It's time for the official, Aardvark-certified list of the Best Books on the Middle East for 2011! (See last year's winners here.) Next year's list will undoubtedly be dominated by books addressing this year's uprisings which have transformed the Arab world, but not many significant books on the topic were published in 2011. That'll hopefully change on March 27, when my own book The Arab Uprising comes out -- don't worry, it won't be eligible for the 2012 awards of course! -- and, all joking aside, when a number of great journalists and scholars weigh in with books in the pipeline. In the meantime, you can always go back to Revolution in the Arab World, the eBook based on Foreign Policy articles, which I think remains an outstanding guide to the first few months.
First, the ground rules. The awards are limited to English-language books that were published in calendar year 2011 and which dealt primarily with the contemporary broader Middle East. I read more than 65 books published this year which fit that description, from academic and trade presses alike. The award is entirely subjective, based on what I found impressive or interesting. There's no committee, no publishers sent me free copies or offered up lucrative swag, and I couldn't read everything -- especially if books were published too late in the year or if publishers insisted on releasing them only as $90 hardcovers. If your book didn't make the list, however, then you know what do do (hint: you really can't go wrong by blaming Blake Hounshell).
And with that...the 2011 Aardvark Awards for the Best Books on the Middle East:
One moment over the last month when I really regretted my hiatus was when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proposed that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state in exchange for a two month moratorium on settlements. The blizzard of commentary which followed covered most of the obvious problems with this proposal -- the inequality of the proposed exchange, the novelty of the demand, the implications for Israel's Arab citizens, and so forth. But nobody seemed to pick up on the half-serious suggestion I put out on Twitter: In exchange for a two month settlement moratorium, Abu Mazen could offer to recognize Israel as a Jewish state for two months.
Think about it! It seems fine to me for Israel to bring forward issues that matter to them in the negotiations, even if others object or it doesn't conform with past practice -- that's what negotiations are for. But it would be obviously silly to expect the Palestinians to make a permanent concession on an issue Israel seems to value in exchange for a temporary Israeli concession on a side issue. But a temporary "freeze" on the non-recognition of Israel as a Jewish state in exchange for a temporary "freeze" on settlements? Let the bargaining begin! And it gets better. Abu Mazen could have followed up by offering to extend the recognition as a Jewish state for a longer period if Israel agreed to extend the settlement moratorium for the same time period. And once they get to the final status two-state agreement, it could be made permanent.
Am I serious? Well, let's just say that we could sure use *some* creative thinking on the Israeli-Palestinian front, and leave it at that.
Turkish Prime Minister Recip Erdogan is in Washington, D.C. for meetings with American officials and a number of public and private appearances along the DC circuit. Unfortunately I'm too snowed under with work to actually go to any of them -- but I wish I could, because there's probably no more interesting figure in Middle East diplomacy these days. Erdogan has been charting a new course for Turkish foreign policy which has sparked noisy popular acclaim with Arab publics, wary observation from Arab leaders, and jittery anxiety among many Israelis. Turkey's shifting Middle Eastern role is one of those factors which really could shake up long-standing patterns in a number of ways.
Erdogan, of course, heads the government of the mildly Islamist AKP. The electoral success and governing style of the AKP has proven absolutely fascinating to many in the Arab world. I've had many conversations with, and read hundreds of papers and op-eds by, Muslim Brotherhood members keen to figure out the lessons of the AKP's success. As a model of workable political Islam, the AKP offers an important model -- if a dual-edged one. Many Turkish secularists continue to sound the alarm bells of creeping Islamism, complaining that even if the AKP is committed to democracy it is using its governing power to radically reshape Turkish political culture and governing principles. These strike me as healthy debates and normal politics, though, not the stuff of political apocalypse.
Erdogan burst into a new level of Arab popularity with his much publicized outburst at Davos, when he stormed off a panel with Shimon Peres in protest over Gaza as Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa sat by bemusedly. This demonstration captivated Arab audiences and become the talk of Arab politics for weeks. Turkish diplomacy has built effectively on Erdogan's sudden personal popularity by seeking a more active and independent diplomatic role. Its diplomacy in many ways resembles that of Qatar, also an important American ally which has found considerable popularity with Arab public opinion. Like Qatar, Turkey explicitly and determinedly talks to both sides of the great Arab political divide, maintaining relations with Israel and the United States while also engaging regularly with Syria and Iran. It isn't for nothing that Turkey was well-positioned to mediate the secret Syrian-Israeli talks last year.
