Middle East Roundtable
Edition 6 Volume 7 - February 12, 2009
Arab-Israel relations during and after Gaza
• Between radicals and authoritarians - Anouar Boukhars
The average Moroccan, Algerian, Libyan or Egyptian citizen is stuck with two unpalatable choices.
• A people not dwelling alone - Elie Podeh
In the recent war, Israel found itself on the same side as Egypt.
• Jordan braces for the worst - Saad Hattar
For the first time in more than a decade, Israeli elections are of a make-or-break importance to Jordanian policymakers.
• Israeli-Egyptian relations - Gamal A. G. Soltan
A calculated attitude toward Israel is likely to be Egypt's approach in the months to come.
Between radicals and authoritarians
I have just returned from Morocco where I witnessed first-hand the massive emotional reaction to Israel's brutal destruction of Gaza. Wherever I went, I could not help but notice the pervasive sense of popular anger and despair, powerlessness and humiliation, guilt and shamefulness. The country was a pot of boiling emotions and ardent indignation at both Israel's indiscriminate killing of innocent children and women and the stunning collusion of a number of Arab regimes in Israel's deadly assault on Gaza.
With few exceptions, no Arab leader has ever dared to openly legitimize and endorse a devastating Israeli war on fellow Arabs. But Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other so-called moderates showed no qualms about going to this length to tilt the regional balance of power from their "radical" rivals, rather than setting aside their personal feuds, tribal mentalities and mutual antagonism for the sake of the battered people of Gaza.
The crippling divisions and political posturing of all Arab authoritarian regimes were painful to watch. In a typical authoritarian posture, the eccentric Muammar Qadhafi blasted the "cowardly and defeatist" reactions of Arab leaders while his son and probable successor, Seif al-Islam Qadhafi, criticized Arabs for not holding their leaders accountable for their inaction during the Israeli offensive. Not to be outdone, the Algerian parliament passed a resolution that criminalizes any diplomatic or commercial relations with Israel. The Moroccan monarch for his part declared that he would not stoop to the level of self-ridicule by taking part in any Arab summit marred by discord and a fatal inability to respond effectively to the continuing suffering of the people of Gaza.
In the face of this organized hypocrisy, the average Moroccan, Algerian, Libyan or Egyptian citizen is stuck with two unpalatable choices: support or join forces with radical liberation or transnational revolutionary movements whose lack of a coherent strategic vision has brought chaos and destabilization to large swaths of Arab land, or continue to bow down to a power structure dominated by corrupt and dependent authoritarian regimes. The causes of these dangerously conflicting and at times polarizing sentiments of the masses about their predicament have existed for generations, though the hardening of the rift between the two extremes has never been revealed with such stark acuity.
In this context, the "Arab street" remains mired in agony over its leaders' disregard for its will and its frustration with the militant resistance movements' incapacity or unwillingness to transform themselves into credible middle ground political forces. So far, all attempts to straddle the fault line between these conflicting and unviable approaches have failed, leaving a whole region alienated and dangerously vulnerable to extreme radicalization. This environment of despair is a perfect breeding ground for terrorism and recruitment by anti-systemic movements. As militant organizations, Hamas, Hizballah, Muqtada Sadr's movement in Iraq and, to a lesser extent, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and its international affiliates emerged as a direct result of both foreign occupation of Arab land and the passivity and incompetence of Arab leaders. Other powerful and more radical non-state actors may emerge to challenge the status-quo.
The post-Gaza political battle already resembles that of other past conflicts where squabbling Arab leaders were left seeking self-preservation and longing to score political propaganda points against each other. As is often the case, Arab unity is held hostage to a game of regional rivalries where the so-called forces of moderation, backed by the United States and now Israel, try to roll back those of radicalism. In the midst of this crippling cold war between countries that are hostile to militant resistance movements like Hamas and Hizballah, and those that support them, ordinary Arabs are left seething with anger and frustration with the persistently stubborn fractiousness of Arab politics and the exploitation of sectarian and ideological fault lines for personal gain.- Published 12/2/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Dr. Anouar Boukhars is assistant professor of political science and director of the Center For Defense & Security Policy at Wilberforce University.
