Azmi Bishara: Iranian strike on Israel a watershed moment

Azmi Bishara: Iranian strike on Israel a watershed moment
Dr Azmi Bishara said Iran's Saturday night attack was an important development but also showed that Iran does not desire full-scale war with Israel.
10 min read
16 April, 2024
Dr Azmi Bishara described Iran's attack on Saturday night as significant [Al-Araby Al-Jadeed]

Iran's military response to an earlier Israel attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus on 1 April is "a major and significant development", said Director of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies Dr Azmi Bishara as the world scrambles to contain the possible escalation in the region.

Yet the attack is better framed within Israel and Iran's ongoing confrontation rather than Israel's onslaught against the Palestinians in Gaza, he added, in a new interview on Al-Araby TV covering the developments of the last few weeks in Palestine and the Middle East following the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

Bishara saw both the enthusiasm emanating from one section of the Arab public for the Iranian strike, and the cynicism of another part, as stemming from the absence of a unified Arab project, which has left Arabs divided between supporting or opposing Iranian, Turkish and Israeli regional visions.

He stated that while some Arab states seemed to be participating in a closely coordinated US-led mission to defend Israel from Iran, he also pointed out that Tehran had only responded because it had been forced to.

However, Iran does not want a war which could undermine achievements it had spent decades accumulating, namely regional influence and domination of a number of Arab states.

The lack of desire for war, was how Bishara explained the limited impact of Iran's attack. However, the attack also confirmed, in his opinion, that Israel would be unable to defend itself in a war against Iran without Western support; US support in particular.

While he believes confrontations will continue between the two sides, he ruled out the outbreak of full-scale war, which the US doesn’t want in general, let alone in an election year.

As for the indirect negotiations between the Palestinian resistance and Israel, Bishara summarised the reason for their failure as being the lack of convergence on any issue between the two sides.

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He expressed his firm belief that after the scale of the catastrophe inflicted on Gaza's Palestinians, Hamas couldn't back down from fundamental issues, like a permanent end to the war, and Israel's withdrawal from the Strip.

Regarding the efforts by several states to recognise a Palestinian state, Bishara believes this could only be considered a diplomatic achievement if the recognition was of a "state with the 4th June [1967] borders with East Jerusalem as its capital".

Iran's response should be seen as separate to the Gaza assault

Bishara said in his latest interview with Alaraby TV on Sunday evening that he believed it would be inaccurate to view Iran's military response - which saw a barrage of missiles and drones fired at Israel on Saturday night – falling within the context of Israel's war on Gaza.

Instead it should be seen within the context of the ongoing war against Iran, as a wave of escalatory actions [by Israel] had been observed, the most recent being the bombing of the Damascus consulate at the start of April.

In Bishara's view, this was an Israeli provocation which was impossible for Iran to be silent on because the attack's brazenness was damaging to Iran's sense of national dignity.

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In his opinion, the sole link between Iran's response and the war on Gaza lay in the fact that tensions had been rising across the region since the Al-Aqsa Flood Operation of 7 October.

As to why he described the Iranian attack as large and significant, Bishara pointed out that it was the first attack on Israel from Iranian territory and it was of significant scale.

As for exaggerated claims depicting the attack as an existential threat to Israel, or the reverse - that what happened was simply theatrics or a pre-agreed conspiracy - in Bishara's view, both resulted from the fact that "no unified Arab project was being formulated to confront a colonial project like Israel".

He explained his point of view by saying, "There is a kind of Arab orphanhood that translates into the Arabs being divided between Iran, Turkey, and Israel". He also attributed the limited impact of the Iranian attack to "Iran's reluctance to enter into war".

Similarly, he saw Iran's announcement to the world that it had been forced to respond - because Israel had given it no choice due to the blatant arrogance of its direct attack on the Iranian consulate - as indicating the degree to which the Iranians were asking for a way out of having to respond, for instance, by seeking "a Security Council condemnation of the strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus".

Bishara further explained that Iran’s economy cannot tolerate war, and that a major war could risk Tehran losing historic gains its rulers had worked for decades to achieve.

These include its having managed to gain control of certain Arab countries, gaining access to the Mediterranean Sea, and its transformation into a hegemonic power both directly and through proxies.

He concluded by saying that Iran "does not want a war, neither for the sake of Palestine nor for the sake of anything else".

Regional coordination to defend Israel

Bishara discussed what appeared to be an pre-existing alliance, the parties of which took it on themselves to confront Iran's drones and missiles on Saturday night, saying: "We discovered that there is a real orchestra [well-oiled and coordinated teamwork] in the region to defend Israel, and this appeared first in the implicit alliance against the Houthis, then it crystallised more clearly yesterday as a group of countries, including Arab countries, mobilised to shoot down missiles and drones in defense of Israel".

He stressed that the Arab-Israeli-Western lobby considers the main issue to be the Iranian threat, not the Palestinian issue.

