Thursday, December 25, 2008

Hamas' Neighbors Conspiring to Take it Down

Six days into the end of the ceasefire, rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel have gone up significantly--and not as a response in particular to any Israeli behavior. While the rockets are still not killing Israelis, they are making life for anyone nearby nearly unbearable.

These rocket attacks may have sealed Hamas' fate. Hope that Hamas can be groomed into a legitimate political party are falling apart, for even its neighbors. There is a lot of talk by relevant parties that seems to indicate that Hamas will soon be facing its doom. Even more significant, however, is who isn't talking.

Israel is sending strict warnings, and making it clear that they are preparing a massive offensive into Gaza. The operation would be aimed at toppling Hamas, and they might just have the support they need for it.

Egypt invited Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to Cairo for talks over the issue. Egypt is urging restraint, but this is likely a mere diplomatic and political gesture. The place of the meeting has significance--Egypt usually only meets with Israelis in an out-of-town resort, but bringing Livni into Cairo is a gesture of respect and endorsement that Egypt rarely grants. It is an off-the-record way of saying, "we are on your side now."

But there's more. Al-Quds al-Arabi, a newspaper out of London, has reported that Egypt would not object to a strike by Israel to take down Hamas. This is big news. This is about as close to a full war endorsement as one can get from Arab neighbors--a light endorsement usually comes in the form of an Embassy-level protest, even if just to save face. But the Egyptians have said out loud that they're going to keep their noses out. And they'll probably keep enforcing the blockade.

The Egyptians have probably become tired of trying to be impartial mediators with Hamas after years of being snubbed and enabling bad behavior. In October, when Egypt tried to host reconciliation meetings between Hamas and Fatah, Hamas boycotted. Egypt kept suggesting to Hamas that they continue the Israeli truce and go to Cairo for peace talks, but Hamas refused. Hamas' rocket attack escalation has come against Egyptian warnings. Egypt realizes that anything short of an endorsement for war is a form of political capital for Hamas that it can use to pay for the flight of more rockets into Israel. Egypt doesn't want to be a part of it anymore.

Before now, domestic pressure kept the otherwise-moderate Egyptian government at least partially on Hamas' side. It is likely Hamas' loss of grace--rather than serious changes in the politics between Cairo and the Muslim Brotherhood--that has pushed Egypt to Israel's side. But it's there, and that's bad news for Hamas.

Abbas has taken the opportunity to declare his support of unity and democracy by vowing not to pursue a civil war to beat Hamas. Abbas gets to play good cop as more-established powers put the pressure on Hamas for him. But there's a lot to gain for him here. His popularity is on the rise, and world opinion turning against Hamas for irresponsibility and militarism, moderates in the Palestinian Authority are likely to shy away from Hamas as well. Abbas is preparing the battlefield for snap elections and a booming victory by Fatah that he will be able to hold onto for years. If Fatah can start to consolidate its political power, then an anti-Hamas operation will become much more viable an option for other world leaders.

But just as significant are those that are not talking. Iran and Syria have said little or nothing on the matter. They have not warned Israel, nor had words with Egypt over its pro-Israeli behavior. Whether this is a result of talks with Bush, Brown, and Sarkozy, or whether it's simply due to Hamas' PR gaffes of the last few years, is unclear. But by not talking, they too are giving as much of a green light to Israel as possible. The UN will complain if the Israelis invade, as will Russia; but if the regional actors here keep behaving like they are now, they will prepare the region for peace.

If Hamas' domestic popularity tumbles, then their ability to wage a messy and bloody insurgency against Israel will be limited--people will give them less funding, fewer troops, fewer places to stay. Palestinians will betray their positions to the Israelis. The war will go well, and the militant machine that keeps Hamas in place will start to weaken. Until this happens, elections will be meaningless--Hamas has already shown that its respect for democracy and peace are long trumped by its ideology and thirst for power (see: the PA civil war). But if they can be crippled, then Fatah's elections can bring a new mandate for the region to work together to clear any Hamas resistance to the new PA order. Some control over Gaza may become possible, in time. It will require patience.

As importantly, Egypt's blessing of Israel will make it an excellent supporter of the Israeli-Fatah peace talks, especially if the Syrians choose to continue to participate after election cycles are over. Israel, should it choose to pursue the two-state option, will have regional support and mediation that should make life a lot easier.

Finally, Livni seems to be showing she's got the right stuff to be Prime Minister--and she's using the opportunity to steal the spotlight from Netanyahu. This will be critical in Israel's upcoming elections--if she can use her power as Foreign Minister to keep the region on Israel's side even during an attack on Gaza Strip, then she will at lest carry an image of a great diplomat and representative of Israel. More importantly, this fight is a big test as to whether or not her two-state system can work, or whether it should be abandoned for Netanyahu's one-state system. But with Fatah and Egypt giving tacit support to Israeli operations in Hamas, Syria and Iran's non-involvement, and the continually increasing likelihood that Hamas' days as a major player in the region are coming to a close, moderate Israelis are likely to favor the two-state system, Livni's ascendancy to PM, and continued peace talks.
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