The Middle East at a Crossroads: Gaza Protests trigger regional realignment
LONDON: The deadly Israeli raid on a flotilla bringing relief to besieged Gaza has brought the simmering crisis to a dangerous boil. One swift move deprived Israel of a valuable ally, Turkey, and boosted Iran's position in the region while throwing doubt about US President Barack Obama's much heralded new approach to the Islamic world. The crisis also offers opportunity for a fresh beginning in resolving the crisis and turning back from an abyss of desperate violence. The first move should be encouraging formation of a Palestine unity government.
Only a government of national unity representing both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas can tackle the grave humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip and the dangerous security situation on the Israeli-Palestinian border. The route forward is to deal with root causes of the crisis – lift the siege, end intra-Palestinian quarrels and reach a Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement.
According to Hamas and other Palestinian sources, after two years of bitter division, the warring Hamas and Fatah, the Palestinian Authority's ruling party, came close to agreeing on an Egyptian-brokered deal last October, one that sketched out a path to peace. The pact collapsed at the last moment because of alleged pressure exerted by Americans on Egyptian allies that led Cairo to unilaterally revise the final agreed-upon text and ignore Hamas' concerns about security and political matters without consulting the Hamas negotiating team.
So far the strategy of isolation and military confrontation with Hamas – pursued in tandem by Israel and the US and, to a lesser extent, the European powers – has not weakened the religiously based movement. Like it or not, despite Washington's and London's West Bank-first policy, Hamas is the most powerful organization in the Palestinian territories. Neither Israel nor the US can wish it away.
If anything, the siege has radicalized hundreds of young Palestinians, who have joined extremist factions of the Al Qaeda variety and now want to wage war against all apostate enemies, including Hamas, Fatah, Israel and the US.
All the while, the economic blockade of Gaza has left a trail of untold human suffering among Gaza's 1.4 million inhabitants, The head of the United Nation's Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) mission in Gaza, John Ging, said the siege has caused mass unemployment (65 percent, according to Palestinian sources), extreme poverty (85 percent live below the poverty line), and food shortages that have left four out of five Gazans dependent on humanitarian aid.
Israel's flawed strategy only serves to strengthen Hamas politically and the radical forces of "resistance" in general, including Lebanon's Hezbollah. Now, the rallying cry among Arabs is that Israel only understands the logic of force and armed resistance, not futile "proximity" talks. Turkey is hailed as a new mehdi , while pro-Western Arab governments like Egypt stand accused of selling out and joining the enemy in blockading Gaza.
Across the Arab world, fallout of the Israeli raid is profound, and hardening public opinion imposes constraints on how governments respond to Washington's diplomatic and peace initiatives. Conscious of widening criticism of Cairo's role in enforcing the Gaza embargo, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak opened the Rafah crossing – the only gateway to the Gaza Strip not fully controlled by Israel.
Mubarak's decision did not satisfy his many critics at home who demand that Egypt, the most populous Arab state, must reclaim its traditional leadership in backing Palestinians and counterbalancing Israel.
Beleaguered by elements within his own Palestinian Authority to suspend proximity talks with Israel, President Mahmoud Abbas, a bitter rival of Hamas, said that reconciliation with Hamas is a priority. Hamas dismissed Abbas' gesture as public consumption. Relying on Arab support for legitimizing its participation in US-mediated peace talks, the Palestinian leadership is pressed between Israel's destructive unilateral moves and increasing Arab mistrust of peace efforts.
The Israeli raid – followed by detention of the MV Rachel Corrie with humanitarian aid, also trying to break the blockade, and its forcible diversion to the port of Ashdod – shows that the status quo is untenable, that the siege of Gaza has neither resolved Israel's strategic predicament nor advanced peace prospects between Israelis and Palestinians. Playing by its own rules, Israel has isolated itself, undermining its long-term security and mastering the art of making enemies.
For Turkish leadership, Israel's assault on the flotilla flying Turkey's flag that left nine citizens dead was the last straw. "The time has come for the international community to say 'enough'," said Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan in a speech Tuesday.
Turkey, historically Israel's most important Muslim ally and a longstanding NATO member, is spearheading opposition to the siege of Gaza worldwide and demanding an independent international investigation of the deadly raid.
Israel no longer has any regional allies and dismisses the UN call for an international inquiry into the flotilla raid. Iran, which issued the most damning condemnation of the Israeli raid, is in a stronger position to resist US and Israeli pressure to suspend its nuclear program.
The US, unlike many of its long-term European allies, particularly Britain and Germany, has offered weak response to the crisis, rationalizing Israel's indefensible actions and undermining Obama's outreach to Muslims in a landmark speech in Cairo exactly a year ago. In that June 2009 address, Obama promised the Muslim world a new beginning, transparency and balance, linking the establishment of a viable Palestinian state to America's strategic interests.
At stake is not only Obama's credibility, but also Western national security. An increasing number of Muslims say that Obama either does not mean what he says or cannot deliver on tall promises, throwing any US strategy towards the Greater Middle East into doubt.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admits that Israel's blockade of Gaza is "unsustainable and unacceptable." The Obama administration, along with Western allies and others, must seize this opportunity to break the impasse and prevent gains by more extremist factions in both camps. Instead of twisting Cairo's arms in a rejectionist direction, Washington should urge its Egyptian ally to broker a truce between Hamas and Fatah, an essential requirement for serious peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians who seek international recognition. Hamas leaders have said that they would honor Palestinian and Arab consensus on peace talks with the Jewish state.
The international community has expressed legitimate moral outrage at Israel's deadly raid on the Turkish-led Free Gaza Flotilla, calling for lifting the blockade of the Gaza Strip and a multinational investigation. But condemnation is not enough. Equally essential is support of a unified Palestinian government with the two rival authorities – the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza – that repairs badly frayed Palestinian governing institutions and negotiates peace with Israel.
As long as Hamas and Fatah are divided, the Palestinians will continue to suffer, with no hope of stability. Washington must encourage its Arab allies, particularly Egypt, to actively help the Palestinians form a national unity government that leads to the establishment of a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders.
Putting the Palestinian house in order won't be easy, and Hamas must respect any signed agreement with the Palestinian Authority. Hamas leaders have repeatedly stressed that they would honor any jointly-signed agreement with Fatah.
But the truth is that the first goal of US West Bank policy is to exclude Hamas. Egypt and Fatah, not Hamas, are procrastinating and hoping that Hamas will either collapse or surrender, which is wishful thinking. Taking a risk on peace is the most effective means to resolve the raging crisis in Palestine-Israel that threatens wider regional security.
Fawaz A. Gerges is a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU). He is also a professor of Middle Eastern politics and international relations at the London School of Economics. His forthcoming book is titled: "The Making of the Modern Middle East," Public Affairs.
This article was published at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization on June 8th, 2010: