Sunday, 4 January 2009
Arab leaders face Gaza test
By Anita Rice
The Gaza crisis has exposed the growing disconnect between Arabs and their leaders.
An enraged Arab street is seeking an immediate end to the death and destruction, but Arab governments have been slow to react in the face of the Israeli offensive.
While public anger at Israel, and its staunchest ally the United States, reaches boiling point, protesters at demonstrations being held across the world are attacking Arab governments for apparently failing to act.
"The problem is Hamas' Islamist ideology. Their success has been deeply troubling for some Arab states," says Robert Lowe, a research fellow at the UK-based think-tank Chatham House.
"It [the 2006 election that brought Hamas to power] was a democratic election and one of the fairest and freest elections ever to take place in the Arab world, that's troubling for Arab states in itself."
Lowe goes further, saying many suspect some Arab states are "quietly content that Hamas has taken a beating, but there's a massive problem in how to square that with public opinion".
Nadim Shehadi, another research fellow at Chatham House, says the crisis puts Arab leaders in "a tight spot".
"They [many Arab states] are opposed to Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, they are opposed to the actions of Hamas and Hezbollah, this [the Israeli attacks] forces them to join them or do nothing, so it is embarrassing," he says.
While Hamas presents Arab states with what Lowe describes as an “interesting paradox", others point to divisions within the Arab world as hindering Arab ability to act.
Amr Hamzawy, a Lebanon-based political scientist and senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the Arab world is broadly split into two camps: the "so-called moderates", including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and some Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) countries, and the "resistance camp, composed of the Syrian and Iranian regimes and two non-state actors – Hamas and Hezbollah".
Others describe the split in more blunt terms, with the moderate camp aligned to the United States and the "resistance camp" as those isolated by both Israel and America.
Hamzawy says neither the moderate nor the "resistance camps" have been able to do much about Gaza, the former because of differences with Hamas, the latter – excluding Hamas – because of geographical distance.
And it is these divisions, he believes, that have allowed "the Israelis to launch its attacks in such a harsh way".
"The Israelis have taken advantage of the divisions between Palestinians themselves, inner-Arab divisions and the absence of American leadership," he says.
George Bush, the US president, leaves office later this month and his successor, Barak Obama, has been criticised for declining to comment on the issue.
Whatever factors may complicate the Arab leaderships' response to Israel’s attack on Gaza, in reality most believe that beyond giving humanitarian aid and pushing for a ceasefire, their hands are effectively tied.
There are three key diplomatic initiatives under way in region. First, Mahmoud
Abbas, the Palestinian president, is heading a delegation to lobby the United Nations Security Council to agree a resolution on Gaza.
Second, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, has embarked on a diplomatic tour of the region, in the hope of setting terms for a response that are acceptable to key Arab players.
And finally, a number of GCC countries – particularly Qatar – are attempting to broker reconciliation talks between warring Palestinian factions.
However, pursuing these diplomatic channels is unlikely to cut any ice with an enraged Arab street or key international players.
Lowe cuts to the chase: "Arab states repeatedly criticise Israel's actions, but there is only so much they can do, as Israel is not minded to listen to them, and the US is not minded to listen to them either".
In addition, Israel's goals in this war appear vague and ill-defined. If the aim is to defeat Hamas, could that ever be achieved?
Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based Al Quds newspaper, believes not.
"The point is that Hamas is an Islamic organisation and is part of a movement in the whole Muslim world, it is not like Fatah or Yasser Arafat, it is part of the Muslim Brotherhood and these roots are very deep.
"It is impossible for Israel to root out Hamas, and for Arab moderates to root out Hamas. People are obliged to support Hamas, because they are part of them," he says.
Atwan warns that not only will Israel fail to neutralise Hamas but the war could prove to be "extremely counterproductive, it could change realities in the Muslim world against Israel and the West".
For one thing, Atwan believes the current crisis could precipitate the downfall of some Arab leaderships, as existing frustration with current government could spill over into calls for regime change.
"Egypt has been boiling with anger for a long time … the people are humiliated more and more by the government’s policy to Israel. When Tzipi Livni [Israeli foreign minister] chooses Cairo as a platform [to announce it was prepared to take military action against Hamas], it was a huge humiliation to Egyptian pride.
"Egypt is on the edge of transforming, and the regime there could be toppled as a result of this," he says.
Aside from possibly changing the power balance in the Middle East, many analysts believe the current crisis will fuel more violence, including suicide attacks, both against Israel and across the world.
Shehadi stresses it is too early to predict how the Israeli bombardment of Gaza will play out, but he believes that people will be forced to choose between two options.
"People will evaluate what happened … and they will either think that radical politics are only bringing destruction and killing and move to a more moderate view, or Hamas and Hezbollah will have strengthened support and there will be more radicalism.
"It is more likely to go towards more radicalism," he says.
Atwan goes further, saying images of the attacks on Gaza could prompt attacks in Europe similar to the London and Madrid bombings which he believes were influenced by what happened during the war in Iraq.
"Europe must put an end to the Israeli incursion – enough is enough," he says, turning Livni's, words back on her.
"This could create a lot of problems for the whole of the world. We are paying a huge price for Tzipi Livni or Ehud Barak to win extra seats in the Israeli Knesset."