If this reorientation has earned Erdogan and Turkey applause in the Arab world, it has naturally provoked some serious criticism among Israelis and those committed to the Israeli-Turkish alliance (especially after its cancelation of a scheduled war game with Israel in October). I've seen an endless deluge of opeds filled with ominous warnings of Turkey's dangerous new path, rising anti-Americanism, the AKP's creeping Islamism, its alleged turn to a radical Islamist foreign policy. And don't think that Arab regimes, suspicious and fearful of their own Islamist movements, aren't fearful of the AKP's example and worried about the intrusion of a new, unpredictable diplomatic player into their turf.
I find this all overblown. Turkey's turn to a more active Middle East role was driven, I'd guess, as much by the effective closing of the door to European Union membership as it was by Erdogan's Islamism (the AKP was a strong advocate of EU membership when that was a viable option, hardly the marker of a radical Islamist agenda). It has played a more constructive role in Iraq, after tensions spiked over Turkish military incursions into northern Iraq because of alleged PKK safe havens there. Its distancing from Israel is, from what I can tell from a distance, broadly popular with Turkish public opinion -- especially after the Gaza war. And it appears that Turkey and Israel have rebuilt their working relationship over the last few weeks.
Turkey's cultivation of good relations across the spectrum makes perfect sense for a player on the periphery without a direct stake in old battle lines which wants to maximize its diplomatic clout. And it is potentially extremely useful. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Turkey is exactly the sort of player which the Obama foreign policy needs: one able to talk to both sides of deeply rooted conflicts, while maintaining its credibility and protecting its own interests. Turkey can mediate Syrian-Israeli talks in a way which no Arab country could (I heard a rumor a few weeks back, which I couldn't confirm, that Syria was actually urging Turkey to rebuild its ties with Israel so that it could resume an effective mediation role). Turkey can bridge the gap with Iran in ways which few Arab states could -- and without the vulnerabilities of, say, a Qatar.
So I regret not having time to see Erdogan while he's in town. Turkish foreign policy is one of those wild cards which really could shake things up, bridge old divides, and introduce new possibilities. Obama's diplomacy should be creative and subtle enough to take advantage of those opportunities, and to maintain a strong alliance in new conditions.
U.S. Department of State
While most American eyes today will be on President Obama's anticipated speech on withdrawal from Iraq (about which I'm more optimistic today than I was yesterday, but a bit less than on Wednesday!), the most important news out of the Middle East today may be the announcement in Cairo that Fatah and Hamas have agreed in principle on the formation of a national unity government by the end of March. That should give Hillary Clinton and George Mitchell much to talk about during the secretary's upcoming visit.
Joint Hamas-Fatah press conference in Cairo (source: al-Sharq al-Awsat)
Such a Palestinian national unity government could offer a viable Palestinian negotiating partner, a way to channel reconstruction aid into Gaza, an end to the endlessly destructive Fatah-Hamas conflict, and even an indirect way for Hamas to honor the Quartet's conditions. The Palestinian reconciliation enjoys the seemingly enthusiastic backing across those old Arab divides -- Syria and Egypt, the Saudis and Qatar.
The details of the proposed "National Accordance" government [al-tawafuq al-watani] remain vague, and everyone expects hard bargaining to come. The proposed reconciliation is to include rebuilding the PLO, holding new Parliamentary and Presidential elections, and reconstructing the Palestinian security forces. They also agreed yesterday to put an end to hostile media campaigns and to work towards reconciliation. But the hard choices seem to have been largely deferred to committees, and there are wide gaps in the expectations of the two sides and a lot of mutual resentment and mistrust. But the Arab governments seem keen on reaching agreement before the Doha Arab Summit scheduled for the end of March.
