January 14, 2009
Number 01/09 #05
Today’s Update focuses on the wider regional factors and implications for the current conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. First up, a unique perspective of the conflict from Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He argues that what has been happening in Gaza recently is the “Great Gaza Game”. That is, Hamas and Iran are fighting for Egypt’s soul as Iran through Hamas tries to push its Islamic revolution into Egypt. The current crisis gives Egypt an opportunity to get off the fence by showing true leadership and regain its authority as the leader of the moderate Arab states, or watch as Iran further entrenches itself as the locus of regional influence, he notes. Satloff also suggests that it would be better for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas to come into effect after President-elect Obama is inaugurated so he will feel invested in the outcome. For this important analysis by one of the doyens of Middle East analysis, CLICK HERE
Next up, the Middle East Media Research Institute has excerpted some startling newspaper writings by the editor of the Egyptian government daily Al-Gumhouriyya, Muhammad ‘Ali Ibrahim, who is also an Egyptian MP, and ‘Abdallah Kamal, the editor of the Egyptian weekly Roz Al-Yousef. Ibrahim accuses Iran and Syria of conspiring against a resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict for regional motivations, and even goes so far as to describe Hamas as a “tyrannical religious movement” in a similar vein to the Nazis, which favours Syria’s and Iran’s interests over those of the Palestinians. The excerpt from ‘Abdallah Kamal echoes this thinking. To view these two frank perspectives from influential Egyptian commentators, CLICK HERE
Finally, Lebanese journalist and commentator Michael Young writes on how the Gaza conflict is playing out in Lebanon, Syria and Iran. Young notes that Hezbollah has been reluctant to ignite a war on Israel’s northern border because of the enormous cost its 2006 conflagration with Israel caused in lives and infrastructure despite the terror group’s rhetoric that it won. Young predicts that Syria will benefit from the Gaza war despite its client Hamas being walloped “because the United States and the Europeans will embrace Syria as an ally in containing troublesome non-state actors such as Hamas and Hizbullah. That Syria helped arm these groups in the first place will be stubbornly ignored.” Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah is also limited in his capacity to act because any move against Israel would only reinforce this perception of Syria as a powerbroker. On the Iranian front, a Hezbollah decision to engage Israel militarily could see Teheran risk having its two proxy armies severely diminished, and with the price of oil in the doldrums, the Iranian government might not have sufficient funds to rebuild a devastated Hezbollah and Hamas. For this timely perspective on the wider implications and reverberations of the Gaza war that are not receiving an airing in the mainstream media, CLICK HERE
Readers may also be interested in:
- The International Committee of the Red Cross spokesman says Israel’s use of white phosphorous in the Gaza conflict is legal.
- An older, but still relevant, article on how UNRWA, the UN’s relief agency for Palestinian refugees, is more part of the problem than part of the solution.
- Israeli historian Efraim Karsh looks at the world’s obsession with Israel’s military operations in Gaza and asks why it ignores the long history of abuse of Palestinians by Arab nations.
- More on Mads Gilbert, the Marxist Norwegian doctor who entered Gaza on Dec.31, highlighting his penchant for political activism and his longstanding anti-Israel and anti-US beliefs, including justifying the 9/11 terror attacks.
- Wall Street Journal analyst and former Jerusalem Post editor Bret Stephens writes on how Hamas is a revolutionary Islamist movement, not a Palestinian national movement.
- Middle East journalistic freelancer and blogger Michael J. Totten discusses an article by New York Times reporter Steve Erlanger on the tactics Israel has used in the Gaza military operation in light of the need to balance its objectives to clip Hamas’ military wings and to minimise its own troop casualities and avoid harming civilians. Totten says the article shows how “Hamas is morally, ethically, and legally responsible for civilian deaths in Gaza as well as in Israel.”
- More than 565 rockets and 200 mortars have been fired at Israel since the beginning of Operation Cast Lead.
- Azzam Tamimi, the director of the Institute of Islamic Political Thought in London and frequent contributor to the Guardian, says “We are all Hamas now” and that Israel’s embassy in London will soon be flying the Palestinian flag. While Sunday Times columnist Dominic Lawson writes “No, we are not all Hamas now”.
