To many older persons, the Israel-Hamas confrontation must induce a sense of déjà vu – and déjà vu over and over again. President Obama’s single refrain, that “Israel has a right to defend itself” in the face of Hamas intrusions, itself has a ring of tiredness of this continuing issue; and in political terms a sense of declaration of a draw between himself and Netanyahu, after the latter’s confrontations during the presidential elections.
That the current confrontation must feel somewhat stale to populations in the Middle East itself, is perhaps indicated by the fact that there have been none of the traditional, some say traditionally government-inspired, demonstrations in the area, characteristic of these confrontations. And in Israel itself, in spite of the highly emotional character of the Palestine-Israel controversy and confrontation over each other’s rights to land, many persons among the electorate there will certainly not be too loathe to make a connection between the Israeli forays over and into Gaza, and the elections due in Israel in late January of next year.
This is especially so as they have watched Prime Minister Netanyahu, in the last few months, seeking to find alliances with other political groupings that can give his Likud Party a decent majority in those elections. And he will be already now finding some comfort in the strong support for the attacks given by his Minister of Defence, former army general and Labour Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, who once was in the forefront of seeking to find a peaceful solution to the issue.
The geopolitical setting for Netanyahu’s ferocious attacks on, or responses to, Hamas’s recent air intrusions could not be more favourable to Israel at this time. First, cynical as this may sound, it has given President Obama an opportunity to rebalance, in the perceptions of the American public, their perspective on his attitude to Israel (although the Republican attacks on him, with Netanyahu’s obvious assistance, seem to have done him little electoral harm).
Suggestions can now be laid to rest of a muted anti-Israelism on the part of the President. These had been an undercurrent for much of his first term, and certainly after his 2009 Cairo speech for which, paradoxically in the eyes of his opponents and pro-Israeli critics, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. So the President may well now feel that he may have an opportunity, in the aftermath of the present crisis, to be seen by the two sides – Arab and Israeli – as deliberately taking a more measured approach, unencumbered by any sense of visible anxiety, towards finding an immediate solution. For him, one suspects, the two sides must take the lead and show willingness to find a solution, and they can only be helped by others to do so.
For one thing, as some analysts have been stressing, a significant, for the medium term, aspect of this crisis has been coming to the fore. And this is the fact that unlike the era stretching over the long period since Israel’s independence, real indications are that the US will soon be virtually self-sufficient as far as the Middle East is concerned, in terms of its oil requirements, depending presently on that area for only one-tenth of its oil imports. Americans are now excited about the prospects for major shale-oil production from within their own shores, giving them back that psychological sense of substantial autonomy that they have had since their independence.
Geopolitical circumstances have also been changing in the Middle East, in a manner that suggests to other countries that it is perhaps best to let the countries there settle their own affairs for the time being. Egypt, traditionally the premier country in the area from the perspective of countries there and others worldwide, has gone through a political revolution that opens questions as to where its commitments and alliances will be in the near future.
Two domestic factors are important here. The first is that entry of the Muslim Brotherhood as central players in the governance of the system, with the implication that the de facto, though informal, alliance that the US and Egypt have had since the era of Sadat, will not have the strength that it had until recently. Though the Egyptian government is playing a significant role in seeking to end the current crisis, the United States certainly does not have confidence in the outcome, in the sense that it would certainly have had if Mubarak were still in charge.
The second is, that while Hamas has found a stronger partner in the Muslim Brotherhood government, the present Egyptian leaders will be loathe to disrupt the present agreements that the country signed with Israel under United States (President Carter’s) sponsorship. And the Israelis know that, in the last resort, even if the conflict were to widen to an extent that it affected their commitments to Egypt re Gaza, the Egyptian army, largely an instrument of domestic autocratic political governance since the Nasser revolution, is unlikely to have much capability as a fighting force.
Further, in today’s Middle East, concerns are rigorously domestic with governments preoccupied with solving what are in effect governance problems. The civil war in Syria has itself robbed the Hamas forces of a periodically useful ally. Secondly, the dominating concerns of the governments of the area are now two: the first being the need to prevent the Arab Spring from spreading the gospel of democracy among the autocratic monarchies that exist in the area. And the second is the great fear of Shi’ite influence spreading, with Iranian support, deeper into a fragile American-abandoned Iraq, as well as into a disintegrating Syria.
The third, related to this is the fear on the part of Turkey, until recently playing a relatively hands-off role in the Middle East, that it will be drawn into what it might, until now, have thought of as an arena predominantly for Arab League diplomacy, in which it did not feel constrained to intervene. In the last two years or so, the Turkish government has taken a much more hard-line attitude to Israel itself, and it will no doubt now feel that it has to be part of the diplomacy of a solution. This will be reinforced by the fact that she finds herself now embroiled in the Syrian uprising.
In all these circumstances, Israel may well have felt, and will continue to feel, that this is a time in which it can have an optimally free hand; that the Americans will probably be insisting that the Middle Eastern countries must play a larger hand in seeking a direct solution to the Palestinian issue; that they must deal with it, as Sadat did (even at the price of his life) by dealing directly with the Israelis; and that it is their role to induce the Palestinian factions to follow suit.
But Middle Eastern regimes are now predominantly fraught with fear of the recurrence of Arab Springs. Will this combination of things mean stasis for a while? And will the Americans, as time goes on, feel the necessity to assume a more active diplomatic stance?