Everyone recognizes that the Cairo agreement is a beginning rather than an end to the political struggles over intra-Palestinian relations -- but it's important to even seen a beginning after many long months of division and conflict. And the challenges to any kind of peace deal with Israel remain overwhelming, even if the Palestinian reconciliation is achieved. But it would be a dramatic and important positive development nonetheless, draining the intra-Palestinian political poison and focusing on moving ahead. I hope that the Obama administration gets behind the moves towards an "accordance government" rather than reverting to the old Bush policies of trying to isolate Hamas. I think it will.
In fact, I'd go further. I think that this dramatic shift in Arab politics from confrontation to reconciliation directly reflects Arab evaluations of the new administration, and the messages they've been receiving from George Mitchell. And that's all to the good. The Arab regional trend towards reconciliation and the abandonment of the "moderate/rejection" discourse is a concrete manifestation of their readiness for "real change" -- which could have positive effects on a whole range of inter-connected regional issues including Iraq and Iran. Welcoming signals from the U.S. now could go a long way towards making this happen, and could make the Doha summit very interesting indeed.
George Mitchell was appointed to bring about Middle East peace, but he has returned from the region empty-handed -- no peace in the Middle East. His mission is clearly a total failure. The Obama administration has been humiliated! There's obviously no difference between Obama and Bush! His failure will embolden America's enemies, making it imperative to stop the stimulus package! It's time to... um, ahem, sorry. Thought I was writing for a newspaper op-ed page for a minute there. Let's try again.
Middle East envoy George Mitchell's maiden trip to the region was an important first step, but it also contained some troubling signals. It was extremely important for the Obama administration to demonstrate immediate, high-level engagement with the issue after Bush's near-total disengagement. It was also a good step to announce that Mitchell will be returning to the region before the end of the month and will spearhead a sustained, ongoing and high level engagement. A listening tour was appropriate, both because of Obama's repeated stressing of the importance of listening and because the half-staffed administration isn't ready to put forward its own initiatives yet.
But there were some ominous signals too. Mitchell's itinerary apparently only included meetings with one side of the great Arab divide: the Saudis, Egyptians, Jordanians, Fatah. Little surprise, then, if he heard few new ideas. What's more, in his comments with Secretary Clinton on his return he signaled no new thinking on the Hamas question. Her remarks about Hamas -- "Hamas knows the conditions that have been set forth" -- could have been delivered by Condoleeza Rice. The Arab "moderate" camp followed his trip with a gathering in Abu Dhabi which could have been held in the Bush years: demonizing Iran, bashing Hamas, and promoting the schism between the "moderate" and "rejection" camps.
Iconic image of the Arab faux-reconciliation at the Kuwait meeting
Mitchell is not going to be able to break through this stalemate with the old playbook. He needs to engage both sides of the great Arab divide, and he needs to take the lead in bridging rather than exacerbating those divisions. Obama's approach to the Middle East during the campaign was built upon serious dialogue with adversaries and upon a holistic regional conception which captured the relationships among the various issues. But Clinton and Mitchell's first moves instead run the risk of reverting to the Bush style of sharpening regional divisions.
That has to change if Mitchell hopes to find new paths through this mess. The intensity of the intra-Arab divisions will only make this harder, and it doesn't make sense to encourage them either intentionally or unintentionally. The wounds of last month's dueling summits have not healed, and the official Arab order appears to be even more disconnected from popular opinion than normal. The leaders Mitchell went with are caught up in nasty political and personal arguments. They are hunkering down into their mutually hostile bunkers, and are likely in no mood to advocate an American outreach to the other camp.
But a strong signal from Washington that the time has come to bridge regional divides rather than stoke the divisions could change that in a hurry. I think that much of the Arab public is hungry for such a move, and so are a lot of the Arab "fence-sitters" who fear getting caught up in the diplomatic cross-fire. My strong sense is that Mitchell understands this, and sees his mission as part of Obama's conception of a wider regional restructuring. But he needs to avoid getting trapped by the business-as-usual instincts that others bring to the table.
So what should he do?
First, go to Doha. If Mitchell isn't going to talk to Hamas, he should at least talk to the only close American ally which does. Talking to Sarkozy, who talked to the Qataris, is good but doesn't have quite the same impact because it doesn't send the same signal. If he doesn't go to Qatar, then he implicitly validates the current lines of division and sends a strong but possibly unintended signal endorsing the Arab lines of division.
