The Quiet Revelations Lost in the Loud Chatter About Israel and Iran

The Middle East, for its observers, is theater. A place of smoke and mirrors, as many a foreign journalist is fond of saying. It’s more sorry fate than cultural disposition. In coveted lands, conspiracies tend to thrive and, alas, everybody, inside and out, wants a piece of us.

So, we Arabs, from a very tender age, are conditioned to believe that what we see is almost always a lie, shadowplay, the purpose of which is to hide something sinister. 

Our modern history has been generous with other conditionings, none perhaps more consequential than our helplessness before Israel. Successive generations of us Levantines, since 1948, for example, have been trained to accept that, in conflicts, small or large, with the Jewish state, we shall bear the brunt of the pain. It’s our border villages that will be destroyed, our land that will be burnt, our people who will have to evacuate, our towns and cities that will be bombed, our armies that will be defeated, our planes that will be downed. Very quickly, this conviction developed into a much wider Arab one, and soon enough into an even wider international one.

This in essence has been Israel’s deterrence doctrine: we pound, you duck. We win big, you lose miserably. Put more tangibly: we get to go to war and the beach, you don’t.  

The historical record on the ground is actually more mixed than this dire picture. But, for reasons worthy of another post, the conditioning has held through it. That is, until now.  

Israel’s strike on the Iranian Consulate in Syria, April 1, 2024

I don’t know of any regional event in recent history that parallels the pure theater but utter significance of Iran’s direct counterstrike against Israel. To choreograph a performative counterattack meant to fail and succeed at one and the same time is quite the political accomplishment. What was particularly revelatory is how Iran and the US, two mortal enemies who mistrust each other viscerally, were able to synchronize and stage manage an Iranian response to an American ally deemed by both to be wayward. They were akin to the two estranged adults in the room working together to restrain a spoilt maniacal juvenile.

Remarkably, at the end of the show, Israel got to claim, with Iranian permission and help, a brilliant joint air defense that spared it most of the incoming projectiles, even as it was forced to register the shattering of its war-and-beach doctrine.

It is of no material relevance whatsoever that Israel, in its own retaliation, succeeded in penetrating Iran’s air defenses. We all knew it could. What we didn’t know is that Iran can dare and will penetrate Israel’s to conceivably devastating effect.

As part of a very entangled and complicated geopolitical landscape now resides this new reality and its rules. Clearly, not everyone is happy with this Iranian feat, but we Arabs, critics of Iran no less than its admirers, feel the breach in our age-long conditioning.

Israeli white phosphorus in Southern Lebanon
Hezbollah targets IDF posts in North Israel

I find it interesting that many analysts, in dissecting the Iranian-Israeli war dance, are devoting much attention to the pernicious character of the Iranian system and its waning popular legitimacy. I am not sure where such judgments belong in the evolving Israeli-Iranian argument. To its many detractors, especially those in the West, it may well matter that Iran’s motivations are very cynical or ideological and its regime is vile. But that hardly counts up there in Israel’s skies, does it? Besides, how exactly is the Iranian authoritarian rule more abhorrent than Israel’s apartheid in the Occupied Territories and its genocide in Gaza?

In fact, one of the more fascinating aspects of these two rivals is how similar their states actually are in their religious extremism, their bigotries and intolerances. I’ll go further. At this very mature post-Islamist juncture in a much diminished theocracy, Iranian society–which has grown stubbornly secular, vibrant, and tenacious against tremendous odds–can reasonably look forward to a future noticeably free from many of the current suffocating strictures. What portends Israeli society in the ascendance of the likes of Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, in the terrorisms of its marauding settlers, in the myriad chauvinisms of its bourgeoning fundamentalists, in the heavy costs of being a citizen of a genocidal polity?

Mass graves discovered near Nasser Hospital and other locations in Gaza

More pointedly, in full view of Israel’s grotesque misbehavior in its own backyard and well beyond, all while hiding behind daddy, it is hard to imagine it winning the contest in the rationality department. More pointedly still, when Jordan is invited to partake in the regional air defense blunting overflying Iranian drones and missiles, have we not witnessed yet another conventional wisdom being stood on its head? Of what strategic utility is an irrational, uncontrollable, and unpredictable Israel oblivious to the region’s geopolitical imperatives, not to mention its own? To its allies, what’s the benefit in an Israel that frequently needs to be saved from itself?

For decades, the Jewish state has had practically all the latitude in the Levant and all the swagger in the rest of the neighborhood. How much prerogative and initiative dare it claim as it stumbles forward? There is as yet no sure answer to this question, but I am guessing vanishingly less than what it had only seven months ago.


On Another Note

It’s the weekend. For you, for Gaza, a poem by Jorie Graham:

No one today

of my own died. I
did not die. My
love did not. Is intact. I
checked. Beloveds

were not dragged

into the net of
the eye of
the drone, were not dis-
membered into

instant ancestors –
not even memories, too
fast, too torn, no. Screams. We
woke. The sun

came first in
veins of red then rips,
pinks, then rose as
usual. We

didn’t look up, ate
fast, were late, the day filled
up, we asked
all our

questions – what
questions were
those – I heard a
cardinal, it’s

Spring – so

suddenly – soon
it was evening
again. The lights came
on. No oblivion

was visible

to us, no one
lay waiting to be buried
under the vast
sound then the unending

weight which imitates
perfectly – where suddenly
we’re down in

the burning
mounds the slippery
pits – how did our room
disappear – & is that a

cry under there, is that a hand

opening and
shutting – a piece of
skin – is that a
shin is that a

nape showing thru
this dust we cannot reach
into, can’t push
away, this covering

which cannot be
uncovered ever
again. They take away our hands they
make us lie down. Where

are my things, the
things I loved. It’s
Spring, I think. I must be
alive. I check the

bulbs. I touch the
green. No arm is being
amputated from
my only ones, no rib-

cage crushed
before it can call out a
name, no body loved beyond
measure growing

limp here – wake

up, wake, let me feed you, here’s yr
milk, here’s yr
song, I’ll whisper it
into yr ear – where is yr

ear – open yr
eyes, where are yr eyes, why
are your fingers
not, why will your eyelids

not – I push them
back, they will not
stay – don’t bend that way

you’ll hurt yourself,

no you can’t

hurt yourself, you are all
gone all
who ran in the

light with me to
the beach last
Saturday … Shall we venture out
I ask – at bedtime

now – tomorrow, &
my sleepy ones say
maybe, if it is fine,
and I say yes, of

course, if it is fine.

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