- Hamas reportedly raided 100 trucks carrying humanitarian aid into Gaza and sold-off the contents rather than distributing them.
- A live video feed of the Kerem Shalom Crossing between Israel and Gaza, a major transit point for humanitarian aid into the Strip.
- Steve Rosen on the Middle East Forum website links to two articles on the Obama Administration’s new National Security Adviser, Jim Jones. Rosen writes that Michael Crowley in the The New Republic depicts National Security Adviser Jim Jones as a moderate, but Robert Dreyfuss in the Nation calls him “Obama’s Hawk.”
- Two men in Iran were stoned to death in December after being convicted of adultery.
Robert Satloff, January 12, 2009
On January 9, 2009, Robert Satloff addressed a Policy Forum luncheon at The Washington Institute to discuss the Obama Administration and its likely approach to the Middle East. Dr. Satloff is executive director of the Washington Institute.
Timing of a Gaza Conclusion
The Gaza Strip crisis will be the first issue addressed by the Obama-Clinton foreign policy team. The necessary elements for a cessation of hostilities are well known: an effective system to curtail arms smuggling into Gaza, a total halt to rocket attacks emanating from the Strip, and a mechanism to secure border crossings that expands the humanitarian supplies into Gaza while denying Hamas any claim to sovereignty or legitimacy. Most observers believe this should come into being before January 20 so the new team has a clean slate on which to define U.S. foreign policy. In fact, it would be far better for this to occur after January 20. Only then would the Obama-Clinton team own the endgame, rather than just inherit it. If they own it, chances are much better that they would take full responsibility for ensuring the execution and implementation of its terms.
The Centrality of Egypt
Lost in the fog of war is the “Gaza Great Game” — and it is all about Egypt. This conflict is, in reality, a fight for the soul of the waning days of the Hosni Mubarak presidency and the direction of Egypt in the early post-Mubarak era. Hamas and its allies are whipping up public pressure on Egypt to open the border crossings and to give Hamas an outlet to the world, much like Hizballah has via Syria. Israel is using military pressure on Hamas to pressure Egypt to finally take the issue of smuggling with appropriate seriousness. Israel’s strategy seemingly is to raise fears in Cairo of an all-out offensive against Gazan cities that could trigger a wave of Palestinian refugees surpassing the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who came streaming into northern Sinai a year ago. So far, Mubarak has hedged; he has kept the borders closed to keep the Hamas virus from infecting his own country, thumbing his nose at Arab popular criticism in the process, but still has not begun to do what is necessary about the smuggling. Which way will he turn? Or will Egypt remain firmly on the fence until it is too late?
It bears noting that this is a moment of great opportunity for Egypt. After years of being eclipsed by Saudi Arabia and even Qatar for leadership of moderate Arab states, as well as years of strained relations with Washington, Egypt could use the current crisis to change the regional calculus firmly in its favor. Cairo could reassert its role as the leading moderate force in the region, strike a severe blow against an agent of Iran, prevent the spread of radical Islamism on its border, and in the process turn a new page with Washington with the arrival of a new U.S. president. And given that Mubarak is facing the most important issue of his presidency — succession — restoring health and vibrancy to the U.S.-Egyptian relationship is critical. The Gaza crisis presents an opportunity that Egypt should not miss, and if Egypt pursues a wise course in this crisis, it is a win-win for Cairo, Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Washington.
When the Gaza Dust Settles
Once the immediate crisis comes to an end, the Obama-Clinton team will face a choice in how to fulfill the new president’s commitment to invest heavily and early in the Arab-Israeli peace process. Although there are glimmers of hope on the Israel-Syria front, given current events, , the peace process refers — for all intents and purposes — specifically to the Israeli-Palestinian track. On this track, there are two principal schools of thought, reflected in two sets of studies produced in Washington in the last few weeks: The Washington Institute studies Prevent Breakdown, Prepare for Breakthrough: How President Obama Can Promote Israeli-Palestinian Peace and Security First: U.S. Priorities in Israeli-Palestinian Peacemaking on the one hand and, on the other, an impressive report produced jointly by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and the Brookings Institution Restoring the Balance. On Israeli-Palestinian issues, the difference is clear: the Washington Institute studies call for a combined top-down/bottom up approach toward strengthening the Palestinian Authority (PA) and enhancing prospects for Israeli-PA negotiations; the relevant chapter in the CFR/Brookings study calls for findings ways the United States can engage Hamas.
