Gaza War? Merely a Blip on the Mideast Radar

The Israel-Gaza war was a distraction from the real agenda on the region's mind: The deep fear generated by Islamic State expansion.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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An Islamic State militant waving the group's flag in Syria's northern Raqqa province, June 30, 2014.
An Islamic State militant waving the group's flag in Syria's northern Raqqa province, June 30, 2014. Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Wednesday evening, a high-level Saudi delegation landed in Qatar for what was termed a “last chance” for Doha to end its quarrel with the other Gulf states. This unusual mission, which included the Saudi foreign minister, interior minister and intelligence chief, spent two days trying to determine whether Qatar was willing to bring its foreign policy into line with that of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and above all to stop supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates all define as a terrorist organization. It’s not yet clear what the delegation achieved, but the results will apparently be made known at the GCC meeting scheduled for Saturday.

A few hours before the delegation landed, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal held another unusual meeting, with Hossein Abdollahian, the deputy foreign minister of Iran. This was the first visit to Saudi Arabia by an official Iranian representative for the purpose of discussing cooperation in checking the Islamic State’s march through Iraq and Syria.

Did these two visits have anything to do with the cease-fire agreement between Hamas and Israel? Did Qatar pressure Hamas leader Khaled Meshal to accept the Egyptian cease-fire proposal even though it didn’t meet his earlier demands, like establishing a port and airport in Gaza? It seems as if these developments aren’t completely unrelated.

The war in Gaza, despite all the noise it generated for 50 days, is relatively marginal to the deep fears generated in the region by the ongoing crisis in Syria, the Islamic State’s expansion and the dangers facing Iraq and Jordan. Therefore, it was necessary to get the Gaza crisis out of the way so the region, and the world, could deal with the main issues on the agenda.

Doha is currently Hamas’ principal financier. But Saudi Arabia and Egypt – which were furious at Qatar and Turkey for what they saw as destructive meddling in an issue over which Egypt holds monopoly rights, and then at Washington for adopting the Qatari-Turkish initiative – have begun working to neutralize Qatar’s influence.

Hamas’ former chief backer, Iran, severed ties with it almost completely after Hamas broke with Syria in 2012. And this summer, Tehran actually supported the initial Egyptian cease-fire proposal. Even after Egypt rejected Iran’s request to let in an aid shipment for Gaza, Tehran didn’t voice any criticism of Cairo. After the cease-fire was signed, the Iranian media did extol “the resistance,” but they didn’t go out of their way to praise Hamas in particular. Tehran now has a joint interest with Riyadh and Cairo that is much more important than Hamas.

The diplomatic burden of arranging the Gaza cease-fire fell mainly on Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi. This was his first stab at managing an international crisis, and he faced a difficult problem: how to deal with an Israeli assault that killed Palestinian civilians without letting Hamas reap diplomatic or political gains that would play into the hands of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

Sissi sought no help from Washington – or more accurately, he decided to exclude Washington from involvement in managing the negotiations. Yet with Saudi backing and close cooperation from Israel, the Egyptian cease-fire proposal became the only game in town, to which Hamas had to submit. This in turn posed a dilemma for Hamas: Adopting the Egyptian proposal could cost it Qatar’s financial aid, but sticking by Qatar meant Gaza would remain cut off from its Egyptian lifeline.

Perhaps Hamas’ dwindling supply of arms and ammunition also influenced Meshal’s decision. The knowledge that its partner in arms, Islamic Jihad, which could veto any Hamas decision, favored accepting the Egyptian proposal contributed as well. But there’s no doubt the circle of external Arab states played an exceptional role, using their media outlets to frame Hamas as an organization that was undermining Arab interests.

The glory Sissi won by achieving a cease-fire now makes him responsible for successfully concluding the Israeli-Palestinian talks to be held under its auspices. These talks, which will take place in Cairo in the coming weeks, will deal with issues like a port and airport, ending the blockade of Gaza and prisoner releases. But if Saudi Arabia succeeds in returning Qatar to the Arab fold, Hamas will be left with almost no leverage in these negotiations. It will have to accept whatever Cairo and Riyadh are willing to grant it, and that won’t be much.

Thus the key player in this stage will be Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Rebuilding Gaza, monitoring the border crossings, raising money and disbursing it will all be in his hands, and he, not Hamas, will be the one to mobilize international pressure on Israel if it fails to fulfill any agreements reached. He hasn’t yet elaborated on the “surprise” he promised earlier this week, but as head of a state recognized by the UN General Assembly, he could seek to join the International Criminal Court. That gives him a powerful card to play against Israel, and also forces Hamas to subordinate itself to the diplomatic battle, even though Hamas isn’t automatically obligated by every decision Abbas makes.

Yet Israel is also not free of Arab constraints. The need to continue its coordination with Egypt, and indirectly with Saudi Arabia, obliges it to accept Cairo’s positions, on the understanding that these won’t violate Israel’s minimum requirements. Israel will have to pay in Gazan coin to retain its good relationship with Sissi and be considered a silent partner in the broader moves planned by the Arab leadership, including the proposal Sissi plans to submit to the Arab League for resolving the Syrian crisis.

According to media reports, Sissi will propose launching a dialogue among all the warring parties except the radical Islamist groups, forming a transitional government to replace Syrian President Bashar Assad and forging an Arab and international military coalition to fight the Islamic State. The latter is the key point. During the 1991 Gulf War, Arab armies fought alongside American forces to liberate Kuwait from Iraq, but since then, while they have sent money and arms to warring groups in both Iraq and Syria, they have refrained from involving their own troops in the fighting. Thus Sissi’s proposal is a novelty.

For now, however, it conflicts with Iran’s position. Iran has already sent troops to Syria, and recently also to help fight the Islamic State in Iraq. But it still favors keeping Assad in power.

Even if no Arab military intervention ever happens, the very proposal gives Sissi and Egypt a key role in managing Arab strategy, a status to which the war in Gaza contributed greatly. But Cairo and Riyadh must still obtain acquiescence from Qatar – which funds the Islamist militias in Syria, and especially the Muslim Brotherhood – to ensure than any new government in Syria doesn’t revive the Brotherhood’s political fortunes.

If Qatar so chooses, not only will Hamas have to rethink its devotion to the armed struggle, but the war against the Islamic State is liable to become much more effective.

Doha: If Saudi Arabia succeeds in returning Qatar to the Arab fold, Hamas will be left with almost no leverage in negotiations.Credit: AP

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