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The Arab summit in Doha last week was intended to unite the Arab states in condemnation of Israel and begin diplomatic moves against it. But with Egypt and Saudi Arabia absent from the gathering and actively lobbying other Arab heads of state not to attend, the summit turned into a rally for the pro-Iranian bloc, in which Qatar looked like merely a constituent member.
The summit, and the response of major Arab states to it, offer clear evidence as to the extent of the current polarization in the Arab world. They also indicate the effect that Operation Cast Lead has had on the direction of regional events.
The only major Arab heads of state to attend the Doha summit were those of Syria, Sudan, Algeria and Lebanon. An additional president - Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran - was also there, as were the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Other than Qatar's decision to expel Israel's trade mission from Doha, the gathering had no meaningful results, because all present were already hostile to Israel. The summit failed to occupy the "center ground" in the Arab world, and became simply a rally for the pro-Iranian side, because there is increasingly no center ground to occupy.
The ease with which Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, felt able to contemptuously dismiss the incendiary language of Doha is testimony to the perceived success of Operation Cast Lead. We are told that in the wars of the 21st century, which do not end with the placing of the victor's standard in the capital of the vanquished, perception is everything. As the smoke clears from the latest round of fighting in Gaza, the perception in the Arab world, on both sides of the divide, is that Israel was victorious and that Hamas and its allies suffered a significant setback.
It is precisely the extent of destruction wrought by Israel in Gaza, along with the very minor losses suffered by the Israeli side, which make the Hamas claims of having achieved anything at all - let alone victory - ring hollow.
Since the Second Lebanon War of 2006, it was an article of faith and a favored item of propaganda on the pro-Iranian side that Israel would be unable to undertake determined action against the semi-regular forces building up to its south and north, because of the "weakness" of the Israeli home front and the unwillingness to accept military casualties.
But this time around, the muqawama (resistance) model did not seem to work. The rockets did not succeed in creating a sense of siege in Israel's South, but rather declined in number as the operation proceeded. Ground operations were undertaken in the heart of the Strip - successfully, and with few losses. And the "resistance" failed to achieve symbolic acts - such as the kidnapping of a soldier or the destruction of a tank - which could at least be held up as evidence of tactical prowess. At the close of the fighting, Hamas's declared goal of opening the crossings between Israel and Gaza had not been achieved, and currently shows no sign of being achieved.
The Egyptian Al-Ahram newspaper this week even quoted Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal as lamenting that Hamas had relied on that most virtual of allies, the Arab street, to save it by exerting pressure on the Egyptian regime.
The muqawama model acquired its charisma because of its promise to avenge humiliation and reverse the tide of Arab defeats. Once it shows evidence of not being able to do this, it becomes simply another option available to the Arabs, and not necessarily an attractive one at that. The Gaza operation has by no means brought the region to this point. But it may be remembered as a first small move in this direction.
In this regard, the response of anti-Iranian and anti-Syrian sources to the shrill rhetoric of Doha was instructive. The pro-Saudi daily Asharq Alawsat lectured Hamas, saying that "whoever wants war must be able to bear its consequences - and not incite the war and then call for help from the public and from governments." Former Lebanese President Amin Gemayel struck a similar note in the following terms: "We saw the massacres engendered by the strategy of 'resistance' in Gaza."
Neither of these statements is pro-Israeli. Nor do they need to be. This is the way it works: Israel acts as the blunt instrument - physically resisting anti-Western forces and thus denting their charisma. This then creates a space whereby pro-Western Arab states can make the case that opposition to the West and to Israel is a road to nowhere. It may seem unfair. But this is precisely the way that radical Arab nationalism was broken in the 1960s, which made possible the eventual achievement of peace between Egypt and Israel. It is in this way that Israel plays a crucial role as an ally and asset for the West.
The radical Islamist ideology promoted by Iran, and the regional ambitions that lie behind it, are likely ultimately to be broken in a similar way. The region is still far from that point, and there will be further battles and advances and retreats. Recent events in Gaza - to paraphrase a certain British Prime Minister - are not the end, nor are they the beginning of the end. They may, however, represent the end of the beginning.
Jonathan Spyer is a senior researcher at the Global Research in International Affairs Center, IDC, Herzliya.
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