Each approach has a certain logic, but it is important to recognize that these are “either/or” options. It is not possible to engage Hamas and build up the PA at the same time. Engaging Hamas would undermine whatever popular support remains for the Mahmoud Abbas-Salam Fayad government, bring an abrupt end to the Dayton (U.S. security coordinator, Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton) effort to “train and equip” PA security forces, compel Egypt and Jordan to change course in terms of their own approach toward the PA, and buoy radical actors from Gaza to Beirut to Tehran.
Given both personnel choices and strategic imperatives, it is unlikely that the Obama-Clinton team will choose to engage Hamas. Indeed, even tactically, if the new administration is committed to a wholly new approach toward Iran, it makes little sense to waste capital and credibility — both here and abroad — on an early tilting at Hamas’s windmills.
Iran: the Bigger Picture
If Gaza is a fight for the soul of Egypt, the Obama team cannot let Gaza distract from the even bigger test confronting them: the challenge of Iran. On Iran, the new administration faces a near-term policy decision of when to launch an international initiative to build leverage vis-a-vis Iran and open a direct engagement with Tehran. Some argue that Washington should wait several months, lest U.S. diplomacy itself become an issue in Iran’s June presidential election and somehow help the incumbent win a second term by letting him boast that his hardline policies compelled America to talk on his terms. Even Israeli president Shimon Peres has reportedly made this case. But in view of key players in the new administration, this argument is unlikely to carry the day. The reason is simple: as Washington dithers, centrifuges spin. If Washington waits until after Iran’s election to launch an engagement strategy with Iran, the Iranians will be close to — if not already at — the point where they have amassed enough low-enriched uranium to convert into weapons-grade material. So, timing is at the top of the agenda.
Expecting the Unexpected
Middle East officials in the Bush administration expected to coast to a quiet end, but because of Gaza, they will now be burning the midnight oil until inauguration day. The unexpected could very well occur in the early days of the Obama presidency, too. There are many possibilities: the passing of a key regional leader like Egypt’s Mubarak or Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah; a spectacular Hamas terrorist attack inside Israel or against the PA, changing the dynamics of the current conflict; a decision by Hizballah and its Iranian patron to truly open a second front; terrorism against U.S. interests or installations; an unexpected outcome to the Israeli election; or a declaration by Iran that it had passed a nuclear threshold months before U.S. intelligence thought it was possible. The list goes on. These are just a few of the “what ifs” that, in the Middle East, are more often “whens” than “whethers.”
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The editor of the Egyptian government daily Al-Gumhouriyya, Muhammad ‘Ali Ibrahim, who is also an Egyptian MP, wrote a series for the paper titled “Hamas, Damascus, Iran – The New Axis of Evil.” In the series, he criticized Hamas, Syria, and Iran for their position vis-à-vis Gaza and the opening of the Rafah crossing. Ibrahim stated that Iran and Syria had conspired to keep the Palestinian problem unresolved and to take advantage of it to promote their interests in the region, and argued that Hamas was a tyrannical religious movement which was, like the Nazis in mid-20th-century Europe, pushing its people towards catastrophe by preferring Syria’s and Iran’s interests to those of the Palestinians.
Also in his articles, Ibrahim came out against Qatar, accusing it of sympathizing with the Iran-Syria axis and of airing anti-Egyptian programs on the Qatari TV channel Al-Jazeera. A few days later, the editor of the Egyptian weekly Roz Al-Yousef, ‘Abdallah Kamal, wrote in a similar vein. Both editors called Qatar hypocritical for criticizing Egyptian policy while at the same time attempting to forge ties with Israel and the U.S.
