NEAL CONAN, host:
Time now for the Opinion Page. Last December, when Israel invaded the Gaza Strip, Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl was among many who predicted that it would fail to either topple Hamas or eliminate its ability to fire missiles at Israeli cities. And worse, the inevitable bloodshed would subject Israel to another round of international outrage.
Last week, in an op-ed in the Post, Diehl concluded that he was mostly right, but that Israelis draw very different lessons from the conflict with important implications for a possible strike on Iran. And that piece was published amid reports of Iran's secret nuclear facility near Qom, and tests over the weekend of a ballistic missile with range to reach Israel.
Jackson Diehl is deputy editorial page editor, as well as a columnist, and joins us now from a studio at the Washington Post. Nice to have you with us today.
Mr. JACKSON DIEHL (Deputy Editorial Page Editor, Washington Post): My pleasure.
CONAN: And we have to note, to start, that the Hamas government remains in power in Gaza, as you predicted, and does indeed retain the capability to fire mortars and rockets into Israel whenever it wants.
Mr. DIEHL: It does. But one thing has changed that's very important from the Israeli point of view, which is that Hamas is no longer firing missiles at Israel, and that seven or eight years before that invasion of Gaza took place, they fired 4,000 missiles and 4,000 mortar shells at towns in southern Israel. In the last four or five months, there've been maybe two dozen such firings. So from the Israeli point of view, there's been an enormous short-term change, even though all of the big strategic objectives weren't accomplished.
CONAN: And short-term change from the Israeli perspective is worth it?
Mr. DIEHL: Short-term change is, from the Israeli perspective, the most that can be accomplished in many of their conflicts with the states around them, in particular Iran. The Israeli point of view is that they can never come to terms with Iran, that Iran and its allies - which include, of course, Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon - will never accept Israel's existence.
So the most you can expect from the Israeli point of view is to achieve a kind of short-term peace with them, a short-term respite from conflict that you establish through deterrence. And so from their point of view, even a very costly conflict that buys you a few months of peace and quiet is worth it.
Mr. DIEHL: Because that's the most you can do.
CONAN: And that would seem to be the definition of the war with Lebanon earlier, as well.
Mr. DIEHL: That's right. In 2006, after a series of incidents along the border, Israel launched an invasion of Lebanon. It was a very costly conflict. A lot of Israeli civilians were killed in rocket attacks by Lebanon against Israel, and, of course, many people were killed in Lebanon. But the result of that campaign was that there have been three years of quiet along the border. There have been very few incidents. And Israel's basically been at peace with Lebanon for three years.
Now, they don't expect that continue. Once again, Hezbollah has amassed another very large arsenal of rockets in southern Lebanon. And from the Israeli point of view, it's only a matter of time before there's another conflict. But again, they've bought that time.
CONAN: This - another difference between the war in Lebanon and the one in Gaza, both occurred during the Bush administration, but the second one, well, U.S. officials were opposed to it.
Mr. DIEHL: Yeah. They thought it was a bad idea. Just as they thought the Israeli attack on the Syrian reactor in 2007 was a bad idea. The Bush administration didn't tell Israel not to do either of those things, but it both cases, they said, you know, we think that's a bad idea and you're going to regret it. And we're worried about what the consequences will be. Well, in both cases, from the Israeli point of view, they feel like they've been vindicated.
They got what they wanted in Gaza, which was an end to the rocket attacks. There were no larger diplomatic consequences. There was no larger war, and same with Syria in 2007. They bombed a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor that had been supplied by North Korea. The fears that this would start some kind of war between Israel and Syria or some other larger conflict were unfounded, and they feel like, again, once again, they were vindicated in not listening to Washington.
CONAN: There is another side of the fallout from Gaza, though. That international condemnation just a couple of weeks ago, a U.N. commission headed by the South African jurist Richard Goldstone condemned, quote, "a deliberately disproportional attack designed to punish, humiliate and terrorize a civilian population," and some harsh things to say about the Hamas side, too. But nevertheless, Israel is a state, and Hamas, not quite.
Mr. DIEHL: That's right. But from the Israeli point of view, that condemnation has really been not a major setback. They're used to being condemned by the United Nations. The United Nations Human Rights Council, which was what appointed this commission, has spent most of its time condemning Israel over the last two or three years. And the fact is that these reports and condemnations end up having very little impact because the commission itself has been discredited. The Bush - the Obama administration already has dismissed this Goldstone report.
And, you know, the Israelis would point out that in spite of all the international condemnation, they've suffered no real diplomatic consequences. Most Arab states are ready to upgrade relations with Israel at this point, once the peace process begins again. The Palestinian authority in the West Bank is about to renew peace negotiations with Israel, and, in fact, has gotten much stronger since the war than it was before.
So again, the international program and diplomatic consequences that a lot of people worried about at the beginning of this Gaza operation haven't come to pass, so far as Israelis are concerned.
CONAN: One of the places they were most concerned about - the Israeli government at the time - was Egypt, which, of course, has the other side of the border with Gaza.
