Middle East Roundtable
Edition 1 Volume 7 - January 08, 2009
War in Gaza: the regional dimension
• Moderate Arabs fear consequences of failed Gaza war - Riad Kahwaji
As Hamas gains more public support, its allies grow stronger.
• Far reaching consequences - Waleed Sadi
The popularity of Hamas is assured whether in defeat or victory.
• What Gaza means for Lebanon - Oussama Safa
Iran will consolidate its influence with Hamas if the latter is able to survive.
• The Egyptian paradox in Gaza - Abdel Monem Said Aly
The problems that Egypt face are Hamas-made.
Moderate Arabs fear consequences of failed Gaza war
The division in the Middle East region between the so-called moderate pro-western camp on the one side and the Iranian axis that includes Syria, Hizballah and Hamas on the other was clear in the early reactions to the Israeli military operation against Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip. Egypt and Saudi Arabia took the lead in the moderate camp in criticizing Hamas for giving Israel the alibi to wage this devastating onslaught by cancelling the lull from its side. Hizballah, Syria and Iran accused some moderate Arab countries, directly and indirectly, of conspiring with the United States and Israel against Hamas.
Hence, not only Israel was on the defensive diplomatically, trying to justify its actions to Arabs and the international community. Hamas also found itself on the defensive, trying to explain why it did not do more to promote national reconciliation and extend the lull with Israel. This was clear in news talk shows on pan-Arab channels and media outlets affiliated with Saudi Arabia or based in Dubai and Beirut.
But things quickly started to change. Images of dozens of scarred and dead children in Gaza have unified Arabs in their anger over Israel's excessive use of force against civilians. In the first week of the war, Arab public opinion was split regarding who is more to blame--Hamas or Israel--for starting it, and how it should be resolved. But the longer the conflict has gone on, the more support Hamas has been gaining. Since the Israeli military is unable to seriously weaken or decapitate Hamas in a timely manner, the majority of Arab analysts and officials fear Israel will once again fail as it did against Hizballah in the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006.
Therefore, many members of the moderate Arab camp are becoming more critical of Israel and more sympathetic toward Hamas. One example is the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where the leadership has gradually grown more critical of the Israeli operation and the media has become more graphic and detailed in its coverage of the suffering of civilians in the densely populated Gaza Strip. The UAE leaders, moving in the footsteps of their Saudi counterparts, have ordered a general fundraising campaign for war victims in Gaza. UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, like his Saudi counterpart, joined the Arab League delegation to the United Nations Security Council to demand an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.
As Hamas gains more public support, its allies, like Syria, grow stronger. The Syrian leaders were quick to capitalize on this conflict by presenting themselves as brokers. Being the host to the Hamas leadership-in-exile, Damascus has received several senior officials from the region and the West seeking to use Syrian influence with Hamas to gain more concessions from the movement and bring about a ceasefire. Syria will make sure to gain credit for whatever deal is negotiated with Hamas to end the current Gaza war. This situation has once again reinforced Damascus' position in the region as a major player that cannot be ignored by the international community. For the Syrians, being a member of the Iranian axis could once again pay.
As for Lebanon, what applies to Syria would to a certain extent apply to Hizballah, which is widely credited for training and arming Hamas. Most Lebanese have been concerned about the spillover of the Gaza war into Lebanon. The worry expressed by the Lebanese president and prime minister as well as many others and their wish to maintain stability along the border with Israel was reflected in the quick decision to send military reinforcements to South Lebanon to assist United Nations peacekeepers in policing the area and preventing any groups from firing missiles into northern Israel.
Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah has been vague in recent speeches as to whether his party would open another front from South Lebanon to help Hamas. Most Lebanese analysts believe Hizballah would not risk sparking a war with Israel just a few months before Lebanese general elections because this could undermine its Christian allies' status at the polls by proving that the party's weapons were not for defending Lebanon but were serving foreign interests. Moreover, Iran seems to have been careful not to do anything provocative in the last few weeks of the outgoing US administration of George W. Bush in order to avoid being drawn into a large-scale military conflict.
Thus, the moderate Arab camp finds itself in a paradoxical situation: it cannot afford to see the Iranian axis grow stronger, and at the same time cannot but oppose Israel when the latter resorts to indecisive and bloody military campaigns. By failing to get Israel to accept the Arab peace initiative or to generate progress in the peace process, the moderate camp is weakened every time Israel unsuccessfully engages any of Iran's allies.