Following are excerpts from the series by Muhammad ‘Ali Ibrahim, and from the article by ‘Abdallah Kamal:
Al-Gumhouriyya Editor: Hamas, Syria, and Iran Are Trying to Distort Egypt’s Image
In the first article of his series, published December 22, 2008, Ibrahim wrote: “Since Damascus, Teheran, and Hamas are criticizing Egypt and accusing it of treason,  feel compelled to offer some clarification, in order to [help] the public understand the facts… which the Persians and the Syrians have been trying to distort…
“[When it was mediating the negotiations for a calm (tahdia)], Egypt believed that the tahdia was the top interest of the Gaza [residents]… However, [Hamas leaders, including] Khaled Mash’al, Isma’il Haniya, and other Hamas members, did not understand the [nature of the] tahdia that Egypt was working for… These heroes believed that the innocuous missiles that they were firing at Sderot would compel Israel [to agree to a tahdia]…
“When the [Palestinian national] dialogue failed, Egypt halted its mediation [between the Palestinian factions, thereby] destroying the hope of intra-Palestinian conciliation and exposing the political support that Hamas was getting [from Iran and Syria. However,] despite all Iran’s and Syria’s support [for Hamas], everyone must know that in Hamas’s [conflict] with Israel, it was Egypt that was providing it with the strongest political [leverage]. Therefore, when Cairo halted [its mediation,] the main political buttress for the tahdia was shaken – and as a result, [the tahdia] was never attained…
“One reason for the failure to achieve a hudna [ceasefire] was Hamas’s refusal to make peace with Fatah and its rejection of the two-state solution [to the Palestinian problem] for which the entire world had been hoping…” 
Syria and Iran Have Conspired to Exploit the Palestinian Cause for Their Own Interests
Ibrahim’s second article of the series, published December 23, 2008, stated: “When, in late January and early February 2008, Hamas began urging the Gaza residents to breach [the Egyptian border], it became clear that [Hamas] was hoping to establish an Islamic Emirate in Sinai… Hamas is well aware that Egypt would never agree to take it upon itself to govern Gaza – which is what Israel is trying to do; however, if Egypt is subjected to Arab and Islamic pressure to accommodate Hamas in the Sinai for humanitarian reasons – [that is,] in order to save [it] from starvation, siege, and repeated attacks – the international agreements [in control of the border crossing will be invalidated]…
“[The latter scenario was devised] jointly by Damascus and Teheran, for a number of reasons. Firstly, [they wanted] Egypt to be preoccupied with its national security. In this case, the Palestinian problem would not be resolved as desired by the largest Arab country [Egypt] and the international community – that is, by establishing two states, each with its own capital.
“Secondly, [Damascus and Teheran wanted] the Palestinian problem to be gradually removed from the hands of the Egyptian negotiator – who had become familiar with its minute details and whose reputation inspired Arab, regional, and international [circles] with respectful admiration – so that it would become a bargaining chip for Damascus and Teheran. At the same time, [Damascus] was trying to make [the Palestinian problem] part of a Golan Heights deal, meaning that the Palestinian people would be dependent not only on Lebanon’s wishes but on Syria’s as well. [The outcome] would be that Syria would bring the Palestinian problem back to its starting point…”
Ibrahim further stated: “It is in Iran’s interest to keep the Palestinian problem unresolved until the Iranian nuclear crisis is over, because Iran believes… that it can trade Hamas for political gain, while at the same time significantly improving its own image … We have before us a well-planned conspiracy, as well as an agenda, devised by Damascus and Teheran to pin the Palestinian problem to Iran’s and Syria’s interests, and for this purpose they have been using Hizbullah and Hamas to great effect…” 
“Religious Movements [Such As Hamas and Hizbullah] Contain Elements Similar to Nazism – As Do Many Tyrannical Parties That Brought Disaster Upon Their Respective Nations
In his third article, published December 24, 2008, Ibrahim wrote: “Hamas believes, as do the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Hizbullah, and other religious organizations, that everything it does is always right… Hamas, like any other ideological movement, believes that because it was elected by the people, the people no longer have a say, and that because it won the election, it can treat the people [as it sees fit]. Religious movements contain elements similar to Nazism, as do many tyrannical parties that brought disaster upon their respective nations…
“Hamas’s [statements] and actions are [characteristics of a group that is] trying to bring destruction upon its people… Egypt is concerned about the Palestinians, while Hamas is not – not one bit. Hamas is holding the entire Palestinian people hostage, saying: ‘We will live together, or die together.’ Hamas is imposing suicide [ideology] on the Palestinians, because it sees itself as their legitimate ruler.
