Michael Young
January 1, 2009 - 1:00am

Amid the carnage in Gaza, it's not immediately obvious that what is taking place has less to do with Israelis versus Palestinians than with Arabs versus Arabs, principally to define the future of the Middle East. The Gaza conflict has become part of an ongoing confrontation between regimes emerging from the Arab state system established over six decades ago, and, with one exception, new regional players vying to take their place.

Whether it is Hamas, or some groups in Hamas, that sought out this latest battle with Israel; whether it is the Israelis who picked a fight in a pre-election period; or whether it is some combination of both, the outcome of what is happening in Gaza today is not difficult to guess: Israel is helping Hamas undermine any peaceful settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, which will only guarantee a condition of long-term war.

What we see developing in the Middle East is an accelerating counterattack by non-state actors such as Hamas, Hizbullah and the Islamic Jihad, all backed by a rising Iran, against the majority of Arab states committed to a negotiated peace with Israel. Manipulating the emotions that the fate of the Palestinians invariably release among Arabs, Tehran above all, but also the militant Islamist groups, are attempting to redraw the regional balance of power through a normalization of the armed struggle against Israel and a delegitimization of Arab states opposed to this. As Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah declared on Sunday, Arab countries that have signed a peace treaty with Israel are to be discredited not because they won't fight Israel, but because they collude with it.

An exception to this rule is Syria. Whereas Iran and the militant Islamists hope to emasculate the old stalwarts of the Arab state order - Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan - by accusing them of participating in a purported "American-Israeli project for the region," Syria, no less a traditional stalwart of the Arab political order, is in the peculiar position of being on the side of Iran and the non-state rebels while also seeking an accommodation with the United States and Israel. In fact, Syrian spokesman often argue, whenever they are invited to foreign capitals and conferences, that Syria is a vital American ally in containing non-state Arab actors - the same ones that Syria arms, shelters and incites.

Awash no less in self-serving ambiguity is Qatar, never a major pillar of the Arab older, but a state increasingly effective in filling the diplomatic vacuum left by Saudi Arabia. Like the Syrians, the Qataris are on good terms with Islamic Jihad, Hamas and Hizbullah, even as they host the largest American military base in the Middle East and preserve an open, if discreet, relationship with Israel. Playing all sides to its advantage, the tiny emirate benefits from a population that doesn't revolt, neighbors who take too much time to act, and an emir who doesn't blush.

Yet it's Nasrallah who on Sunday somehow showed what was really at stake for the Arab states, and both Syria and to a lesser extent Qatar might consider his meaning. In focusing his anger on Egypt, in effectively calling on Egyptians to mount a civil protest campaign at home against Cairo's behavior in Gaza, the secretary general crossed a red line in his dealings with the Arab regimes: With considerable boldness, even impudence, he tried to play domestic Egyptian politics. In so doing Nasrallah may have overplayed his hand. His message was mainly an Iranian one, another echo of Tehran's recent efforts to put the Egyptian regime on the defensive when it comes to Gaza, so that Iran's ally Hamas might more easily rearm and prepare for a war of liberation against Israel.

However, Nasrallah's audacity is something no Arab state can readily tolerate. Not even Syria, in fact especially Syria, wants to hear the leader of a foreign armed group calling on Syrians to disregard their leadership in support of the Palestinians. Recall that Syria entered Lebanon in 1976 to contain the Palestine Liberation Organization, fearing its victory in the Lebanese Civil War might lead to a conflict with Israel that would engulf Syria. Arab states may be much weaker and less credible than ever before, but the region still remains a redoubt of national sovereignty.

Nasrallah not only may have overestimated his capacity to challenge such sovereignty in Egypt, he may have also overestimated the weakness of the states he opposes. Hizbullah and Hamas err in assuming that the Arab regimes can be as easily overcome as were their own national authorities - the Palestinian Authority in Hamas' case, the Lebanese government in Hizbullah's. The Arab state system has doubtless lost a great deal of its vigor in the last two decades, a result of regimes proposing nothing new, stifling their own people, and seemingly incapable of either fighting Israel or convincing it to cede to the Palestinians their most basic national rights. However, most Arabs won't abandon their states for the pull of non-state military actors that promise only a project of war.

This is where Israel comes in, specifically its consistent miscalculations when it comes to the Palestinians. Far from strengthening the hand of the Arab states and the Palestinian Authority, the Israelis have only ensured that Iran and the non-state Islamist actors gain strength. By systematically humiliating the Palestinian Authority and displaying little genuine willingness to follow through on territorial compromises, the Israelis have denied the Palestinians any political horizon. At this stage, talk of a negotiated solution to the Palestinian conflict seems naive. Neither Israelis nor Palestinians are capable of reaching a mutually acceptable solution to their dispute, and that pleases Hamas to no end.

Iran, and with it Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and Hizbullah, have also prepared a welcoming present for Barack Obama. The US president-elect once said that resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would be a priority. Good luck. The Arab peace plan of 2002 lies in tatters; Mahmoud Abbas will be the Palestinian president only until late January, when what remains of his legitimacy will evaporate; and Israel is likely to vote for a right-wing government even less prepared to arrive at a deal with the Palestinians than the present government. What a wonderful new year's gift this bloody Gaza attack has been for Hamas and its partners, above all for Iran and Syria, who now have great leverage to bargain with the Obama administration.

Meanwhile the Arab states and their regimes hang on, but without offering any prospect of rejuvenation, let alone a realistic peace scheme that could tilt the new Arab cold war in their favor.


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