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Analysis | Normalization or Not, Arab Countries Prove They Haven’t Ditched the Palestinians

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The tense anticipation that accompanied National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s visit to the Temple Mount on Tuesday hasn’t faded. Israel’s security forces were on high alert for Friday prayers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, even if little happened in the end.

These security preparations were dictated by a nightmare scenario of clashes between worshippers, protesters and police leading to shooting, killing and the firing of missiles.

Israeli sources told Haaretz that Egypt’s intelligence chiefs and diplomats were already in contact with Hamas on the morning of Ben-Gvir’s visit. According to a Hamas media outlet, the group told Cairo that the understandings reached with Israel via Egypt after the May 2021 fighting with Gaza could collapse, obliterating the Israeli assumption that “Hamas has no interest in opening a military front at this time.”

The Egyptians told Hamas that, in addition to President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi’s congratulations to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on forming a government, Sissi sent bright warning signals. The Israeli sources say Netanyahu assured Sissi he intends to adhere to all the agreements between Israel and Egypt, including those with Hamas.

It will be interesting to see how these commitments – which include money transfers from Qatar to Gaza, work permits for residents of the Strip and permission to bring construction materials into Gaza – will be managed under Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, the far-rightist who also controls the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories and the Civil Administration in the West Bank.

Publicly, Hamas continues to maintain that “Jerusalem and Gaza are a unified front” – that is, Israel can’t do whatever it pleases in Jerusalem and the West Bank and expect restraint from Hamas. The separation that Israel tried to dictate between Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza as a condition of its agreement with Hamas was rejected by the group, even if it hasn’t reacted to every development in Jerusalem.

A Hamas-affiliated journalist told Haaretz that the organization’s strategy relies on three concentric rings. The inner ring is Gaza, where Hamas must enable reconstruction and ensure civil services like health and education, as well as Israeli work permits. This ring dictates the organization’s adherence to understandings with Israel.

The second ring links the Hamas agenda to that of Islamic Jihad and other factions. “As long as there is a consensus between these organizations regarding developments on the ground in Gaza, Jerusalem and the West Bank, Islamic Jihad will keep the peace and won’t endanger Hamas’ policy,” the journalist said.

But this slogan of “unity of the fronts” isn’t necessarily applied, the journalist noted, pointing to Hamas’ silence on Israel’s operations against Islamic Jihad in Jenin in the West Bank, and its silence after the bombing of Islamic Jihad bases in Gaza last August. In this ring, even though Hamas doesn’t write the rules of Islamic Jihad’s game, it marks the boundaries of cooperation with the other organizations, and they “draw the obvious operational conclusions.”

The third ring encompasses the Muslim world, along with the ideological, nationalist and pan-Palestinian arena. This ring is what obligates Hamas, at least theoretically, to respond to incidents.

But these aren’t automatic replies akin to Israel’s reactions to rockets fired from Gaza. Hamas’ responses depend on a combination of factors including an interpretation of the damage caused by Israel, Egyptian pressure and an assessment of the gains and losses involved in each of the three rings.

In the aftermath of Ben-Gvir’s visit, Hamas finds itself surrounded not only by an Arab coalition containing countries that normalized ties with Israel, but also by the United States and Europe. But if during the fighting in May 2021 the United Arab Emirates sufficed with a warning not to visit Israel and a call for the sides to stop shooting without labeling an aggressor, this time it has launched an unusual diplomatic initiative.

The UAE once symbolized Netanyahu’s crowning foreign policy achievement and, in his view, proved that peace with Arab nations is possible without resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the UAE is the country that spearheaded the convening of the UN Security Council to discuss Ben-Gvir’s visit and the violation of the status quo on the Temple Mount.

The Emirati initiative clarifies that even if peace between the two countries doesn’t collapse in the near future, the UAE has no intention of abandoning its diplomatic leverage – and the Palestinian issue isn’t going away.

It’s also worth noting UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed’s meeting in Damascus on Wednesday with Syrian President Bashar Assad. The two countries’ ties began to thaw about a year ago, but this time they declared an intention to boost trade as part of their “special brotherly relations.”

The upshot is that the Emirates will be willing to invest a lot of money in Syria and promote Assad’s legitimacy in the Middle East. Washington has made clear that it’s not pleased with this, just as it has spoken out against the meeting of the defense ministers of Turkey, Syria and Russia in Moscow. But the UAE has an agenda of its own that doesn’t necessarily conform with that of the Americans, or even of the country’s Gulf neighbors.

It’s precisely the independence of Israel’s Arab allies that could serve Israel by driving a stake between Damascus and Tehran, or at least prevent arms transfers from Iran to Lebanon. But when Israel agitates Abdullah bin Zayed on the Temple Mount and on the wider Palestinian issue, it’s doubtful he’ll want to serve as Israel’s advocate in Damascus.

Cold shoulder


Hamas has been following the dialogue between Netanyahu’s office and the White House. The prime minister said at the opening of his first cabinet meeting: “Contrary to the prevailing opinion that this dangerous nuclear agreement has been scrapped after the recent events in Iran, I think that this possibility still hasn’t been definitively written off.”

State Department Spokesman Ned Price once again needed to clarify that, since September, the United States has been focusing on supporting the Iranian people, not the nuclear agreement.

A day earlier, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen spoke with his American counterpart, Antony Blinken, who reportedly acknowledged that the agreement is dead. It’s true that the U.S. administration is sticking to its position that diplomacy is the preferred path, and it’s true that Iran still talking with the International Atomic Energy Agency with the aim of concluding the saga of the “suspicious sites” where traces of enriched uranium have been found.

But if Netanyahu suspects that U.S. President Joe Biden is acting behind his back and breathing life into the talks, a public platform isn’t the place to reveal this. Then there are the harsh American reprimands against Ben-Gvir’s infuriating visit to the Temple Mount. If there’s anything certain in Washington’s relations with the Netanyahu government, it’s the hostility that’s gradually building.

Only a short time ago, Blinken said the administration’s concern wasn’t with the people in Israel’s government but with the policy they would implement. Still, Blinken didn’t have a week’s grace before Netanyahu gave him something to deal with.

The postponement of both Netanyahu’s visit to the UAE and the chance for a Saudi-Israeli peace agreement, along with the pressure from Egypt and Washington’s stinging reactions might be enough to keep Hamas from shooting.

If that’s the result, the group will still be able to maintain the balance of deterrence against Israel and even demand additional recompense from Egypt and Israel without risking a violent confrontation. It can even look like the rational side, in contrast to the Israeli government’s messianism.

For Hamas, which controls territory of its own, has conducted indirect talks with Israel and is hoping for international recognition, the Temple Mount is the gift that keeps on giving.

But this scenario of Hamas being a full diplomatic partner with Egypt, the UAE and Jordan rests on a sensitive minefield, and the trigger rests mainly on Netanyahu’s desk. After all, even though Friday prayers went by peacefully, there’s no certainty that Ben-Gvir & Co. will content themselves with one visit to the Temple Mount, or that the national security minister won’t decide to open a branch of his office there.

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Article source: Haaretz | Zvi Bar'el | Jan 6, 2023

2024-05-08 07:04:10.000000

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