Edition 3 Volume 7 - January 22, 2009
War in Gaza: the regional dimension II
Egypt's calculations -
Mohamed Abdel Salam
Should Egypt redefine its regional role based on this crisis?
From "land for peace" to "an eye for an eye" -
Israel deserves nothing more than a resurrection of the three nos.
Will the smoke of Gaza cloud Turkish-Israeli relations? -
The degree of tension in the Turkish public domain may suggest that Turkish-Israeli relations are seriously damaged.
The Iranian reaction -
For the Islamic regime the war on Gaza was a huge publicity gift.
Mohamed Abdel Salam
Egypt faced a very complex situation during the "war on Gaza". It was used to managing crises coming from the northeast as a mediator or a fixer and under normal pressures, as when it helped in reaching the previous ceasefire between Hamas and Israel or when it managed the dialogue between Fateh and Hamas. However, this time it found itself directly involved in the conflict, as if Egypt itself was at war in the Gaza Strip. As Foreign Minister Ahmed Abu El-Gheit put it, "there was a fierce war waged against Egypt by regional powers" against the backdrop of events in Gaza.
For some time now, there has been a muffled conflict between Iran and Egypt (together with Saudi Arabia) over the region. On several occasions this has turned into open tensions similar to a cold war, as reflected for example in Egypt's attitude toward the behavior of Hizballah in the 2006 Lebanon war. What is described as Iranian expansion in the Arab region has led to a debate in Egypt regarding its regional role. One trend has been for Egypt to pursue a policy of "tough engagement" with Iran. Yet no one in an official role suggests reverting to the role played during the 1960s, and the general tendency is to focus on domestic affairs.
During 2007, the term "the direct interest circle" began to appear in official statements, expressing what seems to be a compromise approach to the question of Egypt's role. According to this concept, Egypt will mainly be concerned with what is happening in those areas where it has vital interests. It will draw red lines that may not be crossed in these regions, even if this irritates other Arab actors or leads to propaganda campaigns against it and even if a specific policy does not gain the support of domestic public opinion.
The first test of this policy came when Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007. An analysis of statements made by Egyptian officials at that time indicates that Egypt had no illusions about Hamas' intentions or its external links. Egypt is well aware of what is happening in the Gaza Strip and has no desire to interfere in its internal affairs. But significantly, red lines were drawn by Cairo. These include rejecting the separation of the Gaza Strip from the West Bank, rejecting the establishment of an Islamic emirate in the Strip, opposing a siege that turns the Strip into a failed region and not allowing any acts that affect Egypt's borders or sovereignty, under any pretext. Hamas was dealt with as a de facto player, without recognizing it as the ruler of Gaza.
The rules of the game governing the relationship between Egypt and Hamas were ostensibly very clear to both parties. Yet 2008 witnessed several attempts by Hamas to test Egypt's will; by year's end, the relationship had reached deadlock. Several months before the outbreak of the war on Gaza, Hamas adopted an arrogance that seemed to some Egyptian parties to be stupid, harmful and motivated from abroad. The dialogue among Palestinian factions broke down, then the truce with Israel collapsed; Hamas launched a campaign claiming that Cairo was not an honest mediator.
It is not clear whether, prior to the outbreak of war in December 2008, Cairo expected to encounter such a massive hostile regional campaign. It now appears that from the outset of the war, the "Iranian-Syrian-Qatari business coalition" that supported Hizballah and Hamas had decided to attack Egypt. Instead of concentrating on ways to deal with the war on Gaza, their focus has been on the Rafah crossing; according to a French source visiting Syria after the outbreak of fighting, Damascus was not interested in helping reach a ceasefire but rather in "weakening Egypt".
Official Egyptian statements and the Egyptian media faithfully expressed Cairo's anger toward the bad behavior of the "Iranian camp". The latter took the form of statements by Hamas leaders, Syrian manipulations, Al-Jazeera's polemics and the contribution of Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Egyptians were furious over the suffering of the people of the Gaza Strip, who are very close to their hearts. Crisis managers in Cairo anticipated demonstrations and strikes.
