Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Arabs and Iran Battle for Hearts and Minds

As Arab leaders prepare for an emergency summit on Friday, their inability to achieve an end to the Israeli offensive is defeating the very offset some Arab leaders had hoped would emerge from a cutting down to size of Hamas. To key Arab leaders, including those of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Palestine Authority, a short and surgical Israeli operation would have contributed to putting Islamists across the region on the defensive and countering Iranian efforts to exploit widespread public discontent.

Instead, Iran, despite spewing primarily theatrics and rhetoric rather than real support for the Palestinians, is benefiting from the prolonged horror of the carnage in Gaza and the perceived Arab inability to have an impact on international efforts to silence the guns. Its imagery strikes an emotional chord with an angry and frustrated Arab public, something Arab governments have so far been unable to achieve. The stature of the summit has further been undermined by the decision by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Tunisia and Egypt not to attend.

Egypt, which is in the lead of Arab efforts to end the fighting, is seeking to reverse the credibility gap stemming from its refusal to fully open the Rafah border crossing with Gaza in a bid to alleviate Palestinian suffering and its desire to prevent the country's main opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood of which Hamas is an offshoot, from capitalizing on the crisis. Public anger and frustration with Arab impotence plays into Iran's hand even if Sunni Islamists like the brotherhood are standoffish towards Iran at best. For his part, Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is fighting a legitimacy battle of his own. His term expired five days ago, yet the war in Gaza makes a Palestinian election not only physically but also politically impossible. Israel, the United States and conservative Arabs fear that Hamas would win an election with another landslide as it did in 2006.

In describing the gap between Arab governments and Arab public opinion, Karma Nabulsi, a former Palestinian representative to the United Nations, noted on Al Jazeera that Latin American nations like Venezuela and Bolivia had taken steps against Israeli like breaking off diplomatic relations while Arabs have yet to act. "The protests make it clear that Arab leaders will have to move or will be left out of the process," Nabulsi said.

In the battle for Arab public opinion, Iran and assorted Islamists, many with no links to Iran appears to be winning on points. Iranian statements and paper tiger moves like signing up volunteers for the fighting in Gaza who don't have a hope in hell of making their way to the strip or establishing a court to try Israelis for war crimes, capture the headlines. Arab backroom diplomatic efforts to achieve a ceasefire play less well in the media. "IIran's political success from this episode, even if it proves to be only short term, could prove to be a political embarrassment for the Arab regimes in the long term and may possibly bring wider and more dangerous political repercussions and domestic instability," warns Leila Nadir in an analysis published by The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research.

In a bid to stir the pot, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said in early January that Gazans were justified in their belief that some Arab countries had "betrayed" them. While Arab leaders have little to show for their efforts beyond a UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire that has been ignored by both Israel and Hamas, Iran does not have the clout to push a substantial diplomatic initiative of any kind. Its call for an Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) summit has been ignored. It can together with Syria, however, influence whether the conflict spreads to other parts of the Middle East, particularly Lebanon through its ally, Hizbollah. Yet, there it like Arab governments has been careful to ensure that the fighting is restricted to Gaza.

Some analysts warn that Iran's strategy is not without risk on the eve of President-elect Obama Barack taking office. "…the criticism (Iran) is leveling at the Arab world will prove to be a setback to the diplomatic links Iran has been working hard to cultivate in the face of US pressure on the Arab world to keep Iran in isolation," Nadir says. Iranian and Hizbollah attacks on Egypt's refusal to open the Rafah crossing wipe out a cautious improvement of relations Iran had achieved in the course of the last year. Iran's vocal support for Hamas will also not play well in any Obama effort to engage Iran in a bid to realign its posture and policies through diplomacy rather than confrontation.

For pro-American Arab governments battling Iran for the hearts and minds of the Muslim Middle East, the tone the Obama administration strikes from day one is of crucial importance. A US engagement that strikes a note more sensitive to Arab sentiment while maintaining support for Israeli security would help vindicate their position. Media in pro-Western nations responded positively to Hillary Clinton's initial statements in Congressional hearings on Tuesday to confirm her as Secretary of State. In stark contrast to the Bush administration, Clinton while stressing Israel's right to self-defense expressed concern about the "tragic humanitarian costs" of the conflict not only for Israelis but also Palestinians and the price being paid by civilians on both side of the divide. "Gone was the tone of confrontation and ideological rhetoric that characterized the foreign policy of the United States during the past 8 years," said the Saudi-owned Al Hayat newspaper.

As pundits debate whether Israel will want the war in Gaza to still be ongoing when Obama takes office, it is becoming increasingly obvious that Hamas, despite the Israeli pummeling, is not willing to settle for a ceasefire at any price. Hamas does not need to defeat Israeli troops to emerge victorious from the fighting. The longer it holds out and the longer it is perceived by Palestinians and Arabs as acquitting itself well, the bigger the chance that the war will allow it to strengthen its claim to Palestinian leadership and strengthen opposition to Arab governments seen as having failed the people of Gaza.

So far that strategy may be succeeding. Israeli intelligence officials briefing journalists according to The New York Times said they had damaged Hamas' military wing “to a certain extent” but that the group’s military capability was still intact. However, the officials suggested that the offensive so far had been more successful in undermining Hamas’ political cohesion and that cracks were appearing in the group’s political leadership.

