Israel’s attack on Hamas in the Gaza Strip has not elicited a strong response from the Arab world. It is as if the Arab Spring has not yet brought an intense focus on one of the core issues of Arab politics, as many assumed it would. While Egyptian president Mohammad Morsi and his Tunisian counterpart, Moncef Marzouki, have made strong statements against the actions of the Jewish state, the response of Arab leaders has been relatively mute. The Arab publics, themselves focused on domestic politics in a newly created sphere of contestation, have yet to come out en masse to denounce Israeli action. Whether this is due to the relatively short time frame of the crisis or due to the lack of fever required for sustained social mobilization, has yet to be seen. What is apparent though is the lack of popular protest which has allowed Arab leaders to avoid increasing their aggressive rhetoric in defense of the Palestinians.
Israel’s strategic and political position in the region has been shaken with the blossoming of the Arab Spring, but not to the extent that many had predicted. Granted, Tel Aviv lost allies in both Cairo and Tunis, putting the Jewish state on edge, particularly when it came to the cancellation of natural gas imports from Egypt. Also, Israel has taken note of the fact that conditions in the region have shifted and are reportedly concerned with the recent deterioration of the security situation in the Sinai. Although the instability in the region, particularly in both neighboring Egypt and Syria, is a concern, Israel has shown time and again that it is willing to act in a unilateral fashion, whether the Osirak reactor attack in 1981 or more recently, on a weapons factory in Khartoum. The words of Benjamin Netanyahu during today’s meetings with Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seem to confirm this unilateral posturing. Also, for that matter, unconditional American support.
The alliance between Washington and Tel Aviv on one hand and Washington and the Gulf Cooperation Council has shielded Israel from widespread regional backlash. While the visit of Arab foreign ministers led by Nabil el-Araby, the Secretary General of the Arab League highlights a shift in regional policy it is cosmetic at best. The Gulf monarchies, wary of domestic dissent will ensure that both their populations and their various clients across the region will not force the hands of Arab leaders to take a stronger position on the situation. Protests no longer stay focused on the Israeli-Palestinian issue or American involvement in the region; they are sustained because of local political and economic circumstances. Mohammad Morsi knows this and the Egyptian president is trying to keep his country attractive to the outside world, lest it lose billions of dollars in Western aid crucial for its economic recovery. Even Turkey, jostling for leadership of the Sunni world, has taken note. Prime Minister Erdogan cancelled his trip to the Gaza Strip, instead opting to stay in Cairo to consult his Egyptian counterpart.
Behind the scenes, Ankara, Doha and Cairo are all trying to make their mark on the upcoming truce between Israel and Hamas; for the Arab states to both save face and position themselves as leaders of the Sunni world, for Turkey and its governing AKP party to firmly bring the region into its orbit. Each state has tried to bring Hamas in from the cold and reform the Islamist organization in light of the Arab Spring and the organization’s rejection of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus, its former patron. The centrality of the Palestinian issue to leadership in the Middle East is widely known and through sponsoring the government of Gaza each state is attempting to improve its standing among the wider Arab world. While the axis of resistance is largely broke, but not demolished, the current round of hostilities derails these attempts. Rather than solely benefiting Hamas’ newly emboldened regional patrons, Operation Cloud Pillar and Israeli rhetoric have portrayed Hamas as an Iranian-backed terrorist group, bent on annihilating Israel and willfully sacrificing its only populace towards this aim. While I take issue with this oversimplification and the tactical and political insinuations derived from this view, I undoubtedly know that it will prevail; in turn stunting its attempted transformation sponsored by Qatar and Turkey. Rather, the latest shelling of Gaza will benefit three actors, in this, the latest saga of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The first is Prime Minister (Bibi) Benjamin Netanyahu. While much focus has been on the fact that Operation Cloud Pillar had begun roughly two months before Israeli elections there may be an even more devious explanation. While Israel does suffer from a severe case of what is known as the rally around the flag effect — when citizens stand by their leaders in times of crisis — it is still too far away from Israeli elections. Two months, as shown in the latest American election, is a decade in political time and starting an all-out war with Hamas, including ground incursions, could blow-back against the Israeli Prime Minister. It is more likely that Bibi is attempting to stall Palestinian recognition at the United Nations, the brain-child of Hamas’ Palestinian rival Fatah, led by the secular and peaceful Mahmoud Abbas. Operation Cloud Pillar also serves to show the Israeli public and regional governments that the Obama administration and the rest of the West is firmly behind Tel Aviv, even with animosity between the newly re-elected American president and the Israeli leader. So goes the Faustian scheme.
The second actor to see a benefit from this round of violence is, as eluded to, Hamas. Although the Islamist organization has lost much of its ability to fight back against Israel after thousands of bombs have been dropped on the densely packed Gaza Strip, it has outflanked Fatah. The moderate Palestinian group has been duped; Hamas can claim “victory” against Israel and project itself as the rightful standard bearer of the Palestinian cause. Furthermore, it has dampened Fatah’s attempts, in concert with Bibi, to gain recognition at the U.N., as noted above. But the most important PR victory for Hamas is the visit of these Arab foreign ministers to the strip. This legitimates Hamas as a regional actor, the government of Gaza and at minimum an organization that can speak for a significant amount of the Palestinian population.
Lastly, and this depends on the success of the imminent ceasefire, there is Egypt and its president, Mohammad Morsi. By standing with the Palestinian people and sending a high ranking representative, Prime Minister Hisham Qandil to Gaza and personally and publicly chairing negotiations between the belligerents, Morsi has ensured that Egypt will remain the arbiter of the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Furthermore, with a newly opened democratic sphere in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood will be able to spin Morsi’s securing of a ceasefire as a victory for Palestinians that highlights the willingness of Egypt to stand up (in a very limited manner) to its neighboring Zionist entity. If the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi can continue to find the right balance between appeasing its domestic populace and political rivals, while not upsetting the Israelis enough to cause Western backlash, Egypt might find itself again as the preeminent source of soft power in the Middle East.