Now that the dust has settled in Gaza, though no one can say for how long, the new normal of the post-Arab Spring Middle East has begun to make itself apparent.
From the very beginning of this latest exchange in Gaza, one got the feeling that this wasn’t the conflict that Israel wanted. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was far enough ahead in the polls as not to need any outward displays of his hawkish credentials, and perhaps more importantly: Gaza never was the security issue topping out the Netanyahu administration’s agenda for the past four years. That would be Iran. Thus, it follows that the Israeli government probably did not want to spend military resources and diplomatic capital on Gaza when both will be desperately needed come any real conflict with Tehran.
Hamas sits on the other side of the equation. Before last week, Hamas planners might have toyed with the idea that a limited exchange with Israel would probably be to their benefit. It’s doubtful however that they could have imagined just how well things would actually turn out for them.
If the ceasefire holds and this latest conflict is inserted into history books as an addendum to 2008’s Operation Cast Lead, then the Hamas government in Gaza has benefitted in three important ways. First, this latest conflict has helped them regain the mantle of purveyor of armed struggle against Israel; a designation that was slowly becoming blurred in the day-to-day practicalities of governing Gaza. Second, Hamas will be able to leverage this new credibility in the West Bank, snatching legitimacy away from an increasingly listless and irrelevant Fatah. (Though this a moot point at present given the marked absence of any serious peace talks, the centre of gravity for the Palestinian cause is shifting from Fatah to Hamas.)
And finally, Hamas has benefitted from the open display of Egyptian solidarity, and the subsequent Egypt-brokered ceasefire. Both point to the fact that Hamas is no longer as diplomatically isolated as it was in 2008. This will undoubtedly give Hamas an additional popularity boost in both Gaza and the West Bank.
There is even a fourth benefit if the vaguely worded clause in the ceasefire calling for ‘opening the crossings and facilitating the movement of people’ translates into an easing of the Gaza blockade on either the Egyptian or Israeli side.
Any list of positives for Hamas means a corresponding list of negatives for Israel, which again seems to have been pulled into this conflict against the dictates of a sound regional strategy. This is not to say that there weren’t impressive military feats on the Israeli side. For one, there was the large amount of bombs that were dropped and the relatively low collateral damage that they caused. There was also the impressive performance turned in by the Iron Dome missile shield, which shot down 90% of the incoming rockets that it tracked (at a total cost of $25-30 million for the interceptors).
Yet beyond the military dimension, which itself is intrinsically asymmetric, there is a lingering question that will likely haunt Israeli governments to come: Why was another air campaign required just four years after a total invasion of Gaza? And if militants in Gaza will inevitably stockpile rockets and fire them into southern Israel regardless of the consequences, will these punitive military strikes be diplomatically tenable if they’re stretched out into the future, especially given the unfinished redrafting of the map of the Middle East? These questions will doubtlessly stir up a robust debate in Israeli society leading up to general elections in January of next year, and at the time of writing, Prime Minister Netanyahu still maintains his solid lead in the polls.
But perhaps the biggest lesson of all to take from this latest conflict is that Egypt has snatched back some of its old diplomatic relevance. For the first time in decades, there’s a major player in the Middle East that can influence parties on both sides of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. This may well come to be a game-changer in the conflicts to come.