Second, pay attention to the whole Arab public. Mitchell needs to recognize that the leaders he's meeting represent only one side in a sharply divided region, are out of touch with broad swathes of public opinion, and have only limited ability to shape public attitudes. There's a reason that al-Jazeera dominated the Arab coverage of Gaza and not al-Arabiya -- and Washington needs to understand the reasons for that.. and the implications for successful diplomacy. If he doesn't see what al-Jazeera viewers see out of Gaza, he's just not going to understand why they feel the way they do right now -- so watch.
Third, be open to a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation. If the attempts (in Cairo or elsewhere) to broker a Palestinian national unity government succeed, the U.S. shouldn't veto it or work to destroy it as the Bush administration did. This doesn't look likely right now, with acrimony running high and Hamas leaders talking about the formation of an alternative to the PLO. It's even less likely if regional actors think that the U.S. will reject it. But if regional players thought that the U.S. might be supportive of such a unity government, their calculations could quickly change.Finally, don't give in to the status quo. There's going to be strong pressure on the Obama administration from inside and outside to revert to standard practice on all of these issues. Doing so is a recipe for failure. I don't think that's why George Mitchell took on this assignment. Making progress will require a long, hard slog but at this stage at least let's hope that he's slogging in the right direction.
Ayman al-Zawahiri has finally weighed in on behalf of al-Qaeda over the Gaza crisis, calling it part of the West's war on Islam and calling on Muslims everywhere to attack Western and Israeli targets. He sounds about as happy as I can remember hearing him of late. He probably can't believe his luck.
Israel's assault on Gaza has really created an almost unbelievable no-lose situation for al-Qaeda. If Hamas "wins", then al-Qaeda gets to share in the benefits of the political losses incurred by its Western and Arab enemies (Zawahiri mentions Mubarak and the Saudis in this tape, but not the Jordanians) and can try to take advantage of the political upheavals which could follow. If Hamas "loses", al-Qaeda still wins. It will shed no tears at seeing one of its bitterest and most dangerous rivals take a beating at Israel's hands or losing control of a government that they have consistently decried as illegitimate and misguided. Either way, the Gaza crisis guarantees that a far more radicalized Islamic world will face the incoming Obama administration -- potentially severely blunting the challenge which al-Qaeda clearly felt after the election (hence Zawahiri's attempt to pre-emptively discredit Obama by declaring the attack Obama's "gift" to Muslims).
The way this crisis is playing out shows the bankruptcy and strategic dangers of trying to simply reduce Hamas to part of an undifferentiated "global terrorist front". The Muslim Brotherhood, from whence Hamas evolved twenty years ago, is no friend of the United States or Israel but is nevertheless one of al-Qaeda's fiercest rivals. Zawahiri himself penned one of the most famous anti-Brotherhood tracts, Bitter Harvest. Over the last few years, the doctrinal and political conflict between the Brotherhood and al-Qaeda's salafi-jihadism has become one of the most active fault-lines in Islamist politics. As ‘Abu Qandahar’ wrote on al-Qaeda's key al-Ekhlaas forum in October 2007, the "Islamic world is divided between two projects, jihad and Ikhwan [Brotherhood]."
Hamas enjoys a special place in al-Qaeda's enemies list. Al-Qaeda has long been desperate for a foothold in Palestine, but has been largely kept out because Hamas has the place locked. Jihadist forums bear a deep grudge over Hamas's crackdown on various jihadist groups which have tried to set up shop there (Jaysh al-Islam, et al). In March 2006, Zawahiri denounced Hamas's electoral victory and called on them to reject the democratic trap and pursue armed struggle. In February 2007 he attacked the Mecca Agreement between Fatah and Hamas, and in March declared that Hamas had "surrendered most of Palestine to the Jews, sold the Palestinian issue, and sold shari'a in order to retain leadership of the Palestinian government." In June 2007 he called on Hamas to "correct your path." Just last week, the leading Jordanian jihadist theoretician Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi (thanks to Will McCants) complained that "Hamas is misleading Muslims with its glittering slogans, which blind people to their wayward goals and strategies, leading them down the path of criminals... [and] Hamas started the bloodshed in Gaza several weeks ago when it killed members of the Army of Islam organization."
