Israel and Its Adversaries Tiptoe Toward War

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As President Donald Trump followed through on Monday on his pledge to recognize Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, the Middle East is bracing for war.

For the third time in two weeks, a long-range rocket has been fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel, slamming into a house Monday morning and injuring seven civilians.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cut short a visit to Washington. Israel mobilized its military. And leaders of Hamas, the militant Palestinian faction that controls Gaza, have reportedly gone into hiding.

Just two weeks before the next Israeli election, the indicators pointing toward armed conflict have moved into the red zone.

Almost all the involved parties have reasons to welcome a limited escalation. They also have reasons to prevent hostilites from going too far. But fighting can be hard to stop.

The latest crisis began on March 16, when two Hamas rockets landed in the Tel Aviv area. No one was hurt. Hamas said it was a mistake. Israel and Egypt chalked the attack up to “incompetence.” Israel made a limited response that injured two Palestinians. Hamas avoided any retaliation and called off a scheduled protest at the border.

All sides plainly preferred to avoid another conflict.

But that kind of quick de-escalation is now unlikely, particularly for Netanyahu, who cannot afford to look weak.

On the other side, it’s easy to see why someone in Gaza decided to instigate a military crisis.

Hamas is in political trouble. It's been facing angry demonstrations by Gazans under the banner, "We want to live,” protesting Hamas mismanagement, brutality and authoritarianism. Hamas has responded with more repression.

The protests are the latest manifestation of a growing humanitarian and governance crisis facing Hamas, which has not found a way to bring international humanitarian aid and reconstruction to the overcrowded, impoverished and quarantined territory it rules.

Hamas leaders may not all want a new war. The group says the rocket attacks have been mistakes, implausibly blaming the latest one on "bad weather."

On March 16, Netanyahu had every reason to avoid another major conflict with Hamas to distract from the Israeli election. This time he has little choice. Adding to the chance of armed confrontation, Egypt signaled Hamas that it would face the consequences of continued attacks on Israel unaided.

Moreover, a limited but robust military exchange could help Netanyahu push back against a strong electoral threat posed by the Blue-White Coalition, led by three noted generals.

And Israel's other major antagonists, the Lebanon-based Hezbollah paramilitary force and its Iranian patrons, seem to be itching for a fight. Iran has been hobbled by intensifying U.S. economic sanctions and other pressure, and is looking for chances to flex regional muscles.

Trump's announcement on Golan has generated new opportunities for Arab and Islamic forces looking to assert leadership credentials in the struggle against Israel.

Trump’s blessing of Israel’s annexation of Golan and Jerusalem could prove especially useful for Iran and its Shiite proxies. Distrusted by many Arabs, they can now pose as champions of Arab and Muslim interests against Israeli expansion and U.S. imperialism.

They’ll also see a chance to prevent Hamas from being credited for leading the confrontation in the name of Sunni Islamists, benefiting newly assertive Turkey and its Muslim Brotherhood allies rather than Iran.

But all sides also have reason to be careful. Hamas knows it would lose any sustained military conflict with Israel. Even the political benefits it seeks depend on escaping without so much damage to Gaza that it would provoke further public wrath.

Netanyahu could benefit politically from a brief exchange, but not if Israel gets dragged into a protracted war in Gaza, loses soldiers or sustains damaging rocket attacks on its population centers, or comes under withering international criticism.

And Hezbollah and Iran don’t want Israel to launch an all-out air offensive against Hezbollah's new assets and capabilities in Syria, and even in Lebanon, degrading and reversing many of their gains from the Syrian war.

A brief Middle East conflict now seems likely, with all sides seeing potential benefits. But once a fight gets started, pulling back is easier said than done.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.