Yet official assessments remained calculated, reflecting generations of experience. This was not the first time Egypt had been in such a position: what actually happened represented less than 15 percent of what transpired in 1977 when President Anwar Sadat visited Jerusalem or in 1990 when Egypt decided to send 35,000 troops to take part in the war to liberate Kuwait. There is also a strong sense that the ordinary citizen in the street is more realistic than the more convulsive political currents: there are clear limits to the capacity of the Muslim Brotherhood to take action that requires the serious attention of the state, while ultimately Hamas cannot go further than Egypt and the sea.
Throughout the crisis, Egypt did not appear to be pressured. The Egyptian initiative was carefully drafted: all its component parts appeared as a single package, beginning with a ceasefire and ending with Palestinian reconciliation, while meeting enough demands of both key parties, Israel and Hamas, and maintaining the Egyptian red lines.
Still, matters will not be that simple. Hamas does not envisage emerging from its costly venture without gain and Israel wants excessive guarantees regarding prevention of the smuggling of weapons. Egypt will have to adopt non-traditional methods for dealing with these excessive demands. What is taking place now proves that settlements can be reached and the two parties prevented from flexing their military muscles again.
Meanwhile, discussions in Cairo center on whether Iran lost the battle of Gaza, with Egypt firmly at the center of the region, and whether Egypt should consider alternatives for managing its relations with certain Arab countries as well as the media and diplomatic aspects of such crises. Should Egypt redefine its regional role based on this crisis? Should it wait until the threat is at its borders, or should it slightly expand the vital scope of its national security? These questions are being asked with hot blood, but cool minds.- Published 22/1/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Mohamed Abdel Salam heads the Regional Security Program at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.
From "land for peace" to "an eye for an eye"
No sooner had Israel begun its most vicious onslaught yet before commentaries began to explain the massacre and put things into context. And though Israel surpassed its own previous savagery, few in the media rose above their usual mediocrity and instead continued to parrot the line spewed by the Israeli propaganda machine, images to the contrary notwithstanding. The more people Israel killed in Gaza, the more repugnant the justifications and lies on offer, and the more the media narrative succumbed to collective self-hypnosis.
We learned that barrages of rockets had forced Israel to defend itself after Hamas had ended the ceasefire. We read that police stations, ministries, utilities and media centers were all Hamas buildings, hiding among the civilian population. We discovered that hospitals, United Nations schools and mosques were terrorist shelters. We found that thousands of homes all over Gaza contained actual Hamas members and had to be bombed, that white phosphorous was not an illegal weapon (and that Israel was not obliged to disclose its arms of choice in the slaughter of Palestinians) and that medical reports of terrifying new weapons leading to massive organ failure and an unprecedented number of amputations (especially in children) were made by Hamas sympathizers and could not be "independently" verified.
And that was just in the Arab world. Or, to be precise, it was "moderate" Arab media, setting the tone for the sorry spectacle of competing Arab summits that, after three weeks of inaction, achieved nothing as Gaza was pulverized in front of Arab leaders' very eyes. Not only are the Palestinians cursed with an enemy like Israel, they have the misfortune of having friends like these.
These "friends" have explained that the 18-month siege of Gaza, leading to the practical starvation, strangulation and slow death of 1.5 million people, couldn't be broken until the government that Palestinians elected democratically (in Gaza and the West Bank) was forced to stop launching rockets, accept Israel and live by its diktat. Egypt, consequently, could not simply open the Rafah border to save the lives of these desperate people, so its foreign minister threatened to break the legs of any Palestinian daring to cross over and an Israeli leader was invited to menace Palestine from Cairo, home to the Arab League and the moderate club. Just do it (but this time finish the job), seemed to be the consensus in the face of the inconvenient resistance group that makes regimes look bad.
