Why you should care
Because the conflict that seems like old news is actually very different this time around.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “The Spy Who Told Me” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
Israel-Palestine, erupting again. This feels like very old news.
From a distance, the current fighting between Israel and Hamas — the Palestinian faction that rules the small and highly populated Gaza Strip — seems much like the hostility the region has known for decades.
But this time, it’s different — because this time, the two are at war just as the surrounding Middle East descends into total turmoil. And when everything abates, the two sides will end up even further from an agreement than they have been for years.
The dilemma for Netanyahu: The extremists don’t have to win to win — all they have to do is not lose.
This spate of fighting began three weeks ago. So far, upward of 1000 Palestinians have died in Gaza; Israel has lost over 50 soldiers. Who started it? Israel blames Hamas for breaking a 2012 ceasefire and abducting and murdering three Israeli teenagers. Hamas says Israel captured 50 or so Palestinian prisoners in the West Bank, some of whom had been released back to Palestine under a 2011 prisoner swap.
The last time the two nations fought was before the Arab Spring in 2012, after instability had begun to escalate in the region — but before the crumbling of Iraq and the extremist surge in Syria, and well before the now-discredited Morsi government in Egypt had even come to power. In other words, Israel and Palestine have fought before, but never have they fought in a Middle East that looks quite like today’s.
This is no longer the conflict to end all conflicts
…Because it’s all going down in a region where, frankly, the neighbors have it worse. It’s no longer possible to credibly argue, as the U.S. and others did for decades, that settling the Israeli-Palestinian dispute would be a “game changer” in the Middle East. America and Arab nations alike routinely claimed that resolving this conflict would help undermine the entire global terrorist narrative; that it would reduce hostility between Arab nations and Israel; and that it would dent the influence of extremist regimes like Iran. I heard this from Arab officials consistently over many years.
But now, the entire region is so troubled that no one, not even the U.S., can give the Israeli-Palestine conflict the attention it once demanded. And American officials can no longer argue that a settlement would ripple positively across the Middle East.
This isn’t the same Palestine anymore
Relations within the Palestinian community have become more complicated. During the last two wars, in 2009 and 2012, Palestinian governance was split between the extremist faction, Hamas, in Gaza, and the more moderate Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
But since June, the two factions have been uneasily allied in a power-sharing government. Which has pulled the Palestinian Authority more directly into the conflict, despite its minimal presence in Gaza. At the same time, the United States can’t deal directly with the Palestinians because we’ve labeled Hamas a terrorist group. And we don’t negotiate with terrorists.
Moreover, the moderates among Palestinian factions now feel obliged to aid Hamas, rhetorically if not more directly, rather than treating them as errant brethren. This, in turn, makes it harder for the U.S. and others to succeed in negotiations to the degree we have when more moderate Palestinian Authority officials could distance themselves … or even contemplate compromise with Israel.
The neighborhood’s going to the dogs
The priorities and alliances of the surrounding region have also shifted. Most consequential: Egypt, at peace with Israel since the 1979 Camp David Accords, no longer has the same clout to negotiate with the Palestinians (especially with Hamas). Once upon a time, the U.S. could count on Egyptian help to engage the Palestinian side. In fact, deposed Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi was instrumental in negotiating the ceasefire in 2012, in part because Hamas is a branch of the Brotherhood (and therefore, part of the family).
But new Egyptian President el-Sisi has outlawed the Brotherhood as a terrorist group. Which makes Egypt pretty much absent this time around.
Meanwhile, Hamas’ most significant support comes from Qatar, which shelters the group’s leadership, and Turkey. Neither nation enjoys warm relations with Israel. And Iran, a long-time Hamas supporter, has reversed its position — not long ago, Iran’s Shia leaders had removed support for Hamas because of Hamas’s allegiance to Sunni Syrian rebels. But, apparently surmounting this internal Islamic Civil War, Iran has just called on the Muslim world to send arms to Gaza.
All bets are off.
Kerry is riding the struggle bus
Lastly, although U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is pouring huge energy into the search for a solution, the simple truth is that American influence in the region is diminished. What’s the cause of this saltier relationship between the Arab world and America? Take Egypt and Syria to start. Unfairly or not, most Middle Easterners point to the rapidity with which the U.S. turned against longtime ally Hosni Mubarak during the Egyptian revolution in 2011 and the American decision not to use military strikes against Syria — despite the fact that President Obama had declared that he would. In short, the Middle East doubts America’s commitments.
There’s a trudging path ahead
All of this leaves zero hope that the U.S. will resume the moribund “peace process” — which was intermittently an obsession of U.S. diplomacy for decades.
The most one can hope for in the event of a cease-fire is a process that, over time — a very long time — begins to set the conditions for resuming peace talks. But by then, we can be sure neither side’s public will warm to negotiating with the other.
As for the immediate violence — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems determined to end Hamas attacks on Israel, either by rockets or via the infamous tunnels that carry Hamas militants secretly into Israeli territory. And the Israeli public supports the war overwhelmingly, by over 90 percent. The dilemma for Netanyahu is one that world leaders have always faced when battling extremists like Hamas or the Iran-backed Hezbollah: The extremists don’t have to win to win — all they have to do is not lose. In other words, if they are still standing at the end of battle, they will claim they stood up to Israel and then rally recruits for another fight on another day.