Back to the future in the Middle East

Back to the future in the Middle East

As if the world could forget it existed for a minute, the Middle East is back in the global limelight with a vengeance. With Israel’s targeted killing of Ahmad Jabari, military commander of Hamas, on Nov. 14, and hundreds of missiles fired at Israel from Gaza, all but a few global leaders found themselves yet again trying to broker a precarious cease-fire in the region. The immediate reason for the latest upsurge, as usual, depends on where you stand. While the Netanyahu government blamed Hamas for missiles fired from Gaza into Israel, Hamas accuses Israel of the human suffering caused by its blockade of Gaza and for its renewed targeted killing policy. Of course, these are not the underlying causes of the conflict.

As we’ve seen time and again, the Israeli government wishes to show that it would not tolerate attacks against its citizens and create national unity around it. The strategy works. The latest Haaretz poll found 84 percent of Israelis backing Operation Pillar of Defense. As the date for the parliamentary elections nears, the poll is a welcome sign for Netanyahu, who is hoping to increase votes with his tough stance against Hamas. Israel is also acutely aware of the strengthening military capabilities of Hamas. It is militarily more capable than it was during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, though politically Hamas lost its allies Syria and Lebanon due to the ongoing Arab Spring.

Preventing the possible upgrade of Palestine’s status at the U.N. General Assembly to “nonmember observer state” by the end of 2012 – as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wishes – was also a strong motive for Israel to start the operation, which highlighted yet again the disconcert between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority and chaos in the Gaza Strip. On the other side, Hamas is accused of not giving up on missile strikes against Israeli cities and using them at a time when its main sponsor needed a diversion from the world’s focus on Syria.

The timing of the crisis is critical, as it came in the wake of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama’s first overseas trip and before he formed the new administration. His journey to Asia was to signal his second-term foreign policy priority to focus on the Asia Pacific. Despite how much he tries to steer clear of the “Israeli issue,” it is there. He already stated that Israel has the right to self-defense against missiles coming out of Gaza and called on Egypt and Turkey to convince Hamas to stop the attacks before the conflict spreads. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flew to the region, along with many other foreign ministers, to meet with officials from Israel, Gaza and Egypt. Egypt is already playing a crucial role in the latest crisis due to its connections with both sides, though it immediately withdrew its ambassador to Israel for consultations. Turkey, on the other hand, has no ambassador in Israel to withdraw since the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010, and not much clout with the Israelis anymore. The latest crisis at least shows that if Turkey wishes to once again play an important role in the region, it could only do so according to the principles of realpolitik, not emotions.

Should Hamas and Israel agree on a cease-fire and go back to the status quo ante, it would still not be a real and lasting solution. The volatile situation in the region will continue until a just and equitable solution is found for the underlying problem; that is, the future of the Palestinians and both sides’ right to live in peace in their own homes. If Obama wishes to focus on the Asia Pacific in his second term, he could do so only if he deals with the Middle East first. Otherwise, it would come back time and again, demanding his and every other world leader’s attention.

*This analysis was written before the cease fire agreement was announced.