From al-Qaeda's perspective, therefore, Israel's assault on Gaza is an unmitigated blessing. The images flooding the Arab and world media have already discredited moderates, fueled outrage, and pushed the center of political gravity towards more hard-line and radical positions. As in past crises, Islamists of all stripes are outbidding each other, competing to "lead" the popular outrage, while "moderates" are silent or jumping on the bandwagon. Governments are under pressure, most people are glued to al-Jazeera's coverage (and, from what anyone can tell, ignoring stations that don't offer similar coverage), the internet is flooded with horrifying images, and people are angry and mobilized against Israel, the United States, and their own governments. That's the kind of world al-Qaeda likes to see.
Even if Hamas emerges weakened, as Israeli strategists hope, all the better (from al-Qaeda's point of view, that is). In general, where the MB is strong (Egypt, Jordan, and Palestine for example), AQ has had a hard time finding a point of entry despite serious efforts to do so, while where the MB is weak (Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Lebanon) it has had more success. Up to now, AQ-minded groups have had little success in penetrating Gaza, because Hamas had it locked. Now they clearly have high hopes of finding an entree with a radicalized, devastated population and a weakened Hamas.
Al-Qaeda likely can not thank Israel enough for its efforts over the last two weeks. Over the last few years, al-Qaeda has been losing ground with the mainstream Muslim public -- because of its real radicalism and fringe ideology, its killing of so many Muslim innocents in its attacks in Muslim countries, challenges from other Islamist groups and from within its own ranks, an increasingly effective strategic communications campaign by Western and Arab governments, and more. Israel's military assault against Gaza threatens to reverse that trend.
Meanwhile, U.S. public diplomacy (whether in its 1.0 or 2.0 varieties) has been as absent as has been American policy -- a disaster that I'll be picking up in later posts.
John Bolton proposes in today's Washington Post giving up on Palestinian governance and a two-state solution, instead opting for a "three-state approach" in which "Gaza is returned to Egyptian control and the West Bank in some configuration reverts to Jordanian sovereignty."
If a zombie can be defined as a "reanimated corpse," then Bolton's proposal certainly fits the bill. This concept reappears like clockwork whenever there's an Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Some see it as a magic bullet to negate Palestinian nationalism or at least redirect Palestinian ire towards their new/old Arab rulers. Others just can't imagine the emergence of any Palestinian leadership they find acceptable (probably a safe bet) and prefer the predictable dictatorships to the East and South. Most recently, in October, Israeli Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Giora Eiland's Washington Institute for Near East Policy paper proposed a "trilateral" solution (more discussion here).
Variants on this idea pop up so routinely, in fact, that it might be more concerning if the dog didn't bark. So thanks to Bolton for that. But it's still a terrible idea. Leaving aside all the practical impediments, who wants it (other than Bolton and his pals)?
Bolton acknowledges that neither the Egyptians nor Jordanians are interested, but the opposition of foreigners has rarely been a problem for Bolton (or for neo-conservatives in general, whose misreading of the importance of foreign public opinion has always been one of the more deadly of their numerous Achilles heels). Bolton dismissively suggests that Egypt and Jordan can be persuaded with the offer of "financial and political support from the Arab League and the West." That rather understates the intense regime survival fears in both countries... and resonates rather too well with the popular Arab complaint that their governments prostitute themselves to the West.
Watching the walking dead can be fun in George Romero movies or in the Marvel Zombies comic books, but it's less amusing in the midst of a major regional crisis.. especially if it offers any kind of guide to the thinking of the Israeli leadership, the Likud opposition, or to the remnants of the Bush administration. The Jordan option, the Egypt-Gaza option, the "three-state solution" -- these are fantasies which have little to do with the real problems on the ground or feasible solutions to this intractable conflict. Can we just let this idea finally rest in its grave so that more serious options can be considered instead.. and perhaps even liberate some valuable Washington Post op-ed page real-estate?
