It seems that the sneak previews on Thursday of a senior Israeli official, and the leaks from Hamas about progress in cease-fire talks did not come to fruition. Still, it can be said that Operation Protective Edge was not only a test in managing fire between state and a non-state actor, but also an exercise in policy administration and in sketching out the new regional balances of political power.
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In contrast to previous operations, during which Hamas benefited from the financial and military support of Egypt, the generosity of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran, the hospitality and training of Syria and the largesse of Turkey and Qatar, which strengthened the economic base of the Hamas government, this time Hamas has waged a lonely war. Its coffers are empty and it has neither the backing of Arab states nor an underground network to replenish its rocket supply. Its standing could be compared to Hezbollah after the Second Lebanon War, when not only the Lebanese government but other Arab countries slammed the organization’s private initiative to attack Israel and bring destruction to Lebanon.
Cairo’s fear — that Israel’s strikes on the Gaza Strip would bring Egyptians into the streets in protest, forcing President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi to take at least a public stand, turned out to be unfounded. Sissi moved quickly to open the Rafah crossing into Egypt to injured Palestinians, and sent medical teams to the hospital in El Arish to care for them, but he avoided making pronouncements.
Those who urged Sissi to act to save Gaza’s inhabitants changed their tune after a few days. Cairo did not even inform Hamas of Sissi’s talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Egyptian intelligence did not give Egypt’s cease-fire proposal to Hamas’ No. 2 man, Moussa Abu Marzouk, who lives in Egypt, until it received Israel’s approval. Insultingly, the draft did not even mention Hamas.
Washington pressured Cairo to initiate mediations, but no more than that. Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates supported the Egyptian position. Feeling the isolation all too well, the Hamas leadership, particularly Khaled Meshal, tried to open a back channel through Qatar and Turkey. But Islamic Jihad, which preferred Cairo’s involvement, blocked the move.
Qatar, as expected, offered its own services and planned to cooperate with Turkey in mediating a cease-fire. But that was stymied by these countries’ difficult relations with most of the Arab states, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in particular, not to mention the cool relations between Israel and Turkey and lack of official ties between Israel and Qatar. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was extraordinary critical of Sissi’s rise to power a year ago, and has continued to be critical now that Sissi is president. Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood also led to the unofficial severance of ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Qatar, meanwhile, has been Egypt’s rival since the Mubarak era.
Saudi Arabia, which made Egypt its economic protégé with grants of billions of dollars, has initiated a boycott by Gulf states against Qatar; they have also made Qatar promise to stay out of their domestic affairs. But Qatar, which despite its small size sees itself as a regional power, has insinuated itself into every regional conflict from Lebanon and Syria to Iraq and Palestine.
Over the past three years, old alliances have dissolved, and the smaller ones that have succeeded them are incapable of delivering a unified Arab position. And so, whereas in the past any military operation in the Gaza Strip was the glue that brought Arabs together, this time the war has widened the cracks. Hamas is stuck in these cracks, virtually helpless. Ostensibly, that is an achievement for Egypt, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and even for Israel.
The next two days will show how much stronger Abbas’ position has become. No matter how much Abbas detests Hamas or wants it to fall, he must keep it from challenging his government again and imitating Hezbollah in Lebanon, where it is both part of the government and a military threat to it.
Abbas’ chance of success is better than that of Lebanon, mainly because Hamas is surrounded on all sides, its supply lines are blocked, its funding has dried up and it sees reconciliation with Fatah as its only lifeline.
For Israel, this is an extraordinary opportunity to strengthen Abbas in the domestic Palestinian arena without having to pay a political price. Israeli recognition of the reconciliation government, its release of the prisoners it had pledged to release, cooperation in the rehabilitation of Gaza, permitting Palestinian banks to pay Hamas’ officials’ salaries, are not only some of Hamas’ demands that Israel is rejecting. They are also the political leverage by which Israel can empower Abbas. The condition is, of course, that Israel view the conflict in Gaza not only as a war between it and an organization, but also as an opportunity to use diplomacy to prevent the next round.