Israel’s offensive in Gaza is not likely in preparation for a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, though such a disastrous campaign cannot be dismissed.   Israeli feelings of being besieged from twin threats – external enemies and internal demographic changes – make it possible, if unlikely, that Israel might engage in otherwise counterproductive behavior.

In my last post, I looked at some of the strategic considerations for Israel in manning a ground campaign in Gaza versus its current airstrikes in terms of the costs of operating in the Arab Spring-thawed Middle East. Mostly, I was looking at its relationship with Egypt and just how far it would be willing to go without endangering the peace treaty. But it is worth pivoting east, as some have, to look at what this might mean in terms of Israel’s continuing confrontation with Iran.

Jerry Seib suggested in a Wall Street Journal blog post that Iran might have promoted HAMAS to attack Israel in order to tie them up militarily. Iran has, after all, been HAMAS’ main supplier of weapons, including the more advanced missiles seen over the last week. Then again, he also points out that this course might backfire and allow Israel to free itself of the HAMAS deterrent.

In short, this would be a stupid plan for Iran even if the assumed relationship between Iran and HAMAS were true. HAMAS is not a proxy for Iran in the same way that one could describe Hizballah – and even there, you run into problems thinking the relationship so unidirectional.

I think it likely that HAMAS wasn’t pressured by anyone (other than Israel) to resume its missile strikes. And its building of a better arsenal over the past year or so doesn’t have to stray beyond basic military precautions to make sense (those home-made mortars weren’t doing anything other than making potholes in the desert).

Others have  further speculated that the campaign in Gaza might be but a precursor to an offensive in Iran to destroy that country’s nuclear program. The logic goes that Iran supplied the advanced missiles to HAMAS as a deterrent against Israeli aggression, and so by dismantling that deterrent  Israel should feel more free to act directly against Iran.

I’m sure that Israel would feel much better knowing that Iran’s supply of arms to HAMAS has been weakened, but I don’t think that the situation is quite so simple. Deterrence probably was part of Iran’s reasons for supplying HAMAS, as it also supplies Hizballah and Islamic Jihad, as might the general theory that the enemy of my enemy is my friend; however, none of these are probably a large enough deterrence to stop Israel from striking Iran if it thought it could take our that country’s program. It after all did exactly that to Iraq and Syria.

The largest deterrence to Israel in striking Iran is that Iran’s program is much bigger, more complex, more advanced, and better defended than either Syria or Iraq’s programs were. A full-on war effort by Israel would be unlikely to do more than set Iran back a few months or maybe a year.

The second biggest deterrence to Israel is the US, which thus far has managed to hold its ally back from the brink. But the US is limited in its ability to do this, and Israel is spurred on to action by domestic political interests as well as security concerns.

That same mixture of concern for security and political machination also goes far towards explaining Israel’s offensive in Gaza on its own. Israel has always verged on paranoia in its foreign policy, and the Tip O’Neill axiom that all politics are local is far more true of Israel than it ever was for the US. It is evident in its concern over Iran’s nuclear program and in HAMAS’ rocket campaign, neither of which could ever constitute a existential threat. That said, Israel’s paranoia is occasionally justified, and it has fought its fair share of defensive wars over the years.

Politically, Israel has seen a massive shift towards the right – defined in Israel between Hawks and Doves – in the last decade, in part because of structural considerations that gives inordinate political weight to fringe groups and in part due to demographic changes that threaten to to make Jews a minority. Feelings of being besieged from twin threats make it possible, if unlikely, that Israel might engage in otherwise counterproductive behavior. So we can’t rule out an Israeli strike on Iran, but we can be reasonably sure that whatever its motivations in Gaza, preparing the ground for a strike on Iran isn’t among them.