Who’s up who’s down? At the end of a full week of fighting, both Israel and Hamas appear eager for a cease-fire, a clear indication that both belligerents are actually quite satisfied with the political accomplishments they have made in the fighting and that neither sees much to gain from continuing. For now. If all goes according to plan, Israel will get a respite from the incessant rocket fire on its southern towns and villages, and Hamas will get further de facto recognition of its regime in Gaza and an opening to the world via Egyptian border. Here’s an interim assessment for all relevant actors in the region.
Saudi Arabia, reliable American ally, anchor of the moderate Arab regimes, has been completely absent from the scene from the outbreak of hostilities right until the cease-fire. The 88-year-old king, who was out of commission due to back surgery this week, has outlived a succession of crown princes. Back pain kept the Saudi foreign minister away from the parade of Arab foreign ministers that descended upon Cairo this week to show solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza. A mute gerontocracy, flatfooted by the dramatic shifts in the region since 9/11 and seemingly confused or indifferent to the Arab Spring, the Saudis have become the Arab Mr. Jones of Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man.” They weren’t just missing this week. Worse than that: no one noticed.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry’s website still boasts of the “Policy of Zero Problems with our Neighbors,” though there is nary a neighbor that Turkey has not alienated in the last four years. Its attention-starved Prime Minister Erdogan can’t seem to get along with Iran or keep a quiet frontier with Iraq or Syria. He was rebuffed this week by the Americans and all but ignored by the Egyptians while he was in Egypt. Israel has made no step that would allow Turkey to even appear to be playing a positive role as mediator.
The United States stood by Israel this entire week and has been keen to take credit for the success of Israel’s missile defense system, Iron Dome, which it partly funded. It blocked one-sided moves at the UN Security Council and waited until the deal was nearly sealed to send its secretary of state to the region. The Obama administration emerges from this crisis with a burgeoning line of credit from the Israeli government as well as with Israeli public opinion that was already recoiling from a post-election hangover after being promised by vocal American right-wingers that Obama was its enemy. As Haaretz’s Barak Ravid tweeted, “If funding iron dome is Obama’s way of throwing Israel under the bus, I am praying he will throw us under a train.” More importantly, this crisis has provided the first real opening between the administration in Washington and the new administration in Cairo.
Egypt, for now, appears to have made the greatest diplomatic strides in this round. It has proven itself to be the essential party to any progress on the ground. Its boastful posture following the Israel-Hamas prisoner swap in October 2011 was surely overdone, but this time around a more sober Cairo is content to let others heap the praise. Ending the war averts a huge crisis for the Morsi government, and casting regional rivals aside only serves as a signing bonus. Morsi has made himself legitimate in the West in a way that would have been unimaginable for a Muslim Brotherhood leader only a few months ago. But this move is fraught with danger and risk. It leaves Egypt even more exposed on the growing problem of global jihadis in Sinai and places it in the position of guarantor for Hamas in Gaza—not just for the actions of Hamas but for its successes and failures at reining in other, even more radical groups. The Egyptians have long feared an Israeli plan to dump responsibility for Gaza back on them; this cease-fire can only be making them more, not less nervous. It remains to be seen whether Morsi’s domestic constituency will be sufficiently impressed by his anti-Israel rhetoric or whether disappointment at Egypt’s new-old role as stabilizing force in the pro-American camp of Middle Eastern states will set in instead.
It is a near universal consensus that the Palestinian Authority and the Fatah party that runs it under Mahmoud Abbas, irrelevant and excluded from both the actual fighting and the diplomacy in its wake, come out of this conflict as losers. In the short term this is no doubt true, but the diplomatic room for maneuvering has, if anything, only increased for the beleaguered Abbas as he heads into yet another fight over recognition at the UN. With Hamas rule even more entrenched in Gaza, the PA is free to pursue the policy priorities of its West Bank constituency without always looking over its shoulder at an opposition that could otherwise be soon necessary for any dramatic moves. The threat of dismantling the PA or reconciling with Hamas should be enough to yield concessions from the US if not from Israel too. And the big event—the UN move—is coming soon. If Hamas is contained in an Egyptian-sponsored cease-fire, attention and initiative could quickly return to the West Bank—especially if the unrest of the past few days spreads. Abbas can do more than just call in favors and debts from his international backers. He can point to Gaza as a warning both to the Israelis and the Palestinians in the West Bank of what the future would hold if the West Bank too were to fall into Hamas’s hands.
Hamas leaves this confrontation battered and more than a little shocked, its store of rockets depleted and much of its military leadership eliminated. It clearly miscalculated Israel’s responses as it escalated in October and November, counting on an upcoming election to deter a risk-averse leadership from escalating. Its patron in Cairo has secured for it a few notable accomplishments in the cease-fire, not least the lifting of the siege, which barely existed in the last two years. And all parties will see the opening of the Rafah passage as major achievement. During the Gaza fighting in 2009, established Arab governments were deeply critical of Hamas’s recklessness precipitating the crisis, but in this round, Hamas has acquired a notable patron and de facto recognition from a host of international actors—most notably, Israel. It has also taken its first steps outside of its Iranian umbrella and into a more natural Sunni Islamist umbrella of Egypt, together with Qatar and Turkey. But Hamas continues to rely on Iran for weapons and know-how.
Israel laid out some very modest goals for this operation and by and large met them. It has degraded Hamas’s offensive capabilities considerably, to a point that should take a year or two at the least to rebuild. It has demonstrated that the Arab Spring, the Iranian crisis, the new American administration, and the civil war in Syria combined could not deter it from a large-scale offensive in the Gaza Strip. It has done so without the enormous body count that so enraged the global opinion and caused such grave, long-term damage to Israel’s reputation in 2009. It has opened a channel of communication with the new government in Egypt and turned the Egyptians into stakeholders in the Gaza problem, and it has enjoyed an opportunity to very publicly have its close relations with the United States on display at a time when there were many doubts about Washington’s commitments. Its intelligence capabilities impressed and shocked not just Hamas in Gaza, but nervous spectators in Lebanon, Iran, and Syria; its defensive capabilities were on full display as well with the well publicized success of the Iron Dome anti-missile system (though the long-term strategic impact of this is difficult to assess). Israel leaves this war with significant achievements, but also with the keen awareness that in a string of low-intensity conflicts it has successively exposed more and more of its home front to rocket fire; only a few towns south of Hadera and north of Tel Aviv remain unaffected, and it is safe to assume that immunity won’t outlast the next conflagration. Nor has Israel come any closer to extricating itself from the strategic sinkhole of its 45-year civilian and military presence in the West Bank.
Shany Mor is a senior research associate at the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre. He was formerly a director for foreign policy at the Israeli National Security Council and is currently writing a doctorate at Oxford University.
Photo Credit: Israel Defense Force