Israel unbound in today’s Middle East
By: Joyce Karam
Amidst unprecedented regional turmoil, inter-Arab disputes and a sharp decline in U.S. influence, Israel seems to be acting with little to no restraint in the Middle East. In both war and peace, the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu seems to be setting its own terms with the Palestinians as it pummels Gaza and shrugs off the negotiations with the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Netanyahu, by evoking the mantra of “radical Islam” and drawing comparisons between the Palestinian militant group Hamas and the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), seems to be taking advantage of the regional divisions and the new paranoia of the Muslim Brotherhood among the governments of Syria, Egypt and the Arab Gulf with the exception of Qatar. It is this strategy that is driving Israel to denounce the Turkish or Qatari mediation to end the 23-days-old assault on Gaza, in an attempt to court Egypt and abuse the regional divide.
Not even John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state who complained of “Israel being under siege by a terrorist organization” just last week, was able to apply pressure on Netanyahu to accept a ceasefire. Kerry, like no U.S. secretary of state before him, was humiliated and ridiculed by the Israeli press for doing his job, reaching out to all regional actors including UAE and Qatar. That was the mechanism that his predecessor Hillary Clinton utilized in 2012, albeit with different leadership in Egypt under deposed President Mohammad Mursi.
Gaza is more or less standing alone today
But that was then, and this is now. Kerry’s plan collapsed, and Israel has since his departure expanded the operation to include Hamas’ infrastructure, TV stations and Gaza’s only power plant. The escalation was accompanied by sharp criticism in the Israeli press targeting Kerry for apparently ruining the ceasefire talks, and asking U.S. President Barack Obama to stay out of the situation or in the words of Israeli Construction Minister Uri Ariel “leave us alone” and “go focus on Syria.”
While this is the most vocal rejection of the U.S. role, it is neither surprising nor unpredictable. For five years, Netanyahu has brushed off U.S. demands in the peace process, expanding illegal settlements, outmaneuvering Obama sometimes, in my understanding, through backdoor channels with Republicans in the U.S. Congress apparently including Eric Cantor, the former representative from Virginia and someone I am told is a good friend of Netanyahu. Both George Mitchell and Martin Indyk failed to deal with Netanyahu as U.S. peace envoys, and resigned before any significant progress was made.
Netanyahu challenged Obama’s resolve in 2009 on the issue of settlement freezing and when the U.S. president backed down a year later, the Israeli prime minister exploited the weakness, which was later displayed with hesitation inside of the White House to back Kerry in his peace efforts. Today, Netanyahu knows all too well the extent to which Obama is willing to go on Gaza as he faces a decline in U.S.’ regional leverage and a cramped international agenda.
New regional dynamic
As he exploits apparent U.S. weaknesses, Netanyahu seems also to be taking full advantage of the regional divisions. The Israeli prime minister has transformed the Palestinian struggle into a chess piece in a regional rivalry game, with Qatar and Turkey seemingly backing one side and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah Sisi and the rest of the Arab Gulf backing another or staying on the sideline. This is a master stroke for Netanyahu helping him to isolate Hamas internally and externally, as well as diminish the core of the Palestinian struggle against the Israeli occupation and for statehood.
Gaza is more or less standing alone today. The Rafah crossing remains closed and Sisi’s Egypt, I believe, is operating on a security agenda and what it perceives as a tie between the Muslim Brotherhood (Hamas’ paternal organization) and extremist threats inside Sinai. While Qatar and Turkey seem to be supporting Gaza in theory, the hurdles of geography and Israeli intransigence are keeping it from materializing.
Iran on the other hand – formerly a strong backer of Hamas – has its hands tied in Syria and Iraq and could have been disappointed with the Palestinian group’s position opposing the regime of Bashar al-Assad. While Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah has tried to bridge these differences in the last speech and through phone calls to Hamas’ leader Khaled Meshaal in Doha and Islamic Jihad’s Ramadan Shallah, there is little that Hezbollah can do today. The Lebanese militant group is dragged into a deep battle in Syria, draining the party’s resources and hindering any efforts to open a new front on the Lebanese-Israeli border.
It is this status-quo that unrestrained Netanyahu in Gaza, backed by strong support from the Israeli cabinet and the public. The war in Gaza will likely deepen the regional divide, whatever its outcome is, and further restrict Obama’s hand in the Middle East. Such dynamic only helps Netanyahu in confronting what he sees as existential threats down the road in dealing with Iran and the new threat of “radical Islam.”
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam