After nearly two weeks of war in Gaza, indirect talks between Israel and Hamas have begun. That should bring some hope to civilians who face needless killings on both sides. The talks, however, hinge on the future of tunnels from Egypt used to smuggle arms to Hamas – courtesy of Iran, the stealthy Middle East meddler.
Iran's ruling Islamic mullahs, with their long hopes of regional dominance and Islamic unity, are the invisible contenders in this latest conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The like-minded Islamist leaders of Hamas could not pursue their goal of destroying Israel, or at least scuttling talks for a Palestinian state, without the rockets and other weapons sent with help by Iran or partner Syria.
Blocking the smugglers and their tunnels appears to be Israel's main goal in this war – and it doesn't trust Egypt, whose border guards are either corrupt or incompetent, to again keep watch over the sandy, 10-mile border. "Preventing a Hamas arms buildup is the necessary foundation of any new calm arrangement," says an Israeli spokesman.
Israeli airstrikes have crushed many of the 300 tunnels so far, most of which were dug since Hamas wrested control of Gaza in 2007 from its Palestinian rivals, Fatah. Now Israel wants an international force to block the arms smuggling.
But Egypt, under President Hosni Mubarak, balks at allowing foreign troops from, say, Turkey or France, to infringe on its sovereignty in the Sinai. And that hesitancy reflects a wider problem: Arab states from Saudi Arabia to Morocco are reluctant to stand up to Iran, at least openly.
Yet these Arab leaders need to better confront the region's Islamic extremism that Iran represents, seen starkly in Hamas's rocket attacks; the Iranian-controlled group in Lebanon, Hezbollah; and the global standoff over Iran's race to develop a nuclear-weapons capability.
While Israel can and should do much more to help Palestinians form a country, it needs Egypt and other Arab states to act against Iran, starting right now with the permanent closure of Gaza tunnels, using troops that can meet Israel's concerns.
Hamas refuses to even allow Fatah, let alone non-Muslim forces, control the border. Yet if Egypt can be bold in these cease-fire talks and insist on a secure border with a robust monitoring mechanism, it can force Hamas to back down.
And that would be one small victory over Iran and its ideology of using force to dominate the Middle East. Such a move might also force Hamas to make amends with Fatah, allowing serious talks with Israel to end sanctions on Gaza and create a Palestinian state.
Iran is vulnerable right now. Lower oil prices have given the mullahs less money to buy off a restless population. Crackdowns on dissidents have increased. An election in June has opened cracks between reformist mullahs and hard-liners. UN-backed economic sanctions are starting to bite.
In its 2006 Lebanon war against Hezbollah, Israel failed to end the arms flow from Iran. It can't afford a second defeat in Gaza. With Iran nearing nuclear capability, Arab leaders also can't again balk at this chance to confront Iran's radical theology.