Many Arab officials and analysts believe that, for a number of reasons, Israel is unable to wage a decisive military campaign against Hamas or Hizballah. Therefore, as long as Israel does not seriously pursue the peaceful route, the moderate camp will become weaker and Iran stronger every time Israel resorts to the military option. This time around, the majority is starting to believe Israel will fail in Gaza and is worried about the consequences for Iran's status in the region.- Published 8/1/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Riad Kahwahi is CEO of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai.
Far reaching consequences
On the surface, the week-long Israeli bombardment of Gaza and its civilian infrastructure that has now escalated into a ground offensive may appear as a direct response to Hamas' declaration of an end to the six-month truce and the volley of rockets that the Islamic movement in control of Gaza allowed to hit southern Israel immediately thereafter.
Israel certainly wants an end to the rockets from Gaza that it claims have driven nearly 750,000 of its people underground. Hamas, on the other hand, wants an end to the stifling blockade that Israel has been imposing on the people of the Gaza Strip. The movement may have decided out of desperation to provoke an escalation with the Jewish state in order to free its people from their cage.
This may be the immediate picture. The broader picture, however, is different.
Whoever wanted armed conflict to flare up again in the region may have had something else entirely in mind, something that goes beyond the obvious reasons for the outbreak of full-blown hostilities. In this respect, it is no accident that the Israeli aggression commenced in the wake of reports that Turkey had succeeded in bringing Syria and Israel closer together than ever before.
When Syrian President Bashar Assad announced recently that Syria and Israel had reached an advanced stage in their indirect contacts where direct talks have become necessary, he set in motion a set of new dynamics in the region. It goes without saying that a breakthrough on the Syrian front would have opened the door for the regional peace that has eluded the Middle East for decades.
Peace between Syria and Israel, however, would have ruffled feathers in many circles, not least in Israel itself. There, the hard line Likud and likeminded political parties would balk at a peace deal with Syria because they know that peace with Syria means a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, something they oppose.
Former Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the head of Likud, may therefore have succeeded in pushing outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to go to war with Hamas to nip any peace treaty with Syria in the bud. The ruling Kadima party, headed by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni who covets the premier role, did not want to look weak and indecisive in the face of Hamas' threats and with general elections looming on the horizon.
Likewise Iran, where the regime has been counting on the continuation of the status quo in the region--meaning no war and no peace between Israel and its neighbors--to further its regional interests. From the vantage point of view of Tehran, nothing would be more effective in derailing this projected peace between Syria and Israel than precipitating a warlike situation in the region and increasing the tension.
The strategic goals of Israeli hardliners have thus converged with those of hard line Iranian leaders. We know that Hizballah is a surrogate of Tehran for religious and political reasons and therefore is amenable to advancing the Iranian agenda in the region. We also know that Iran is on the verge of becoming a nuclear power and therefore on the brink of being a major regional power. There are reports that suggest that Iran has been helping Hamas financially and militarily. These reports cannot be confirmed but the suspicion that an alliance between Iran and Hamas is being constructed has been gaining currency lately, notwithstanding the fact that Hamas is a Sunni faction and Iran is a Shi'ite power bent on exercising hegemony over the Sunnis in the area close to its borders. It is just possible that Hamas has been caught unwittingly in the web of a regional political game and in its desire for survival was pushed into the arms of Tehran.
That said, Hamas is projected to emerge from the Israeli onslaught on Gaza victorious in political terms if not militarily. Certainly, the popularity of Hamas is assured whether in defeat or victory. Its political fortunes can now be expected to surge dramatically in the wake of the Israeli aggression, which has electrified the Arab and Muslim streets. Much of the international community has also been moved to defend Hamas and the Palestinians in general.
All the same, countries like Jordan and Egypt have reason to be extremely concerned about the recent fighting. A prolonged war on Gaza may force thousands of people to flee the battle zone and escape the misery and deprivation that the blockade and the fighting has caused them. Jordan is concerned about another wave of refugees fleeing Gaza with only Jordan and Egypt the likely destinations.
Egypt has made it known that it does not cherish the existence of a radical Islamic state on its borders for fear that Islamic fervor may spread to its own country, where the Muslim Brotherhood is already viewed as a threat to the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
King Abdullah and Queen Rania of Jordan have gone out of their way to condemn the Israeli attacks on Gaza and have warned about the imminent humanitarian crisis already underway in Gaza, not only out of genuine concern and sympathy with the plight of the people of Gaza but also out of recognition of the public mood in the country.
Jordanian Prime Minister Nader Dahabi responded to the widely popular call for severing diplomatic relations with Israel by telling parliamentarians recently that Jordan would consider reviewing its relations with Israel if necessary. It is not likely that Jordan will go to the extent of cutting its relations with Israel but hinting that this could be in the cards is obviously a response to public opinion that is increasingly hostile to any normalization of relations with the Jewish state.
