Iron Dome anti-missile battery, Ashkelon

Renewed violence between Gaza and Israel has brought the Palestinian issue back from the shadows. It’s tragic that it takes the deaths of some 26 Palestinians to do that. There is another effect, however, that the current round of fighting might have: emboldening Israel to go to war with Iran.

Such concerns are raised when we hear Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak say that Iron Dome, Israel’s new missile defense system, “…not only protects our citizens but also allows freedom of activity for the IDF and political leadership.”

As of the latest count, Iron Dome has intercepted 43 out of 104 missiles fired at Israel since Friday. Equally noteworthy: Most of the missiles that got through were not aimed at the population centers that Iron Dome protects.

While Iron Dome is the best-known part of Israel’s missile defense system, it’s not the only one. The Arrow missile is designed to intercept longer range missiles, such as the one that Iran would have to use in a retaliatory strike on Israel. Israel is also hoping to bring another system online, David’s Sling (also known as Magic Wand,) in the next few months.

One cannot help but be enthused about such defensive systems whose only purpose is to protect the lives of innocent civilians. In this era of ever-more spectacular ways of killing people and blowing things up, we must applaud countries expending significant resources on purely defensive systems.

That being said, there is also a danger in feeling too safe from one’s enemies when conflict is a possibility.

Because any direct retaliation against Israel will take the form of a wide variety of missile attacks, either long-range from Iran, or short- to-medium- range from Lebanon (and possibly Gaza; Hamas has said they would stay out of an Iran-Israel conflict, but then another Hamas official denied this), the fact that Iron Dome intercepted so many rockets this weekend tells them that in order to do significant damage, they will have to invest a disproportionate amount of their missile resources to impact Israel.

I’m sure that was not a part of any Israeli planning before all this started. But I’m equally sure it is a welcome development in Jerusalem, and a message being heard loud and clear in Tehran.

It is also being felt throughout Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing a public that is very reluctant to engage Iran without strong US backing. In a poll conducted jointly by the Israeli Dahaf Institute and the University of Maryland at the end of February, only 19% of Israelis said they would support a strike on Iran without US backing, while 34% oppose a strike even with the US. That echoes the sentiments expressed in a Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA)/University of Maryland poll released Tuesday which found that 70% of US citizens, including 58% of Republicans, support continued diplomacy with Iran while only 25% support military action.

With President Obama having made it clear that he doesn’t support an attack on Iran by Israel at this time, Netanyahu undoubtedly sees the performance of Iron Dome these past few days as a way to help him ease the concerns of his own population, and of his American supporters. If one looks at all the trumpeting of the system’s success the last week, especially in the Israeli press, its clear that the government, and their civilian media allies, are clearly aware of this.

But these missile defense systems are far from a panacea. No one knows how Iron Dome will perform when the barrages number in the hundreds rather than the dozens. David’s Sling is not yet ready for deployment. When it is, it will be untested.

I believe that neither Israel nor the US really wants the confrontation with Iran to come to war, despite the fiery rhetoric from Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and their cronies in Congress and the Republican campaign trail.

My concern is that the tough talk, the sanctions, and saber-rattling will lead to a situation where one wrong move, or some unpredictable factor will inevitably lead to a confrontation. An overly comfortable Israeli leadership increases that possibility.

The answer, of course, is not to minimize defensive systems. Protecting civilians on all sides should be the paramount concern of everyone involved, far more so than it actually is. Recklessness and brinksmanship undermine such technologies.

Protection for Israeli civilians is of course  welcome. But it must be accompanied by a greater reluctance to go to war, not an increased comfort zone for striking with impunity. Diplomacy is the only alternative.

One can also hope that the events of these past few days also reminds us that the ongoing tensions with Iran and the ongoing occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza are not separate issues. Though the IDF would be pounding Gaza regardless, there’s no denying the meaning of this campaign to Iran.

 Photograph courtesy of the Israel Defense Forces. Published under a Creative Commons license.