UPDATE: The protection racket seems to have worked with the ceasefire. Mohammed Morsi has emerged as the hero of the hour–for persuading his Muslim Brotherhood comrades to stop firing rockets at Israel. Morsi is now a legitimate player, Hamas achieves de facto recognition (and can claim victory for assaulting Israel with impunity), and Israel’s security is impaired. This is the first poisoned fruit of Obama’s re-election.
A couple of nights ago I ran into Dan Senor, a prominent Romney campaign foreign policy advisor, at CNBC’s studio, before my interview on the U.S. economy. Host Larry Kudlow asked Senor, now a director of the Foreign Policy Initiative, how Israel could negotiate with a Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, given that Hamas is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Senor replied,
The Egyptian economy is in devastating shape. The last thing the Egyptian government wants – even a Muslim Brotherhood led government – is a war on its border. The West has considerable leverage on Egypt.
Senor got it backwards, I believe: Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi encouraged Hamas to attack Israel as part of a protection racket, directed at Saudi Arabia as well as the West. In return for putting out a fire he helped to start, Morsi wants the West and the Gulf States to bail out his crumbling economy. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States (with the exception of Qatar’s radical ruler) consider the Muslim Brotherhood a subversive organization and a mortal threat to their regimes and sent Morsi away empty-handed after his mid-August visit to Riyadh. Morsi is hoping that Gaza will shake money loose. “Nice little country you’ve got here. It would be a shame if something were to happen to it.”
This week, Egyptian officials began “making the rounds” of prospective donors — including the hitherto reluctant Saudis — to secure the financing Egypt needs to plug the billion-and-a-half dollar monthly hole in its balance of payments, the news site Almasryalyoum reported today.
It isn’t the whole story, but it’s a big part of the story: Morsi’s intention from the outset was to elicit the sort of reply that Dan Senor gave Kudlow. The Obama administration tried to push through a $450 million Egyptian aid package (plus $550 million of debt forgiveness) in October, but thought better of it in the advent of the presidential election. If Morsi emerges as the apparent peacemaker, watch for the Weekly Standard and the Foreign Policy Initiative to cautiously endorse financial aid to Egypt. After cheering on the overthrow of Mubarak and the so-called Arab Spring, a lot of reputations hang in the balance.
Morsi isn’t the only client for whom Hamas is launching rockets, to be sure. There are several other motives for Hamas to provoke Israel at the moment.
The first is Turkey, which is counting on the Muslim Brotherhood to stabilize the Syrian mess. Although Kurds comprise a minority of just 2 million in Syria, the possibility that the country’s disintegration will push them towards political autonomy might act as a catalyst for Kurdish aspirations elsewhere. The Kurdish demographic time bomb is a central concern of Turkish policy, as I wrote in an Oct. 25 study for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. Turkey’s volatile Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan is inciting Hamas with Syria in view.
The second is Iran, which has supported Hamas as a cat’s paw against Israel throughout. Iran is sending a stark message to Israel as well as the United States: If Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear weapons program, it will unleash its full terrorist capabilities against Israel and the West.
The third is Hamas’ own position. With the Palestine Authority seeking recognition once again from the United Nations, Hamas wants to assert its leadership of the Palestinian cause against PA President Mohammed Abbas. Pro-Hamas demonstrations in the West Bank suggest that he is having a modicum of success. Internal politics inside Hamas may have added to the motivation for the terrorist organization to strike now.
It does not seem likely, though, that the Hamas offensive will succeed in any of its objectives.
Israel has no incentive to accept a ceasefire that would leave Hamas unpunished for an open act of aggression. The London Guardian reported today: “In Israel, according to some reports, a cabinet split saw the defence minister, Ehud Barak, prepared to accept the ceasefire originally on offer while the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, were opposed.” Barak tends to take his cues from Washington, which desperately wants the ceasefire, while the rest of the government is unwilling to allow Hamas to claim any sort of victory.
It is not clear whether Saudi Arabia will to accede to Hamas’ blackmail. Some Saudi commentators see Hamas as an instrument of Iran’s regional ambitions. Writing in the Saudi website Asharq Alawsat on Nov. 11, Emad El Din Adeeb warned:
Iran is playing the role of the saboteur in the Arab arena, exploiting issues of regional tension at the time of the Arab Spring revolutions. This is in order to heat up the region so as to disturb Tel Aviv and Washington, prompting them – at the end of the day – to accept negotiations with Tehran on Iranian terms…. We [Saudis] are just a trivial piece in the Iranian chess game, and it does not matter to Tehran if it inflames the entire region, destroys its economy, and puts everyone on the brink of a devastating war!
Other Saudi sources suggest that the better part of discretion might be to buy off the Egyptian president. Asharq Alawsat’s deputy editor Ali Ibrahim writing on Nov. 20 praised Morsi:
It seems that the new Egyptian President, or the new Egyptian regime, has passed the test so far. Mursi has acted as a statesman who does not resort to adventurism or uncalculated steps that may gain temporary popularity among his audience. Rather, he has resorted to diplomacy and communication with all parties, and has sought to involve the influential international and regional actors that can exert pressure. This is in order to achieve calm on the ground and to stop the ongoing war which both sides are aware will not lead to anything, even if an Israeli ground invasion occurred.
Erdoğan, meanwhile, is under fire inside his own party after leading Turkey into a foreign policy morass in Syria. A prospective political rival for the 2014 presidential election, Turkish President Abdullah Gul, is running ahead of Erdoğan in the polls. In early November, Gul gave orders to permit secularist demonstrators to protest against Erdoğan’s mass jailings of Turkish military officers, journalists, and other prominent figures in secular society. This prompted a sharp reply from Erdoğan, as Reuters reported on Oct. 31:
Erdogan expressed irritation at police failure to prevent thousands of secularists marching in a banned Republic Day rally in Ankara on Monday to protest against what they see as an increasingly repressive and Islamist government. Police eventually fired tear gas and water cannon to disperse the crowd, prompting Erdogan to question who had ordered them to remove barricades blocking the protesters’ path.
“We did not get this country to where it is today with double- headed government and this country will go nowhere in the future with doubleheaded government,” he told a news conference on Tuesday, in a thinly-veiled reference to the presidency.
Gul has close ties to Saudi Arabia (hat tip: M.K. Bhadrakumar of Asia Times Online).
Hamas gambled on a rocket offensive because the organization itself as well as its allies — Egypt, Turkey and Iran — each had urgent reasons to take the gamble.
Of course, the Israelis are in position to call Hamas’ bluff — as I suggested on The Kudlow Report on Nov. 19 — by going over the dog’s head, and shooting the dog’s owner, namely Iran. By supplying long-range Fajr missiles to Hamas, Iran has opened a casus belli against Israel. It is an opportune time for Israel to attack Iran’s nuclear program. The major constraint on Israel, I believe, is not technical capacity, but constraints from the Obama administration. I will not try to guess what the Israeli government will do under extremely difficult circumstances. But if Israel does not act by April, its window of opportunity may shut.
Image courtesy shutterstock / Richard Laschon