Marc Lynch

Israel, Gaza, and Arab regional divisions

Israel, Gaza, and Arab regional divisions

Israel’s assault on Gaza, now in its second day with ground forces reportedly massing on the border, continues to dominate Arab politics and media. It’s not hard to find the usual zillions of commentators consumed with the details of the Israeli-Palestinian issues (of those, I thought Dan Levy had a smart take on that today), so as usual I will focus on the regional political dimensions that interest me the most.

Almost every Arab media outlet, even those bitterly hostile to Hamas, is running bloody images from Gaza. But as with the 2006 Hezbollah war, Arab responses are enmeshed within deeply entrenched inter-Arab conflicts, dividing sharply between pro-U.S. regimes and the vast majority of expressed public opinion. One key divide revolves around the portrayal of the Arab regimes, with one side blasting Arab governments for what they are calling complicity with the Israeli attack and the other trying to create the impression that Arab leaders are working to formulate a collective response. As protests escalate, this dividing line will likely intensify.

Hayat gaza massacre

Not quite 2006: even Saudi-owned al-Hayat leads with caption “Gaza Massacre”

This doesn’t mean that the Arab response has been unified. In general, the responses have mirrored the faultlines which have dominated Arab politics for the least few years — seen most vividly in the sharp Arab media divide during the early days of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. As in the summer of 2006, many U.S.-aligned regimes and their media are attacking Hamas and tacitly approving of the Israeli action (and, particularly in the case of Egypt, have been themselves actively working against Hamas for years). Al-Sharq al-Awsat editor Tareq al-Homayed, a reliable conduit for the views of the Saudi leadership, explicitly equates Hamas 2008 with Hezbollah 2006. Just as in the earlier conflict, where the war was initially blamed on Hezbollah’s recklessness, Homayed suggests that Hamas should pay the price for its manifold sins. This equation between Hezbollah and the very Sunni Hamas, by the way, should reinforce my long-standing point that the “Sunni Axis” attacks on Hezbollah were always more about the regime/popular divide than about sectarianism, no matter how much they worked to inflame sectarianism in order to undermine support for Hezbollah and Iran.

One significant difference in the regional camps surrounding Hezbollah 2006 and Hamas 2008 is Jordan, which was firmly in the Saudi-Egyptian camp against Hezbollah in 2006 but is walking a more careful line today because of the unique issues posed by the Hamas-Jordan relationship. More on that later. The Iraqi government, for its part, has condemned Israel’s attack, and Foreign Minister Zebari told al-Jazeera that Iraq would support any Arab initiative to help Gaza.

Meanwhile, most popular movements are lambasting the Israelis, Arab leaders, and the U.S., and — even more than in the Lebanon war — public opinion seems to be firmly on the side of Gaza rather than Riyadh and Cairo. Al-Jazeera is in full crisis mode, and angry protests are roiling the streets from Amman to Cairo. The protests are directed firmly at Arab governments as well as Israel and the U.S., with the Egyptian opposition daily al-Dustour trumpeting the Egyptian ‘green light’ for the attack and calling for a popular response commensurate with the magnitude of events and popular fury. The Muslim Brotherhood is taking the lead in Cairo, with Supreme Guide Mohammed Mehdi Akef personally leading a large demonstration yesterday and another announced for tomorrow. Angry arguments between Muslim Brotherhood and NDP Parliamentarians have roiled the Parliament. Jordanian Parliamentarians are calling to sever relations with Israel, and even mainstream commentators are demanding the expulsion of the Israeli Ambassador and labeling the attack “nothing but a massacre” (in the words of the liberal Jamil al-Nimri). Iran is seeking to capitalize on the outrage, as well, while Hezbollah is playing up the comparisons to 2006 with Hassan Nasrallah calling for “millions” of Egyptians to take to the streets.

There are already some cracks in the anti-Hamas front — three years of the Hamas- Fatah conflict dividing Arab attitudes towards and Arab media coverage of Palestinian politics do not seem to have dulled the intensity of the response to the images of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. Here, it’s instructive to compare Homayed’s leader for al-Sharq al-Awsat (blaming Hamas and equating it with Hezbollah) with the leader by the editor of the Saudi-owned al-Hayat Ghassan Cherbel focused on stopping “the massacre” — bemoaning the “monstrous attacks” and declaiming that there is no time to resolve deep inter-Arab conflicts before ending the killing in Gaza.

However this round of violence ends — and it’s hard to see any scenario in which it produces remotely positive results for anyone involved — the outcome at the regional level will likely be to further exacerbate these conflicts and to undermine the chances for the incoming Obama administration to make early progress. While Arab regimes will almost certainly survive the latest round of popular outrage, the regional atmosphere may prove less resilient. Syria has reportedly broken off its indirect peace talks with Israel, for instance. A bloody Hamas retaliation against Israelis seems highly likely, and if Abbas is seen as supporting the Israeli offensive against his political rivals then Hamas may well emerge from this even stronger within Palestinian politics. The offensive is highly unlikely to get rid of Hamas, but it will likely leave an even more poisoned, polarized and toxic regional environment for a new President who had pledged to re-engage with the peace process. Obama has scrupuously (and wisely) adhered to the “one President at a time” formula in foreign policy up to this point… but you have to wonder how long he can sit by and watch the prospects for meaningful change in the region battered while the Bush administration sits by and cheers.

Originally posted on Abu Aardvark.