The other day I pointed out the Arab political divisions over the response to Gaza. It might be interesting to show how this plays out in one of the key interpretive struggles in the Arab public sphere (and not only Arab, of course): whether to define the current Israeli attack as against "Gaza" or "Hamas." The stakes are clear. If the attack is defined as against "Gaza", then what follows is solidarity with the Palestinians and demands to stop the killing. If the attack is defined as against "Hamas", then what follows is the division of Arab opinion along sharply polarized lines defined by their views towards the Islamist movement. Who's winning? Thus far, "Gaza" in a landslide... but just as in the 2006 Hezbollah war, the 2008 Iraqi Basra campaign, and all other such battles the interpretive struggle will continue long beyond the hostilities.
The "Hamas" frame is being pushed by Israel, the United States, the Egyptian government, Fatah's Mahmoud Abbas, parts of the Saudi media and generally the familiar quarters of the "official Arab order". While they can't ignore the destruction in Gaza, their focus is primarily on Hamas's "irresponsibility" for breaking the cease-fire, and on its alleged alliances with a variety of enemies of this official order: Iran, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood. For example, here's the lead story on the crisis on the Saudi al-Arabiya right now, showcasing Hamas missiles, not suffering Gazans:
The competing frame focuses on the mass human suffering at the hands of Israeli military assault and the inaction on the part of Arab governments. Thus far, the "Hamas" frame has been absolutely swamped by the "Gaza" frame. The visuals in the Arab media show endless pain, sufffering, and trauma for Gazans of all stripes. Al-Jazeera has taken the lead in pushing the images and the frame, but it is far more pervasive than that -- and extends far, far beyond the "pro-Iran" or "Islamist" forces to which the first camp prefers to assign it. Almost every newspaper features front page images of devastation in Gaza, imagery which overwhelms the carefully calculated political arguments of the official Arab camp. The language of choice throughout the media is "massacre", "slaughter", "assault". Here are just a few examples from today's editions of Jordan's semi-official al-Rai, Lebanon's al-Safir, and the Saudi pan-Arab al-Hayat:
It remains to be seen how much this matters, of course, and skepticism runs deep. Anyone who lived through the fierce protests during the second Intifada in 2000, the Israeli re-occupation of the West Bank in 2002, or the invasion of Iraq in 2003 will remember well the rising force of popular protest at those moments, the expectations of dramatic change, the perception of regimes on the brink, the empowered public opinion, the satellite television arguments, the declarations of the final collapse of the Arab official order. And here we still are.
I do think that public opinion matters, at least indirectly in terms of shaping the terms of Arab politics, even if governments don't fall, treaties aren't broken or war declared. A whole industry of 'public diplomacy' and 'wars of ideas' is based on the concern that anti-American attitudes matter, for instance. Here, the anti-Hamas camp has already been forced to bow to this frame rhetorically, with the Mubarak demanding Israel immediately end its "monstrous" assault, and the GCC calling for an immediate end to the violence. The limits of their concessions can be seen in the fact that they continue to blame Hamas for the crisis, though, and refuse to do anything substantive in response (calling for an Arab summitt to eventually be held, or photo opportunities of blood donations don't really count). Their media are trying to portray those governments as acting effectively, but that doesn't seem to be getting much traction with a deeply skeptical and outraged public. If the crisis grinds on, we'll see whether these regimes are forced to start making more concessions to public views --- but most of the real impact will only be felt long-term.
Originally posted on Abu Aardvark.
Israel's assault on Gaza, now in its second day with ground forces reportedly massing on the border, continues to dominate Arab politics and media. It's not hard to find the usual zillions of commentators consumed with the details of the Israeli-Palestinian issues (of those, I thought Dan Levy had a smart take on that today), so as usual I will focus on the regional political dimensions that interest me the most.
Almost every Arab media outlet, even those bitterly hostile to Hamas, is running bloody images from Gaza. But as with the 2006 Hezbollah war, Arab responses are enmeshed within deeply entrenched inter-Arab conflicts, dividing sharply between pro-U.S. regimes and the vast majority of expressed public opinion. One key divide revolves around the portrayal of the Arab regimes, with one side blasting Arab governments for what they are calling complicity with the Israeli attack and the other trying to create the impression that Arab leaders are working to formulate a collective response. As protests escalate, this dividing line will likely intensify.
