How Gaza Changes the Game
A ceasefire may be imminent, but the fallout is just beginning. What’s next for Iran, Egypt, and the U.S.
Morsi’s domestic rivals to the right, the Salafists, must enjoy seeing him twisting in the wind, not able to make war or broker peace. It’s unclear what kind of a compromise he can sell Hamas, especially now that Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal has named a price—end of the blockade—that Israel won’t pay.
And so Morsi’s prestige is on the line, even if he has been somewhat insulated by news of a domestic tragedy in which 49 Egyptian schoolchildren were hit by an oncoming train. If the Gaza war is still hot when Egyptians turn their attention away from this horrific story, he will have to manage large parts of a population questioning whether he, like his predecessor, is simply an American and Israeli stooge.
The Brotherhood is likely incensed that Hamas put them in this position, subject to ridicule and criticism from regional rivals. On Monday, Hassan Nasrallah described Egypt much the way he did when Mubarak was in charge. “What is asked from the Arab countries is to help and arm Gaza, rather than working as mediators between the [Palestinians] and the Israeli enemy,” said Hezbollah’s general secretary.
As many Egyptian journalists have remarked, the reality is that Morsi’s key interests are virtually identical to Mubarak’s—among others, maintaining stability in the Sinai, observing the peace treaty, and keeping Gaza quiet. Unlike Mubarak, the Brotherhood was elected, in no small part because of its historical reputation for repudiating the West. Morsi’s weakness hurts the Brotherhood not only with its Salafist rivals, but also in the larger regional competition with Iran for the hearts and minds of the umma.
The United States
Clinton’s visit to the region reminds all the regional players why the United States is, at least in the Middle East, the indispensable nation. The secretary of state’s trip could reap significant dividends for U.S. policy. Or it could misfire badly.
So far, the Obama Administration has been very generous in its support of Israel, and it likely earned Netanyahu some good will that he embarked on his campaign after the president was re-elected. But warm feelings can evaporate very quickly, as we saw during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war when Condoleezza Rice won control of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy. Rice wasn’t entirely wrong to be angry with the Olmert government, which proved incapable of meeting its stated war aims, like disarming Hezbollah and freeing the IDF soldiers that the Lebanese outfit had taken hostage.
In contrast, Netanyahu’s handling of this conflict has been the model of competence—at least so far—and may allow Clinton to build on the groundwork laid in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. It was then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s massive air lifts to Israel that proved to the Arabs they were incapable of driving the Jews into the sea, and that they had to come through Washington to deal with the Israelis. What the United States wants in exchange from the Arabs has changed over the years, and right now what Washington needs most in the eastern Mediterranean is a stable Egypt, meaning a compliant Morsi who understands the region is safer when it is he, and not Israel, who keeps Hamas in line. With some luck and some skill, Clinton may well leave the region with just that, which would be a big win for the administration and U.S. policy in general.
It is important to see this entire campaign in its second dimension—that is, in terms of how it reflects and illuminates the Iran issue. The Iranians are watching carefully, noting Israel’s ability to target Iranian missiles and Hamas militants who trained in Iran. Iron Dome’s 90 percent success rate in destroying short-range missiles destined for populated or security-sensitive areas will surely affect how the Iranians plan to react in the event of an Israeli or American attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. If Iron Dome limits both Hamas and Hezbollah in their future missile campaigns against Israel, then Iran will have to spend other, likely costlier, resources to target Israelis.
But perhaps most important, the Iranians are watching to see if there are any signs of daylight between the United States and Israel. With all the talk of the administration offering a grand bargain to the Iranians, the question that the regime most wants answered is whether or not Obama will restrain the Israelis. To date, Washington and Jerusalem’s coordination has painted a picture that is likely to keep Tehran guessing. So far, the message from Operation Pillar of Defense is that the Israelis will act on their own—and have the support of the United States, which does the diplomatic and political mop-up after the damage is done. That’s the kind of strong message that might even convince the Iranians, fearful of America’s effective ally, to enter direct talks with the administration.
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Young Israeli soldiers have pushed older commanders into adopting a more aggressive social media strategy