Analysis from Israel

On Friday, the always perceptive Walter Russell Mead termed the FAA’s decision to suspend flights to Israel last week “the biggest political mistake of the war so far.Mead was referring to the decision’s impact on a cease-fire, but it actually has far larger political implications. In one fell swoop, it destroyed the main diplomatic return the Obama Administration hoped to earn on its years of generous support for the Iron Dome anti-missile system: increased Israeli willingness to withdraw from the West Bank. 

While Congress’s motive in supporting Iron Dome was mainly to save Israeli lives, the Obama administration always had an additional motive: countering Israeli fears that ceding the West Bank would lead to “rockets from Nablus, Ramallah and Jenin onto Ben-Gurion Airport,as Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon put it, just as leaving Gaza resulted in massive rocket fire on Israel’s south. If Iron Dome could protect Israel from rocket fire, the argument went, then Israel needn’t fear a West Bank withdrawal.

Until last week, that argument might have had a chance: True, Hamas was sending rocket barrages all over Israel and forcing Israelis into shelters several times a day, but the combination of Iron Dome and civil defense measures kept Israeli casualties negligible.

Last week, however, Israelis learned that even Iron Dome can’t keep their main airport open when their neighbors are launching rockets at it. No anti-missile system is foolproof, and one intentionally missed rocket proved enough for most of the world to suspend flights to Israel. 

As Mead correctly noted, the discovery that Hamas’s rockets can threaten its main transportation link to the outside world makes it much harder for Israel to end the fighting without eliminating Hamas’s rocket capabilities. But it also makes it much harder for Israel to quit the West Bank as long as there’s any chance of it turning into a rocket launching pad like Gaza has.

The vast majority of Israel’s foreign investment and trade comes from the West, and Israel’s geographic distance from the West means this commerce depends on aerial traffic. With its airport shuttered, investors can’t come in and time-sensitive exports can’t go out. Thus Israel simply cannot afford to have its air links with the West at the mercy of a terrorist organization. Its economy wouldn’t survive.

Whether the FAA’s decision was actually political I don’t know. Perhaps the agency was merely spooked by the previous week’s downing of a commercial airliner over Ukraine. Yet the fact that the ban was reversed two days later even though the security situation hadn’t changed, combined with the fact that major airlines like British Airways never suspended flights to begin with, support the contention that the decision, as Haaretz military analyst Amos Harel put it,had no substantive professional basis,” and was intended primarily to browbeat Israel into accepting Secretary of State John Kerry’s completely unacceptable cease-fire proposal. 

If so, to quote Harel again, it reflected “a fundamental lack of understanding of the Israeli mindset”–and not just about the cease-fire. That single FAA decision did more than any political argument ever could to ensure that Israel won’t be leaving the West Bank anytime soon. 

Having long argued that such a withdrawal would be untenably dangerous, I’m certainly not sorry. But for the Obama administration, it was definitely an own goal.

One Response to ‘The Biggest Political Mistake of the War So Far’

  • a6z says:

    It wasn’t a mistake. It was a deliberate threat, Barry-to-Bibi.

    Decoded, it said: “Stop in Gaza, now. And don’t so much as whisper why.”

    So Bibi stopped with the job partly done. And can’t say why; only, “Trust me.”

    Obama is not fumbling. Well, he is, but that isn’t the main problem. The main problem is that he’s on the other side. He’s got Hamas’s back because he’s playing to Iran.

    His main foreign policy goal is to ally with Iran. Not block its nuclear ambitions. Ally with it. What a coup that would be! Only–look out Israel.

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The U.S. Must Show Iranians That They Can’t Have It All

The fact that Iran’s anti-regime protests appear to have died down is not a reason to relax the pressure on Tehran. On the contrary, it’s a reason to increase it through serious sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program as well as its support for terror and regional aggression. The protests will only become a truly mass movement if enough Iranians come to realize what the protesters already have: Contrary to the promise held out by the nuclear deal, Iran can’t have it all. Terror and military aggression are incompatible with a thriving economy.

To understand why more pressure is needed, it’s worth revisiting a New York Times article from November that has been widely but somewhat unfairly derided. In it, reporter Thomas Erdbrink wrote that “The two most popular stars in Iran today—a country with thriving film, theater, and music industries—are not actors or singers but two establishment figures: Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s regional military effort, which is widely seen as a smashing success; and the foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, the symbol of a reasonable and measured Iran.”

The derision stems from the fact that the protesters assailed both Suleimani’s military adventurism and the government of which Zarif is a pillar, proving that neither is quite as popular as Erdbrink thought. Like many Westerners reporting from abroad, he committed the cardinal error of thinking that the fairly narrow circles he frequents represent the country as a whole. Yet within those circles, his analysis of the status of these two men appears to be accurate. That was made clear by the fact that Tehran’s educated middle classes, who formed the core of Iran’s 2009 protests, largely sat this round out.

And in truth, Suleimani and Zarif deserved star status. Together, they seemed to have severed the inverse relationship between military adventurism and economic wellbeing. Thanks to the nuclear deal Barack Obama signed with Iran in 2015, it seemed as if Iran really could have it all. It could maintain an active nuclear program (enriching uranium, conducting research and development, and replacing old, slow centrifuges with new ones that will make the enrichment process 20 times faster); expand its ballistic missile program; become a regional superpower with control, or at least major influence, over four nearby countries (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen); and still receive sanctions relief worth billions of dollars and have European companies lining up to do business with it, resulting in booming 12 percent growth and plummeting inflation.

That’s precisely why this status was accorded equally to both the “moderate” Zarif and the “hardline” Suleimani, defying the “moderates versus hardliners” prism through which many Westerners misread Iran. Iranians understand quite well that “moderates” and “hardliners” are both part of the ayatollahs’ regime and, in this case, they worked together seamlessly to produce the best of all possible worlds.

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