A people not dwelling alone
The image associated with Israel's society and leaders since its founding in 1948 is the biblical "a people dwelling alone". The siege mentality has been internalized through a variety of socializing agents.
The sense of alone-ness has of course not been a fiction; it is grounded to a considerable extent in historic precedents and a reality of Arab hostility that at times has deteriorated into war. The siege was formally broken when Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979. Jordan too signed a peace agreement in 1994, while the PLO and Israel signed a series of agreements during the 1990s. During this period, Israel also developed ties with the countries of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula (particularly Morocco, Oman and Qatar), even though formal agreements were not signed.
While the emergence of peace agreements did not constitute acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state, it did signal a change in the rules of the game and recognition of Israel as a player in the Middle East system. No longer was Israel a negative unifying force in the Arab world; now it was also a factor inducing divisions.
Still, at times of war or tension between Israel and any Arab actor, Israel has reverted to the familiar pose of "a people dwelling alone". The existence of a collective Arab identity and of an Arab commitment, however vague, to the Palestinian issue, has usually generated rhetorical if not operative Arab unity. This was the case in the First Lebanon War (1982) and the outbreak of both intifadas (1987 and 2000). Egypt and Jordan recalled their ambassadors, reduced their ties to the bare minimum and publicly expressed a clear anti-Israel stand.
The Second Lebanon War and the recent war in Gaza represent a change in Arab state behavior toward Israel. In fact, early signs of this change were evident following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, when Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and additional Arab states took the side of the West--and indirectly Israel's side--in the resultant first Gulf war (1991).
A more significant change took place when Israel launched a war against Hizballah in Lebanon in 2006: Egypt and Saudi Arabia did not hesitate to openly criticize that organization's irresponsible behavior and blame it for the damage inflicted on Lebanon in the course of the war. Like Israel, they too recognized in Hizballah a dangerous actor that sought to strengthen the status of Iran and the Shi'ites in the region at the expense of the Sunni states. A tacit alliance was created between Israel and certain Arab states, dubbed "moderate", that reflected shared interests. Yet the longer the war dragged on and the more evidence of damage in Lebanon accumulated, the more the "moderate" leaders were obliged to square their position with that of the Arab consensus--as expressed in the clear anti-Israel language of Arab League resolutions and in other international fora.
In the recent Gaza war, Israel found itself in an even more comfortable situation: on the same side as Egypt. Hamas was perceived as a threat to both countries: if Israel was threatened by Palestinian terrorism, Egypt was threatened by the possible aggrandizement of radical Islamic actors who challenge its regime stability. Then too, Egypt and Israel--like additional Sunni states in the region such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan--view Hamas as a tool to strengthen Tehran's position and that of the Shi'ites in the Arab world. Precisely because Hamas, unlike Hizballah, is Sunni, it draws even greater Arab anger for "collaborating" with Shi'ite Iran. Moreover, both the Egyptians and the Saudis resent Hamas having embarrassed the two leading Arab states in the course of long and fruitless negotiations they shepherded between it and Fateh (the Mecca agreement of 2007; the Cairo talks of 2008).
Israeli-Egyptian cooperation in the course of the war in Gaza testifies to the two countries' overlapping interests when it comes to Hamas. This phenomenon, while reflecting to some extent the Arab world's weakness, demonstrates to an even greater extent that the Arab world is behaving like a more "normal" system, in accordance more with interests than with ideologies and identity politics. That this behavior was repeated in both Lebanon and Gaza indicates that this is no chance occurrence.
Of course, we must qualify this optimistic picture with reference to the damage caused by Israel in Gaza. Qatar closed the Israeli trade mission in Doha, Mauritania withdrew its ambassador, relations with Turkey were damaged and Arab society as a whole was angered by the killing in Gaza. Yet beyond these reactions, some of which are reversible, it is important to note that not every Arab-Israel dispute generates automatic Arab unity and isolates Israel regionally. This insight is important insofar as the struggle against regional radical actors will continue during periods of calm as well.
