Looking back, four years ago Israel had more diplomatic manoeuvring room than now. But then, by the time its three week military offensive into the Gaza Strip was over in January 2009, 1,400 Palestinians had been killed, and 13 Israelis.
Operation Cast Lead had meant air force attacks, also from the sea, the navy tightening the blockade, artillery bombardment and sending in ground troops. There was fighting in dense urban areas, and Hamas rockets continued to be fired into Israel. Yet still there was room for more diplomacy then.
The Arab Spring uprisings in the region last year changed that radically. Neighbouring Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, with whom the Israelis had been able to negotiate, was replaced as head of state by Mohamed Morsi.
He is from the Islamist movement the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi put distance between himself and Israel by sending his Prime Minister Hisham Kandil to Gaza to show support for Hamas, a few days ago, on November 16.
Egypt is politically and militarily significant where Israel’s security is concerned since it can control the arms flow across its border with Gaza.
Egypt and Israel have a peace treaty between themselves but any ceasefire arrangements between the Israelis and the Gazans depend on the Egyptians, since they can open their border up if they choose.
Another, even more recent game-changer was the visit to Gaza of the Emir of Qatar just before the current exchange of hostilities began. The sheik’s October 23 trip inaugurated reconstruction projects. He pledged 400 million dollars, to ease austerity in the Hamas-controlled territory. Israel was alarmed.
Turkey has also distanced itself from the Israelis, for a long time their only Muslim regional ally, but lately increasingly hostile. Turkish ambitions to boost their regional power are frustrated by the Israel-Gaza eruption. And Turkey has identified more and more with the Palestinians.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has slammed Israel’s position: “Once again ahead of elections in Israel, Gaza has become a target. Innocent civilians and innocent children are being killed viciously based on unsatisfactory, made-up excuses. Calling these illegitimate attacks self-defence is to encourage Israel to carry out further massacres.”
Israel and Turkey relations took a downward turn after a humanitarian supply ship flying the Turkish flag tried to run the Israeli blockade of Gaza in 2010 and Israeli commandos enforced it, killing eight Turkish nationals and an American of Turkish descent.
For a view from Cairo, we spoke with Ahmad Oleiba, a researcher and analyst with Egyptian daily newspaper Al Ahram.
Riad Muasses, euronews:
“Between Operation Cast Lead and now Operation Pillar of Defence four years have passed. The Middle East has gone through a lot of changes, both political and strategic, since the Arab Spring uprisings. Do you think the Arab Spring has had repercussions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and on Hamas in particular?”
“The Arab Spring has had effects on Hamas and Palestinian matters as a whole, certainly. The conflict has once again become an Arab-Israeli conflict and not just an Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We can see how central Egypt’s managing of the negotiations has become – between the two main parties involved, and for international contacts between Cairo and other world capitals.
“Egypt has certainly got an active role in this again. But alignments have also changed. Hamas moved out of Syria, cutting political relations with it. Hamas lost Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s support after standing up for the Syrian revolution. And there is also tension between Hamas and Iran.”
“You arrived in Gaza yesterday with the Egyptian delegation. Do you think Israel was aiming for anything else in responding to rockets fired by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip?”
“Yes, I imagine that, with its theory of nationalistic immunity Israel is trying to send messages to others outside the conflict, including the countries of the Arab Spring. Israel wants to test Egypt’s reaction. It wants to understand the new administration’s political and security policy.
“How are things going to be between Egypt and Hamas? Is there a clue what could influence bilateral relations? These have been in place for 30 years, in the Camp David Peace Treaty.. Or they are the sort of relations that tend to go along with the Egyptian state and that Egypt favours politically and pragmatically.”
“Do Arab and major international players see a political solution for a long-term truce while waiting for a sustainable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?”
“I asked that question with Hamas leaders while I was in the Gaza Strip, and maybe even ordinary Palestinians are in favour of testing the intentions of both sides at an early stage, putting a price on each thing that gets done.
“As far as the truce process is concerned, the leaders of the Palestinian factions say the price could be considerable, and that the Israelis couldn’t possibly accept. The Palestinians talk about going back to the 1967 borders. And when I asked about East Jerusalem, they said ‘all of Jerusalem’. That’s why we’re talking about an impossible proposal.”