Dramatic consequences may be opportunity for US administration

As predicted, the three-week long Israeli war on Gaza ended with only one definite result: an eventual renewal of the previous six-month ceasefire for another year, give or take. Other military and political outcomes are less obvious and are still being shaped, with the indirect ceasefire negotiations in their infancy.

Since the Gaza war had certain obvious political objectives, it did, however, result in a number of political gains and losses on both the Palestinian and Israeli sides.

In Israel, the aftermath of the war saw a significant change in the balance of powers between the main parties competing in the forthcoming parliamentary elections. Those parties and leaders who were directly involved in initiating and managing the war have gained public support, notably the leaders of Kadima and Labor. The parties currently in opposition, meanwhile, saw their support narrow somewhat.

And while Binyamin Netanyahu, the Likud leader and head of the Israeli opposition, still maintains a lead in opinion polls, that lead has shrunk and the situation remains fluid ahead of polling, not least because the final outcomes of the war have yet to materialize.

On the Palestinian side, however, the effect of the war on domestic politics has been clearer and more dramatic. Hamas, which stopped launching missiles while still able to do so, has come out of the war politically stronger than before and certainly more popular, not only in the Palestinian territories, notably the West Bank, but also among Palestinians in the diaspora and in Arab public opinion generally.

The reasons are clear. First, the brutality of the Israeli onslaught and the unprecedented level of casualties and damage among civilians and civilian infrastructure created public sympathy and support for Gaza and, by extension, Hamas in Gaza.

Second, the performance of Hamas, both politically and militarily, also garnered respect. The language of Hamas officials remained consistent while on the ground the movement was able to maintain control over different aspects of people’s lives in Gaza, during and immediately after the war. Militarily, Hamas fighters showed discipline and steadfastness.

Finally, the confused and poor performance of Hamas’ political opponent, the Palestinian Authority, also added to the public support for Hamas. This was acutely apparent when the president of the PA, Mahmoud Abbas, and his top political advisors, in addition to some others, criticized Hamas and blamed the movement for the tragedy at a time when the public blamed Israel and expected all Palestinian leaders to work together on ending the suffering in Gaza.

Hamas has not yet been able to reap all the political dividends it could from the war because it has not yet achieved its main objective, which is to end the blockade on Gaza. This is especially true in Gaza, where people have suffered long and hard on both the material and humanitarian levels as a result of the 18-month Israeli-imposed closure on Gaza that Hamas has promised Gazans will end.

Nevertheless, what aided public support for Hamas was that the war came immediately after the failure of the one-year Annapolis negotiations process became clear. That process not only ended with no tangible success in furthering Palestinian aspirations for statehood and independence but with a clear consolidation of the occupation in the form of a further increase in the rate of illegal Israeli settlement expansion even as the political ceiling of the Palestinian negotiations delegation was lowered.

Elsewhere, the war has had significant political consequences on a regional level, especially in Egypt. The growing sympathy with the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza and the success of Hamas in identifying itself with the principle and practice of resistance against occupation, which is highly respected among Arabs generally, have enabled the political and ideological equivalents of Hamas in other Arab countries to take advantage of the large and angry popular demonstrations against the war by further weakening the public positions of the so-called moderate regimes and political groups. That has caused further shifts in the balance of power between the radical political Islamic groups and their political opponents across the region.

This was best illustrated by the Doha summit that included half the Arab states as well as Turkey and Iran, and where the Palestinian side was represented by a delegation of Palestinian factions based in Damascus and led by Khalid Meshaal, the head of Hamas. The summit showcased the severe divisions in the Arab world and, more importantly, the weakness of Arab regimes vis-a-vis a broader coalition of regimes–divisions that many non-Arab forces in the region (including Israel) have been trying to promote.

Those divisions were also emphasized by the awkward position of the host, Qatar, which enjoys the closest of ties with the US and Israel (it hosts the biggest American military base in the region as well as an Israeli representative office) on the one hand, and the best relations with Hamas on the other. Qatar is also home to al-Jazeera, which is perceived as favorable to the political line represented by Hamas, Hizballah and Syria.

Fortunately, the end of Israel’s aggression on Gaza has coincided with the election of a new American administration that has a chance of arresting the current deterioration, especially in the peace process. It is the deterioration of the political process that has boosted the violent alternative.

With Egypt playing the main mediating role between Israel and Hamas and hopefully leading the reconciliation process among Palestinians, the new administration has a few cards to play. It has started by sending relatively positive signs of immediate engagement with the appointment of George Mitchell as Middle East envoy. He is expected here in a few days in only the second week of the Obama administration.

The new administration, in cooperation with its European allies who seem prepared to help, is the only factor that can reverse the negative trends in the region and in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.