The recent conflict has highlighted an already on-going shift in the region’s strategic landscape with moderate Islamist forces steadily coalescing into a pragmatic and increasingly influential Sunni axis of power.
If it holds – and that’s still a big if – the recent ceasefire between Hamas and Israel (or more precisely the dynamics that made it possible) may well come to mark a new chapter in how the Arab World does business in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But as far as Israel is concerned, it’s still very much business as usual with the recent offensive proving (in Israel’s eyes at least) that it can still engage in military operations resulting in a high Palestinian body count. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s massive gamble to provoke an escalation with Hamas by assassinating its senior military leader Ahmad al-Jabari (and scuppering a nascent ceasefire in the process) may well have paid off for him, in the short term at least.
Having ended the current round of violence without having to launch a costly ground invasion, he hopes to emerge with a ratings boost (although probably more modest than expected) ahead of the 22 January 2013 presidential elections. In doing so, Netanyahu also hopes to have steered the political debate in the direction of national security and away from subjects he would rather avoid such as social justice.
Strong and vocal US backing will also help him counter domestic accusations that he mismanaged vital Israeli-US relations with President Obama. But despite the best efforts of the Prime Minister’s office to spin the ceasefire agreement as an Israeli victory, the inescapable truth (which has not gone unnoticed by more hawkish Israelis) is that Hamas seems to have gotten the better end of the stick.
Far from being forced to beg for a ceasefire on its hands and knees as some senior Israeli officials had hoped for, the recent violence has allowed Hamas to strengthen its position. Militarily, it has successfully revived its resistance credentials (disproving accusations by rival Islamist groups that its recent restraint was nothing but cowtailing to the Israelis). For the first time ever, the movement has threatened Tel Aviv and Jerusalem – putting some 3.5 million Israelis within reach – while still managing to conserve its deterrence capacity.
It also emerges from this conflict diplomatically stronger. In its seemingly endless tussles with Fatah, Hamas has yet again won the upper hand (and again thanks to Israeli actions). President Abbas was forced to watch the ceasefire negotiations from the side-lines, and his much hyped 29 November UN General Assembly Palestinian statehood bid now seems like a bit of sideshow (and yet another effort to wrest the limelight from Hamas) and promises little change on the ground. Meanwhile, the credentials of the PLO and President Abbas as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people seem increasingly dubious.
Hamas also looks to have ended its regional isolation with the ceasefire agreement promising a general easing of the current siege (at the very least along its border crossing with Egypt). And in a sign of pan-regional solidarity which was sorely lacking during the 2009 Operation Cast Lead, a high-profile delegation of ten Foreign Ministers from Arab countries and Turkey led by Arab League Secretary-General Nabil al-Arabi visited the Strip despite on-going strikes.
Equally as important though, Hamas seems to have won the moral backing of Turkey, Egypt and Qatar (whose Emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, became the first Arab head of state to visit the Gaza Strip since the Hamas takeover in 2006). Doha and Ankara can also be expected to deliver financially, starting with much promised aid and reconstruction projects earmarked for the Strip. While all three of the above mentioned countries played a crucial role in bringing the opposing sides together in ceasefire negotiations, they also took outspoken positions in supporting the Palestinian cause and criticising Israeli actions which, needless to say, were at odds with the dominant US/EU line.
As a result of Egypt, Qatar and Turkey’s move away from the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority and towards Hamas, the increasing regional influence they are acquiring and the fact they are increasingly listened to by Washington and its allies, the international community will find itself under increasing pressure to rethink its ostrich-like approach to Hamas which has consisted mainly of sticking its head in the ground and hoping the movement will just goes away – a strategy that is now showing serious shortcomings.
Of this trio of countries though, it’s by far Egypt that has emerged as the biggest winner through the efforts of its newly anointed Islamist president in brokering a ceasefire deal of which it has now become the guarantor. This has allowed Mursi to re-assert Egyptian diplomatic clout after a long period of decline under Mubarak and in so doing win a seal of approval from the international community and even Israel. President Mursi has shown (to the surprise of many) that he has the diplomatic skills (and pragmatism) required to navigate the choppy waters between the demands of the Arab street and the expectations of the international community. Significantly though, he has done so without sacrificing his stance towards Israel by adopting Mubarak-esque subservience to US strategic interests.
From the start of the latest cycle of violence, Mursi hasn’t shied away from voicing a genuine sense of outrage at Israeli actions and (in a departure from previous Egyptian policy) not only voicing strong support for Hamas but also quickly dispatching his Prime Minister Hisham Qandil to the Gaza Strip to stand shoulder to shoulder with Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh while militants fired Qassam rockets at southern Israel. Egypt though was still able to serve as a vital conduit for ceasefire negotiations held in Cairo by working in tandem with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as well UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and European Foreign Ministers, earning President Mursi much adulation from President Obama with whom he spoke on six different occasions during the eight day conflict.
The significance of this ceasefire though extends beyond the narrow confines of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The actions of Egypt, Qatar and Turkey seem to reinforce the notion of a new triumvirate of regional powers emerging in the wake of the tectonic shifts produced by the Arab Spring. These three are increasingly setting themselves up to be key backroom players in trouble shooting the region’s various conflicts, not least thanks to a pragmatism that has so far enabled them to engage in dialogue with competing sides and win growing Western confidence. But the international community should be under no illusions; Doha, Cairo and Ankara have little intention of becoming Deputy Sheriff. Rather, they can be expected to pursue policies in accordance with their own long-term strategic interests. These have so far been mostly in synch with those of the West, but this may not always be the case in the future. While it is too early to tell what the long term impact of this potential grouping will be, the recent conflict has offered a tantalising glimpse of what a new form of Middle Eastern politics based around a Cairo-Ankara-Doha axis could look like it.