On all fronts, the war on Gaza crossed new thresholds, fully exposing the reality of Israel's criminal intentions and bringing the Arab-Israel conflict to the point of no return. Never before have so many people regressed in their attitude toward Israel or given up on peace and been willing to act on it: never forgive and never forget.
Nevertheless, a depressingly large number of Arab commentators reduced the suffering of the Palestinian people at the hands of their tormentors to a competition between opposing alliances in the region; instead of concentrating on the fundamental issue of the Palestinian cause, they have been analyzing the effects of the last three weeks and trying to figure out who will benefit and who will lose.
If it is admitted that Israel did not achieve its vaguely declared goals in Gaza, goes one argument, then it signifies a victory for the countries supporting Hamas. Hence, Syria (and Iran, which has been designated as an instigator by the "moderates") comes out of its isolation for the umpteenth time. Indeed, obsession with Syria remains ripe in a number of Arab countries that would apparently prefer an Israeli victory over the possibility of any sign of Syrian influence. The moderates are thus squarely blaming Hamas for provoking Israel (by refusing to accept the blockade), for not falling apart under its mighty onslaught and for giving Syria and its allies a boost. Unforgivable.
Unforgivable, also, were the repeated attempts by the new counter-axis of Syria, Qatar, Algeria and friends (including an increasingly outspoken Turkey) to call for an emergency Arab summit to discuss Israel's attack on Gaza, thereby forcing others to take a position. The moderate club stayed away from Doha, ensuring that neither the Palestinian president nor the head of the Arab League could pretend that Gaza's catastrophe merited a special meeting, as the issue could be tackled during the Kuwait economic summit. In fact, had it not been for the rage sweeping through the region and the world, where millions took to the streets demanding action against Israel, several Arab regimes would have been tempted to allow Israel more time to continue the massacre while they looked the other way. Deja vu, in a way, but in far worse circumstances for the current victims.
Not that it matters what one axis or the other actually does or says, nor what various analysts have tried to advocate (pathetically, from "sitting on the fence" to "passive resistance" and throwing flowers to child killers). Israel is on the loose, seemingly throwing a tantrum like a bully picking on the poorest and weakest kid in the neighborhood, but actually continuing a systematic process begun decades ago: the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and the beating of its original inhabitants into submission. Whether it is Islamic or secular, no Palestinian leadership will ever be acceptable to Israel until it bows to the Jewish state.
In Kuwait, Syrian President Bashar Assad invoked "an eye for an eye" and was incorrectly deemed to be waving the flag of religious duty, an ironic feat for a nominally secular regime that has repeatedly called for renewed peace talks. While the moderate club weakly hinted that its Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 wasn't on the table forever (to the relief of Israel), Assad designated Israel as the terrorist state that many (Arabs and others) now openly proclaim it is and requested that all ties with Israel be broken (including the indirect Syrian-Israeli negotiations), giving many hope that Syria is committing to more than lip service to the Palestinian cause and the Arab-Israel conflict.
Neither land nor peace came to Arabs as they needlessly offered successive concessions to Israel. It's time the neighborhood bully was told it can't get away with its crimes. In its present uncivilized state, until it learns to live and let live, Israel deserves nothing more than a resurrection of the three nos.- Published 22/1/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Rime Allaf is an associate fellow at Chatham House in London.
Will the smoke of Gaza cloud Turkish-Israeli relations?
Only days before the first Israeli air assault on Hamas strongholds in Gaza, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara. The visit appeared to be a bid to review progress in the secret talks that had been ongoing for more than a year between Israel and Syria and which were mediated by Turkey.
For decades, Turkish governments have opted to stay out of the Arab-Israel conflict for various reasons. But the rise to power of the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, AKP) in 2002 caused a dramatic change in Turkey's traditional stance toward the region. Prime Minister Erdogan wanted to assume a role between Syria and Israel, which was not at first warmly welcomed.
