Sunday, December 28, 2008

Double-faced Arab Politics

Arab condemnation of Israeli attacks on Gaza is vocal and universal. For some Arab countries, that condemnation appears more designed to cater to mounting public anger at the attacks as well as Arab inability to do anything real to stop the assault rather than at really forcing a halt to Israeli operations. Arab nations like Egypt, which engineered the six-month ceasefire between Israel and Hamas that ended last week and has been mediating between Hamas and Fatah, the Palestinian group that controls the Palestine Authority on the West Bank, as well as the Gulf states see Islamists with widespread public appeal as potentially the biggest challenge to their regimes. But mounting public anger in the Arab world coupled with the high death toll in Gaza could undermine the tightrope these Arab leaders are walking. Already, public anger at events in Gaza is spilling into the streets of Arab capitals across the region from Yemen to Mauritania.

For the Islamists, the Israeli attacks are a window of opportunity and they are exploiting it to the hilt. In Cairo, Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohammed Mehdi Akef led demonstrations in Cairo while angry arguments between Muslim Brotherhood and ruling NDP deputies have roiled Parliament. Islamist deputies in Jordan have called for the severance of relations with Israel. Egyptian opposition daily Al-Dustour called for a popular response to Egypt's alleged collaboration with Israel commensurate with the magnitude of events and popular fury.

Details of that alleged cooperation are reported by London’s pro-Palestinian Arab-language Al Quds Al-Arabi. The newspaper quotes Palestinian and Arab diplomatic sources as saying that Egypt and perhaps other Arab states effectively worked with Israel to mislead Hamas about Israel’s plans so that the Islamists would be caught off guard when Israel launched its attack. Al Quds Al-Arabi quotes the sources as saying that Egyptian Intelligence Minister Omar Suleiman informed several Arab leaders that Israel was considering a limited attack on Gaza to force Hamas to renew the ceasefire it allowed to elapse, but that it had not yet formally decided to do so. Suleiman allegedly left the impression that an Israeli decision would not be taken before today’s weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. Suleiman’s message followed a visit on Thursday to Cairo by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, in which Egyptian leaders tacitly endorsed Israeli plans, according to Al Quds Al-Arabi, but cautioned Israel to avoid civilian casualties in a bid not to provoke Arab public opinion. The paper quoted a source close to Hamas Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar as saying that Egypt had advised Hamas on Friday evening, hours before Israel launched its strikes that Israel had agreed to negotiate a new ceasefire and would not attack in the meantime.

Some well-placed Arab sources believe however that Egypt may not have been a party to the Israeli plans and was itself mislead. These sources say that Livni assured Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and other senior officials that Israel had not yet decided to attack Gaza. Egypt has publicly condemned the Israeli attacks in stark terms as ”murder.” One Arab source told me as he prepared to leave for Muscat for tomorrow’s summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council that comprises Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman and is certain to be dominated by events in Gaza: “If the Egyptians wanted Israel to teach Hamas a lesson because it refused to extend the ceasefire, Egypt will end up learning a lesson. Hamas is a genuinely popular movement, it cannot be destroyed.” The summit has gained importance because it is the first Arab gathering since the Israeli air strikes began after Arab foreign ministers postponed an emergency meeting originally scheduled for today until Wednesday, a move that many in the Arab world see as underscoring Arab impotence. Speaking at a news conference in Gaza on Sunday, Hamas officials said Arab silence had made the Israeli attack possible.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit fueled suspicions that Egypt had played Israel’s game by saying on Saturday that Hamas was responsible for the outbreak of violence because of its repeated firing of rockets into Israel and noticing that both Egypt and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had warned Hamas of the consequences if it failed to do so. Al Quds al-Arabi earlier this week quoted intelligence minister Suleiman as telling Israeli Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad that the “Hamas leadership must be reined in, even in Damascus” where part of the Hamas leadership resides after the Islamists refused to restart talks aimed at bridging differences with Fatah. The paper quoted Suleiman as saying the Damascus-based head of Hamas’ Politburo, Khaled Mashaal, was responsible for the decision to continue firing missiles at Israel. It said Suleiman described Hamas leaders as ‘thugs’ and a ‘gang’ that would pay a heavy price for its intransigence. "Hamas' leadership is guilty of hubris. It snubs Egypt. Its leaders must be reined in and must wake up from their dream," Al Quds al-Arabi quoted Suleiman as saying.

Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, caught between a rock and a hard place, also placed the blame for the Israeli air strikes while on a visit to Cairo squarely on the shoulders of Hamas. In doing so, he aligned himself with Egypt and the Bush administration, the only member of the quartet seeking Middle East peace – the US, UN, EU and Russia – not to condemn the Israeli attacks, calling instead on Hamas to stop its rocket attacks and on Israel to avoid civilian casualties. Despite the fact that Hamas TV today appeared to confirm Israeli assertions that a majority of the dead in Gaza were Hamas fighters by reporting that 180 Hamas fighters had been killed since the beginning of the Israeli attack, Abbas posture is unlikely to enjoy much popular Palestinian support.

Abbas said Hamas could have averted the attacks by extending the ceasefire. He said he had contacted Hamas leaders directly and pleaded with them to extend the ceasefire to avoid bloodshed. If any Arab leader sees his position threatened by the situation in Gaza, it must be Abbas. Israeli sanctions on Gaza have served to strengthen popular support for Hamas rather than persuade public opinion that Hamas’ intransigence is the reason their lives are so difficult. That support for Hamas is further enhanced by the boycott by Israel and much of the international community despite the fact that Palestinians democratically elected Hamas in 2007. It is Hamas rather than Fatah and the Palestine Authority that today is seen to be standing up to Israel. The siege of Gaza and the Israeli attacks are accelerating popular rallying around the Islamists, who had made the lifting of the siege a precondition for extension of the ceasefire. Sanctions have historically proven ineffective in persuading populations to revolt asserting that the powers to be are the reason that their lives are being made miserable. Instead public opinion invariably puts the blame on those imposing sanctions. Gaza is no different.

Speaking from Damascus, Khaled Mashaal called for renewed suicide attacks and for Palestinians to revolt in a third Intifada. The Israeli air strikes make reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas virtually impossible as such as unification of Palestinian ranks would put Hamas back in the driving seat with Abbas as an adjunct. As a result, Abbas, foremost among Arab leaders, can only hope that Israel’s military offensive will succeed and succeed fast with not too much further bloodshed. The longer the attacks continue the more blood is shed, the more popular Hamas becomes across the Arab world and the more difficult it becomes for moderate, pro-western leaders. West Bank Palestinian opposition leaders are already calling on Abbas to stop peace talks with Israel and close ranks with Hamas in the face of the Israeli aggression. "Forget about Palestinian unity. It is a mirage. Tou can't unite with a bunch of collaborators who are seeking to take Gaza back," says Azzam Tamimi, author of 'Hamas: A History From Within,' referring to Abbas.

For Israel, the United States, Egypt and Abbas the end game has to be the restoration of Gaza to Palestine Authority control. Israeli tanks and troops are already massing on Gaza's border for what could be phase two of the Israeli operation with a ground assault. In the short term, months long sanctions against Hamas, including the Israeli Should Israel succeed in defeating Hamas and returning Gaza to moderate Palestinian control, quick, significant and tangible progress in resolving the Palestinian issue would be the only thing that would save Abbas from being successfully portrayed as an Israeli collaborator. For the time being, that seems to be more of a fata morgana. Already, the attack on Gaza is taking its toll on what little is left of the peace process with Syria reportedly having broken off indirect talks with Israel.

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