The regional fallout will only become clear once the dust settles on the Israeli attacks on Gaza. But one thing is already certain: the Israeli war on Gaza has created new political dynamics in the region, the consequences of which could be far reaching.- Published 8/1/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Waleed Sadi is a former Jordanian ambassador to Turkey and the UN and other international organizations in Geneva. He is currently a columnist for the Jordan Times and Al Rai newspapers.
What Gaza means for Lebanon
Two weeks through the assault on Gaza, the unfortunate rise in civilian casualties and destruction of private property, public infrastructure and schools adorn TV screens worldwide. With so many punishing airstrikes and continuous pounding of Gaza from the air, land and sea it is hard to predict who will come out on top before the dust of the battlefield finally settles. Yet signs of abating violence have begun to appear and, with multiple diplomatic initiatives crisscrossing three continents, it is hoped that the Gazan population will soon be delivered from the misery visited on it by the ongoing carnage.
An intricate web of regional connections to the Gaza situation offers important food for thought on the implications of what is currently taking place there. Some regional observers have attempted to draw parallels between what happened in South Lebanon in 2006 and the current confrontations in the streets of Gaza, hastily concluding that the Israeli army has drawn hard lessons from its mistakes that summer and will soon finish off Hamas.
To decipher the assault on Gaza, one must frame it within the ongoing confrontation between key regional players: Iran and Syria with their non-state allies Hizballah and Hamas on the one hand and Israel with the US behind it on the other. Israel emerged from South Lebanon with a bloody nose two summers ago after which there followed a silent, covert war of assassinations that eliminated Hizballah's chief combat commander and a key Syrian liaison officer. The attack on Hamas is an attempt to tighten the noose further around Hizballah, banking on the fact that the Party of God is in no mood for retaliation at this stage.
Following its military success against the Israeli army in 2006, Hizballah has been hard at work trying to improve its position in the Lebanese political system. Currently it is leading a powerful coalition of opposition parties with veto power over executive and legislative decision-making; it is in a comfortable position for the upcoming legislative elections next summer and has succeeded in dispelling the terrible memories of atrocities and displacement created by the confrontations of that ill-fated summer of 2006.
While having rearmed and resupplied its forces in the south, Hizballah has been very cooperative with UNIFIL and the Lebanese armed forces stationed there. This has meant a complete absence of overt military movements and operations, usually necessary for battlefield readiness and potential success. While speculation abounds, Hizballah would have much to lose in internal Lebanese politics if it entered the military fray by reigniting the southern Lebanese frontier. This does not obviate the possibility that renegade armed factions will resort to reckless rocket firing across the border in a bid to move events there out of the control of UNIFIL and the Lebanese army.
The potential involvement of Hizballah in the ongoing conflict would come with severe regional implications for Lebanon, the Party of God itself, Iran and Syria. Having abided by the will of the international community to impose a ceasefire in 2006, Hizballah would violate UNSCR 1701 if it were to unilaterally launch cross-border attacks. Such a violation would position the international community in direct confrontation with the Party of God; this, the latter cannot afford following its tireless efforts to improve its image. A cross-border confrontation would mean renewed destruction of infrastructure and public facilities in Lebanon. This in turn would wreck the economy and render legislative elections scheduled for next June a distant possibility.
An active Lebanese front would also mean that the suffering and unfolding humanitarian disaster in Gaza would take second priority; this cannot be good for Hamas' efforts to gain the sympathy of the Arab street. Additionally, from a military point of view cross-border attacks in South Lebanon would generate very limited returns and would hardly relieve Hamas in Gaza, especially if Israel were able to respond swiftly and cause vast destruction.
For Syria, the fighting in Gaza has helped the regime in Damascus regain regional relevance and become a sought-after mediator. While the talks between Damascus and Tel Aviv will be suspended for the near future, Syria's renewed role of peace broker with Hamas will earn it much-needed leverage in its effort to break out of its international isolation.
If Hamas holds out in Gaza, it will mean victory for the organization. This in turn will offer the Syrian regime a golden opportunity to appeal to the Arab public and reposition itself as a key regional player against its archrivals Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Syria also sees the fighting in Gaza as an opportunity to settle old scores with the Mubarak regime by encouraging acerbic verbal attacks and vitriol against Egypt, turning the Arab masses against Cairo. Similarly, Iran will consolidate its influence with Hamas if the latter is able to survive and become a key negotiator in a future ceasefire. This will embolden Tehran's role in the region and will help it reposition itself comfortably if and when the Obama administration decides to engage it in a dialogue over regional issues.
