Winners & Losers
ADVANCE COPY from the December 3, 2012 issue: The Gaza war and its fallout.
12:00 AM, Nov 22, 2012 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
If the truce announced in Cairo last Wednesday truly brings the Gaza war to a close, it is not too soon to assess who gained and who lost from this conflict.
The destroyed house of a Hamas official in Gaza
Hamas provoked the war and chose the timing, so it is not surprising that they thought they would gain—and they have gained. The PLO initiative in the United Nations (to be classified as a “non-member observer state”) was shifting energy to the West Bank leadership, and by these attacks on Israel Hamas shifted it back. President Mahmoud Abbas and his cronies in Ramallah barely made the papers, despite Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit there. They were marginalized while Arab leaders and Turkish officials visited Gaza, and Hamas leaders traveled to Cairo for high-publicity meetings. The PLO leadership in Ramallah is one of the big losers of the last few weeks.
The effect of this will play out in the coming months. Given Hamas’s control of Gaza, any peace negotiations in 2013 with the “Ramallah leadership” under President Abbas are clearly going to be limited to increasing Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank rather than creating a Palestinian state. It is ironic that Palestinians may achieve U.N. recognition of a unified and sovereign Palestinian state at almost exactly the moment when such a state seems further away than ever.
The danger is that Hamas will increasingly be seen as a potential negotiating partner by governments around the world. No doubt many think tanks and “experts” will be repeating that we must reach out, be realistic, and understand that Hamas must be “engaged” if peace is to be attained. If Hamas begins to be treated not as a terrorist group but as an entity equal in legitimacy to the PLO—and for that matter to Israel—it will be the first terrorist group to achieve such status without disarming and while maintaining its loathsome charter and revanchist goals.
What remains to be seen is whether those Hamas gains came at too high a cost for the group. Hamas is a terrorist organization that was able to fire at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem only because Iran supplied it with the Fajr longer-range missiles. But during this conflict Egypt’s new Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi, consistently separated Egypt’s interests from those of Hamas. He did not go to Gaza during the war, did not break relations with Israel, and did not threaten to cancel the peace treaty. It was clear that he did not want the tail to wag the dog—did not want the leaders of 1.5 million Gazans to harm the interests of 85 million Egyptians. He did not want a ground war that might have forced his hand on relations with Israel, and he does not want to see acts of terrorism against Israel launched from Egyptian territory.
Significantly, Morsi’s position appears to be that of the MB as an institution. During the war, Khairat al-Shater, perhaps the single strongest leader in the Brotherhood (and its initial candidate for president), sharply criticized Hamas in a meeting of the MB leadership reported in the newspaper Al-Ahram. Al-Shater denounced Hamas for entangling Egypt in a potential conflict with Israel, and said the army must do a better job of stopping the smuggling of arms into Gaza. People who create crises between Egypt and the West and threaten the vital foreign aid Egypt needs are working against Egypt’s interests, he said.
If this separation of Hamas’s interests from Egypt’s means Egyptian soldiers will now police the Gaza-Sinai border and prevent Iran from shipping replacement missiles into Gaza, Hamas will have paid a heavy price for the week of conflict. Getting Egypt to close the smuggling tunnels and police the border should be a main goal of U.S. diplomacy. After the last Gaza war, in December 2008-January 2009, Egypt under President Mubarak failed completely in this task. It will be ironic if the new Muslim Brotherhood government does a better job (and one hopes a by-product will be an end to Israeli mourning for Mubarak’s departure).
It must be said that Egypt is a winner in the conflict. It served as the capital of the Arab world and the center of Middle Eastern diplomacy during the war, with Secretary Clinton, U.N. secretary general Ban Ki-Moon, and officials from the Arab world, Turkey, and Europe shuttling in and out. Turkey and Qatar could not negotiate an agreement to end the fighting; Egypt did, because of its weight as the largest Arab nation, the legitimacy of its newly elected MB government, and its continuing ties with Israel. The last two weeks restored some of Egypt’s lost luster as the diplomatic center of the Arab world. The truce was announced in Cairo—not Doha or Ankara.
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