Israel and Palestine in a new Middle East?
Assessing the impact of Egypt’s uprising on local and regional politics.
The following editorial was written before the violent developments on Wednesday
The long-term repercussions of the fall of the Egyptian regime, if it occurs, are potentially huge throughout the Middle East. But they are very hard to gauge. The day after Mubarak goes we can expect profound changes in the politics not only between Israel and Egypt but also between Israel, the wider Arab world and the US.
Governments in the region are already in a flurry of confusion and realignment as they struggle to survive and keep up with the newly-mobilised and potentially enfranchised populace.
Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has signaled a wish to be a player in the new order, speaking to Mubarak in public yesterday and stressing the wishes of the people. Also on Tuesday, King Abdallah of Jordan hastily sacked his government and replaced the prime minister. There are reports of planned reforms – and demonstrations – in Syria and elsewhere. For Israel, this means shaky borders all round.
If Mubarak’s fall triggers similar popular uprisings around the Middle East, we may also expect a significant realignment of interests and relations between Israel and the US.
Israeli Haaretz analyst Aluf Benn thinks Israel’s weight and importance to the US could grow. With the possibility of its Middle East allies crumbling, he says, the US has no one but Israel to count on as a truly staunch friend with common interests.
During this transitional period before new orders crystallize in the region, the US may increasingly rely on Israeli governments – whatever their policies – to safeguard its strategic interests in the region.
On the other hand, if popular uprisings succeed in shrugging off the autocratic leaders who have been allies of the US for so long, the US may conclude that it must learn the new language of the Middle East in order to protect those vital interests in the longer term.
So we may see a distinction increasingly made between US and Israeli interests – until now almost synonymous in the region.
Much depends on whether the US plays a waiting game or whether it tries to manipulate events as they occur, cooperating with Israel in a ruthless, forceful bid to protect their mutual interests.
If the latter, Palestinians will have much to fear. If the former, it may well be that a new Middle East alliance can eventually negotiate regional change with the US on something approaching an equal footing. In that case Israel will come under serious pressure to integrate peacefully in the region and finally end its 43-year occupation.
Whatever the long-term outcome, the uprising in Egypt is already impacting on Israeli-Palestinian dynamics. One of the first responses of the Egyptian government was to move military forces to the border between the occupied Gaza Strip and Egypt at Rafah Crossing. The crossing was summarily sealed and the tunnels economy, which has supplied Gaza’s market for almost four years with Egypt’s tacit consent, may come to an abrupt end. Latest reports from Gaza suggest that the tunnels remain open, but are subject to looting on the Egyptian side. Rumours abound that Israel may re-occupy the Philadelphi route along the Gaza-Egypt border, in order to regain control.
Since Hamas took over Gaza in mid-2007, Israeli governments have played a double game, enabling a punitively narrow flow of basic necessities and people through its crossings with Gaza, while at the same time enabling a parallel black-market economy to develop at the Egypt-Gaza crossing via tunnels and stressing Egyptian responsibility for its border with Gaza at Rafah crossing.
Massive aid from the UN, US and EU has enabled Israel to declare that there is ‘no hunger’ in Gaza. At the same time, the Egyptian control of Rafah crossing has enabled Israel to claim that it bears no responsibility toward Gaza’s residents as an occupied population. Egypt for its part controlled the Rafah floodgates, allowing sporadic humanitarian access and turning a blind eye to the tunnels, but never enabling free and predictable movement.
Hamas has tolerated this status quo ever since the Israeli offensive on Gaza in the winter of 2008-9. From its point of view, the people are well-fed because of the aid; business can continue after a fashion due to the tunnels economy; but at the same time, so long as the black market determines the influx of supplies as well as their prices, Gaza’s residents are completely dependent on the regime and those close to it. For these pragmatic reasons, Hamas has enforced a wary ceasefire in recent months.
Rafah Crossing is liable to remain closed indefinitely, or at least until the dust of the turmoil settles to reveal a new power structure in Egypt. If the black market is frozen too, there will be no possibility of running even a badly unbalanced economy. The ball will be firmly back in Israel’s court again. Signals of possible changes to the status quo were sent on Monday, when two Grad rockets were fired at the nearby towns of Netivot and Ofakim in Israel – the first time this has happened in a year.
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