U.S. Challenges in a Changed Middle East
Posted on December 04, 2012 by Akashma Online News
Excerpt from CFR
Interviewee: Robert A. Malley, Program Director, Middle East and North Africa, International Crisis Group
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
The events in the Middle East continue to rapidly unfold, providing difficulties for U.S. policy in the region, whether it is the decades-long conflict between Israel and Palestine, the rise of Islamists, the conflict in Syria, or tensions with Iran. Middle East expert Robert Malley says, “With Islamists in power in Egypt, with Hamas more powerful than it was the last time it was at war with Israel [2008-09], the United States is trying to figure out its place in a region that is no longer the one it was accustomed to.” And in Syria, although a negotiated end to Bashar al-Assad’s regime is preferable, “unfortunately, it almost certainly is not the most likely” way the conflict will end. He says the United States is conflicted over accepting Egyptian help in ending the recent Israel-Hamas attacks while it is also uncomfortable with the domestic policies of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The situation in the Middle East seems extremely complicated right now. A little over a week after the United States and Israel negotiated a cease-fire with Hamas, its rival, the Palestinian Authority, is getting approval for an “observer state” status in the UN. Meanwhile, the situation in Egypt, whose leader Mohamed Morsi had been praised by the United States for his work in getting the cease-fire with Hamas, is in a fight over who’s going to run the country. How do you put all of this together?
On one level, there’s a lot that’s very familiar: A war in Gaza between Hamas and Israel that ends in an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire. A Palestinian bid for an elevation of their status at the UN. An Egyptian president, who, on the one hand, acts in ways that are viewed as quite constructive by the United States when it comes to the relations between Israelis and Palestinians, and on the other hand, takes steps at home that are quite inconsistent with our view of democratic governance. We’ve seen all of that before. But the difference is that it’s taking place in a radically transformed environment where the protagonists have changed identities and worldviews. With Islamists in power in Egypt, with Hamas more powerful than it was the last time it was at war with Israel [2008-09], the United States is trying to figure out its place in a region that is no longer the one it was accustomed to.
So far, it seems Israel has passively accepted the inevitable vote in the United Nations. What’s the long-term significance of this?
Israel is beginning to do what it probably should have done from the beginning, which is to minimize the impact of this vote and to look to the day after the vote, rather than focus its energies on either trying to stop it or threatening retaliation in the event it took place. It was never in a position to stop it, and retaliation would backfire because it would be more harmful to Israel to see a collapse of the Palestinian Authority than it would be to the Palestinians themselves. The indications now coming through that Israel is going to take a more measured stance in response to the vote is something that would have been welcomed months ago, but better late than never.
The challenge is going to be twofold. One: managing the immediate aftermath of the vote to ensure that neither the Israeli government nor the U.S. Congress take retaliatory actions that would turn this in a very different direction. Second, if, as Palestinian President Abbas has said, negotiations are to resume after the vote or after Israeli elections, those negotiations learn something from the failures of the past. You can’t simply go back to the recipes that were used years ago and failed under circumstances that were more propitious than the ones that exist today.
Any renewed peace effort has to take into account the rise of Islamism, the increased mistrust between Israelis and Palestinians, the coming to the surface of issues that have been relatively secondary in the past and have now become very central, such as the notion of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state or the origin and the plight of the Palestinian refugees. These are some of the existential issues that were never easy to ignore but have become much harder to set aside, given the increasing influence in Israel and in Palestine of constituencies for whom those are the central issues, and given the rise of Islamists in Palestine and the Arab world, for whom some of the solutions of the past are going to be much more difficult to accept today.