nov. 6 is therefore going to be faced with some very difficult decisions in the Middle East. And whatever the temptations of isolationism may be, to fall under its spell now could prove fatal for both Israel and America.
Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.