The primary split in the Arab world is between Sunni and Shia Muslims. The Arab Spring brought a second conflict to the fore, one between Nationalist Arab governments either led by Military Dictators or Monarchs on the one hand and Islamists mainly associated with the Muslim Brotherhood on the other. The conflicts in Egypt and Syria, let’s call them the “Arab Summer,” have dramatically altered the way nations in the Arab world interact with one another and with Israel, especially when the Sunni vs. Shia conflict is added to the mix. The region is now focused on a morphed conflict, Nationalist and Shia regimes vs. Sunni Islamist ones and the implications of that for foreign policy in the region are profound.
In negotiations between Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Islamist Hamas and Israel, for example, Arab Nationalist governments, once arrayed against Israel, are on the same side as Israel. The only nations in the Arab League in fact that are supportive of Hamas at the moment are the Sunni Islamist state of Qatar and Turkey now lead by the Islamist Erdogan Administration. Iran and Hizballah, certainly no big fans of Israel, are not happy with the Muslim Brotherhood’s actions against their ally in Syria which has led to the rise of the Islamic State. In Shia Syria and Iraq, there is no doubt that the Islamic State is far more of an immediate concern than anything going on with Israel. Importantly, this is also true in the Nationalist Arab states and that is also impacting how Sunni Nationalist states are relating to Israel right now. Just today, Imam Qaradawi, the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, declared that Jihad against Israel can wait, because Jihad in Syria is more important.
The Kingdom of Jordan is fully allied with Israel regarding the Islamic State with Israel prepared to defend Jordan’s borders against threats and to use force even within those borders if necessary to defend the monarchy. Al Sissi controlled Egypt sees Israel as an ally against its enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood. There is little doubt that Saudi Arabia is not only in agreement with Egypt concerning its primary enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood, but also sees the importance of Israel’s defense of Jordan in providing security for Saudi Arabia’s northern border against advancement by the Islamic State.
This means that when one looks at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one finds a situation that would have appeared entirely out of the twilight zone only a few years ago. The Palestinians are now on both sides of the active conflict in the Arab world, the Islamist vs Nationalist one. Not only is there now relatively limited criticism of Israel’s military action against Hamas in Gaza from Arab leaders, but there is even public ridicule of Hamas and often tacit approval of Israeli military actions. Egypt would greatly appreciate Israeli efforts that would lead to the removal of Hamas as the governing power in Gaza, but so would the Palestinian Authority and Saudi Arabia.
This also means that the United States is a difficult situation as it tries to mediate between strategic allies Qatar and Turkey on the one hand and Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia on the other. There are limited resolutions of the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza, even temporary ones, that have a chance of being acceptable to both sides, if there are any at all. Mediation often involves appearing to advocate for both sides, rather than advocating for neither side. This has resulted in the United States appearing to be siding with the Islamists by supporting portions of Hamas’ negotiating position.
The argument made by President Obama yesterday that the sealing off of Gaza cannot continue, even in the context of arguing against Hamas’ actions, is problematic in this regard because it puts the US directly at odds with both Israel and Egypt which are enforcing sealed borders. With Hamas remaining armed and in power, anything that smacks of a gain by Hamas in ceasefire negotiations will be problematic in the short term, strengthening Hamas politically, and anything that actually results in the strengthening of Hamas militarily such as better access to importation of weaponry, will harm Israel and possibly Egypt as well in the long term. Thus, an easing of the blockade at this point or anything related to opening borders will necessarily be opposed by Israel, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority. Any good long term resolution of the conflict in Gaza that could promote security and prosperity for the residents there requires the removal of Hamas as the governing body of Gaza and the disarmament of any governing body that succeeds it. Any other resolution will almost certainly lead to us discussing the same issues within a couple of years as fighting resumes, only more intensely and with more casualties.