September 27, 2017

The Palestinian-Israeli Track of the Middle Eastern Geopolitics after the “Arab Spring”

The Independent Analytical Centre for Geopolitical Studies “Borysfen Intel” allows analysts to express their views on specific political, economic, security, information situation in Ukraine and the world at large, based on personal research and geopolitical analysis.

 

Note that the authors' point of view
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 Vladimir (Zeev) Khanin

 

Born in Zaporizhzhya, he graduated from the Institute of Africa of the USSR Academy of Sciences in Moscow, Ph. D. (political science). After repatriation, he taught at a number of educational institutions in Israel, lectured at the universities of Oxford and London. Author of many publications in the world media, wrote 9 books, co-author and editor of a number of collective monographs.

Cooperates with Voice of Israel Radio, Radio Liberty, TV Channel 9 of Israel.

 

Part 2 

The Palestinian-Israeli Track of the Middle Eastern Geopolitics after the “Arab Spring”. Part 1

 

The Crisis of “Palestinian Islamism”

To the list of the PLO leaders' problems one more should be added. By submitting applications on behalf of the “entire Palestinian people,” Mahmoud Abbas, whose authority as leader of the PNA has already formally expired, ignores the actual state of affairs. For at best he represents the population of the Arab enclaves on the West Bank of the Jordan, but not the territorially separated from them residents of the Gaza Strip, the power over which, since July 2007, de facto belongs to the Hamas — terrorist organization of “Palestinian” Islamists.

The conflict of the “Palestine Liberation Organization” and its core — Fatah (the movement of “secular national radicals”) with Hamas (the movement of radical Islamists) did not begin yesterday. The formal “apple of discord” is, naturally, Israel: the PLO, founded in 1964 with the goal of “fighting for the destruction of the Jewish state,” 30 years later, at least in words, accepted the idea of abandoning armed struggle and territorial compromise. As for Hamas, it is not ready either to recognize Israel's right to exist, no matter in what borders, or to abandon terrorist activity — that, along with the agreement to accept the previously signed Palestinian-Israeli agreements, is the international community's three ultimatum conditions for Hamas's legitimization.

It is clear that there is more to the confrontation between the two factions than just an ideological conflict. There is also a struggle for power, distribution of financial flows and other economic resources in favor of politically connected with the PLO and Islamist movements of various tribal, clan and religious sectarian groups, of which the Arab-Palestinian society itself is composed. The watershed of this struggle was Hamas' victory in January 2006 in the elections to the Parliament of the Palestinian Autonomy, following which the PNA government was led by the leader of the organization Ismail Haniyeh. Hamas was not able to completely intercept the political initiative in the autonomy, and strengthened itself in the Gaza Strip, from which the then Prime Minister of Israel Ariel Sharon unilaterally withdrew the IDF and Jewish settlements five months earlier, actually enabling the Islamists to turn it into a springboard for the uninterrupted anti-Israeli terror.

“Hamasstan” in Gaza and “Fatahland” in the West Bank
“Hamasstan” in Gaza and “Fatahland”
in the West Bank

A year and a half later, the leaders of Hamas organized a military coup in Gaza, forcibly removing competitors from Fatah and finally seizing power there. In response, the PNA leader, Mahmoud Abbas, officially removed the government of I. Haniyeh, having appointed an “alternative cabinet”, which, of course, all this time has not been recognized by the supporters of Hamas. As a result, in June 2007, the Palestinian Autonomy actually split into two enclaves — “Hamasstan” in Gaza and “Fatahland” in the West Bank, giving the two Palestinian factions a territorial connotation. If we add to this that all these years in the Gaza Strip has actually been going on (from time to time shifting to the West Bank) a civil war, it is logical that numerous attempts by mediators to reconcile the hostile Palestinian factions to this day have been unsuccessful.

Equally unsuccessful, despite all efforts, were attempts by the Fatah/PLO leaders to return control of Gaza to the official leadership of the Autonomy. But then Hamas' efforts to extend its influence to the Arab enclaves in Judea and Samaria, despite the considerable number of those who sympathize with the group's ideas there, in general ended in failure. In other words, neither the Palestinian version of the “Arab Spring”, on which Abu Mazen was counting, nor the “Islamist Winter”, which the Hamas’ leaders hoped to extend to the “Palestinian street”, never happened. As it turned out, most of the Palestinian Arabs of the West Bank chose not to risk their quality of life and personal security — maybe lower than their fellow-countrymen with Israeli passports, but incomparably higher than what the people of Arab countries experiencing shocks can hope for.

