The images from the fighting in Gaza are harrowing but ultimately deceptive. They portray a mighty invading army, one equipped with F-16 jets that have bombed a civilian population defended by a few thousand fighters armed with primitive rockets. But widen the lens and the true nature of this conflict emerges. Hamas, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, is a proxy for the real enemy Israel is confronting: Iran. And Israel's current operation against Hamas represents a unique chance to deal a strategic blow to Iranian expansionism.
Until now, the Iranian revolution has appeared unstoppable. The Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s ended with Iranian troops occupying Iraqi territory. Iranian influence then spread to Saudi Arabia's heavily Shiite and oil-rich Eastern province, and to Lebanon through Hezbollah. Since the fall of their long-standing enemy, Saddam Hussein, Iranians have deeply infiltrated Iraq. Syria has been drawn into Iran's sphere, and even the Sunni sheikdoms of the gulf now defer to Iran, dispatching foreign ministers to Tehran and defying international sanctions against it. Iran has co-opted Hamas, a Sunni organization closely linked to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, transforming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a jihad against the Jewish state. But Iran's boldest achievement has been to thwart world pressure and approach the nuclear threshold. Once fortified with nuclear weapons, Iranian hegemony in the Middle East would be complete.
All of which helps explain the public statements from moderate Arab leaders, such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas, who have blamed the end of the tenuous Israel-Hamas cease-fire on Hamas. Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit has even called on the Arab world to stop using the U.N. as a forum for blaming Israel alone for the fighting, surely a first. Those leaders understand what many in the West have yet to grasp: The Middle East conflict is no longer just about creating a Palestinian state but about preventing the region's takeover by radical Islam. Indeed, Palestinian statehood is impossible without neutralizing the extremists who oppose any negotiated solution.
If Israel successfully overthrows Hamas in Gaza, it would strengthen anti-Iranian forces throughout the Mideast and signal the region that Iranian momentum can be reversed. The Israeli military operation could begin the process that topples a terrorist regime that seized power in the Gaza Stripin 2007 and has fired thousands of rockets and mortar shells into Israeli neighborhoods.
And whether or not Hamas is ultimately overthrown, Israel can achieve substantial goals. The first is an absolute cease-fire. Previous cease-fires allowed Hamas to launch two or three rockets a week into Israel and to smuggle weapons into Gaza through tunnels. To obtain a cease-fire now, the international community should recognize Israel's right to respond to any aggression over its international border and monitor the closure of Hamas' weapons-smuggling tunnels.
Above all, the goal is to ensure that Hamas is unable to proclaim victory and thereby enhance Iranian prestige in the Arab world.
Yet even those limited goals are far from guaranteed. An earlier opportunity to check Iran -- during Israel's war against Hezbollah in 2006 -- was squandered through a combination of Israeli incompetence and international pressure. Hezbollah manipulated the Western media by grossly inflating the number of civilian casualties and even "recycling" corpses from one bombed site to another.
The international community responded by imposing a cease-fire before Israel could achieve its goals and installing a peacekeeping force that has since allowed Hezbollah to more than double its prewar arsenal. Though the Israeli army killed a quarter of Hezbollah's troops and destroyed its headquarters, Israel was widely perceived as the loser. The winner was Iran.
Israel learned the bitter lesson of Lebanon. For the last two years, the Israeli army has gone back to basics, rigorously training and restoring its fighting spirit. Israeli leaders drew on that spirit to attack Hamas bases in one of the most impressive airstrikes since the 1967 Six-Day War.
Yet the question remains whether the international community has learned its Lebanon lesson, or will once again allow the jihadists to win.
Hamas is attempting to portray the Israeli invasion as a war against the Palestinian people. Television viewers are being presented with heartbreaking images of dead and injured children and supposedly indiscriminate devastation. Palestinian doctors claim that Israel has blocked the supply of vital medicines, and humanitarian organizations warn of imminent starvation. In fact, many of those claims are exaggerated.
Though civilians have, tragically, been hurt, about three-quarters of the 400 Palestinians killed so far have been gunmen -- an impressive achievement given that Hamas fires rockets from apartments, mosques and schools and uses hospitals as hide-outs.
Israel has recently allowed nearly 200 truckloads of food and medicine to enter Gaza, even under shellfire. It is in Israel's urgent interest to minimize civilian suffering and forestall international criticism. For that same reason, Hamas welcomes the suffering of Palestinian civilians. According to a BBC report on Dec. 30, dozens of ambulances were dispatched by Egypt to its border with Gaza, only to remain empty because, according to Egyptian authorities, Hamas wasn't allowing wounded Palestinians to leave.
The international community must not be duped again. If Hamas is successful in manipulating world opinion into the imposition of a premature cease-fire, it will proclaim victory and continue to stockpile long-range missiles for the next round of fighting. That would mean another triumph for Iran.
No less crucially, the international community must not allow the Gaza crisis to divert its attention from the imminent -- and ultimate -- threat of a nuclear Iran. Intelligence sources now measure that threat in months rather than years.
President-elect Barack Obama has declared his intention to confront Iran through diplomacy. Ideally, that process should begin in the aftermath of an Iranian defeat. If Israel is allowed to achieve its goals in Gaza, the Obama administration will be better poised to achieve its goals in Iran.
Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. Michael B. Oren is a distinguished fellow at the Shalem Center and a professor at the foreign service school of Georgetown University.