“For Hamas, it doesn’t matter that balance of forces is completely against them – they remain arrogant. The Palestinians did indeed elect [Hamas]; however, [Hamas] did not make Palestinian wellbeing [its top priority], but rather chose to join the axis that is opposed to the moderate Arab [countries] – the Syria-Iran axis, which is against Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
“Hamas’s position and Egypt’s position are diametrically opposed. Cairo believes that it is imperative to rescue the Palestinians from the catastrophe, while Hamas holds that there would be nothing wrong if [all] the Palestinians perished, because then they will be martyrs and enter Paradise. [Hamas also believes] that it is more important to strengthen the Syria-Iran axis of evil, which sponsors the religious movements in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine…
“Hamas is pushing Gaza towards a massacre, while all the while shouting that the Arabs or the Egyptians have failed to come to their aid. The Palestinians must realize the truth – that [Hamas’s] actions are pushing [Gaza] towards a massacre…
“This shows that Hamas is part of Tel Aviv’s plan to eliminate the [Palestinian] problem. Hamas may not be aware of this; or possibly it is, but it considers Syria’s and Iran’s interests a hundred times more important than the interests of those who voted it [into power].” 
The Iranian-Syrian Axis Will Not Drag Egypt Into War with Israel
In a January 1, 2009 article in Al-Gumhouriyya, Ibrahim wrote: “[Opening] the [Rafah] crossing is [only] one of the many objectives of this Iranian-Syrian conspiracy against Egypt. The Iranian-Syrian axis aims to rapidly drag Egypt into a confrontation with Israel. However, they [i.e. Iran and Syria] forget that Egypt long ago decided to embrace peace. Egypt has fought enough, and it will never [sacrifice] its life to defend others…
“If Hizbullah leader [Hassan Nasrallah] thinks that Egypt should join the front [against Israel], then we must ask [him]: Where are the funds that you are accumulating? Where are the Shihab 1, Shihab 2 and Shihab 5 missiles, and all the other missiles that Tehran test-fired in order to frighten the enemy of Allah and your enemy? Do you wage war only in front of the television cameras? Are Tehran’s missiles [only] for show? [While] the Israeli war machine attacks Gaza, you attack Egypt. Your heroes [sit] trembling in your hideouts -[yet] you ask, ‘Where is Egypt?’…
“[Hamas leader Khaled] Mash’al, in his folly, considers himself a hero, issuing orders from his hideout in Damascus or Tehran to his counterparts in Gaza to kill themselves.
“No resistance [movement] has its decisions made by others. Khaled Mash’al is not a free [agent], [for] his decisions are controlled by Tehran. He is not murdering the Palestinians to liberate Palestine – which he is completely incapable of doing [i.e. liberating Palestine] – but to prevent [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] ‘Abbas from negotiating with Israel. Can there be greater folly than this?…
“Egypt will never [let itself] be dragged into confrontation with Israel while Iran sits quietly [far away], issuing orders that are carried out by its lackeys. Our armed forces will never fight to defend Syria, whose army, as far as I know, has not fired a single bullet since 1973…
“Hamas has no future in Palestine. What it has done to the Palestinians, not even Israel has done. [The Hamas government] is the first [Muslim] government in the world to prevent its citizens from making the Hajj, and it the third [Arab] regime to massacre its own people, after Saddam Hussein’s and Hafez Al-Assad’s. Must the Egyptian army defend it? Must we defend lunatics who have butchered their own people, held the wounded hostage, prevented [their citizens] from making the Hajj, and, worse yet, murdered one of our sons [i.e. the Egyptian officer killed in a clash with Hamas at the Rafah crossing]?…”
Ibrahim also criticized Qatar, calling it hypocritical for attacking Arab countries while itself striving to establish relations with Israel and the U.S.: “Washington once had one protectorate in the Middle East – Israel – but now it has two: Doha and Tel-Aviv… Qatar is the Arab country with the most intensive trade relations with Israel… Qatar was the first country to sell Israel more [natural] gas than Egypt, and at lower prices – and nobody opposed this. Qatar’s prime minister and foreign minister, Hamad bin Jasim bin Jaber Aal Thani, is friendly with Israel’s foreign minister, Tsipi Livni. The letters and gifts he sent her on her birthday indicate a belated adolescent [crush on her]. He [even] preferred to buy a summer house in Nahariya to vacation with his Israeli friends, whom he likes more than the British…