This fact was also shown by the survey conducted in May 2017 by the “Washington Institute for the Near East Policy” of the “Palestinian Center for Public Opinion”, which in professional societies is reputed to be a reliable source of sociological information about the situation among Palestinian Arabs. According to these data, only 12 % of the West Bank residents consider “creation of the Palestinian state” their top priority, while about half (49 %) put the “well-being of the family” in the first place.

Moreover, similar sentiments are gradually spreading in Gaza itself. Although the number of people in the Gaza Strip willing to disregard everything for the sake of creation of a Palestinian state was twice as large as that of the Arabs of Judea and Samaria (25 % to 12 %), the share of those for whom most important was personal and family well-being, was slightly less than in the West Bank, accounting for 40 %.

Not everyone is poor: the mansion of Palestinian businessman Mohamed Abdel-Hadi in Kharas, Judea
Not everyone is poor: the mansion of Palestinian businessman Mohamed Abdel-Hadi in Kharas, Judea

The Palestinian Islamists have to wait for a new chance, while contented with the willingness of Israel, not interested in taking responsibility for the people of Gaza again, to informally recognize Hamas' autonomy in the internal affairs of the Gaza Strip — as long as the leaders of the group do not cross the informal but clearly delineated “red line”. Otherwise, they may become the target of “retaliation operations,” which has happened many times.

In principle, for Hamas’ leaders who were forced to accept these rules as a given, such a scheme could be considered an important political and diplomatic achievement — which it was in reality. But in the medium term this gradually led to the inflation of the status of their movement as the “main force of Islamic resistance to the Zionist enemy” and the “only alternative to the Zionist collaborators and accomplices” (in Hamas' words) from the PNA/PLO, as declared by the leaders of Hamas. Accordingly, making the leaders of Hamas increasingly less relevant to external donors. And attempts to solve the problem by habitually provoking another round of confrontation with Israel, as they did in the summer of 2014, resulted in the IDF's hardest strike on the military and civil infrastructure of Islamists, from which the group has not recovered. It is no mere chance that the proportion of respondents in Gaza in the studies conducted by the “Palestinian Center for Public Opinion”, which demanded that Hamas maintain a ceasefire with Israel, has increased from 55 % in 2015 to 80 % in 2017.

As a result, already by the end of 2014, the “quasi-state” of Palestinian Islamists in Gaza, as well as the PNA, was in a state of crisis. That, in addition to the logical trap of relations with Israel and the PNA, was the result of a series of strategic miscalculations of the leadership of the organization. The main of these miscalculations can be considered the discord with Iran, which until 2011 had been the leading patron and sponsor of both the Hamas government in Gaza and of its foreign leadership. The reason for their breakdown was the support of Hamas on the part of related groups of Islamist Sunni radicals, who opposed the Teheran satellite — Bashar Assad's regime in Syria.

Khaled Mashal
Khaled Mashal

Tehran and Damascus' special irritation was caused by the participation in the battles on the side of the opposition of almost two thousand people living in Syria, and Palestinian Arabs politically associated with Hamas, as well as the information on the participation of activists of the military wing of the group, “Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades” in the training of fighters of the Syrian Free Army. (After that, the expression “ungrateful traitor” was the mildest of those definitions that governmental Syrian media used for the leader of the Hamas political bureau Khaled Mashal, who moved from Damascus to Doha at the beginning of the Syrian civil war, like the other members of the leadership of the group that had left for different Arab countries).

However, soon it became clear that counting on B. Assad' rapid sharing the fate of the leaders of other hard-authoritarian Arab “presidential” regimes of the Middle East, which collapsed at the beginning of the “Arab Spring”, was vain. The official Damascus managed to retain control over the capital and a part of the country, and even sometimes (with the support of the Iranian IRGC, the units of another satellite of Tehran — the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, the Shiite militias, and then — of the Russian VKS) to counterattack. And Hamas lost, in the person of Iran, the former main supplier of cash, weapons and instructors for its military wing.

Counting on Egypt, which began with the coming to power in 2011 of the regime of the “Muslim Brothers” (whose Palestinian branch, in fact, is Hamas), collapsed two years later. When mass protests and the military coup in July 2013 led to the overthrow of Islamist President Mohammed Mursi and the government of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the Egyptian “Muslim Brothers”. The architect of the coup and the new “secular” President of Egypt, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, since coming to power, has pursued a course of political and territorial isolation of the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip, which he (I must say, reasonably) considered a resource center for the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula terrorist networks of radical Islamists. As a result, the blockade of Gaza's border by Egypt was much more stringent in many respects than the blockade regime on the part of Israel, aimed at countering arms smuggling, but almost not affecting the civilian sphere.

