Tuesday, November 20, 2012
Who are the winners and losers in the Hamas-Israeli crisis?
An important proviso: Let me be clear that when I speak about "winners" and "losers," I am referring to the political classes that control the countries and movements which have a direct as well as indirect relationship to the crisis. The real losers of the crisis are the civilian populations of Gaza and Israel - 134 Palestinians and 3 Israelis have been killed at the time of this writing and many more have been wounded. The children on both sides of the battle lines have been traumatized and many will no doubt suffer psychological problems for the rest of their lives.
Who are the political winners?
As to actual players, Hamas is the clear winner thus far in the crisis. Wars are not only won on the battlefield but in the court of political opinion as well. Clearly the media images of the violence in Gaza have raised questions among viewers throughout the world as to why there is a struggle between Israel and the Palestinians. Countless images of women, children, homes and schools being bombed in Gaza have created sympathy for the Palestinians among viewers outside the Middle East and certainly from viewers elsewhere in the Arab world and the larger region.
Hamas has shown that it is the only Palestinian organization that is willing to stand up to Israel. That action has attracted the admiration of many groups in the Middle East, especially among youth who constitute a large demographic in the region. If Hamas is able to negotiate a ceasefire and end Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip, then its political status and legitimacy will increase dramatically.
The fact that the Emir of Qatar, the Egyptian Prime Minister, and foreign ministers from Turkey and important Arab states have visited Gaza has ended Hamas' political isolation. No longer will Hamas be limited to being dependent on Iran and Syria. Further, Hamas is becoming the main spokesman of the Palestinian people and replacing the more moderate Palestine Liberation Movement which controls the Palestine National Authority (PNA) on the West Bank.
The second big winner in the crisis is Iran. At almost no political and economic cost, Iran has strengthened its credentials among radical elements throughout the Middle East by arming and supplying Hamas. It claims to have become the main protector of the region from "imperialist" and "Zionist" conspiracies. As a predominantly Shiite nation, its ability to become the Godfather of a radical Sunni Islamist movement shows that it can cross the sectarian divide which politically separates many radical movements in the Middle East.
An indirect winner of the crisis is Syria and its Lebanese Shiite ally, the Hizballah movement. The crisis in Gaza has removed the spotlight on the Ba'thist regime in Syria which continues to bomb and shell its civilian populace which has led to over 33,000 casualties. While Syrian President Bashar al-Asad will ultimately fall, he can use the crisis to mobilize support from elements of his populace - at least in the short term - among Pan-Arabists, leftists and Palestinian refugees who live in Syria. As an enemy of Israel which has also resorted to force, such as in its July 2006 shelling of northern Israel, Hizballah's focus on asymmetric warfare is strengthened by Hamas' challenge to Israel's military might.
Who are the main losers?
Israel is one of the main losers, especially its doctrine of the use of overwhelming force as a deterrent to military attacks. Paralleling its reluctance in August 1982 to enter Beirut after invading Israel to eliminate Palestinian guerrilla bases, it is likewise hesitant to launch a ground invasion of the densely populated Gaza Strip. While understandable that it seeks to stop rocket attacks on its civilian populace, Israeli attacks on Gaza help radical elements mobilize young Palestinians and youth throughout the Middle East. Of course, the main casualty of the Hamas-Israeli violence is the politics of moderation.
Hamas has forced Israel into a political corner. On the one hand, Israel cannot tolerate rocket attacks; on the other, Israel really can't engage in a ground offensive which would not solve its military problem with Hamas but rather would lead to a public relations disaster given the large number of civilian casualties which would result from such an offensive.
The United States is also a loser because it has been characterized, whether fairly or unfairly, as Israel's patron in the Middle East and unsympathetic to the Palestinian desire to create an independent Palestinian state. Because the Bush and Obama administrations have not pressed Israel and the Palestinians to come to the negotiating table, the US is viewed as tacitly supporting Israeli actions, especially the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
For the first time, other political actors in the Middle East are playing a more central role than the United States in trying to broker a truce between Israel and Hamas. Egypt, Turkey, and Qatar are in the center of indirect discussions between Hamas and Israel to end the violence. That the United States is not the main player (although that may change now that Hilary Clinton has arrived in Jerusalem) is another indicator of its declining influence in the Arab world and larger Middle East.
Fatah, the main power in the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and ruler of the PNA, has been forced to watch demonstrations in support of its rival Hamas in Ramallah, the PNA capital, and other West Bank cities. President Mahmoud Abbas, a Palestinian moderate who is sincere about arriving at a peace treaty with Israel, who has renounced seeking to regain land Palestinians lost in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and who seeks to create a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza Strip that would live in peace with Israel, has lost much of his stature. Increasingly, Abbas seems to be marginal to the ongoing crisis.
Who are the potential winners or losers?
Egypt is caught in an extremely difficult position. On the one hand, Hamas is an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood which currently rules Egypt. President Muhammad Mursi has engaged in fiery rhetoric in support of Hamas. Behind the scenes, however, Egypt is desperate to bring about a ceasefire. It cannot jeopardize its peace treaty with Israel as that would lead to a greater radicalism in the Eastern Arab world and also jeopardize the large amount of foreign aid upon which Egypt depends from the United States, the European Union and international financial agencies such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
If Egypt is able to broker a truce, its status in the region will be greatly enhanced, in the eyes of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who seek an end to the violence; in the eyes of Israel who will see it as committed to the peace treaty between the two countries; in the eyes of the United States who will see it as a force for moderation; and in the eyes its own populace which does not want to see Egypt drawn into an armed conflict between Hamas, other Palestinian radical elements, and Israel. If Egypt fails to exert any significant influence, it will open itself up to criticism from the more radical Salafi Party of Light (Hizb al-Nur) which challenges the Muslim Brotherhood's credentials and argues that it has sold out to the West.
Qatar and Turkey can also improve their political status in the Middle East if they are able to play a key role in bringing Hamas to the negotiating table. They too could see their regional positions decline if they are unable to affect the current crisis in any positive manner. This already seems the case with Turkey which has lost its bargaining power with Israel by having sharply criticized its policies towards the Palestinians.
Jordan may also find that the crisis strengthens current calls for major political reforms in the Hashimite Kingdom. Recent demonstrations have called for significant political concessions by King Abdallah which he has thus far refused. If Palestinians, who comprise a large percentage of the Jordanian population, form coalitions with other elements of Jordanian society hostile to the king, including Islamists and secular leftists, then the Hashimite monarchy could face a serious challenge to its authority.
What does winning really mean in the current Hamas-Israeli crisis?
Winning means that peace-oriented political actors need to address in a comprehensive manner the ongoing problems in the Middle East. First and foremost, an international coalition should be formed to pressure the Israelis and Palestinians to begin serious negotiations to solve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. As the "youth bulge" grows in the Middle East, jobs must be found for the increasing number of unemployed young people.
If these two problems are not addressed, and soon, the current violence between Hamas and Israel will pale in significance to new forms of violence that will develop in the future. The massive and indiscriminate violence of the current civil war in Syria is a portent of what is yet to come. In the end, there are no military solutions to the problems of the Middle East.