It’s amazing how much of the discussion of the Gaza war is based on the supposition that it is still 1979. It’s based on the supposition that the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is a self-contained struggle being run by the two parties most directly involved. It’s based on the supposition that the horror could be ended if only deft negotiators could achieve a “breakthrough” and a path toward a two-state agreement.
But it is not 1979. People’s mental categories may be stuck in the past, but reality has moved on. The violence between Israel and Hamas, which controls Gaza, may look superficially like past campaigns, but the surrounding context is transformed.
What’s happened, of course, is that the Middle East has begun what Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations has called its 30 Years’ War – an overlapping series of clashes and proxy wars that could go on for decades and transform identities, maps and the political contours of the region.
The Sunni-Shiite rivalry is at full boil. Torn by sectarian violence, the nation of Iraq no longer exists in its old form.
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The rivalry between Arab authoritarians and Islamists is at full boil. More than 170,000 Syrians have been killed in a horrific civil war, including 700 in two days alone, the weekend before last, while the world was watching Gaza.
The Sunni vs. Sunni rivalry is boiling, too. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and other nations are in the midst of an intra-Sunni cold war, sending out surrogates that distort every other tension in the region.
The Saudi-Iranian rivalry is going strong, too, as those two powers maneuver for regional hegemony and contemplate a nuclear arms race.
In 1979, the Israeli-Palestinian situation was fluid, but the surrounding Arab world was relatively stagnant. Now the surrounding region is a cauldron of convulsive change, while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a repetitive Groundhog Day.
Here’s the result: The big regional convulsions are driving events, including the conflict in Gaza. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become just a stage on which the regional clashes in the Arab world are being expressed. When Middle Eastern powers clash, they take shots at Israel to gain advantage over each other.
Look at how the current fighting in Gaza got stoked. Authoritarians and Islamists have been waging a fight for control of Egypt. After the Arab Spring, the Islamists briefly gained the upper hand. But when the Muslim Brotherhood government fell, the military leaders cracked down. They sentenced hundreds of the Brotherhood’s leadership class to death. They also closed roughly 95 percent of the tunnels that connected Egypt to Gaza, where the Brotherhood’s offshoot, Hamas, had gained power.
As intended, the Egyptian move was economically devastating to Hamas. Hamas derived 40 percent of its tax revenue from tariffs on goods that flowed through those tunnels. One economist estimated the economic losses at $460 million a year, nearly a fifth of the Gazan GDP.
Hamas needed to end that blockade, but it couldn’t strike Egypt, so it struck Israel. If Hamas could emerge as the heroic fighter in a death match against the Jewish state, if Arab TV screens were filled with dead Palestinian civilians, then public outrage would force Egypt to lift the blockade. Civilian casualties were part of the point.
The eminent Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff summarized the strategy in The Times of Israel, “Make no mistake, Hamas remains committed to the destruction of Israel. But Hamas is firing rockets at Tel Aviv and sending terrorists through tunnels into southern Israel while aiming, in essence, at Cairo.”
This whole conflict has the feel of a proxy war. Turkey and Qatar are backing Hamas in the hopes of getting the upper hand in their regional rivalry with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The Egyptians and even the Saudis are surreptitiously backing or rooting for the Israelis, in hopes that the Israeli force will weaken Hamas.
It no longer makes sense to look at the Israeli-Palestinian contest as an independent struggle. It, like every conflict in the region, has to be seen as a piece of the larger 30 Years’ War. It would be nice if Israel could withdraw from Gaza and the West Bank and wall itself off from this war, but that’s not possible. No outsider can run or understand this complex historical process, but Israel, like the U.S., will be called upon to at least weaken some of the more radical players, like the Islamic State and Hamas.
In 1979, the Arab-Israeli dispute looked like a clash between civilizations, between a Western democracy and Middle Eastern autocracy. Now the Arab-Israeli dispute looks like a piece of a clash within Arab civilization, over its future.