Editorial -- Israel's Offensive Allows Iran to Pressure Arab ‘Moderates'

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

LIKE THE Lebanon war of 2006, Israel's battle with Hamas in Gaza is producing a schism among Muslim states. Iran and its ally Hezbollah in Lebanon have joined Hamas's Damascus-based leadership in calling for a new intifada, or uprising, against Israel -- and also against the governments of Egypt and Jordan, which are accused of silently supporting Israel's air attacks. Those governments, along with the West Bank Palestinian administration of President Mahmoud Abbas, have issued rote condemnations of Israel. But they have also accused Hamas of triggering the conflict by ending a ceasefire -- and they have responded harshly to the Iranian camp, which has "practically declared war on Egypt," as Cairo's foreign minister angrily put it yesterday. Far from encouraging an uprising, Mr. Abbas's police broke up demonstrations by West Bank Palestinians on Sunday. Egyptian security forces have forcibly prevented Palestinians from crossing the border from Gaza.

Israeli and U.S. officials see this divide as encouraging. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has frequently spoken of an emerging coalition of "mainstream" or "moderate" Arab states opposing Iran and its "extremist" allies. One problem with this analysis is that the split is more sectarian than ideological. Among those counted in the moderate camp is Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, which shares Hamas's fundamentalist creed. And among those joining in the unmitigated denunciations of Israel yesterday were the Shiite rulers of Iraq, including Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

If the Lebanon war is any indication, the bloodshed in Gaza -- which is being endlessly looped on Arab satellite channels across the region -- will strengthen the Iranian camp at the expense of the secular Sunni forces. Thousands of people joined pro-Hamas rallies in Beirut, Cairo and Amman, Jordan, yesterday. Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader whose popularity soared after he survived his battle with Israel, delivered a fiery speech in which he demanded that Egypt open its border with Gaza "and help Gazans in their struggle." The weak and unpopular government of President Hosni Mubarak allowed some aid deliveries yesterday and will find it hard to resist further concessions if the fighting continues.

Israel was offering upbeat assessments of its air offensive yesterday even while warning that it could continue for some time and possibly expand to ground operations. Yet, as in Lebanon, no decisive military victory is likely: Israel will not be able to topple Hamas unless it fully reoccupies Gaza, and it will probably not be able even to stop the rocket attacks on its cities without some kind of political settlement. For that, Israel will need the mediation of Egypt, Saudi Arabia or other Sunni states. Israel must be careful not to allow its military campaign to undermine its own diplomatic end game -- or to hand another political victory to an Iranian regime that remains a far greater threat to Israel than Hamas is.

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