Sizing up the fallout from Israel-Hamas battle

  • Updated: November 24, 2012 - 8:19 PM

The fierce fighting and cease-fire agreement between Israel and Gaza's Hamas rulers could usher in a new era of relations between the bitter foes and their allies.

HAMAS: RISING INFLUENCE IN A SHIFTING REGION

The Islamic militant group that rules Gaza gained significant international credibility, receiving equal treatment with Israel during talks to reach a cease-fire and at the next round of talks, which begin Monday in Cairo. It secured a commitment for the freer movement of people and goods into and out of Gaza and proved its ability to fire rockets as far as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. As the Arab Spring brings Islamists to power across the region, Hamas' influence is on the rise.

Evidence of that increased status is a sharpened rivalry among its donors Iran and Qatar for sway. Qatar has sought to use its vast wealth to win over Hamas with investments and humanitarian aid and encouraging Arab partners to do the same -- part of the hyper-rich U.S. allied nation's broader ambitions to become a policy-shaper in the Middle East. Qatar's influence with Hamas could edge it away from armed action toward diplomacy.

Iran, meanwhile, is invigorating its longtime role as the builder of the rocket arsenal for Hamas' military wing. Hamas used to be evasive about Iranian weapons support, but in recent days senior officials in the group -- including Hamas' leader-in-exile Khaled Mashaal, who is based out of Qatar -- have openly thanked Tehran. The reminder of Hamas' reliance on Iran for weapons could help smooth a relationship that has been running through a rough patch because of the civil war in Syria, Iran's top ally. Embarrassed by the Syrian regime's crackdown on a mainly Sunni Muslim uprising, Hamas leaders based in Damascus for years left for Qatar and Egypt. Though Iran continued to send weapons to Hamas, the break undermined the "Axis of Resistance" grouping of Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas that Iran has assembled in the Arab world.

FATAH: PUSHED TO SEEK U.N. RECOGNITION

After bitter rival Hamas held its own with Israel, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has no choice but to override U.S. objections and seek U.N. recognition of a state of Palestine on Thursday, his aides said.

But even such recognition, likely to be granted, may not be enough for the Western-backed proponent of non-violence to reach a peace deal with Israel that it needs to stay relevant and counter the soaring popularity of Gaza's Hamas militants.

Abbas -- formally the leader of all Palestinians but only in charge in parts of the West Bank -- was in trouble even before being relegated to the role of spectator in the recent fighting.

By comparison, years of effort by Abbas to negotiate the terms of a Palestinian state with Israel have led nowhere. His West Bank government has been buckling under the worst cash crisis in its 18-year existence. And Hamas, which seized Gaza from Abbas in 2007, emerged from regional isolation after the Arab Spring uprisings brought its parent movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, to power in key countries, including Egypt. The Gaza fighting sharpened trends already evident, said analyst Nathan Thrall of the International Crisis Group think tank. "Abbas was truly isolated before this, and this [Gaza] conflict looks like a disaster for him," he said.

Abbas had hoped the U.N. bid will allow him to seize the initiative after years of diplomatic paralysis. Under the plan, the U.N. General Assembly would approve "Palestine" -- made up of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, areas Israel captured in 1967 -- as a non-member observer state. U.N. recognition would affirm future borders and enable the Palestinians to join U.N. organizations. Israel, backed by the Obama administration, opposes the U.N. bid as an attempt to bypass negotiations.

ISRAEL: NETANYAHU CAN NOW FOCUS ON ELECTION

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces some domestic criticism, many analysts said the cease-fire will help the leader. If the cease-fire holds, Netanyahu now has several weeks before the election to turn domestic and international focus back to his signature security issue: Iran.

The recent operation did not destroy Gaza's Hamas rulers and even emboldened them regionally, but letting it drag out further, analysts said, would only benefit Iran. A lingering, bloodier war probably would have distracted the international attention that Netanyahu has worked to center on Iran's nuclear program.

And Israel did see some benefits from the cease-fire deal, securing an agreement to stop the rocket fire from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel without launching a ground invasion. Netanyahu also got the backing of President Obama during the fighting, securing a U.S. commitment to help stop weapons smuggling into Gaza.

UNITED STATES: A RETURN TO DIPLOMACY IN REGION

As Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton headed to the Middle East last Tuesday, news reports from Cairo advertised that an agreement was at hand. A quick round of calls U.S. diplomats in Egypt and Israel made clear that the excitement was premature: formidable differences remained.

In a whirlwind series of meetings, President Obama and Clinton played an instrumental role in sealing the accord, a review of those meetings suggests. But it is also clear that the cease-fire was achieved by deferring some of the toughest issues, including the pace and conditions under which Gaza's border crossings might be opened. U.S. officials assert that they have helped lay a foundation for progress and that the talks could signal renewed U.S. engagement in the region. Here's how the deal was reached:

• Obama, who decided to send Clinton on Tuesday, called Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and told him that Clinton was on the way.

• Clinton's first stop was Israel, where she met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. She then went to Ramallah to meet with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority.

• Returning to Jerusalem, Clinton met again with Netanyahu. After checking with the White House, she told the prime minister that Obama was prepared to pledge increased financial support for the Israeli Iron Dome anti-missile system. Netanyahu indicated that if the Americans could get the Egyptians to go along with their changes there would probably be a deal.

• In Cairo, Clinton sat down with Morsi. After the Egyptians agreed to some of the changes, Clinton went to an empty conference room and called Netanyahu on her cellphone to secure his approval. The Egyptians, meanwhile, consulted with Hamas.

• After the deal was reached, Obama called Netanyahu, as promised, and then Morsi.

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