The whole world watched the latest violent conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Everyone held their breath to watch Pres. Morsi of Egypt broker the truce, which for the moment is lasting. And everyone except the Israelis praised Morsi for achieving this truce, which seemed difficult.
But what does this mean? To answer that, we have to ask ourselves what each of the four principal players hoped to win. The four players that mattered were Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu of Israel, Pres. Obama, Pres. Morsi, and the Hamas leadership. Each wanted different things.
Let’s start with Netanyahu. He’s facing an election, and he wants to win big. For the moment, he can’t bomb Iran, but he wanted attention to return to Iran and away from Palestine. So he played the usual internal nationalist card – down with terrorist Hamas. And the United States better back us up 100%, or we might bomb Iran right now.
He ran into an unexpected problem. Hamas turned out to be a bit stronger militarily than in the past. They could actually send rockets with bombs to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Yes, these rockets were defended, successfully, by the new Iron Dome that the United States had furnished the Israelis. But it was a military warning about the future. In addition, Israel, not Hamas, was being blamed throughout the world (but most importantly in western Europe) for having started this latest confrontation. It was bad press, and promised to get worse. So Netanyahu in effect backed down and agreed to a truce, which contained things (at least on paper) that Israel had never before been willing to say.
What about Obama? This skirmish was the last thing he needed. He’s in the middle of a major political battle in the United States, and is itchy about any further military commitments abroad. But of course he had to back Israel in the Security Council. So, what did he try to do? Very simple – he tried to stay relevant. He sent Sec. Clinton to Israel to hold hands publicly with Netanyahu. She went to Ramallah to tell Pres. Abbas of the Palestinian Authority that the United States was still for a two-state solution. The problem was that Abbas and the Palestinian Authority were non-players in this skirmish. And of course, she couldn’t go to Gaza to broker a truce because the United States officially considers Hamas a terrorist organization. So, Obama and Clinton managed to show to the world that not only wasn’t the United States indispensable but it wasn’t even relevant.
On to Egypt, where the action was. Morsi wanted to do two things. First, he wanted to show that Egypt was the indispensable nation, at least in the Middle East. And secondly, he wanted to move the locus of world attention from Iran and Syria to Palestine. He was entirely successful in the first objective, and largely successful in the second. Among other things, notice how quiet Saudi Arabia was during this affair. They too were beginning to look less relevant.
The western world is now thinking that Morsi threw away his victory by the internal decrees he announced a few days after the truce. True, he is now facing the united opposition of half the country. But who are the half of Egypt that are demonstrating against him? They are a motley alliance of young people who are the heirs of the 1968 revolts against authority, the traditional market-oriented liberals, the Nasserite nationalists, the political left, and the groups that are remnants of the Mubarak regime.
Note that all of these groups in one way or another are committed to values that are found in the western world. Against them, Morsi speaks for an indigenous Arabo-Islamic set of values, which the Muslim Brotherhood has always stood for. Morsi is replicating internally what he did internationally. Egypt, not the United States, is to be the broker. And within Egypt, it will be sharia (even if it is sharia-lite) that will prevail. It’s a position that has wide appeal.
As for Hamas, they are celebrating. Israel had to come to terms with them. They have marginalized Abbas. The United States will have to begin to negotiate with them as well. They can only be optimistic about their future.
Immanuel Wallerstein, Senior Research Scholar at Yale University, is the author of The Decline of American Power: The US in a Chaotic World (New Press).