Thus there exists an infrastructure of shared interests that can enable Israel, openly or clandestinely, to advance peace initiatives with Arab actors. The Arab peace initiative, which will again be deliberated at next month's Arab summit in Qatar, affords an excellent opportunity to renew the Israel-Arab dialogue that was halted by the war in Gaza.- Published 12/2/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Prof. Elie Podeh chairs the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Jordan braces for the worst
Had the late King Hussein of Jordan and Labor Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel been alive today they would undoubtedly have despaired at witnessing the introverted and parochial right-wing parties take control in Israel just two years after the anti-peace Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, won the confidence of most Palestinian voters in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The "fortress mentality" that King Hussein used to warn against seems to have infiltrated both the Israeli and Palestinian electorate, reversing the hopes for peace that were sparked 18 years ago in Madrid.
It was only two years after King Hussein and Rabin hammered out their peace treaty in 1994 that right-wing leader Binyamin Netanyahu rose to power in Israel, changing the rules of engagement between the two neighboring countries. In a few months, Netanyahu repeatedly incurred the wrath of King Hussein for the way he sought to negate the peace accords with the Palestinians or how he attempted to kill Hamas leader Khalid Meshaal in Amman in September 1997.
Now history is repeating itself, and Netanyahu's chances to form a right-wing government seem strong after his party clinched 27 seats in the recent elections.
Indeed, for the first time in more than decade, Israeli elections are of a make-or-break importance to Jordanian policymakers. Officials here fear that the rise of right-wing parties such as Likud and Yisrael Beitenu is the beginning of the end of hopes to establish a Palestinian state between Jordan and Israel. If such a possibility is scrapped, something that in Amman is seen as an Israeli ultra-nationalist goal, it will undermine Jordan's foreign policy foundations and wreak havoc across the whole region.
Between the lines, Jordan's official reaction to the Likud's apparent victory bore witness to the level of anxiety here. While Foreign Minister Salahudin Bashir voiced hope that a pro-peace government would be formed in Israel, he made it a point to reject the emphasis on the "economic factor" that Netanyahu stipulated in his campaign, and asserted that while the Palestinian-Israeli conflict had many dimensions, the most important is the political one.
But much damage to Israeli-Jordanian relations had already been done by the brutal Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip last month. That offensive was a wake-up call for the Jordanian leadership. Shocked by the level of violence and bloodshed, King Abdullah went on record to warn of "a conspiracy" against the Palestinian cause. His unprecedented remarks on the popular Al-Jazeerah channel reflected his dismay at what is perceived as Israeli attempts to buy time and escape ever further away from the country's peace commitments. The warning of a "conspiracy" was seen here as a pre-emptive rejection of any hidden agenda involving Jordan and the West Bank.
Hence, Jordan was already deeply disappointed with the Kadima and Labor leaders Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak. While Jordan does not condone Hamas' home-made and futile rockets on Israel, it blames Israel for its disproportionate reaction that caused so many civilian casualties and wrought such great damage. After Israeli wars on the West Bank, Lebanon and now Gaza, the hard-wrought confidence between Amman and Tel Aviv has foundered.
Jordan looked with suspicion to the Israeli elections. Nevertheless, given a choice between bad and worse, Jordan would rather deal with a center-left coalition headed by Kadima rather than having to confront a right-winger like Netanyahu, whose credentials, as far as Jordan is concerned, were undermined by his last stint in power, 12 years ago.- Published 12/2/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Saad Hattar is an Amman-based political analyst.
Gamal A. G. Soltan
The Gaza war was seemingly an inevitable conflict. The pre-war reality was unacceptable to any of the concerned parties.
Hamas was not satisfied with a ceasefire that kept the tiny Gaza Strip isolated from the world. Palestinian suffering in besieged Gaza challenged Hamas' claim of effectiveness as an elected government capable of providing for the wellbeing of its people. Nor did the terms of the ceasefire allow Hamas to pursue the program of resilient resistance that is so central to the movement's identity. The war was Hamas' way out of this entrapment.
