Azmi Bishara: Iranian Strike on Israel Was a Watershed Moment

In a new interview on Al-Araby TV on April 14, 2024, Dr. Azmi Bishara, Director General of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, discussed the Iranian attack on Israel, seeing it as separate from the Israeli assault on Gaza. He also discussed the apparent regional alliance dedicated to the defense of Israel, the continuing failure of mediated ceasefire negotiations, and the proposal by some European countries to recognize a Palestinian state.

Iran’s Response Is Separate from the Gaza Assault

Addressing the relationship between the Iranian attack on Israel and the six-month long Israeli war on Gaza, Bishara said that it would be inaccurate to view Iran’s action as intricately connected with the Gaza war. Instead, he said, the attack should be seen from the perspective of the ongoing war against Iran which has seen a wave of Israeli escalatory actions, the most recent of which being the bombing of the Damascus consulate on April 1.

In Bishara’s view, the consulate attack was an Israeli provocation that was impossible for Iran to ignore. Its brazenness damaged Iran’s sense of national dignity and pride. Additionally, Bishara believes that the sole link between Iran’s response and the war on Gaza was the fact that tensions had been rising across the region since the October 7 Al-Aqsa Flood Operation.

Bishara pointed out that the Iranian attack was of significant scale and was the first attack on Israel from Iranian territory. Looking at it in broader terms, he discounted the exaggerated claims that depicted it as an existential threat to Israel or as the reverse—that it was mere theatrics or a pre-planned conspiracy. He said that these two dichotomous understandings emerged from the fact that “no unified Arab project was being formulated to confront a colonial project like Israel.” He added that “The Arabs today are left as orphans living off the other international projects in the region, specifically Iran, Turkey, and Israel.” He also attributed the limited impact of the Iranian attack on Israel to “the Islamic Republic’s reluctance to enter into a war.”

He said that Iran announced to the world that the attack was imminent because it had been forced to respond and Israel had given it no other choice. The Iranians were in fact asking for a way out, but they had to respond after failing to get the Security Council to condemn the Israeli strike on the consulate in Damascus. Iran’s economy, he said, cannot tolerate a war, while a major war risks Tehran losing historic gains its rulers had worked for decades to achieve. These include managing to gain control of certain Arab countries, gaining access to the Mediterranean Sea, and becoming a hegemonic power both directly and through proxies. He concluded that Iran will not sacrifice these gains, “neither for the sake of Palestine nor for the sake of anything else.”

Regional Coordination to Defend Israel

Bishara discussed what appeared to be a pre-existing alliance whose parties took it upon themselves to challenge Iran’s drones and missiles on April 13. He said: “We discovered that there is a ‘real orchestra’ in the region dedicated to Israel’s defense and not Palestine’s. It first appeared in the implicit alliance against the Houthis, then it crystallized more clearly as a group, including Arab countries, mobilized to shoot down missiles and drones in defense of Israel.”

Bishara pointed out that the so-called normalization with Israel is nothing short of alliances with Israel that since 2011 has worked to preserve “stability” in the region. He added that these alliances emerged from the idea that an “Israel-Arab lobby was necessary to influence the West and Washington so that they would remain dedicated to their allies in the region.” Bishara noted that this Arab-Israel-West lobby considers the main issue to be the Iranian threat, not the question of Palestine.

According to Bishara, this already existing alliance that became obvious on the night Iran attacked Israel, proves that Israel cannot protect itself from Iran without Western support, specifically American. He said that this alliance “is a gift to Israel, yet at the same time it will act as a constraint on its wars.”

On the other hand, Bishara reasoned that the Iranian-Israeli conflict will persist, with Israel’s aggressive activity against Iran continuing through “subversive intelligence activity outside and inside Iran.” “However,” he added, “Israeli planes will not be able to go and bomb Iran, or to attack it with missiles without coordination with allies. This is not what the Americans want in general, let alone in an election year.”

He also explained that after October 7, “the rules of engagement have changed, and the conditions for the outbreak of wars have become more difficult than they were before.” This change became apparent on the Lebanese front first, and in the war between Iran and Israel currently.

Commenting on US President Joe Biden, Bishara noted that on the issue of wars he seems more reckless than even ex-President Donald Trump. This was made evident first in Ukraine and now in Gaza.

On the possibility of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu overstepping the United States’ red line—rejection of all-out regional war—Bishara said Netanyahu “is not all-powerful, in that there are institutions in Israel he cannot bypass; and there is the United States, whose interests he cannot ignore. Moreover, the Americans are angry because Netanyahu did not coordinate with them before bombing the Iranian consulate in Damascus. And the United States categorically rejects Israel retaliating to the Iranian attack.” He added that although Netanyahu enjoys a wide margin of maneuver, it would be hard for him to go as far as carrying out actions the United States clearly rejects, like Israel bombing the Iranian nuclear reactors for example, because this would certainly lead to a war Washington rejects.

Chronic Failure of Gaza Ceasefire Negotiations

On the stumbling Qatar-Egypt-US-mediated negotiations between Israel and Hamas, Bishara summarized his assessment by saying that “It is hard to reach an agreement because there is no common understanding (between the two sides) on any issue.” Israel’s only incentive in pursuing these negotiations is the release and return of its hostages. It has been demanding that the Palestinian resistance surrender them, its only means of leverage, so that Israel could become free to pursue the complete elimination of Hamas. On the other hand, the resistance realizes that without an end to the war and an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, “no agreement is meaningful.”

In Bishara’s opinion, all the media hype in Israel around the negotiations is intended to portray Netanyahu as 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. He pointed out that the Americans are giving a false impression to the mediators and to Hamas that it will almost certainly be impossible to return to war if a truce is negotiated and if Hamas agrees to the Israeli conditions, without providing any guarantees for that.

Bishara revealed that in the most recent negotiating sessions, Israel unequivocally refused to withdraw and stipulated that its forces would move only 500 meters away from the main areas and would remain two or three kilometers 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, Israel’s representatives to the negotiations have not compromised at all, not even on the issue of reconstruction or on the entry of aid and food. Besides, he pointed out, the so-called “concessions” they are currently making are the result of American pressure and the sense of global shame of the ongoing famine, not because of negotiations.

Summarizing Hamas’s current position in the negotiations, Bishara said: “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.”

No Recognition of Palestinian State Without Borders

Commenting on efforts by some European countries to recognize a Palestinian state, Bishara said that while the idea shows that they have good intentions, the priority now is a ceasefire in Gaza. He asked: “how can such a recognition help Gaza today?” He also warned that any such recognition would only be symbolic if it was not coupled with declaration of borders, sovereignty, and requirements of a state. It would only be a renaming of the Palestinian Authority that now has no sovereignty.

Bishara noted that such a recognition “would only be a diplomatic achievement if it resulted in a state within the borders of June 4 [1967], with East Jerusalem as its capital.” He warned that if this phrase was not included, the problem would become worse in reverse, because using the term “state” would negate the fact that these lands remain occupied, which would fatally undermine the national liberation struggle.

He deemed it likely that the United States would propose an arrangement that offers recognition of 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 realize, in the context of their efforts to recognize a Palestinian state, that without focusing on the borders of June 4 [1967] and East Jerusalem, their recognition will have no value, and may even bring about a negative outcome.”

To read the full interview in Arabic, click here