With the Israeli Defense Forces just hours away from completing the neutralization of terror tunnels from the Gaza Strip into Israeli communities, the Jewish state has reached a critical point in its battle against Hamas. Unfazed by one-sided condemnations from the United Nations Human Rights Council, letters signed by Penelope Cruz alleging genocide, and violent uprisings around the world that have crossed the line from anti-Israel activism to blatant anti-Semitism, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is emboldened by relatively stable international support for its current campaign, notwithstanding widespread grief — echoed by Netanyahu and all Israelis — over the deaths of too many innocent civilians. However, the strongest endorsement for Israel’s operation to weaken Hamas and restore quiet for the citizens of Israel is coming from key players in the Middle East itself. And at a time when US leverage is at an all-time low, the value for Israel of having regional strategic partners cannot be overstated.
Speaking at a press conference on Saturday, Netanyahu brushed aside weeks of tense and ultimately unfruitful diplomacy and characterized the support of the US and the European Union — which have both called for Hamas to be demilitarized — as an “important achievement for the state of Israel.” Most interestingly, he added that the operation has allowed Israel to build “special connections” with states in the region, yielding “new possibilities.” He did not provide further details. Here’s how the Ministry of Foreign Affairs translates those Hebrew remarks:
“We are enlisting the international community to support this goal of linking the rehabilitation and development of Gaza to its demilitarization but no less important — this may surprise many, but not us — is the unique link which has been forged with the states of the region. This as well is a very important asset for the State of Israel. With the cessation of the fighting and the conclusion of the campaign, this will open new possibilities for us.”
This statement prompts several questions. Who are these new friends, and how might Prime Minister Netanyahu work with them in common cause towards the rehabilitation, development, and demilitarization of Gaza? Why does Netanyahu argue that regional cooperation is “no less important” than efforts by the international community? Why does he note that many will be “surprised” by Israel’s success at deliberately building a regional coalition against Hamas? What are these “new possibilities” awaiting Netanyahu after Operation Protective Edge formally concludes — and indeed the withdrawals are already underway?
Before discussing this network of influential if unlikely partners, let us eliminate one country that has distanced itself even further from the global struggle to combat terrorism. Qatar, known for oil and Al Jazeera, is now universally recognized as Hamas’ primary backer, hosting its political leader Khaled Meshaal in a five-star hotel. As Netanyahu sees it, US Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon were severely “misled” by Qatar’s offer to mediate a ceasefire. Kerry was momentarily enticed to work alongside a country with rare leverage over Hamas. But he will probably not repeat the mistake.
Israel’s renewed and strengthened regional strategic partnerships are built upon a climate of ‘unknown unknowns’ and, fundamentally, fear expressed most effectively — and repeatedly — by Netanyahu: “Terrorism has no borders. Today, it threatens the State of Israel. Tomorrow, it will threaten your countries.”
And so we come to Egypt. With a population of over 86 million inhabitants, it is the largest country in the Middle East and Arab world. Under its former Islamist leadership, which supported Hamas as fellow affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt brokered a ceasefire during Israel’s last campaign responding to Hamas missiles. At that time, Hamas had — to reference the title of Israel’s 2012 operation — a “pillar of cloud” thanks to a friendly Egypt. Today, less than two years later, Egypt is led by former military commander Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whose government opposes Hamas with as much vehemence as the Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, an al-Qaeda linked group operating out of the Sinai.
Israel and Egypt — still bound by a 1979 peace treaty, an accomplishment that seems fantastical in hindsight — have a great deal of work to do to rehabilitate, develop, and demilitarize Gaza, while ensuring the people of this tiny Strip are able to choose among options for legitimate governance moving forward, likely including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. This cooperation must begin with a coordinated strategy for managing the untenable blockade with a view to allowing humanitarian access to essential items and services, while preventing Hamas from diverting aid for use in rebuilding its network of terror tunnels.
Yet Israel’s “new possibilities” extend far beyond the Nile. Saudi Arabia and Israel have never had official diplomatic relations, but both are key Washington allies and both oppose Iran’s dangerous moves towards nuclear weaponization. It took King Abdullah nearly four weeks to denounce the war in Gaza as a “collective massacre” and a crime against humanity, though he stopped short of directly condemning Israel for its operation against Hamas.
Beyond the rhetoric from the political centre, there are indications the two countries have accelerated the sharing of intelligence, which the Saudi ambassador to the United Kingdom characterized as part of “attempts to bring about a plan for peace.” More concretely, Riyadh, which once foot half of Hamas’ fat bill, has cut funding to the organization. It doesn’t end there. As Dore Gold notes, “In March, the Saudi Interior Ministry declared the entire Muslim Brotherhood network to be a terrorist organization, a move which complicated Hamas’ position even further.”
Also in the Israeli friendzone are the Middle Eastern states — and they are the rule rather than the exception — worried about the transformation of Syria into a safe haven for Salafi-Jihadist terrorist groups, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, and the rapid expansion of the shockingly sophisticated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) into its own version of an Islamic Caliphate, attracting as many as 10,000 violent extremist ‘foreign fighters’ from around the world. Hamas overtly endorsed al-Nusra, causing the former group to be expelled from Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, one of Hamas’ most enduring allies. Moreover, the Pentagon has warned that were Israel to temporarily reoccupy Gaza and remove Hamas from power, “the region would end up with something much worse…something like ISIS.” Turkey’s Erdogan may talk tough, going so far as to accuse Israel of “Hitler-like fascism,” but even he would not deny, behind closed doors, that Israel is a key partner in addressing the sprawling extremist threat facing his citizens.
The threat landscape is remarkably complex, and there is insufficient space here to fully analyze options for advancing regional security. What is clear is that Netanyahu’s vague words about “new possibilities” and “special connections” were anything but empty rhetoric. As Operation Protective Edge winds down — with or without an internationally-mediated ceasefire, and regardless of the status of Hamas once the artillery shells stop firing — Israel will have to carefully manage its relationships within the Middle East and the broader Arab world.
As the Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal put it, “what starts with the Jews becomes a scourge of general society.” To this reality no one can turn a blind eye.