Israel, on the other hand, didn't feel comfortable with its Palestinian arch-enemy taking refuge behind a fragile ceasefire while continuing to build up an arsenal of primitive but annoying rockets. Israel's concern was not exactly about these barely lethal rounds of rockets fired from Gaza at the towns of the Negev. Israel's concern was more about the long-term implications should this situation be allowed to continue. This was particularly the case since the Israeli policy of tightening the screws on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip did not prove effective in softening Hamas' stand. Hence Israel, like Hamas, had to go to war to escape the entrapment of the six-month ceasefire that Egypt had tamed them both into.
Egypt is squeezed between Israel and Hamas. In Egypt's view, there is no lasting formula for reconciliation between today's Hamas and Israel. Only interim arrangements such as the six-month truce can be reached within these constraints. Egypt's strategy toward the situation in Gaza is an incremental long-term one, whereas the two direct parties to the conflict are rushing to achieve immediate results.
Egypt has multiple concerns regarding the situation in Gaza. Its main concern is to prevent the de facto separation between the West Bank and Gaza Strip from developing into a de jure second partition of Palestine. Egypt is also keen not to starve the people of Gaza. Their suffering places Egypt under unbearable domestic and regional pressures; the Gazans might break into Egyptian territory or treat Egypt as the instigator and therefore a legitimate target for reprisals.
Egypt believes that Hamas is a genuine force in Palestine that can neither be ignored nor eliminated. However, Egypt also believes that Hamas, as an integral part of the radical destabilizing forces in the Middle East, should be gradually contained. While Israel shares with Egypt the goal of containing radicalism, it shows indifference to Egypt's gradualist approach. The recent war on Gaza testifies to Egyptian-Israeli differences in this regard.
Egypt's dilemma stems from the fact that it is neither happy with Hamas nor capable of pressuring it beyond a certain limit. Egypt's long-term policy had sought to guide Hamas toward a safe landing in the realm of moderation and pragmatism, but the Gaza war disrupted this endeavor. While that war is also likely to help accelerate Hamas' moderation, the cost incurred by Egypt has been heavy and risky; it could have been avoided if it were not for the confrontational policies pursued by both Hamas and Israel.
The conflict in Gaza is another inconclusive war in the Middle East. It is inconclusive regarding the future of relations between Israel and the Palestinians and it is also inconclusive regarding relations between Egypt and Israel. The irony of the Gaza war is that its high human cost does not qualify it to be a turning point in the politics of the Middle East. The many questions left unanswered by the end of the war create a great deal of uncertainty. By the same token, the Gaza war does not look like a turning point in Egypt's relations with Israel, which are likely to be clouded by regional uncertainties.
Three sources of such uncertainties should be watched very closely in the months to come: the nature of the new ruling coalition in Israel, Hamas' post-war strategy and the regional divide between radicals and moderates in the Middle East. Egypt's attitude toward Israel is likely to be governed by an overall policy of balancing the uncertain contending forces of the region.
The prolonged negotiations regarding consolidation of the fragile ceasefire in Gaza already convey a sense of how relations among Egypt, Hamas and Israel are likely to look in the future. Egypt will be walking a tightrope between Hamas, Israel and the Middle East radicals for months to come. Even though Egypt was able to upset radical attempts to corner it during the conflict in Gaza, it is also interested in repairing the damage caused to its image among segments of the Arab public by the radicals' propaganda war. And Egypt still needs to win Hamas' cooperation in order to pursue a policy of Palestinian reconciliation.
Renewal of the peace process is the safe exit out of the current quagmire in the Middle East. The key to the peace process is in the hands of Israel's next ruling coalition. The inconclusive results of the recent Israeli elections are not likely to help. A calculated and measured attitude toward Israel is likely to be Egypt's approach in the months to come. The deep doubts regarding the very cause of peace that the Gaza war instilled among the Arab public make such a guarded approach inevitable.- Published 12/2/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Gamal A. G. Soltan is a senior research fellow at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo and a visiting professor of political science at the American University in Cairo.
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