Not quite 2006: even Saudi-owned al-Hayat leads with caption "Gaza Massacre"
This doesn't mean that the Arab response has been unified. In general, the responses have mirrored the faultlines which have dominated Arab politics for the least few years -- seen most vividly in the sharp Arab media divide during the early days of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. As in the summer of 2006, many U.S.-aligned regimes and their media are attacking Hamas and tacitly approving of the Israeli action (and, particularly in the case of Egypt, have been themselves actively working against Hamas for years). Al-Sharq al-Awsat editor Tareq al-Homayed, a reliable conduit for the views of the Saudi leadership, explicitly equates Hamas 2008 with Hezbollah 2006. Just as in the earlier conflict, where the war was initially blamed on Hezbollah's recklessness, Homayed suggests that Hamas should pay the price for its manifold sins. This equation between Hezbollah and the very Sunni Hamas, by the way, should reinforce my long-standing point that the "Sunni Axis" attacks on Hezbollah were always more about the regime/popular divide than about sectarianism, no matter how much they worked to inflame sectarianism in order to undermine support for Hezbollah and Iran.
One significant difference in the regional camps surrounding Hezbollah 2006 and Hamas 2008 is Jordan, which was firmly in the Saudi-Egyptian camp against Hezbollah in 2006 but is walking a more careful line today because of the unique issues posed by the Hamas-Jordan relationship. More on that later. The Iraqi government, for its part, has condemned Israel's attack, and Foreign Minister Zebari told al-Jazeera that Iraq would support any Arab initiative to help Gaza.
Meanwhile, most popular movements are lambasting the Israelis, Arab leaders, and the U.S., and -- even more than in the Lebanon war -- public opinion seems to be firmly on the side of Gaza rather than Riyadh and Cairo. Al-Jazeera is in full crisis mode, and angry protests are roiling the streets from Amman to Cairo. The protests are directed firmly at Arab governments as well as Israel and the U.S., with the Egyptian opposition daily al-Dustour trumpeting the Egyptian 'green light' for the attack and calling for a popular response commensurate with the magnitude of events and popular fury. The Muslim Brotherhood is taking the lead in Cairo, with Supreme Guide Mohammed Mehdi Akef personally leading a large demonstration yesterday and another announced for tomorrow. Angry arguments between Muslim Brotherhood and NDP Parliamentarians have roiled the Parliament. Jordanian Parliamentarians are calling to sever relations with Israel, and even mainstream commentators are demanding the expulsion of the Israeli Ambassador and labeling the attack "nothing but a massacre" (in the words of the liberal Jamil al-Nimri). Iran is seeking to capitalize on the outrage, as well, while Hezbollah is playing up the comparisons to 2006 with Hassan Nasrallah calling for "millions" of Egyptians to take to the streets.
There are already some cracks in the anti-Hamas front -- three years of the Hamas- Fatah conflict dividing Arab attitudes towards and Arab media coverage of Palestinian politics do not seem to have dulled the intensity of the response to the images of Israel's bombardment of Gaza. Here, it's instructive to compare Homayed's leader for al-Sharq al-Awsat (blaming Hamas and equating it with Hezbollah) with the leader by the editor of the Saudi-owned al-Hayat Ghassan Cherbel focused on stopping "the massacre" -- bemoaning the "monstrous attacks" and declaiming that there is no time to resolve deep inter-Arab conflicts before ending the killing in Gaza.
However this round of violence ends -- and it's hard to see any scenario in which it produces remotely positive results for anyone involved -- the outcome at the regional level will likely be to further exacerbate these conflicts and to undermine the chances for the incoming Obama administration to make early progress. While Arab regimes will almost certainly survive the latest round of popular outrage, the regional atmosphere may prove less resilient. Syria has reportedly broken off its indirect peace talks with Israel, for instance. A bloody Hamas retaliation against Israelis seems highly likely, and if Abbas is seen as supporting the Israeli offensive against his political rivals then Hamas may well emerge from this even stronger within Palestinian politics. The offensive is highly unlikely to get rid of Hamas, but it will likely leave an even more poisoned, polarized and toxic regional environment for a new President who had pledged to re-engage with the peace process. Obama has scrupuously (and wisely) adhered to the "one President at a time" formula in foreign policy up to this point... but you have to wonder how long he can sit by and watch the prospects for meaningful change in the region battered while the Bush administration sits by and cheers.
Originally posted on Abu Aardvark.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.