To start with, Hamas does not have to win this war. It can lose and still win. As long as no other political group can replace it in power, even as some of its diehards can continue to lob missiles, however ineffectually, into Israel, it achieves a moral victory of sorts. Moreover, if Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement tries to replace Hamas in power, Fatah will forever be tagged with the label of Israeli stooge, and in the eyes of Palestinians will have little moral legitimacy. Israel’s dilemma is that it is not fighting a state but an ideology, the postmodern glue that holds together Greater Iran.
Whether it is the sub-state entities of Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, or the Mahdi movement in Shiite southern Iraq; or the hopes, dreams, and delusions of millions of Sunni Arabs, principally in Egypt, who feel a closer psychological identity with radical Shiite mullahs than with their own Pharaonic Sunni autocracy, Iran has built its dominion on a combination of anti-western ideas and the dynamic wiliness of its intelligence operations (which, in turn, are a reflection of a civilization more developed and urbanized than that of the Arabs). Iran’s message of anti-Semitism and hatred toward the United States plays well across sectarian lines in the Sunni Arab world, which identifies its own fatigued, uninspiring, and detested rulers with the side of the U.S. and Israel. Sunni Arabs hate their own rulers, but despairing of changing their own lot, they channel that hatred toward us: thus the potency of the Iranian message. A nuclear weapon will only supply Iran with more prestige among the Arab lumpen faithful.
The ideologizing of hatred, like the ideologizing of religion, can empower millions of alienated, working-class Arabs who feel psychologically adrift in the world of the early 21st century. Israel won its audacious military reputation during the age of Arab state armies. Because Arabs never believed in their own secular states, their armies were never very good in the first place, and thus Israel had no trouble impressing the world in its wars against them. But at the sub-state level of movements like Hamas or Hezbollah, the Arabs very much believe in their cause, and thus Israel has a real challenge on its hands.
How do you fight unconventional, sub-state armies empowered by ideas? You undermine them subtly over time, or you crush them utterly, brutally. Israel, unable to tolerate continued rocket attacks on its people, has decided on the latter course. Our own diplomacy with Iran now rests on whether or not Israel succeeds. We need to create leverage before we can negotiate with the clerical regime, and that leverage can only come from an Israeli moral victory—one that leaves Hamas sufficiently reeling to scare even the pro-Iranian Syrians from coming to its aid. In defense of its own territorial integrity, Israel has, in effect, launched the war on the Iranian empire that President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, in particular, can only have contemplated.