Jerusalem Post- 25/12/2008
There has recently been a significant increase in tension between major Arab states. The ongoing crisis in Gaza is the focus for the deterioration in relations, though it is only one aspect of a larger picture. The crisis is in relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia on the one hand, and Syria on the other. The intra-Arab wrangling is itself linked to the broader strategic issue of Syria’s relations with non-Arab Iran. Among the strategic goals of the Iran-led regional alliance is the destruction of Israel. The doctrine of muqawamma – resistance – is the rhetorical framework by which Iran and its allies explain their activities.
The “status-quo” Arab states, meanwhile, have in the past sought to combine fiercely anti-Israel rhetoric with a decidedly pro-western orientation. Iran and the muqawamma forces are currently calling this bluff. The tensions derive from this process. How does Gaza fit into this? Egypt has been watching the situation in the Strip with growing concern since the Hamas coup of June 2007. This past May, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said that the meaning of Hamas rule in Gaza was that Egypt now has a “border with Iran.” In November, Cairo-sponsored talks were planned, to facilitate reconciliation between Hamas and the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority. The objective was to bring Hamas back under the PA wing – thus returning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to its strictly Israeli-Palestinian dimensions. This, it was hoped, would remove from Egypt the embarrassment of appearing to side with Israel against Hamas by keeping the Rafah crossing – which Egypt controls – sealed. But Hamas declined to attend the talks. The Hamas entity in Gaza’s is underwritten by Teheran and Damascus, which provide both financial and military aid. The pick of Hamas’s fighters train at Revolutionary Guard facilities in Iran. Since the Hamas takeover of Gaza, several hundred of these men have made their way clandestinely from Gaza to Egypt, Egypt to Syria and then Syria to Iran to learn the techniques of light infantry and guerrilla warfare. No less importantly, Iranian money keeps the Islamist mini-state of Gaza afloat. Exact amounts are difficult to gauge. But the Iranians pledged $250 million to Gaza after Ismail Haniyeh visited Teheran in December 2006.
Given the end of the cease-fire and the growing possibility of renewed open conflict between Israel and Gaza, positions have hardened. In Teheran, demonstrators called for Mubarak’s execution. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem accused Egypt of blatant bias toward Fatah. Muhammad Ali Ibrahim, an Egyptian MP and editor of the government-sponsored Al-Gumhouriyya newspaper, expressed the essence of the Egyptian position in the following terms: “The steps taken by Syria today are not promoting the Palestinian cause but rather the interests and goals of the Iranians. Forgetting its Arab identity, Syria is handing the region to Teheran on a golden platter.” Hamas-controlled Gaza currently forms one of the most active “fronts” in the new regional stand-off. Gaza also encapsulates the salient characteristics of the new reality. The shooting war is being conducted largely between the pro-Iranian forces and Israel.
The pro-Iranian axis seeks to shame the mainstream Arab states and inflame their publics, by use of the shared currency of anti-Israel sentiment. The mainstream Arab elites of Egypt and Saudi Arabia are deeply embarrassed at the turn of events. They want the return of the cozy status quo, in which they could indulge in anti-Israel rhetoric of their own, while relying on American support to keep themselves in power. But this option is becoming increasingly untenable. Hamas’s control in Gaza threatens to reveal the extent to which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become subsumed within a larger regional conflict – one which, de facto, places Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel on the same side. Hence the latest Egyptian attempt to prevent a major Israeli operation into Gaza. Hamas, by destroying the barrier at Rafah during such a confrontation, could present Egypt with the choice of either accepting a mass of unwanted Palestinian refugees onto its territory, or joining the fight against the allies of Iran alongside Israel. Egypt is desperate to avoid either option.
So the war of words between Iran and Syria on the one hand, and Egypt and Saudi Arabia on the other, is real and heartfelt. The former are laying claim to the immensely popular cause of hatred of Israel. The latter regimes have played their own part, for their own reasons, in creating the public climate in the Arabic-speaking world in which this hatred occupies center stage. Their bluff is now being called by Iran and its allies. Rhetoric aside, Egypt and Saudi Arabia hope to emerge intact from the roiling conflict between Iran and its allies and Israel and the west. They will probably succeed in doing so, since for the West the alternative to indulging them is to risk their falling and being replaced with something worse. But as current events in Gaza are demonstrating, the heavy lifting in the work of facing down the Iranian attempt at building regional hegemony, if it is to be achieved at all, will be carried out by the west – and first and foremost by Israel.