“Gaza under fire” was Thursday’s headline in the Saudi paper Asharq Al-Awsat. It detailed the Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip in a businesslike, almost technical tone. The Egyptian media were more interested in the prices of basic goods and the commerce minister’s promise to reduce them.
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Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi hasn’t issued any statement on the operation, and the Saudi papers haven’t published any editorials. The Arab League didn’t call a hasty conference of Arab foreign ministers, nor has anyone yet gone to the United Nations Security Council. Only Jordan published an official denunciation of Israel’s “barbaric attack” on Gaza.
Israel can attribute this quiet to the bad reputation Hamas has developed among the countries of the region, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who see the organization as an inseparable part of the “terrorist” Muslim Brotherhood. Nevertheless, the silence may be misleading: It could change in a moment into a vocal outcry by the Arab citizenry, and this becomes more likely as the operation continues and claims more and more Palestinian victims.
Parts of the Egyptian public still view Hamas as a greater enemy than Israel. But that will be true only until demonstrations begin in Egypt, Jordan and other Arab states, demanding that their governments intervene. Al-Sissi, who has already been accused of cooperation with Israel, is very aware of this possibility, so he decided to open the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and Gaza and allow wounded Palestinians to be treated in Egypt. But this gesture won’t be enough if the public starts demanding that he close the Israeli embassy or recall Egypt’ ambassador to Israel.
Egyptian public opinion, which is organized into protest movements, has much greater influence today than it did under former President Hosni Mubarak. Sensitivity to public opinion is also much higher in Tunisia, Jordan, Morocco and Saudi Arabia, and it is liable to force these governments to take diplomatic action, via either the Arab League or the UN. Any such move will presumably involve the United States, Russia and Europe as well, and thus the Israeli operation, which until now has elicited Arab yawns, could become a focal point of international attention.
Currently, no Arab government except Syria is interested in this happening. But calming the situation will require a rapid cease-fire. This is generally viewed as Egypt’s job, so it is an opportunity for al-Sissi to reinforce Egypt’s standing as an influential country capable of solving crises.
In the three years since the Egyptian revolution, Egypt’s diplomatic toolbox has gone into hiding. But al-Sissi promised to rehabilitate Egypt’s diplomatic standing, and on the Palestinian issue, he holds excellent cards. On one hand he controls the Gaza-Egypt border crossing, which is vital now that he’s shut down the smuggling tunnels. He also controls what foreign money reaches Gaza, and has the power to free Hamas of the “terrorist” label. On the other hand, he has become an unofficial military ally of Israel’s, as the two countries cooperate closely on fighting terror in Sinai. Thus he’s in a position where both Jerusalem and Gaza must listen to him.
Israel and Hamas have an interest in maintaining a broker who can not only talk with both sides, but influence them. Thus, despite Israel’s assertions that the operation will continue as long as necessary, al-Sissi is likely to have a decisive influence on its end date.
Cooperating with his efforts to end the crisis is much more important to Israel than bombing another few buildings in Gaza. Since Hamas isn’t going anywhere, and crises in both Gaza and Sinai are likely to recur, building a relationship of trust with the Egyptian president is essential to maintaining future quiet in Gaza – and not only there.