Hopes for Turkish President R. T. Erdogan, whose regime in the eyes of many observers looks like a Turkish version of the “Muslim Brothers”, and which, within its foreign policy strategy of Turkey's domination in areas formerly part of the Ottoman Empire, made an application for a symbolically significant in the Arab-Islamic world status of the patron of the Palestinian Arabs, also failed to materialize. R. T. Erdogan for a long time insisted on ending Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip as a condition for the normalization of relations with Jerusalem, which deteriorated sharply after the Ankara-backed anti-Israeli provocation (the so-called “Freedom Flotilla”) in 2010, but lifted this demand, when he realized that confrontation with Israel would bring him more expenses than benefits.

PNA leader Mahmoud Abbas and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, August 28, 2017
PNA leader Mahmoud Abbas and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
in Ankara, August 28, 2017

As a result, R. T. Erdogan chose instead of fulfilling Israel's demand to “immediately lift the blockade” of Gaza, to be happy with Israel's consent to “Ankara's special role in improving the humanitarian situation” in the Gaza Strip, thus gaining the opportunity to declare that “Gaza is unlocked”. In fact, Turkey's promised strategic investments in the economy of Gaza have not happened in the past three years. Humanitarian goods — food, textiles, children's toys, etc. — which, according to the agreement reached, Turkey sporadically delivers to Gaza, are unloaded not there, but in the port of the Israeli city of Ashdod, where they are searched and transported to Gaza, fading in the mass of goods that Israel supplies there anyway. Not accidentally, this step was regarded by leaders of Hamas as “a stab in the back from the Turkish ally”. And in the dry balance of the interests of the “Islamic resistance movement” there was only the Egyptians' irritation over the Turkish rivals' interfering with Gaza's affairs for regional hegemony, which worsened Cairo's already complicated relations with the leaders of Hamas.

The last blow was the sharp reduction in financial tranches by Qatar, which took on the role of the main donor of the Hamas regime in Gaza, and for a time competed with other applicants for this role, and which has better things to do today.

Hamas' reorientation from Tehran to Doha, which sheltered the political bureau of the group after its conflict with the official Syrian regime, began in October 2012, when Emir of Qatar Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani was the first and last of the leaders of states to pay an official visit to the Gaza Strip. But the “breakthrough of the political and economic blockade” announced at that time by the head of the government of the Gaza Strip Ismail Haniyeh and the project of a large-scale reconstruction of the destroyed infrastructure of Gaza presented by the Emir remained figures of speech. The agreed in 2012, Qatar's supplies to Gaza via the Egyptian crossing point “Rafah” of consumer goods, construction materials and “dual-use” products from the Israel-banned list ceased with the overthrow of the regime of the “Muslim Brothers” in Cairo. The promises of Qatar's increased aid to Gaza, announced in the Emir's environment after the Operation “Protective Edge” of 2014, were not realized at that time either, and there is no guarantee that they will be fulfilled in principle.

Emir of Qatar Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani accompanied by Ismail Haniyeh in the Gaza Strip, September 23, 2012
Emir of Qatar Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani accompanied by Ismail Haniyeh
in the Gaza Strip, September 23, 2012

For Doha is forced to solve more pressing problems of isolation in the Sunni Arab world. Iran's hegemonic interests, especially in the perspective of the “nuclear umbrella”, which Tehran, according to experts, has seriously approached under the agreement with the “5+1” group (members of the UN Security Council plus Germany), achieved with the support of the former US administration, is perceived by Riyadh and its allies in the Sunni world as a growing existential threat. Accordingly, they are increasingly concerned with Qatar's partnership with Iran and its satellites — the B. Assad regime in Syria and the South Lebanese Hezbollah, and the “point of tolerance” in this regard has been passed just this year. Thus, the joint communique of the KSA, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain (published on 5th June, 2017) contains a sharp criticism of Qatar's negative reaction to demands to reduce the level of contacts with Iran and to sever cooperation with the “Muslim Brothers”. According to media reports, it was Qatar's political and financial support to Hamas that created a cumulative effect of pressure on the Emirate from other Gulf countries, the level of which the Qatari authorities could no longer ignore. As a result, six high-ranking members of the political bureau of the group were forced to leave Doha and move to Lebanon.

It is logical that the Hamas' leaders at some point began to make intensive efforts to restore relations with Tehran, but this process is still very difficult — despite the obvious interest of the Iranians to regain an important springboard on the Mediterranean coast and to move south as far as possible the arc of its influence in the Sunni world's rear. The main stumbling block is the Syrian crisis, the contradictions of the Hamas' position in relation to which have not disappeared either.