Eventually, after a series of events including the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005 and the war between Israel and Hizballah in southern Lebanon in 2006, Turkey was approached by both Syria and Israel to take the initiative in bringing the parties together. The Turkish side has seemed content with the progress made during these talks, as hinted by Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan to the press on a number of occasions.
Nevertheless, the scale of the Israeli military operation in Gaza and the news of the mounting civilian casualties accompanied by dramatic pictures of the misery and suffering of Palestinian women and children elicited a powerful reaction among Turks. Erdogan's first reaction was deep disappointment with Olmert's decision to attack, having met him only a few days before the operation. Indeed, Erdogan was accused by opposition leaders in Turkey of having cut a secret deal with Olmert concerning the forthcoming Gaza operation. On top of these accusations came the statements of Gaby Levy, the Israeli ambassador to Ankara, which implied that Olmert may have briefly mentioned to Erdogan a possible operation against Hamas.
Even though it is not possible to know what exactly was discussed during the Erdogan-Olmert meeting, it must be borne in mind that the two leaders exchanged views through translators and the meaning of some of what was said may have been lost in translation. Moreover, if one remembers Erdogan's bitter statements about Israel's targeted killings of Hamas leaders in the past, it is hard to believe that Erdogan would have given his consent to any operation against the Palestinians. Consequently, Erdogan was quick to assert that he was not part of any conspiracy.
Another reason why Turkey took an early leading role, criticized by some circles both inside and outside of Turkey, in the conflict between Israel and Hamas was because Turkey assumed its seat in the United Nations Security Council as of the beginning of 2009. Even if Turks had no emotional ties to the Palestinians emanating from their shared histories and religions, Turkey would have had to act swiftly in order to help restore peace and stability in the region as required by the charter of the United Nations from the members of the Security Council.
Furthermore, Turkey was probably the only country with close ties to all the parties to the conflict. This should indeed be considered an asset, especially in times of crises like these when a lack of communication or mediation may lead to misjudgments of each other's intentions and thus aggravate the situation even more. Prof. Ahmet Davutoglu, Erdogan's chief foreign policy advisor, who was said to be responsible for the unusual and unexpected visit of Khalid Meshaal, the Hamas leader-in-exile, to Ankara in February 2006, was again sent to the region in order to search for ways to reach a ceasefire. Reports indicate that Davutoglu played a crucial role in convincing Hamas, in particular, to stop launching rockets at the Israeli settlements north and east of Gaza so as not to prompt another round of Israeli attacks after Israel declared a unilateral end to its military operations.
The degree of tension in the Turkish public domain and the scale of criticism of Israel that were manifest during popular demonstrations may suggest that Turkish-Israeli relations are seriously damaged. This may not be a totally unfounded observation. However, one must bear in mind that demonstrations of a similar kind and with more aggressive behavior were staged in western capitals with the participation of not only Arabs or Muslims but also European citizens. Gerald Kaufman, a British Jewish lawmaker and a member of the Jewish Labor movement linked to UK Premier Gordon Brown's ruling party, compared the Israeli offensive in Gaza to the Nazis who forced his family to flee from Poland.
Against this background, it wouldn't be unrealistic to argue that having left the horrible Gaza episode behind them, Turkey and Israel may soon resume efforts to return to previous levels their bilateral relations following the election of a new government in Israel. One should not forget that Turkey and Israel are the only two democracies in the region and that they have vested interests in advancing their relations in many areas extending from the economy to security.- Published 22/1/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Dr. Mustafa Kibaroglu teaches courses on arms control and disarmament in the Department of International Relations at Bilkent University in Ankara.
The Iranian reaction
It does not require a great deal of imagination to guess the Iranian Islamic regime's reaction to the war on Gaza. The Iranian state-run media as well as the more independent newspapers reported graphically the extent of Palestinian suffering as a result of heavy Israeli bombardment.
But for the Islamic regime in particular the war on Gaza was, as it were, a huge publicity gift. The regime tried extensively to capitalize on Palestinian mayhem and suffering to demonstrate to Iranians, Arabs and indeed the world-at-large how right it has been all along in its political assessments and outlooks. It unleashed unprecedented fury at the Arab regimes, particularly Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In fact, sometimes the regime's attacks on those Arab regimes were far more negative than those it addressed to Israel itself.
