Once upon a time, any military confrontation with Israel was a guaranteed way to unite the Arab world.
Not this time. As Operation Cast Lead wears on, it is becoming more glaringly apparent that a second campaign is concomitantly underway among regional neighbors — and the enemy is not Israel.
While protesters on the streets of Lebanon, Jordan, Ramallah, and Cairo are united in the very public outcry against the Israel machine, concurrence among Arab political leaders has been a scarcer commodity. So scarce that calls for an emergency summit to address the Gaza situation has landed Arab world leaders in a stalemate. They can’t agree on how or where to convene.
Instead of presenting its standard unified anti-Israel front, tensions are rising among Arab world leaders as a full throttle blame game gets underway.
On Tuesday, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah spread alarm throughout the Arab world by threatening to launch a renewed South Lebanon campaign if Israel launches a ground campaign in Gaza. Two days earlier, the outspoken sheikh had accused Egypt of serving as an accomplice in the “Gaza crime.”
Egypt fired back a day later during a press conference in Ankara, Turkey. Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit asserted, among other things, that Nasrallah is fostering chaos in the region.
Those are fighting words.
The region, says Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies & Diplomacy chair Professor Yoram Meital, falls into three distinct camps in the current climate: political agendas, timing, and history all play a part in who and where the players slot in.
In the first camp: Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, both of whom are coming under increasing fire for perceived complicity in the current Israel campaign and for vocal condemnation of Hamas. For its part, the Egyptian government is being driven by the threat of instability neighboring Hamas-controlled Gaza presents, and the Iranian hand behind it. Press statements by Egyptian government figures openly blamed Iran’s president for Nasrallah’s incitement.
The Palestinian Authority, on the other hand, has a more personal grudge to bear: since Hamas violently drove Fatah out of Gaza in 2007, the rift between the sides has deepened.
The second camp is made up of the “silent countries,” such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, whose leaders are being criticized for not taking a stand.
Iran, Lebanon, Syria, and Afghanistan, which make up the third camp, hold steadfast in both their criticism of Israel and their loyalty to Hamas allies. “Genocide in Gaza, Arab world silent,” a Tehran Times headline ran on Tuesday.
The silent group, says Meital, is the most interesting. They represent a majority of Arab states who are saying little about the crisis other than to denounce the disproportionate use of force.
“Jordan and Saudi Arabia are both key players in the geo-strategic system because of their state policies,” Meital says.
Because the Saudis would probably like to play a role in solving the crisis, they are trying to establish an independent position supporting an Arab initiative for a new ceasefire package.
“They want the Hamas to see them as a potential broker and a supporter especially in lieu of the current crisis with Egypt who traditionally played that role.”
Joe Arab Citizen is clearly unhappy with such a position, indicated in op-ed columns and blog entries splashed across the Internet from Abu Dhabi to Ankara.
NOW Lebanon writer Hanin Ghaddar, however, presented a circumspect overview suggesting that the Gaza crisis is being used to sideline moderate Arab states.
“Israel has committed a massacre in Gaza,” Ghaddar writes. “But Hamas cannot be released from its share of the responsibility. Its leadership presented a perfect excuse for the Israelis to launch their attack, one that is being milked by Iran and Syria. The West must not be fooled.”
Abu Aardvark blogger Marc Lynch, a George Washington University political science professor, has a blog entry aptly titled “Israel, Gaza and regional Arab division.” Aardvark writes:
As with the 2006 Hezbollah war, Arab responses are enmeshed within deeply entrenched inter-Arab conflicts, dividing sharply between pro-U.S. regimes and the vast majority of expressed public opinion. One key divide revolves around the portrayal of the Arab regimes, with one side blasting Arab governments for what they are calling complicity with the Israeli attack and the other trying to create the impression that Arab leaders are working to formulate a collective response. As protests escalate, this dividing line will likely intensify.
Does this indirectly signify support for Israel over a Hamas regime?
It’s not that simple, Meital concludes. “When you have this much bloodshed, fighting and war, the scope becomes larger than a pro or anti-Hamas stance. This is not a zero sum game. It’s very strategic and political and each side has fears and reservations and policies. They won’t be converting to pro-Israel Zionism anytime soon.”