For example, back in March 2015, the leaders of Palestinian Arab Islamists announced their intention to restore relations with the official Damascus. In the interview with the Lebanese “Daily Star” published at that time, a representative of the Hamas bureau in Beirut, Raafat Murra, resolutely denied any relation of Hamas to the attempts of the armed overthrow of the B. Assad regime. If nothing else, because, allegedly, there was no Hamas' military presence in Syria and neighboring Arab countries. (Without bothering to explain how this statement agreed with the appeal, one month before the interview, of one of the key figures in the leadership of the group, Mahmoud al-Zahar, to members of the Hamas' military wing — “Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades”, to intensify attacks against Israel from their bases in Syria and Lebanon). According to R. Murra, his movement never had any significant disagreements with B. Assad. Nor did it have any rupture or hostility in relations with the fighting on the side of B. Assad another Iranian satellite — the South Lebanese Shiite terrorist movement Hezbollah. And all said or stated about the situation in Syria by the group's leaders, “…did not go beyond the establishment of the right of the Arab peoples to demand serving their rightful social, political and civil interests”.

However, the former patron-client conflict which at some point turned into a latent state, but did not end, reached the boiling point again in December of last year, when, after the capture of the city of Aleppo (Ḥalab) by troops fighting on the side of the B. Assad government, members of the Hamas' leadership accused these Iranian “proxy” of genocide of the local population. In response, Tehran threatened to completely stop all types of aid to Hamas in favor of “natural alternatives” such as Hamas' longtime rival in Gaza — “Islamic Jihad”, as a member of the Iranian Parliament's Committee on Foreign Policy and National Security, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh said.

The latest attempt by the Palestinian Islamists to return to the old rules of the game was made after the victory of the pro-Iran faction led by the new political leader of Gaza Yahya Sinwar. The first indicators of change appeared in May 2017: the Saudi newspaper “Asharq al-Awsat”, published in London, reported about the high-ranking representatives of Hamas meeting in Beirut with representatives of the leadership of Hezbollah and the Iranian “Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps”, where, with reference to Palestinian sources, a preliminary agreement was reached to resume financial and military cooperation with Iran.

According to the world media, formalization of these agreements was the goal of the visit to Tehran (in early August) of a Hamas' delegation led by a member of its political bureau, Izzat al-Rishq. Where, along with other senior leaders of the group (the founder of “Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades”, Salah al-Arouri, one of the commanders of the same wing, Zacher Jabarin, and Osamma Hamdan and Khaled al-Qadoumi, representatives of Hamas in Lebanon and Tehran respectively), he took part in the inauguration of Iranian President Hasan Rouhani.

A delegation of the Hamas political bureau, headed by Izzat al-Rishq, in Tehran, August 4, 2017
A delegation of the Hamas political bureau, headed by Izzat al-Rishq,
in Tehran, August 4, 2017

It is significant that it was from the meeting of Izzat al-Rishq and the then Foreign Minister of Iran Ali Akbar Velayati, now the Senior Adviser for Foreign Affairs to the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that in 1991 the relations of Iran's close partnership with Hamas began. And another meeting between the two politicians 26 years later, again, as the leaders of the group hope, will restore to them the former stable and generous support of Iran. Of course, not for free: the Islamic movement must take the “right” strategic decision in accordance with the changing balance of forces in the Middle East in favor of the “Shiite crescent” (Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon), led by a new regional superpower, Iran. With which Hamas should coordinate its steps. This, according to the press, was unambiguously communicated by the Iranians to the leadership of Hamas.

But then, these trends, according to observers, should not be overestimated. As a former reporter on the Iranian affairs for the “Al-Jazeera” and the BBC TV channels Ali Hashem rightly observes, “Given the sectarian strife in the region, it wasn’t an easy task to see Hamas getting closer to Iran against the will of its popular base. Iran too was defying a common belief among its allies and elites that trusting Hamas isn’t a good choice”. One way or another, taught by the bitter experience, the Iranians are not yet rushing to make massive investments in the civilian infrastructure of the Gaza Strip, which is extremely important for the survival of the Islamist regime, and their renewed military assistance is conditioned by the Hamas’ fulfillment of a number of conditions designed to prove the relevance of the group to the operational and strategic objectives of the Iranian ayatollahs.

