The last couple of months have seen a sudden increase in Western attention on Iran’s supposed nuclear weapons programme. The campaign is being led by Israel, whose politicians have openly threatened military action against Iran if the UN agencies fail to pressurise it into stopping its nuclear programme. Israel raised its belligerence to new levels late in June, which it carried out large-scale air force manoeuvres over the eastern Mediterranean which the New York Times helpfully reported -- based on Israeli sources -- were rehearsals for possible attacks on nuclear facilities in Iran. Iran’s response was measured, with government spokesmen saying that Iran did not feel there was any real danger of Israeli attacks and would not change its policies under threat.
The reason for Israel’s sudden focus on Iran became clear on June 18, when it made a low-key announcement confirming that it had agreed a truce with Hamas by which it would lift its economic blockade of Ghazzah and cease military attacks on it in return for the cessation of Palestinian attacks on Israel from Ghazzah, mainly in the form of improvised rockets fired over the border. The agreement, negotiated by Egyptian mediators over several weeks, had been announced by Hamas leaders the previous day, but Israel was understandably reluctant to admit having done a deal with the group with which it had said it would never negotiate unless it recognised Israel’s right to exist and renounced violence. Hamas also made concessions -- it had originally demanded that any truce cover both the West Bank and Ghazzah -- but there is no doubt that Israel’s are the more significant. The fact it has made the truce at all is a massive climbdown, marking the failure of its strategy of trying to starve Hamas and the people of Ghazzah into submission.
How long the truce will hold remains to be seen. The Israelis have a long record of deliberate provocations on such occasions, to provoke the Palestinians into responses that can be interpreted as breaches of the ceasefire. It is also unclear how far other factions in Ghazzah will abide by the truce if they are targeted by the Israelis. However, Israel is unlikely to have made such a humiliating agreement if it were not serious about changing its strategy; this is unlikely to be a short-term measure. The Palestinians too will hope that it holds for long enough to give the people of Ghazzah some respite. Although either or both sides may test the truce in coming weeks, neither is likely to abandon it deliberately or lightly.
Although the belligerence towards Iran is a useful short-term distraction for Israel, its main problem remains one of controlling local resistance to its attempts to secure and legitimise its control over Palestine. Its strategy has long been based on attacking Islamic Palestinian groups, such as Hamas, and building up the secular nationalist Fatah party led by Mahmoud Abbas, which it hopes will prove easier to manipulate and more likely to make concessions. Israel’s reluctant agreement to deal with Hamas may imply a recognition that Hamas’s resistance and survival in Ghazzah, and its popularity and credibility throughout Palestine, mean that this strategy too has failed; in which case we can now start looking for clues to the next new strategy it will adopt to try to achieve its same old goals in Palestine.