Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Who are the winners and losers in the Hamas-Israeli crisis?

Who are the winners and losers in the current Hamas-Israeli  crisis?  How has the crisis affected the distribution of power in the Middle East?  How will the crisis affect the regions' future?

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.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Obama Victory, the Arab Spring and Addressing the Spreading Crises in the Middle East

Barack Obama's victory in the 2012 presidential elections provides the opportunity for new openings and policy initiatives in the Middle East.  Given the region 's current instability - the most pronounced in modern times - the Obama administration faces the daunting task of addressing multiple crises.  What direction should US foreign policy take during President Obama's second term?  

The onset of the Arab Spring in Tunisia in December 2010 suggested that the region might be moving in a new positive, democratic direction.  While democratic governments have been elected in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, far from becoming more stable, the Middle East is currently facing an  unprecedented set of crises.

Israel and Iran stand on the brink of war; Syria is engulfed in a civil war that has produced an unprecedented level of violence, even by regional standards; Israel and Hamas are locked in a series of  attacks and counter-attacks which could not only lead to a major war, but jeopardize the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty; Jordan is facing riots over rising food and gasoline prices that threaten to escalate into calls for the overthrow of the Hashimite monarchy; the Libyan government cannot control an increasingly lawless network of militias; sectarian tensions are on the rise in Iraq; and Turkey is facing an increasingly restive Kurdish population.

What is worse is the interactive or mutually reinforcing effect of these crises.  The Syrian civil war has spilled into Lebanon with fighting between Sunnis and Alawites in Tripoli and the assassination of the country's chief of national security.  In Iraq, Shiite fighters have gone to Syria to protect an important shrine in Damascus and support the Asad regime, while some Sunni Arabs have joined anti-Asad forces. Meanwhile, Iran is supplying Syria with weapons and military advisers.

Israel accuses Iran of supporting Hamas and views Gaza as the front line of Iran's effort to destroy it.  Egypt and Jordan face pressures from their respective populaces to support Hamas and adopt a harder line towards Israel.  If the Hamas rockets and Israeli attacks on Gaza continue, Hizballah could be drawn into the conflict with new rocket attacks of its own raining down on northern Israel.

Syria's civil war has led the Kurdish population in the northeast to effectively declare independence from the central government.  Syria's Kurds are largely supportive of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) which is considered a terrorist organization by the Turkish government.  Many Syrian Kurds  have migrated to Iraqi Kurdistan where Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) president Masoud Barzani is supplying them with training and arms.  The Arab Spring has emboldened the Kurds to push for autonomy if not a Pan-Kurdish state that would unite Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi Kurds.

Because PKK attacks have risen dramatically recently, Ankara has indicated that it reserves the right to attack Kurds inside Syria if they give support to Kurdish guerrilla forces.  Thus the conflict in Syria threatens to draw Turkey into the regional conflict.  Of course, Turkey has been a supporter of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) which is fighting the Asad regime.  However, many Syrian Kurds are suspicious of the FSA because it is overwhelmingly an Arab force and because the Syrian opposition has not indicated that it would give the Kurds greater autonomy in a post-Asad Syria.

Where does this highly dangerous state of affairs leave US foreign policy?  As the debates over the impending "fiscal cliff" indicate, the US is no longer the global power that it once was.   Budgetary constraints, a weak economy and our continued military presence in Afghanistan prevent the US from becoming involved in an protracted military conflict in the Middle East.  After Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans have no appetite for a new war.

Clearly, the Obama administration needs to push for an international approach to solving the problems of the Middle East.  First, the US should address the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.  With Palestine National Authority (PNA) president Mahmoud Abbas having stated unequivocally that he supports a two-state solution within the borders that resulted from the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War, now is the time to put pressure on both sides to come to the bargaining table.

Such an effort would be strengthened if the European Union, Turkey, and Egypt were actively involved in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.  Egypt and Turkey need to convince Hamas not to act as a "spoiler" to any forward movement on an Israeli-Palestinian accord.  Is not the recent violence that Hamas initiated partially a response to Abbas' recently stated willingness to recognize Israel's right to exist within its pre-1967 borders?