Mr. DIEHL: Right. And Egypt has basically cooperated with Israel in a quiet way for several years in maintaining a blockade on the Gaza Strip and not allowing Hamas to import, have a regular commerce with the outside world while they pressure Hamas to make some political concessions. And after the war, Egypt came under a lot of pressure. There were public statements by Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, and others, demanding that Egypt open the border, that it change its relationship with Hamas. Well, Egypt held firm, and the situation today remains the same as it was before the war. There is a blockade on Gaza in which Egypt cooperates.
CONAN: We're talking with Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post about an op-ed he wrote which talked about the lessons Israelis draw from the Gaza invasion last December. There's a link to the op-ed piece at our Web site. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And, of course, the subtext of all of this is another thing, that there is a new administration in Washington, and the crisis this time is not with Gaza or with Lebanon or even with Syria, but the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran.
Mr. DIEHL: That's right. And again, the same kind of Israeli thinking can come into play there. From the Israeli point of view, there's no long-term victory. There is no accord to be made. There's only short-term successes. So a bombing campaign against Iranian nuclear sites is something that everyone agrees would, at best, be a short-term success. I think Secretary of Defense Gates said over the weekend they could maybe delay the program by one to two years.
For everyone but the Israelis, that's not a very big benefit. It would be much preferable to try and strike some kind of long-term deal with Iran, or in some way or other persuade Iran to abandon the program itself. But from the Israeli point of view, a one to two-year delay in the Iranian program might be seen as a benefit and, in fact, the best that you can hope for if you're looking at it from the Israeli government's point of view.
CONAN: But there is a great deal more at risk, it would seem, there. For one thing, the Iranians just test fire the missile that could reach Israel. For another thing, the United States would be deeply involved in this. The Iranians would certainly see the United States, if there was an Israeli attack, as complicit.
Mr. DIEHL: Yeah. The Israelis are going to have an awful lot to think about. They have the Iranian missiles that can reach Israel. There are the Hezbollah missiles in southern Lebanon, and the Hamas missiles in Gaza, which almost certainly would be brought into a play if there were no Iranian attack on Iran.
But I think most of all, what the Israelis will think about is their relationship with the United States. They knew that when they invaded Gaza, it was not going to put their relationship with the United States at risk. They knew when they attacked the Syrian reactor that even if the Bush administration disagreed with them, it was not going to put their relationship at risk. And they also know that if they launch an attack on Iran, it is expressly against the wishes of the American president. And that brings American troops and American interests in the Middle East into harm's play or draws them into a war, that will put their relationship with the United States at stake. So I think their calculations are going to be much more complicated in this case.
CONAN: And this would involve - presumably, they are talking to officials in the Obama administration, presumably to the president himself.
Mr. DIEHL: Well, yeah. Those conversations have been going on for years already, back and forth, about Iran. What is the best way to deal with Iran? Is a military attack possible? Can Israel carry out that military attack? It's been widely reported at the end of the Bush administration that the Israeli government asked to be sold material, certain kinds of bombs and other material it would need to carry out the attack on Iran. It was denied those requests by the Bush administration.
Conversations, no doubt, are continuing here in the Obama administration about just what the feasibility is and what the alternatives are. And by the way, it's worth noting that so far as it goes for now, Israel is saying both publicly, and so far as I know in private, that they would like to see sanctions tried against Iran. They are not advocating, for the moment, military action as a first recourse.
CONAN: And, indeed, there's a meeting scheduled for later this week, where the P5+1 - that's the permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany - will be meeting with Iranian officials to discuss Iran's nuclear ambitions and what it plans to do about them. And indeed, the discovery of that facility at Qom, reported in the newspapers last week, that's going to bear heavily on a decision by those states to impose sanctions if they do.
Mr. DIEHL: That's right. And it's - of course, it's - revelation of that facility last week was very clearly an attempt by the United States and other countries to gain some kind of leverage over Iran by showing them that we are capable of discovering their secret facilities by bringing them under pressure from the international community and hopefully forcing them to make some concessions. And by the same token, these missile firings over the weekend are sort of Iran's answer to that and its own attempt to gain leverage over these negotiations by showing that they have real bargaining chips.
CONAN: And so the game goes on. The decision, as far as I understand it, most American officials say Iran could be expected to get a nuclear weapon in one to three years - as soon as one, and no longer than three.
Mr. DIEHL: That's right. And, of course, this hidden facility, the scary thing about it is if it had not been discovered by American intelligence. It was due to go online early next year. It could have produced material for a bomb in a year. So, in theory, if there's another facility out there that we haven't found yet that was in a same stage of construction a year from now, Iran could have the material for a bomb without the world even being aware of it.
CONAN: Jackson Diehl, thanks very much for your time today.
Mr. DIEHL: My pleasure.
CONAN: Jackson Diehl, deputy editorial page editor and a columnist at the Washington Post. He joined us from a studio at the newspaper's office here in Washington, D.C. We have a link again to his op-ed. It's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.