Pro-government students and Baseejis on several occasions staged violent protests in front of the Saudi embassy and the building that houses the Egyptian interests section in Tehran and demanded that diplomatic relations with Riyadh be severed. Two of the radical Tehran Friday prayer imams with close ties to the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad went as far as to accuse Cairo and Riyadh of collusion with the Israelis, though they expressed the hope that these reports were incorrect. One of the imams, Ayatollah Seyyed Ahmad Khatami, stated during a Friday prayer that the Egyptian regime had in fact permitted Israeli jet fighters to use Egyptian air space to bomb Gaza. He also accused the Egyptian intelligence agencies of giving the Israelis secret information about the whereabouts of Hamas fighters, their ammunition depots and some rocket-launching sites. Iranian media anger at the Arab regimes' response to the Israeli attack on Gaza was so deep that some pro-government student groups that had won a pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina refused to go as a gesture of protest against Saudi Arabia and declared that they would travel instead to Karbala and Najaf in Iraq.
In contrast to the bitter and highly critical language that Iranian leaders directed against Arab leaders, they were full of respect and praise for Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez and other South American leaders that either expelled the Israeli ambassador or severed diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv, thereby demonstrating Ahmadinezhad's wise and prudent strategy of expanding ties with the radical and leftist regimes in South America.
The Islamic government also used the war on Gaza to settle accounts with some of its opponents. In one incident, the pro-Reformist student movement Daftare Tahkim Wahdat not only blamed Israel for its attack but blamed Hamas for firing missiles into Israel as well. When one of the pro-Reformist newspapers printed the statement, the government agency responsible for monitoring press conduct immediately closed down the paper even though the paper's editorial board apologized and stated that it did not share the view put forward by the student organization. The same statement was also printed by pro-government newspapers, yet the authorities didn't take action against them because their motive, according to the government, had been to expose to the public "the pro-Zionist nature of the reformist student movement". While all the freedom-loving people in the world, even those who are not Muslim, were condemning the Israeli brutality against the Palestinian people in Gaza, "the so-called Reformist students in Iran were ashamedly condoning the Zionist aggression."
Human rights were another victim of the Israeli attack on Gaza. One after another, Iranian leaders and state media noted that all those who have always criticized the violation of human rights in Iran had today closed their eyes to the Zionists' crimes in Gaza. The war on Gaza, wrote a leading hardline newspaper, demonstrated yet again and many times over the hypocrisy of the West's claims regarding human rights. Another leading militant clergyman close to Ahmadinezhad, speaking for hundreds of students who had organized a mass sit-in at Tehran Mehrabad Airport demanding to go to Gaza to fight alongside Hamas, stated that US President George W. Bush's claim to justice and democracy was only limited to white westerners; in the eyes of the US president, Arabs, Muslims and Palestinians were not sufficiently human to qualify for those values.
But the Islamic regime didn't have it all its own way as far as the war on Gaza was concerned. In the midst of all this publicity, a well-known Iranian academic wrote an article in another leading newspaper posing serious questions on the issue. He asked why, when in many Muslim countries tens and even hundreds of thousands of protestors had come out in support of the Palestinians, the number of demonstrators in Iran, including in the capital, was just a few hundred or at most a couple of thousand? The article went on to question the wisdom of Iran's diplomacy toward the Arab states and its neighbors in particular. It stated that the war on Gaza proved yet again the failure of Iran's foreign policy toward Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Whether we liked it or not, the writer wrote, Egypt was a key player in the Middle East. The war on Gaza vividly demonstrated to Iranian leaders that by severing relations with Cairo, Iran had crippled its capacity to play a fundamental role in the Arab-Israel dispute.- Published 22/1/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org
Sadegh Zibakalam is professor of political science at Tehran University.