The coming few days will reveal the new political fault lines in the Middle East as the cards get reshuffled, beginning with Gaza.- Published 8/1/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Oussama Safa is general director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies in Beirut.
The Egyptian paradox in Gaza
Abdel Monem Said Aly
The nightmare of politics is when political leaders have to deal with deeply contradictory goals. And when these contradictory goals characterize an environment of armed conflict, "war" in short, the nightmare is at its worst. Nothing represents this nightmare better for Egypt than the Israeli war in Gaza, where contradictory objectives describe both external and internal policy.
Even after excluding ancient historic, geographic and demographic ties, Gaza is strategically linked to Egypt's national security. For better or for worse, Gaza was under Egyptian administration between 1948 and 1967. Cairo never contemplated annexing the Strip. When the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty was signed, Gaza remained part of the Palestinian occupied territories, with Rafah as the crossing point between Egypt and Gaza.
Between 1982 and 1994, when the Oslo accords were signed, not only was the Rafah gate in use, but underneath it tunnels were dug, and through them were smuggled drugs, people and arms associated with organized crime and revolutionary sentiment. Israel looked the other way until the second intifada, when about 30 tunnels became very active in the smuggling of arms. The destruction of some 1600 houses along the Egyptian-Gazan border did not solve the problem for Israel. In fact, the problem was compounded after Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, the election of Hamas in 2006 and its takeover of Gaza in June 2007.
Egypt has historic ties with Gaza that it cannot ignore. For better or for worse, if Egypt is historically involved in the Arab-Israel conflict by supporting the Palestinian cause, this is particularly so for Gaza. The geographic link generates risks and challenges for Egyptian security, the safety of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, the economic prosperity of Sinai and, of no less importance, the relationship between Hamas and the Muslim Brothers in Egypt.
Three additional security risks from Gaza were added in the last few years. The first involved smuggling of arms into Sinai and contributing to the training of terrorists who carried out deadly operations in Taba, Sharm al-Sheikh and Dahab on the Gulf of Aqaba coast. The second was the demographic invasion of Sinai by three quarters of a million Palestinians in January 2008. This alerted Egyptians to the possibility of a Palestinian takeover of Sinai, whether under pressure from Israel or by Hamas planning to create strategic depth for its very small territory. The third, a much more strategic security risk, involves Hamas becoming part of a much larger coalition of radicals that are targeting Egypt for having changed its posture to one of peace and moderation.
This last risk is one of the main features of the present crisis in Gaza. Egypt has been the target of political attacks that even preceded the Hamas decision to end the truce with Israel. These have taken the form of media campaigns by Iranian, Lebanese, Syrian and pro-Hamas Palestinian sources. Ironically, Qatar's famed Al Jazeera TV channels have led the way in discrediting the Egyptian position regarding management of the Rafah crossing point. The media attacks were followed by demonstrations at Egyptian embassies in Tehran and a variety of Arab capitals.
All this took on an even more critical aspect for Egypt when Israel moved militarily into the Gaza Strip. The visit of Israeli FM Tzipi Livni to Cairo hours before the attack gave the political offensive much additional ammunition, as Egypt appeared to be coordinating its position with Israel.
For Cairo this has become a nightmare. On the one hand, Egypt's historic and geostrategic position creates linkages that Egypt and the Egyptians cannot forget or ignore. Domestic support for these linkages is also not easy to ignore, particularly in view of Egypt's past conflicts with Israel and the latter's apparent military superiority. The human suffering in Gaza, amplified on our TV screens, has frayed nerves in Cairo.
On the other hand, the problems that Egypt face are Hamas-made, with the purpose of either re-entangling Egypt once more in the Palestinian conflict or--reflecting thinking in radical centers in Tehran, Beirut and Gaza--to change the Egyptian regime. In reality, neither objective is attainable.
Fortunately for Egypt the situation in Gaza--where radicalism, religious or nationalist, is mixed with the Palestinian question--is not entirely new. Cairo was in the same situation when Iraq invaded Kuwait, the United States invaded Iraq and Hizballah went to war with Israel. Each time it was the weight of the Egyptian state that carried the day: to work for a ceasefire, create a new balance that gives all parties breathing space, and finally to delineate a comprehensive solution for the Arab-Israel conflict that dissociates it from diverse forms of radicalism.
The scenario will be no different for Egypt this time. Cairo has the political capacity domestically and externally to sustain an effort to go to the root of the problem. It remains to be seen whether other parties in the region, particularly the Israelis and Palestinians, have the same capacity.- Published 8/1/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Abdel Monem Said Aly is director of Al Ahram Center for Political & Strategic Studies, Cairo.
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