Friday, November 16, 2012

The Gaza Crisis: Some thoughts on Region and Questions to Israel

The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, seems to have read the region well before he started the recent military campaign in Gaza. With the Middle East in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Syria in the midst of a civil war, and Turkish-Israeli relations at the lowest point ever, Israel will be able to continue with their military operation with little interference.

Since the overthrowing of Hosni Mubarak, Israeli-Egyptian relations have been put to a test.  The new president, Mohammad Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood which is aligned with Hamas, has had to walk a tight rope between pleasing his constituency and keeping the US satisfied. Clearly, for Israel, this marked a change; Mubarak, had been a strong ally of the Jewish state: Egypt, together with Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Saudi Arabia, had unofficial alliance against Hamas, and served as a force countering Hezbollah.

Immediately before the Israeli escalation, which was set off by the assassination of the Hamas military leader, Ahmad al-Jabari, Egypt had been in the midst of writing up a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel. The fact that Israel chose to disrespect the Egyptian efforts (something they did to Turkish PM Erdogan right before Operation Cast-Lead), must have outraged Morsi to no end; once the Israeli massive bombardment of the Strip began, the Egyptian ambassador to Israel was recalled. Nevertheless, just two days later it seems that all eyes are on Egpyt to broker a deal. Just this morning the Egyptian PM, Hesham Kandil, paid a visit to Gaza. On Sunday, Erdogan will be arriving for an already planned visit aimed at boosting economic ties between Egypt and Turkey, and the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon will arrive to Cairo on Tuesday.  In other words, Egypt is still in the picture and it seems that Morsi will continue to straddle the tight rope, at least in the near future. However, if the Israeli Operation turns into a long term operation, similar to Operation Cast Lead, which took place almost four years ago, Israel could be entering dangerous waters, perhaps crossing a line in which they will not be able to salvage their relations with Egypt. Of course, Israel knows this, and it seems like they will work to cut this operation short.

On Israel’s northern front, Hezbollah opted not to act during the last major Israeli operation in Gaza (it did so in the summer 2007), so it is unlikely that they will now. Especially, since there main supporter in the region, Syria, is caught up in a civil war. The fact that the Assad regime has managed to kill over 30,000 of his citizens, has taken a great deal of support away from the Palestinian cause, also making the Israelis work a bit easier. Put bluntly, who in Syria will look towards defending the Palestinian cause when they are struggling and dying on a daily basis, with almost 500,000 Syrian refugees dispersed in the surrounding countries.  As for the Hezbollah, they too know that any misguided act could throw Lebanon into chaos, something which would not serve them well for now. It seems that the Israeli government also took these issues into consideration.

Perhaps, most important of all is Turkey. During the last decade, Israeli-Turkish relations have deteriorated. While most attribute this solely to PM Erodgan, we need to keep in mind that the Turkish people have always been overwhelmingly pro-Palestinian. In fact, warm relations with Israel have always been contingent on Israel’s progress at securing a peace deal with the Palestinians. Some might be surprised that Erdogan, during the first years of his tenure, breathed new life in the relations with Israel, after his predecessor, the late (secular) Bulent Ecevit, accused Israelis of committing genocide in the Jenin Refugee camp in 2002. Now that Erdogan has taken the reins of the Turkish state away from the Turkish army command, Israel is left with no internal support. Ironically, due to Turkey’s placing Israeli-Turkish ties on hold following the Gaza Flotilla incident, there is little Turkey can do for the Palestinians. Last year, in an article published in Haaretz (translated to Turkish in Radikal), I argued that if Erdogan really wanted to help the Palestinians, he would have to strengthen his ties with Israel. The current Gaza affair has shown how true this is. With no ambassador, and minimal diplomatic ties, what can Erdogan do?

For now, it seems Erdogan will use the strengthening of relations with Egypt as a way to pressure Israel, perhaps even establishing a strategic military alliance. While some analysts are speculating that in the post Arab Spring period, Turkey and Egypt will compete for regional hegemony, we need to remember that recently Turkey loaned Egypt one billion dollars. Egypt needs Turkey, and economically, Turkey needs to branch out into new markets. Further, the loan deal should also be seen as a tide change in regional trends since for decades Egypt has relied solely on US financial support. 

Now to the Iranians; it seems that they must know that the current Israeli operation in Gaza, very well could be preparing the Israeli home front for a war with Iran.  One of the Israeli scenarios was if they went to war with Iran, Hamas would join in, causing havoc on the southern front. However, with a beaten Hamas, Israel will be able to focus on its northern front, in case Iran has Hezbollah join the escapade. Further, an obvious outcome of the current conflict, even if not planned, is with Hamas rockets falling on the Tel Aviv metropolitan are, the Israeli government will be able to assess the overall situation, if in the not too-far-future, Iran's missiles will be falling on Israel's largest population center.   

Perhaps Netanyahu, along with his FM, Avigdor Lieberman, who seems keen on wrecking all of Israeli ties with Arab and Muslim countries, might have taken all of the above scenarios into consideration. However, with all the political gambles being taken, it seems that they still are far from answering the real questions: How much longer will Israel be able to remain an isolated Middle East state, occupying Palestinian territories? Why would they exchange a peace with Egypt,  albeit a cold one, for a hostile one? Why does the current government not do more to improve their relations with Turkey, since it was Israel who led the botched Flotilla campaign. Why have they recently threatened to topple Palestinian moderates, like Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas?
If you get rid of Abbas, who will Israel speak with?

The essential question really then is what are the Israelis waiting for?  If the Israeli electorate does not wake up and pressure their leaders to work towards a comprehensive agreement they might find themselves living in a de facto bi-national state, one that will need to rely on an apartheid system to continue its existence. Time is running out, and an operation in Gaza will do little to solve Israel's real existential questions. 


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