“The U.S. military operations base [in the Middle East] is in Doha – and it is the largest U.S. military base outside the U.S. It was from there that [the U.S.] launched its artillery attack on Iraq prior to its 2003 invasion, and there that it conducted maneuvers in preparation for this [operation]… Qatar built this base for the Americans at its own expense… True, Qatar is occupied by the U.S. – but this is by [Qatar’s] its own consent and by the demand of [Qatar’s] masses. [This occupation] pleases [Qatar], and is based on its mutual interests [with the U.S.]… [Now] this occupied country is acting to convene an Arab summit, and is calling upon the large Arab countries to attend it. Sometimes it even goes so far as to think it can issue orders…” 
Roz Al-Yousef Editor: Iran, Syria, and Qatar Strive for Regional Hegemony – At Egypt’s Expense
In a January 3, 2009 article, the editor of the Egyptian daily Roz Al-Yousef, ‘Abdallah Kamal, likewise attacked the Syrian-Iranian-Qatari axis: “Several years ago, and its longstanding alliance with Iran notwithstanding, Syria became the third member of the troika, that comprises the leading Arab [countries] and was formed in the wake of the Second Gulf War…
“The first member of this troika was Egypt; the second was Saudi Arabia. However, [since then], Syria has slowly… fallen into the embrace of Iran – whose [policies are blatantly] at odds with Arab interests because of its Persian ethnicity, its Shi’ite faith, and its political agenda – which is completely opposed to that of the Arabs.
“The main impediment to Iran’s influence in the region is Egypt’s political prominence. [This is why Iran] has been trying to remove Egypt from the arena for the past quarter century or more… [it is attempting] to push it into a military confrontation with Israel that will undermine its economic and political stability for the next 25 years at least, and will trap it into a no-exit security situation (by pushing the Palestinians into Sinai and making them a demographic time bomb for Egypt)…
“Iran is even trying to topple the Egyptian regime, or at least to [challenge its] moral [legitimacy], so as to exert every [possible] pressure on it, making it lose its political influence in the region… The optimal arena for accomplishing this goal has been Gaza…
“Iran has helped Hamas manufacture rockets, [for example] by smuggling warheads and [missile] guidance systems into Gaza – made in China, Korea, or wherever. Hamas manufactures the rockets with the gunpowder, pipes, and tail sections it receives.
“[Iran] also supplies $40 million a month in funds ($25 million for Hamas and $15 million for [Palestinian Islamic] Jihad)…” 
 Al-Gumhouriyya (Egypt), December 22, 2008.
 Al-Gumhouriyya (Egypt), December 23, 2008.
 Al-Gumhouriyya (Egypt), December 24, 2008.
 Al-Gumhouriyya (Egypt), January 1, 2009.
 Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), January 3, 2009.
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Michael Young, Daily Star, January 9
The rocket attacks yesterday across Lebanon’s southern border with Israel were a worrying sign that the conflict in Gaza may escalate into a wider conflagration. Hizbullah, or whichever group it allowed to fire the weapons from its territory, sought in some degree to push a fearful international community into imposing a cease-fire in Gaza, where the Israeli stranglehold may lead to the imposition of an Egyptian-French plan whose outcome is the military neutralization of Hamas.
Hizbullah must have also found intolerable its immobility in the past two weeks, reduced as it was to providing Hamas with verbal encouragement. For a party that claims to be the vanguard of the armed struggle against Israel, cheerleading from the sidelines was surely mortifying. However, at this early stage it seems that neither Hizbullah nor Israel wants to go to all-out war. Responsibility for the attack on the Lebanese side was kept ambiguous, while Israel’s response was limited in scope, with some officials there preferring to put the blame on unidentified Palestinians.
The reality is that Hizbullah’s secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, is facing constraints as he ponders what to do next. For starters, he must evaluate the consequences of Hizbullah’s two pyrrhic victories, in 2006 and 2008, which he and his followers still insist are incontestable.
