Analysis: A Conflict with no Name

Jerusalem Post- 14/01/2009

Israel’s Gaza operation is serving to mark in bold relief the fault lines between two regional blocs whose rivalry dominates the region. These are the bloc of broadly pro-Western states, including Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and an Iran-led alliance that includes Syria, Yemen, Hizbullah and Hamas. Egypt’s fury at Hamas, and the desire to prevent Iran and Syria from making gains at Cairo’s expense in the current crisis is leading to an increasing willingness to openly condemn Hamas and its allies.

In recent weeks, a series of articles have appeared in the pro-government Egyptian daily Al-Goumhurriya (the Republic). The articles were written by the paper’s editor, Muhammad Ali Ibrahim, who is also a member of parliament for the ruling National Democratic Party. Al-Goumhurriya, a semi-official newspaper, is noted for its unswervingly pro-regime line. While this often prevents it from being an exciting read, it gives the paper an importance as a useful indicator of thinking within the regime.

Ibrahim’s articles are collectively titled “Hamas, Syria, Iran: the new axis of evil.” In them, the author builds a stark and damning case against the Iran-led bloc. Ibrahim accuses Iran and its allies of deliberately sabotaging Egypt’s mediation efforts to prevent a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Teheran, says the author, wants to prevent a resolution of the conflict, so that Iran can “trade Hamas for political gain” at some later date. The articles lump Hamas together with Hizbullah and the Muslim Brotherhood, condemning all three in the following terms: “Hamas believes, as do the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Hizbullah and other religious organizations, that everything it does is always right… Religious movements contain elements similar to Nazism, as do many tyrannical parties that brought disaster upon their respective nations…” Ibrahim goes on to accuse Hamas of “trying to bring destruction” upon the Palestinians. The author declares that Hamas is indifferent to the fate of the Palestinians, since it believes that it is “more important to strengthen the Syria-Iran axis of evil, which sponsors the religious movements in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine.”

The Al-Goumhurriya editor claims that Hamas’s actions make it part of “Tel Aviv’s plan to eliminate the Palestinian problem.” Having thus handily accused the Iran-led “axis of evil” of the ultimate crime (de facto alliance with Israel), Ibrahim goes on to ridicule Hizbullah, accusing it of waging war “only in front of the television cameras.” Qatar, too, does not escape Ibrahim’s censure. Again, the author seeks to contrast Qatar’s nationalist posturing with its close relations with the US, and its sales of natural gas to Israel. (All translations from Al-Goumhurriya by MEMRI: The Middle East Media Research Institute, http://www.memri.org) Ibrahim’s article is being seen as of real significance by many Middle East analysts. Veteran scholar and Jerusalem Post contributor Barry Rubin called it “one of the most important articles I’ve seen in the Arab press in the last 20 years.” The article reflects a new clarity in the language of the regime in Cairo, as it addresses head-on the current rift in the Arab world. Naturally, Israel is still presented in a distorted and rhetorical way. Egypt attempts to strip the pro-Iranian bloc of its self-proclaimed mantle of “resistance” to Israel by claiming that Hamas is objectively in league with “Tel Aviv.” Egypt’s continued verbal adherence to one-sided criticism of Israel was further demonstrated in remarks made by the republic’s heir apparent, Gamal Mubarak, in a recent trip to Rafah. But this familiar absurdity should not detract from the significance of what is happening.

The old prism through which Middle Eastern affairs has been viewed is becoming less and less relevant. Is what is taking place in Gaza a war between the Israeli and Palestinian camps, or the Israeli and Arab camps? These are the familiar boxes in which one is instinctively inclined to place it. But on a fundamental level, it is neither. Egypt’s increasing willingness to acknowledge this fact derives not from sentiment, but from realpolitik. Cairo is aware that if Hamas is seen to emerge victorious or unscathed from the events in Gaza, this will hand a massive victory to Iran and Syria, which seek to undermine Egypt’s position as the leading Arab state. Mubarak told European foreign ministers last week that “Hamas must not be allowed to emerge from the fighting with the upper hand.” Egypt and Saudi Arabia, once rivals for the leadership of the Arab world, are today united in attempting to stem the power of Iran, Syria and their clients.

Egypt’s attitude is of immediate practical significance because if a real regime of control can be imposed at Rafah, this can serve to “dry up” Hamas-ruled Gaza – turning it into a small Islamist failed state, rather than the Iranian-supplied fortress that the opposing bloc is planning. Mubarak and Intelligence Minister Omar Suleiman flew to Saudi Arabia earlier this week. Their intention was to prevent, together with the Saudis, the convening of an emergency Arab summit proposed by Qatar to discuss the situation in Gaza. The details of the diplomacy are less important than its broader meaning.

A new and unfamiliar conflict is emerging in the region. It does not yet have a name. A major battle between two of its key protagonists is taking place in Gaza. This conflict finds Israel on the same side as the two main states of the Arab world. The conflict has so far been characterized by a series of victories for the opposing side. Behind the scenes, there is shared determination and hope that the fight in Gaza may end in a first significant setback for the Iran-led axis.

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