Israel no longer central actor in Middle East

May 6, 2011
Sarah Benton
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Palestinian Unity and the New Middle East

‘Egypt is charting a new course in its foreign policy’. (Aljazeera)

By Ramzy Baroud

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s response to the Hamas-Fatah deal in
Cairo was both swift and predictable. “The Palestinian Authority must choose
either peace with Israel or peace with Hamas. There is no possibility for peace
with both,” he said, in a televised speech shortly after the Palestinian political
rivals reached a reconciliation agreement under Egyptian sponsorship on April 27.

Despite numerous past attempts to undercut Mahmoud Abbas, stall peace talks, and
derail Israel’s commitment to previous agreements, Netanyahu and his rightwing
government are now arguing that Palestinians are solely responsible for the demise
of the illusory ‘peace process’. Israeli bulldozers will continue to carve up the
hapless West Bank to make room for more illegal settlements, but this time their
excuse may not be ‘natural expansion’. The justification might instead be Israel
has no partner. US and other media will merrily repeat the dreadful logic, and
Palestinians will, as usual, be chastised.

But frankly, at this juncture of Middle East history, Israel is almost negligible.
It no longer has a transformative influence in the region. When the Arab people
began revolting, a new dimension to the Arab-Israeli conflict emerged. As the chants
in Cairo’s Tahrir Square began to adopt a pan-Arab and pro-Palestinian language,
it became obvious that Egypt would soon venture outside the political confines
of Washington’s patronizing labels, which divide the Arabs into moderates (good)
and radicals (bad).

A day after the handshakes exchanged by chief Fatah representative, Azzam al-Ahmed,
and Hamas’s leaders, Damascus-based Dr. Moussa Abu Marzoug and Gaza-based Mahmoud
Al Zahar, the forces behind the agreement in Cairo became apparent. While Israeli
leaders used the only language they know for these situations – that of threats,
intimidation and ultimatums – the US response was flat, confused, and extraneous.
Aside from the outmoded nature of US officials’ remarks, the focus was largely
placed on the only leverage the US has over Abbas and its Fatah allies. Jennifer
Rubin wrote in her Washington Post blog on April 29: “The Obama administration
is reluctant to articulate clearly a position that if a Hamas-Fatah unity government
emerges as Mahmoud Abbas has been describing, the U.S. will cut off aid.”

The temporary reluctance is not pervading, however. “Congress is an entirely different
matter,” Rubin wrote, quoting an angry, unnamed official: “The only acceptable
answers (to whether the US should fund the new Palestinian government) for most
Americans would be no or hell no.”

But how effective will such financial arm-twisting be, especially with the possibility
of other donor countries following suit?

If the question had been asked prior to the Arab Spring – and the Egyptian revolution
in particular – the answer would have been marred by uncertainty. A whole class
of Palestinian politicians had arranged their stances almost exclusively around
funding issues.

What really allowed Israel and the US to control the outcome of political events,
even internal Palestinian affairs, was the lack of any real political balance
surrounding this conflict. The US and its allies defined the will of the ‘international
community’, and the region was trapped in Washington’s – and Tel Aviv’s – political
designations of friends and enemies. It was a political stalemate par excellence,
and only Israel benefited.

This analysis is not merely relevant to recent events. The greatest Israeli gain
of the Camp David agreement (1979) was not of bringing peace to the region – for
no regional peace truly followed. It was the total marginalization of Egypt as
a powerful Arab party from virtually all Arab affairs of concern to Israel. The
absence of Egypt in the process made it possible for Israel to repeatedly attack
Lebanon, and also to further its colonization and destruction of the occupied

Now Egypt is back – not merely in terms of a return to the ‘Arab fold’ – but as
the party that will increasingly define the new Arab reality. The signing of the
Hamas-Fatah deal may have come as a surprise in terms of media coverage, but it
was really a predictable consequence in a chain of events that signaled the remaking
of a region. Now the Middle East is spearheaded by a powerful Arab country, secure
enough to reach out to multiple partners – other Arab countries, as well as Iran,
Turkey and others.

Not only did both Turkey welcome the deal, it was also one of the main sponsors
of the Palestinian rapprochement. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has
been instrumental in pushing for Palestinian unity. As for the Iranian position,
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi hailed the “auspicious” agreement, which
he described as “one of the achievements of the Egyptian revolution,” according
to the Tehran Times (April 30).

The Israeli vision for the region was to keep it politically divided at any cost.
Without such a division, Israel is likely to be on the defensive, and the US will
be consumed in crisis management. A Palestinian unity in post-revolution Egypt,
with the blessing of all Arab countries, Turkey, Iran, and many others, is an
extremely worrying prospect for Israel. Of most concern is the rise of Egypt as
a political party, one that is capable of making decisions on its own. Aside from
sponsoring the unity agreement between Hamas and Fatah, without Israeli or US
permission, Egypt’s new foreign minister, Nabil al-Arabi, also described the decision
to seal off Gaza as “shameful”, and he promised to lift the siege (as reported
by Aljazeera on April 29).

“Egypt is charting a new course in its foreign policy that has already begun shaking
up the established order in the Middle East, planning to open the blockaded border
with Gaza and normalizing relations with two of Israel and the West’s Islamist
foes, Hamas and Iran,” wrote David D. Kirkpatrick in the New York Times (April
30). Such language was, at one time, unthinkable. Now, thanks to the will of the
Egyptian and Arab peoples, it is likely to define the new Arab political discourse.
Not even a fiery speech by a discredited Israeli Prime Minister could prevent
this powerful paradigm shift.

– Ramzy Baroud (

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