BEIRUT: The Gaza war was seemingly an inevitable conflict. The pre-war reality was unacceptable to any of the concerned parties. Hamas was not satisfied with a ceasefire that kept the tiny Gaza Strip isolated from the world. Palestinian suffering in besieged Gaza challenged Hamas claim of effectiveness as an elected government capable of providing for the wellbeing of its people. Nor did the terms of the ceasefire allow Hamas to pursue the program of resilient resistance that is so central to the movement s identity. The war was Hamas way out of this entrapment.
Israel, on the other hand, didn t feel comfortable with its Palestinian arch-enemy taking refuge behind a fragile ceasefire while continuing to build up an arsenal of primitive but annoying rockets. Israel s concern was not exactly about these barely lethal rounds of rockets fired from Gaza at the towns of the Negev. Israel s concern was more about the long-term implications should this situation be allowed to continue. This was particularly the case since the Israeli policy of tightening the screws on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip did not prove effective in softening Hamas stand. Hence Israel, like Hamas, had to go to war to escape the entrapment of the six-month ceasefire that Egypt had tamed them both into.
Egypt is squeezed between Israel and Hamas. In Egypt s view, there is no lasting formula for reconciliation between today s Hamas and Israel. Only interim arrangements such as the six-month truce can be reached within these constraints. Egypt s strategy toward the situation in Gaza is an incremental, long-term one, whereas the two direct parties to the conflict are rushing to achieve immediate results.
Egypt has multiple concerns regarding the situation in Gaza. Its main concern is to prevent the de facto separation between the West Bank and Gaza Strip from developing into a de jure second partition of Palestine. Egypt is also keen not to starve the people of Gaza. Their suffering places Egypt under unbearable domestic and regional pressures; the Gazans might break into Egyptian territory or treat Egypt as the instigator and therefore a legitimate target for reprisals.
Egypt believes that Hamas is a genuine force in Palestine that can neither be ignored nor eliminated. However, Egypt also believes that Hamas, as an integral part of the radical destabilising forces in the Middle East, should be gradually contained. While Israel shares with Egypt the goal of containing radicalism, it shows indifference to Egypt s gradualist approach. The recent war on Gaza testifies to Egyptian-Israeli differences in this regard.
Egypt s dilemma stems from the fact that it is neither happy with Hamas nor capable of pressuring it beyond a certain limit. Egypt s long-term policy had sought to guide Hamas toward a safe landing in the realm of moderation and pragmatism, but the Gaza war disrupted this endeavor. While that war is also likely to help accelerate Hamas moderation, the cost incurred by Egypt has been heavy and risky; it could have been avoided if it were not for the confrontational policies pursued by both Hamas and Israel.
The conflict in Gaza is another inconclusive war in the Middle East. It is inconclusive regarding the future of relations between Israel and the Palestinians and it is also inconclusive regarding relations between Egypt and Israel. The irony of the Gaza war is that its high human cost does not qualify it to be a turning point in the politics of the Middle East. The many questions left unanswered by the end of the war create a great deal of uncertainty. By the same token, the Gaza war does not look like a turning point in Egypt s relations with Israel, which are likely to be clouded by regional uncertainties.
Three sources of such uncertainties should be watched very closely in the months to come: the nature of the new ruling coalition in Israel, Hamas post-war strategy, and the regional divide between radicals and moderates in the Middle East. Egypt s attitude toward Israel is likely to be governed by an overall policy of balancing the uncertain contending forces of the region.
The prolonged negotiations regarding consolidation of the fragile ceasefire in Gaza already convey a sense of how relations among Egypt, Hamas and Israel are likely to look in the future. Egypt will be walking a tightrope between Hamas, Israel and the Middle East radicals for months to come.
Even though Egypt was able to upset radical attempts to corner it during the conflict in Gaza, it is also interested in repairing the damage caused to its image among segments of the Arab public by the radicals propaganda war.
And Egypt still needs to win Hamas cooperation in order to pursue a policy of Palestinian reconciliation.
Renewal of the peace process is the safe exit out of the current quagmire in the Middle East. The key to the peace process is in the hands of Israel s next ruling coalition. The inconclusive results of the recent Israeli elections are not likely to help. A calculated and measured attitude toward Israel is likely to be Egypt s approach in the months to come. The deep doubts regarding the very cause of peace that the Gaza war instilled among the Arab public make such a guarded approach inevitable.
Gamal A. G. Soltan is a senior research fellow at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, and a visiting professor of political science at the American University in Cairo. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from the Daily Star.