Two-and-a-half sentences stuck out from all the others in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s comments to the nation Saturday night when he said Operation Protective Edge would continue, albeit with the troops deployed differently.
Tucked in among his well-worn comments about the operation – that its goals were to restore quiet and hit Hamas hard, that the IDF had hit thousands of terrorists targets, that the country was demonstrating remarkable resilience – were the following lines that constituted something new and different: “We are enlisting the international community to support this goal of linking the rehabilitation and development of Gaza to its demilitarization but no less important – this may surprise many, but not us – is the unique link which has been forged with the states of the region,” he said. “This as well is a very important asset for the State of Israel. With the cessation of the fighting and the conclusion of the campaign, this will open new possibilities for us.”
This immediately set off speculation about just whom Netanyahu had in mind, and what new possibilities would open up.
Some interpreted this as a wink and a nod to the Palestinian Authority – though this interpretation ignored the fact that Netanyahu, reading from a written text, said “states,” not regional actors – and led to speculation that once the fighting ends, he would be more forthcoming toward PA President Mahmoud Abbas, realizing there is indeed a huge difference between Abbas and Hamas.
Wishful thinking. Anybody who believes that negotiations with the Palestinian Authority would be any easier or likelier to succeed following the current round of fighting than it was before, are deluding themselves.
The nine months of US-brokered talks that ended in April revealed significant gaps between Israel and the PA on several of the core issues, including Jerusalem, refugees, recognition and security.
And the gaps on security issues will likely increase, rather than shrink, as a result of the recent operation, as Israel will be more insistent on fail-safe security guarantees in the form of Israeli security presence not only along the Jordan River, but throughout the West Bank.
Netanyahu already made that clear during the first week of the campaign.
No, the surprising cooperation and doors that might open to which Netanyahu referred, seems an allusion to key Sunni countries in the region, particularly Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.
Just a day before the prime minister’s comments, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah issued a statement read out on Saudi television about the situation in Gaza. Incredibly, Abdullah decried the “collective massacre” in Gaza, but did not pin it on Israel.
He urged Muslim leaders to unite against extremism, saying the extremists have “distorted the image of Islam with its purity and humanity and smeared it with all sorts of bad qualities by their actions, injustices and crimes.
“We all see the blood of our brothers in Palestine bleeding out in collective massacres that do not spare anyone, and war crimes against humanity without humane or moral reservations,” he said, without blaming Israel.
Abdullah’s words were real-time proof of what American political scientist Walter Russell Mead wrote last week, that “the battle between Sunni Arabs and Israelis is no longer the most important issue on the table for key Arab governments as well as for Israel.
While that old conflict has not disappeared, it has been eclipsed by the new conflict between a resurgent Iran and the leading Sunni-Arab states.”
Netanyahu and other Israeli spokesmen have been talking for months about how the ground-shaking changes in the Arab world have created a convergence of interests between Israel and some other states in the region that has never existed in the past.
We are now seeing how – and where – those interests converge.
While the events in Gaza over the last month have pushed the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State, Syria, Hezbollah and Iraq off the world’s radar screen, it has not diverted the attention of the Egyptians, Saudis or Jordanians to the threats radical Islam pose to them. And in their eyes, Hamas is cut from the same cloth.
“The current Egyptian government sees Hamas as an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood, and crushing the Muslim Brotherhood as thoroughly as possible is Egypt’s top priority these days,” Mead wrote. “Egypt’s Saudi patrons feel the same way; the Muslim Brotherhood looks to the Saudis like a challenge to their claim to lead the forces of orthodox Sunnism – and Hamas in the past has been willing to ally itself with Saudi’s arch enemies in Syria and Iran.”
In Mead’s telling, “Israel is after much bigger game than Hamas in this war.”
Israel needed to win this campaign convincingly, he wrote, because it “has been given a chance to audition for the role of a tacit ally of the Sunni-Arab world against both Sunni and Shia radicals; it doesn’t want to blow this chance and its desire to build its relations with neighboring Arab states may outweigh its concerns about annoying Europe or even the US [regarding the civilian cost of the operation].”
According to Mead, “weakening Hamas isn’t just an Israeli project: Riyadh and Cairo are rooting for the Gazan terrorists to lose as well. This strange new band of brothers is Israel’s Plan B alliance in case the US folds on Iran. The Saudis and their Egyptian allies also hate and fear Hezbollah; from an Israeli point of view a successful war against Hamas could be the first step in cooperative action against Hezbollah and, beyond it, Iran. Israel wants this war to go well, because it could pave the way to more effective cooperation with the most populous and wealthiest of the Arab states.”
And those, it is fair to assume, were indeed the new regional possibilities Netanyahu was referring to Saturday night.