That could ultimately result in a for Israel and the Palestinians in Gaza even messier situation in which the military wing enjoys greater autonomy. The intelligence officials noted that the leadership in Gaza was more eager to reach agreement on a ceasefire than their colleagues in exile in Damascus. The New York Times, apparently corroborating the Israeli assertion, quoted Egyptian officials as saying that Hamas representative had openly disagreed with one another during ceasefire negotiations in Cairo. Tariq Alhomayed in Asharq Al-Awsat says Damascus-based Hamas Political Bureau chief Khalid Mashaal rejects a permanent truce and negotiations with Israel as well a proposed agreement to reopen the border crossings to Gaza based on a 2005 agreement between Israel and the Palestine Authority because that would prevent the movement from procuring arms in Gaza. By contrast, Alhomayed quotes Hamas Gaza leader Ismail Haniya as arguing in favor of a ceasefire, saying that “we will work positively with any initiative that aims to bring [Israeli] aggression to an end, to bring about withdrawal, to end the siege and to open the crossings.” While Mashaal was calling for an uprising in the Arab world, Haniya refused to criticize Arab governments, Alhomayed said.

In figuring out who won what in the Gaza war once the guns falls silent, the devil is likely to be in the details. Washington Institute for Near East Policy fellow Martin Kramer predicts that Israel will likely have to concede to lift the siege of Gaza as part of ceasefire agreement. "After the military campaign is over, Israel's control of Gaza's economy will be its principal lever for translating its military achievements into political gains—above all, the continued degradation of Hamas control. Gaza will be desperate for all material things. Whoever controls their distribution will effectively control many aspects of daily life in Gaza. This is a card Israel must be careful not to trade, either for a cease-fire or for international anti-smuggling cooperation on the Egypt-Gaza border. ... Israel should be willing to ease sanctions only if an international consortium for reconstruction is established, which has the legitimate Palestinian Authority as its sole agent within Gaza. In any cease-fire agreement, Israel should agree to open the crossings only to emergency food and medical aid—as it has during the fighting itself," Kramer says.

Writing in the Boston Globe, Kramer’s colleague at the Washington Institute, David Schenker, argues that the key to achieving that control lies in Egypt’s ability and willingness to shut down the underground tunnels linking Egypt with Gaza. The tunnels have been a major target of the Israeli air force in the offensive. Israel asserts that Hamas uses the tunnels to replenish its military stockpiles. “As pressure mounts for a cease-fire, the disposition of these tunnels -- and specifically, what actions Cairo is prepared to take to close them -- seems likely to prove the difference between war and peace,” Schenker says. He says that Hamas had smuggled “some 80 tons of weapons from Egypt, including longer-range Iranian-made rockets that brought 10 percent of the Israeli population within striking distance" during the six months of the Israel Hamas ceasefire that ended last month. Egypt has asserted it could not properly police the border because it was hamstrung in its efforts as a result of restrictions imposed by the Israeli Egyptian peace treaty on its ability to deploy troops in the Sinai desert. Some Israelis charge that corrupt Egyptian civilian and military officials benefit from the lucrative trade through the tunnels; Schenker says Egypt may have turned a blind eye to demonstrate support for the Palestinians and build goodwill with Hamas.

Despite political infighting notwithstanding within Hamas, among the Palestinians and in the Arab world at large, Palestinians may be winning a key battle. "Palestinians are winning the legitimacy war and that might be more important than winning the military war. That's what defeated the United States in Vietnam and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan… it is also what defeated apartheid in South Africa ," United Nations Special Human Rights Rapporteur Prof. Richard Falk told Al Jazeera earlier this week.

The anti-Israel demonstrations in Western capitals, anecdotal evidence and opinion polls in the United States suggest that Palestinians may not only be winning the legitimacy battle in their own backyard but in the West too. Author Geoffrey Wheatcroft writing in the International Herald Tribune recounts a story recounted by historian Tony Judt several years ago. Judt was discussing with his class at New York University the emotional resonance of the Spanish Civil War the fact that Franco's had long remained "a land of shame that people boycotted for its crimes and repression." Judt told the class he could not think of a contemporary equivalent of a country so disliked and despised. To which a young woman responded: "What about Israel?" To the surprise of Judt, who grew up supporting Israel and has since become a critic of the Jewish state, most of the class including many Jews nodded in approval.

"Those college kids were the next generation of adult American citizens, and we can now see the times a-changing in polls. A majority of Americans still endorse the Israeli action in Gaza, over those who don't and think Israel should have pursued a diplomatic path - but only by 44 to 41 percent, a much slimmer margin of support than Israel enjoyed quite recently. More to the point, Democratic voters oppose the Israeli attack by a margin of 22 percent, and a Democrat is, after all, about to be inaugurated as president... For more than 60 years Israel has shown that it can win every battle by military might. But there is also what the Declaration of Independence calls "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind," and the battle for opinion cannot be won by brute force alone," Wheatcroft says.

Steve Rosen, writing on Obama Mideast Monitor agrees with Wheatcroft’s 44 percent of Americans supporting Israel’s use of force, but quotes a McClatchy/Ipsos poll that found that only 18 percent considered Hamas' use of force appropriate; 57 percent thought that Hamas was using excessive force, while only 36 percent said Israel was.

1 comment:

  1. More and more commentators tend to think that Israel is losing her legitimacy and popularity in Occidental countries.