Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 07:30 | SYDNEY
Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 07:30 | SYDNEY

Five Middle East crises: 1. The Arab-Israeli conflict


Anthony Bubalo

28 January 2009 17:14

The following is the first in a series of posts that will look at the five crises of the broader Middle East (or West Asia, as we call it here at the Lowy Institute): the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan/Pakistan and, as a wild card, the potential for a major domestic crisis in any one of a number of regional countries.

Many of these crises/issues are of long standing. What is significant, however, is that at least four and possibly five will reach a ripeness and criticality in the next 12-18 months. Any one would, on its own, be enough to tax the foreign policy energy of a US administration. But the Obama Administration will probably have to deal with most, if not all of them, simultaneously, leaving it with much less capacity to deal with other foreign policy issues, at least in the first half of its term.

The Arab-Israeli conflict

The recent Gaza war has, in typical Middle Eastern fashion, seen both combatants claim victory. Israel achieved both a measure of deterrence — insofar as Hamas misjudged the severity of Israel’s response to its rocket firing last year — and extracted a stronger commitment from Egypt and other countries to stop arms smuggling into Gaza.

Hamas, meanwhile, survived a devastating air and ground assault that strengthened its popular support, further diminished the standing of its main political rival, Fatah, and brought international attention to Gaza’s plight.

The reality is that both sides achieved short-term, tactical gains at the expense of any change in their strategic circumstances. 

Hamas can revel in its ‘steadfastness’ but will still have to answer the question posed by Gaza’s residents about how it will end an international embargo that has crippled the Gazan economy and society. Likewise, Israel’s deterrent will erode as Gazans once again become more forgiving of Hamas rocket fire into Israel absent any other perceived options to open Gaza’s crossing-points to the regular flow of aid and trade.  International commitments to stem the flow of arms into Gaza are also likely to prove more hopeful than helpful.

The war also did nothing to resolve the fundamental question of who runs Gaza. Israel, supported openly by the US and Europe, and more quietly by some Arab countries, does not want it to be Hamas.  But Israel has also baulked (so far) at taking the one step that would decisively remove Hamas from power – a full reoccupation of Gaza.

What Israel is left with, therefore, is a policy of political, economic and military attrition. It hopes that by denying Hamas international recognition, by squeezing Gaza economically (thereby increasing popular pressure on Hamas) and by the occasional military actions to degrade Hamas cadres and weapons stocks, it is gradually forcing the Islamists from power. But this has not worked in the last twelve months and is even less likely to work in the next twelve, for two key reasons.

First, there is no alternative to Hamas in Gaza that Israel or much of the international community would find acceptable. Certainly Hamas will suffer politically as the embargo continues, but those who believe the popular political fortunes of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah movement can be revived by making it, alone, the conduit for Gaza’s economic revival underestimate Abbas’ declining legitimacy as much as they overestimate Fatah’s ability to lead any reconstruction effort.

Indeed, to bed down its military gains in a new ceasefire and other security arrangements, not to mention its continuing efforts to negotiate the release of kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, Israel will continue to deal with the de facto reality of Hamastan (albeit via Egyptian mediation) even as it resists its de jure recognition.

Second, Israel’s ability to hold the line internationally on the embargo is likely to be challenged, if it isn’t being already. Even the Obama Administration’s early support for Israel’s position cannot be taken for granted as it tries to rebuild American standing in the Middle East (and if the US needed a reminder on this score, this remarkable op-ed in last week’s FT by Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal provided it.)

Not that things are going to be any easier for Hamas. Even if international opposition to direct dealings with Hamas weakens, it will still come with conditions — like abandoning terrorism and recognising previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority – that Hamas will find very difficult to accept. But without ending its and Gaza’s isolation, Hamas ability to carry out, let alone lead, Gaza’s reconstruction is going to be limited, which in turn threatens its domestic legitimacy.

Hamas will also find increased popular support in the Arab world a double-edged sword. The more status quo Arab regimes feel threatened by Hamas' popularity, the more likely they will target the movement. Egypt’s attitude to Hamas is already strongly coloured by its view of Gaza as being as much a domestic security issue (given Hamas’ links to Egypt’s largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood) as it is a foreign policy issue.

Against this background, two likely scenarios present themselves. The first would see the continuation of the status quo and an uneasy ceasefire, punctuated by occasional outbreaks of violence. This would, however, break down totally sooner or later, probably within a year, as either Hamas rocket fire or rebuilding of its weapons stocks provokes another massive military response from Israel. 

A second scenario is less bleak, but much more complicated: namely, everyone settles on the revival of a Palestinian unity government between Hamas and Fatah as the least-worst option to change the status quo. A lot of obstacles would need to be overcome to get to this point, not least the very real acrimony between Hamas and Fatah. But in the end, a lack of alternatives may push everyone, very grudgingly, in this direction. 

For Hamas it provides a mechanism for Gaza’s rehabilitation which is key to its longer term political fortunes. For Fatah it provides a means to rebuild its faltering legitimacy, including in Gaza. For Israel it means not having to eventually choose between equally unpalatable options of either recognising the reality of Hamas control of Gaza or fully reoccupying it. And for the international community, and the US in particular, it offers a practical way to engage in Gaza’s reconstruction in the short term, while seeking to either shift Hamas rejectionist positions or delegitimizing it in the longer term .

It might even provide a basis for a broader resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations (but let’s not get ahead of ourselves).

Finally, there was a reason why I titled this post the Israeli-Arab conflict rather than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Last year, Israel and Syria seemingly made progress in second-track talks aimed at resuming full negotiations between the two countries. Apparently the one thing that stopped Jerusalem and Damascus from the resumption of formal negotiations was a desire to wait for the arrival of a new US Administration.

Gaza has obviously made any formal resumption of Israeli-Syrian peace talks more difficult. But if the situation in Gaza can be stabilised, I wouldn’t rule out such talks emerging this year as well. This is not to say that we should expect to see a signing ceremony on the White House lawn in the next twelve months. But both Syria and Israel at least have an interest in a diplomatic process, if not an outcome. 

For Syria, formal negotiations offer a way out of its international isolation. For Israel (almost regardless of whether it is Likud-, Labor- or Kadima-led after the 10 February elections), resumed talks with Syria provide a diplomatic agenda far less complicated and domestically charged than the Palestinian track, as well as a means to introduce some real tensions into Iran’s relationship with Syria.