Mahmoud Abbas, Yasir Arafat and Muhammad Dahlan, 2003
Mahmoud Abbas, Yasir Arafat and
Muhammad Dahlan, 2003

In this regard, it is understandable that the leaders of the group are striving to stock up with alternative options for getting out of the diplomatic isolation. Some of them are not devoid of originality, but in the presence of a built-in contradiction to each other, they can easily pull down their strategy. One of the steps of Hamas, was the experiment of their union with Muhammad Dahlan. This former “strong man” of Gaza, formerly a member of the Fatah/PLO leadership and close ally of PNA's leader M. Abbas, and then his main political opponent, fled Gaza after the Islamist coup of 2007 to Ramallah, and then, after a grave conflict with M. Abbas and his “clan” — to Dubai. And it was he who, using his close ties in Cairo and Abu Dhabi, could (as hoped in the leadership of the group, in exchange for admission to administrative power in the Gaza Strip), have created points of contact between the Hamas’ leadership in Gaza and some of the leaders of the countries of the “moderate Sunni block”.

However, this scheme, solving the short-term operational problems of the Hamas regime in Gaza — is, first of all, the way out of the energy crisis (partially removed by the supplies of fuel from Egypt paid by the United Arab Emirates) caused by the financial sanctions imposed on the Gaza Strip by M. Abbas, — may give rise to new difficulties for Palestinian Islamists. For example, to once again undermine the scarcely achieved confidence of Iran, and at this, in the absence of guarantees from the Sunni regimes to ensure the diplomatic, economic and physical survival of the Hamas regime.

Another move by the leaders of Hamas was the use of the remaining levers of influence on Israeli Arabs in an attempt to “warm up” the conflict around the Temple Mount in Jerusalem that happened in July 2017. The point of these actions, which became a “replica” of the wave of knife attacks provoked by Hamas in the winter of 2015–2016, was to demonstrate to the old and new potential sponsors that the group remained a serious factor in the “Palestinian Arab street”, which should not be ignored. In a sense, this move was successful, but the costs of “re-opening” the cells of the Hamas’ followers inside the “green line”, immediately caught by the Israeli special services, in both cases exceeded the real winnings.

 

Conclusion: Farewell to Oslo?

The described tendencies fit perfectly into the obvious to the majority of Israelis exhaustion of the original “Oslo paradigm” and the futility of searching for a common line towards the Palestinian Autonomy in the light of its final disintegration into “Fatahland” in the West Bank and “Hamasstan” in Gaza. And, accordingly, it is an argument in favor of those who demand to build an independent policy towards each of them, taking into account the deep crisis that is experienced by both projects of political self-determination of Palestinian Arabs — the “secular nationalism” of the PNA/PLO, and its radical Islamist alternative.

The “Oslo Accords”, as the experience of spreading for existing or “former” terrorist movements of the “peace-for-territories” schemes that were previously applied only to moderate Arab regimes, have for some time slowed down the process of marginalization of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Which was propagandistically inflated during the years of the Cold War to the level of one of the leading factors in world politics (and in some circles continues to be declared by inertia as such today).

The impressive amount of effort invested by the great powers, Israel and, to a lesser extent, the Arab world into the new version of the “Palestinian-Arab state project” in the best case scenario, could probably lead to the creation of yet another of the many undesirable and uninteresting “fallen states”. This, I must say, was quite well understood by the Palestinian elites, whereby their political and diplomatic strategy left a strange feeling of their being interested not so much in the creation of the Palestinian state itself as in the endless struggle for it. And, accordingly, in getting dividends, determined by the context of their relations with Israel. In any case, the “Arab Spring” and its consequences have made this option of little relevance, both in the bilateral, Palestinian-Israeli, and in the general regional geopolitical context.

This context today is determined by absolutely different factors that have changed the rules of the Middle East game. Among them is the escalating conflict between the Shia network led by Iran and moderate pro-Western Sunni regimes and the development of ultra-radical Arab Sunni Islamism. As well as the disintegration of the national states of the region and the Kurdish-Turkish-Arab knot of contradictions. And, finally, the “reset” of the West's relations with Iran, which put this country on the verge of getting nuclear weapons, and which is already capable of turning this threat into an “umbrella of support” for the jihadist Shiite movements. Against this background, is becoming clear the rapid decrease in the circles, involved in the movement of figures on the global chessboard, the number of those who are still ready to seriously discuss the issue of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as “the root of all problems of the Middle East region and the people from it in other parts of the world”.

Nevertheless, the idea of resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict within the framework of the “Oslo” paradigm has become too entrenched in international political and diplomatic practice to abandon it without serious consequences for the strategies built on it, the careers based on this theme, and the diplomatic, political and economic resources invested into it. And it is in this capacity that it remains a notable geopolitical and geostrategic factor.