The US and EU need to pressure the Netanyahu government to sit down with the PNA to negotiate a serious agreement.  This would entail an immediate halt to the construction of new Israeli settlements on the West Bank, a commitment by the PNA to continue its prevention of attacks on Israel, an agreement to allow East Jerusalem to become the capital of a new Palestinian state, security guarantees which would include a PNA commitment to having the new Palestinian state be de-militarized, and land swaps which would allow Israel to keep settlements that ring Jerusalem but which would compensate the Palestinians with land from other parts of Israel, probably from the Negev Desert in the south.

The settlement issue is the most difficult to resolve in any Israeli-Palestinian deal. However, a process which has already begun by former settlers to purchase the homes and property of settlers and convince them move back to Israel, i.e., within its pre-1967 borders, could be expanded with funds from the US and the EU.  Here US allies in the region such as Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states could help by providing funding for this effort.  Clearly, resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, which will promote regional stability, is in their interests as well.

For Egypt's help in constraining Hamas, the US should pressure Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states to give the new Muhammad Mursi government funds that could be used to generate new economic development and jobs for Egyptian youth.  The US and EU should offer Turkey assistance in solving its problems with its rapidly growing Kurdish population by pressuring Masoud Barzani and the KRG not to support any effort to create a Pan-Kurdish state.  Instead the KRG should commit to improving the lot of the Kurds in Turkey and Syria but within federally designated regions such as the Iraqi Kurds currently enjoy within a federal Iraq.

Russia and China need to be assured that US efforts to resolve the Israel-Palestine dispute and to develop closer ties with Egypt and Turkey are not intended to marginalize them in the Middle East. Expanded bi-lateral contacts, and perhaps a NATO-Russian summit and a US-EU-China meeting as well, could be used to better determine what constructive role these two powers would like to play in the Middle East in the near and long-term.

The US will need to continue to hold together the international sanctions regime on Iran so long as it does not commit to allowing inspections of what it calls its nuclear energy program.  While the sanctions should remain stringent, following Farid Zakaria's suggestion, "carrots" and not just "sticks" should be offered to entice the Iranian regime to forego efforts to develop nuclear weapons.  Not only would such weapons threaten Israel, they would lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, further undermining the region's stability 

Working with the EU, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states, Brazil, India, and Indonesia, the US should develop a Middle East Development Fund, akin to the Marshall Plan developed after WW II.  Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states could provide some of its funding.  The fund could provide technical human resources to help promote new investment and economic development.  One outcome would be to provide jobs for the large youth demographic which populates all states in the MENA region, thereby undermining support for radical political organizations.

The Obama administration should launch an all out public diplomacy offensive.  Organizing a series of high profile conferences that would bring together religious leaders from the Arab world, Turkey, Israel, the EU and the US, who emphasize the positive and moderating role religion can play in the Middle East, would go a long way towards demonstrating the West's concern for the region's well being.

Similar conferences held in the Middle East, Europe and the US could bring together a wide range of NGOs, including youth groups, women's organizations, civil society associations and conflict resolution organizations.   Such conferences could focus on developing long-term plans designed to offset the appeals of radical groups in the MENA region, especially among youth.

The Obama administration needs to base its post-election foreign policy in the Middle East on two criteria:  bold initiatives, on the one hand, and internationalizing our efforts in the region, on the other.  Bold initiatives is another way of saying that US foreign policy must view the crises of the MENA region as interrelated parts of a larger and complex problem.  Internationalizing US foreign policy means bringing out national interests in the region as much a possible in line with those of existing and potential allies.  Our successful efforts in overthrowing the Qaddafi regime Libya provides an example of how an internationally based foreign policy in the Middle East should become the new normal.

The spread of Islamism throughout the MENA region should not be viewed as a threat to US interests but rather as a challenge that could enhance the interests both of the US and the peoples of the region. A democratic Islamism is far more beneficial to the Middle East and the West, than the authoritarian regimes that ruled Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.  In the end democracy, the core goal of the Arab Spring, is key to transforming the Middle East from the most unstable region in the world into one that can achieve its great but as yet untapped potential.