If we analyze the geopolitics of the Middle East, what should be the principal focus? There is little agreement on an answer, and yet it is the key question. The Israeli government has been sedulously and constantly trying to make the focus be Iran. This has been considered by most observers as an effort to divert attention from Israel’s unwillingness to pursue serious negotiations with the Palestinians.
In any case, this Israeli effort has failed, spectacularly. Netanyahu has been unable to get the U.S. government to commit to supporting an Israeli raid on Iran. And Iran’s ability to gather most of the non-Western world – including Pakistan, India, China, Palestine, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon – to the meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Tehran underlines the political impossibility of the Israeli wish to concentrate attention on Iran.
For the past year, the center of attention has become Syria, not Iran, even if there is a link between the two. It has been primarily Saudi Arabia and Qatar that have struggled, with considerable success, to make Syria the focus of attention. Some observers feel this has been an effort to divert attention from Saudi Arabia’s internal problems and anti-Shi’a oppression in the Gulf states, especially Bahrain.
This Syria-focus however is about to come to an end, for two reasons. In the first place, the Syrian government and its principal opposition, the Free Syrian Army, are more or less deadlocked in their military combat. It does not seem that either side can totally destroy the other. This means that what can now be called a civil war is destined to continue for an indefinitely long time.
What could of course bring the fighting to a rapid end is serious outside military intervention. But neither the United States, western Europe, Turkey, Saudi Arabia nor anyone else is ready to send troops to Syria. They are only ready to threaten to do so. That is not enough to end the fighting in Syria.
But secondly, there is the now spectacular re-entry onto the geopolitical scene of Egypt. It now has a government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. The president, Mohamed Morsi, seems to have a quite different agenda than his predecessors. And Morsi has turned out to be a far more astute political maneuverer than most people initially credited him. Le Monde noted this in an editorial entitled: “The astute and surprising M. Morsi.”
Morsi has flown to Tehran for the NAM meeting, stopping in Beijing en route. In doing this, he deferred until September the invitation that Obama made him to visit officially the United States, which was aimed at pre-empting the trip he is actually taking. Morsi claims that the objective of his visits is to help resolve the Syrian issue.
If Syria is what is on his mind, he has a curious way of showing it. He started with an imaginative proposal – that Egypt join forces with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran to form a group intent on resolving politically the issues dividing the two groups in Syria. This is indeed imaginative. But surely Morsi knows that, for the moment at least, it is certain to be rejected by Saudi Arabia, and possibly Turkey as well.
So why did he bother making the proposal? First of all, of course, he is seeking to place both Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood in the position of the most powerful broker in Middle Eastern politics. Nothing, of course, would please the Saudis less. Not only would Egyptian centrality oust them from this role, but the Saudis and the Muslim Brotherhood have had a very long hostile relationship.
Secondly, having offered the proposal as a “solution” to the Syrian issue, he is demonstrating that, for the moment, there is no solution to the Syrian question. That prepares the ground for the big shift – from Syria to Palestine.
We should remember two things about Egypt’s relation to Israel/Palestine. One is that Hamas was founded by Muslim Brotherhood members. The links are real, even if Hamas seeks to play an independent role in the region.
But secondly, and even more important, Egypt’s treaty with Israel is very, very unpopular in Egypt. Morsi is not out to break the treaty. He feels, probably correctly, that he is not strong enough internally and internationally to do that. Nor does he necessarily see great advantage to Egypt in doing that.
But he is certainly interested in revising its terms in important ways. In particular, he wants to change the rules about how Egypt relates to the struggle in Palestine. The Egyptians will continue to try to mediate the differences between the Palestine Authority and Hamas. And they will certainly try to create a more open border with Gaza. They may then directly offer themselves to the Israelis as the honest brokers, a role the United States has claimed as its exclusive property for some time now.
It seems at least a good guess that, by 2013, Egypt will have muted the worldwide discussion about Syria and achieved its replacement with a worldwide discussion about Palestine. The Israelis will be deeply unhappy. The Saudis will find themselves sidelined and therefore they will need to assert much more vigorously their own pro-Palestine credentials. And the United States – whether its next president is named Romney or Obama – will find itself in a position with relatively little influence on what happens, either in Israel/Palestine, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Iran.