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But this already existing alliance, which revealed itself on the night Iran bombarded Israel, proves, according to Bishara, that the occupation state cannot protect itself from Iran without Western support – US support in particular.

He explained that this alliance, which defended Israel against the Iranian attack, "is a gift to Israel, yet at the same time it will act as a restriction in its wars".

As part of his reading of the future of the Iranian-Israeli conflict, Bishara expected that Israel's aggressive activity against Iran would continue, and that "subversive intelligence activity against and inside Iran would continue.

"However, for Israeli planes to go and bomb Iran, or to fire missiles on it without coordination with its allies, this is not what the Americans want in general, let alone in an election year".

He went on to explain that after October 7, "the rules of engagement changed, and the conditions for the outbreak of wars became more difficult than they were before". This became apparent on the Lebanon front first, and in the war between Iran and Israel currently.

Regarding this issue, Bishara noted that in the issue of wars, US President Joe Biden seemed even more reckless than ex-President Donald Trump, which had been evident firstly in Ukraine and then in Gaza.

On the possibility that Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu could overstep America's red line - which is its rejection of all-out war erupting in the region - Bishara said Netanyahu "is not all-powerful, in that there are institutions in Israel he cannot bypass, and there is the US, whose interests he can't go against. Moreover, the Americans are angry because Netanyahu didn't coordinate with them before bombing the Iranian consulate in Damascus. And the US categorically rejects Israel responding to the Iranian response".

He concluded by pointing out that although Netanyahu enjoyed a wide margin  of manoeuvre, it would be hard for him to go as far as carrying out actions the US definitively rejected  - like Israel bombing the Iranian nuclear reactors for example - because this would certainly lead to a war the US doesn't want.

Chronic failure of Gaza ceasefire negotiations

On another front, and in response to a question on the stumbling Qatari-Egyptian-US-mediated negotiations between Tel Aviv and Hamas, Bishara summarised the reasons for their failure: "It's hard to reach an agreement because there is no understanding (between the two sides) on any issue".

He added that the only incentive pushing the Israelis to attend the negotiations was the return of their hostages, and what was happening was that the Israelis were demanding that the other side (the Palestinian resistance) surrender their only means of leverage (the hostages) so that Israel would become totally free to pursue the elimination [of Hamas].

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According to Bishara the resistance realises that without an end to the war and without Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, "any agreement is meaningless".

Likewise, in Bishara's opinion, all the media hype in Israel around the negotiations is intended to convey the idea that Netanyahu is concerned with the hostage issue, while the entire course of the war and the methods Israel has employed prove that the hostage issue is not a priority for the government.

According to Bishara's information, the Americans are giving the false impression to the mediators and Hamas that it will almost certainly be impossible to return to war after the truce, if Hamas agrees to the Israeli conditions, without providing any guarantees for that.

Bishara revealed that in the most recent sessions, Israel unequivocally refused to withdraw and stipulated that its forces would move only 500 metres away from the main areas, so they would remain two or three km deep inside the Gaza Strip during the temporary ceasefire.

He stressed that Hamas had also made fundamental concessions on the issue of the prisoner exchange and the core issue - the number of Palestinian prisoners to be freed in exchange for each Israeli hostage - "because they were told in the Paris negotiations that a ceasefire was possible".

However, what is happening, according to the data Bishara has received, is that Israel's representatives in the negotiations have not compromised at all - not even on the issue of reconstruction, nor on the entry of aid and food.

Moreover, the "concessions" they are currently making are the result of American pressure and the sense of global shame that there is a famine occurring - not thanks to negotiations.

He summarised Hamas's current position in the negotiations by saying: "After all the disaster that has befallen the Palestinians of Gaza, Hamas cannot compromise on fundamental matters, such as ending the war and Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip".

Palestinian state without borders will do more harm than good

Focussing on efforts being made by certain European countries to recognise a Palestinian state, Bishara warned that any recognition of such a state without the land, sovereignty, and requirements of a state, would just be symbolic and merely involve changing the name of the Palestinian Authority (PA) so was referred to as a "state" while having no sovereignty.

He noted that such a recognition "would only be a diplomatic achievement if it were a state within the borders of June 4 [1967] with East Jerusalem as its capital".

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He warned that if this phrase was not included, the problem would increase, because using the term "state" would negate the fact that these lands remained occupied, which would fatally undermine the national liberation struggle.

He deemed it likely the US would propose an arrangement which would offer recognition to a Palestinian state without defined borders, which would be left open for negotiation, as has been the case since the Oslo Accords.

He concluded that countries like Ireland, Spain, and possibly Belgium, Malta, and Portugal "must realise, in the context of their efforts to recognise a Palestinian state, that without focussing on the borders of June 4 and East Jerusalem, their recognition will have no value, and may even bring about a negative outcome".