The first is Hizbullah’s purported victory in summer 2006. Presumably, victories over Israel are so desirable that the Lebanese in general, and the Shiites in particular, would care to turn them into an annual event. If so, then why are the Shiites so reluctant to repeat what happened that year? Perhaps they sense that the brutal displacement of 1 million people, and the killing of 1,200 others, only qualified as a victory in the narrowest and most counterintuitive of ways. Nasrallah, for all his bravado two years ago, must now factor in the Shiite refusal to be similarly punished once more, and the refusal of a Lebanese majority to suffer his whims.
The second victory Nasrallah must consider is that of early May 2008, when his men overran western Beirut and humiliated the Sunni community. In the short term, that episode gave the opposition veto power in the government and an election law that will preserve Hizbullah’s share in Parliament. But in the context of the party’s long-term struggle against Israel, it may have been catastrophic. A reason why Nasrallah has hesitated to intervene more publicly over Gaza is that last May he squandered any national consensus behind the idea of resistance that Hizbullah once enjoyed, and today the party cannot even be certain of protecting its rear if Israel again devastates Lebanon.
An interesting subplot is playing itself out in the local media. Most Lebanese want to be seen as on the Palestinians’ side, but there is marked competition between the Hariri camp, through its Future satellite television channel and Al-Mustaqbal newspaper, and Hizbullah’s media outlets, over who can best express outrage when it comes to the Palestinians’ plight. In Lebanon’s polarized sectarian atmosphere, the Future movement and other Sunni political groups, particularly the Jamaa Islamiyya, have done everything but say what is really on their minds: that Palestine is, above all, a Sunni concern, regardless of Hizbullah’s efforts to place itself at the center of the battle against Israel; therefore, Nasrallah should not repeat what he said in 2006, when he accused his local rivals of colluding with Israel against Hizbullah.
If Nasrallah feels pressed domestically, he can’t be much very more reassured by what is happening regionally. What, for example, are Syria’s calculations? It’s quite possible that the rocket attack on Thursday was carried out, with Hizbullah’s acquiescence, by pro-Syrian Palestinians. Like all good merchants in carrion, the Assad regime will probably emerge from the Gaza confrontation stronger. If Hamas is neutralized, the Syrians will doubtless see one of their cards devalued, but they will also be able to compensate for that because the United States and the Europeans will embrace Syria as an ally in containing troublesome non-state actors such as Hamas and Hizbullah. That Syria helped arm these groups in the first place will be stubbornly ignored. President Bashar Assad will be given a chance to bargain over the dead of Gaza in the same way that his father bargained over the dead of Qana in April 1996.
Nasrallah knows that any Hizbullah move on Israel’s northern border would only give Assad a stronger hand to offer his services abroad, at the expense of the party. In that complicated minuet, Iran, too, must be careful of the consequences if a broader conflict ignites in southern Lebanon. Syria would use this to better sell its Lebanese return to the Americans; Hizbullah could find itself isolated domestically in the run-up to parliamentary elections in June; and Iran risks not only seeing its Hamas ally in Gaza diminished, but Hizbullah as well. And this time Tehran’s ability to throw money around to placate Lebanon’s Shiites might not be what it was two years ago. The results in Lebanon would feed into Iran’s presidential election, so that what happens here could determine the political fate of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
These concerns notwithstanding, Nasrallah also faces a more profound problem if he comes across as a helpless prisoner of Lebanese realities. By showing he can do nothing on the Israeli border, for fear of heightening tensions at home, he undermines Hizbullah’s deterrence capability in the event Israel strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities. From the start of the war in Gaza, Iran’s containment has hovered over Arab decision-making. That explains why Hizbullah could not remain idle indefinitely. Nasrallah had to establish that, even in the most unpropitious of times, he could still use his weapons, or allow others to do so, against Israel.
As the abduction of Israeli soldiers in July 2006 showed, however, attacks too carefully calibrated can easily get out of hand. Israel and Hizbullah may not want to return to those days, but they will fight a new war with relish if one becomes unavoidable. More bothersome, Lebanon is back to being a hostage to the choices of one man, who in order to defend his party, and particularly its standing with its regional sponsors, needs to engage in brinkmanship at the expense of his own compatriots.
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