Obama Wants Hamas Alive and Kicking

Yes, Obama is interested in a strong Hamas. No, it’s not because of his middle name.

America has been playing a double game in the latest Gaza flare up • The reason: The ‘Arab Spring’ has convinced the administration that the future is with political Islam • The US continues to hold to this idea, supporting Turkey and Qatar, the latter being Hamas’ sponsor, against the objections of the Egypt-Saudi Arabia conservative bloc • Did the $11 Billion US-Qatar deal buy support for Hamas? • A look at America’s real interests and policies in the region

חברים בחלונות הגבוהים; ח'אלד משעל (במרכז) ואסמאעיל הנייה (מימין). צילום מסך
Friends in high places. Khaled Mashaal (center) and Ismail Haniyeh (right). Screenshot.

Many describe the United States as “the greatest and most important of our friends.” This may flatter Israel, but it hides the truth – America is not Israel’s friend, it is its patron. There are no freebies in this relationship: the US provides Israel with three billion dollars a year in military and civilian aid, and America expects that in return it will listen to dictates form Washington or at least cause as little damage as possible to American interests. This is sold in an attractive package of a “special relationship” and an emotional or moral commitment to the Jewish State, but in practice – it’s strictly business.

The United States has bought off Israeli interests for decades now. Usually, this is mutually beneficial: Israel stopped being the ostensible unpredictable neighborhood bully, and Uncle Sam provided economic aid, war materiel and diplomatic backing. This was the arrangement during the Cold War, when Jerusalem’s room for maneuver was fairly limited, while the Arab states could play off the communists against the west.

Even after the fall of the iron curtain, Israel continued to be isolated in the Middle East. The failure of the Oslo process only increased Israel’s dependence on its American patron, who knew that the wall-to-wall backing for the Palestinians in the Arab world meant Israel had no options of joining local regional coalitions, making it entirely dependent on America for support. Then the “Arab Spring” came, changing Israel’s situation.

The United States and the Arab Spring

The convulsions the Arab world has undergone in recent years provided the United States a priceless opportunity to acquire new clients from the Islamist camp. For Washington, reliance on them has become an important, if not central piece of its Middle Eastern policy, as they see them as providing a guarantee of quiet and stability. Older clients such as Yemen and Egypt, meanwhile, were given the cold shoulder and fell.

America has also supported the ruling Islamist party in Tunisia and some of the rebel groups in Syria (Libya was a private initiative of the EU which the US was forced into). Its main support in the Middle East rests on three countries: Turkey led by Recep Erdogan, head of the Islamist AKP party, the wealthy state of Qatar, which not only controls enormous amounts of natural gas, but an even more important and influential resource – the al-Jazeera TV station, and Egypt ruled by Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammad Morsi.

The cease-fire after operation Pillar of Defense was the first test for the Turkey-Qatar axis. The US pressured Netanyahu not to conduct a ground incursion into Gaza, and even dictated to Morsi the formula of the agreement that would allow the end of the fighting, in order to present it as an Egyptian achievement.

Washington hoped that relying on Qatar’s purse, the Muslim Brotherhood’s support (after all, Hamas is a daughter organization of same) and the large shadow of Erdogan would bring quiet in the Palestinian sector. Qatar has indeed heavily financed Hamas, which used the money it received to buy long-range missiles and construction materials for its tunnel industry, which came to Gaza through Egypt, under Morsi’s half-knowing watch and a wink to Washington.

Hamas went even further, sending its armed men to go and openly confront Egyptian soldiers, with the full knowledge that the American President would let it slide. In the beginning of August 2013, Hamas members killed 17 Egyptian soldiers on Egyptian soil. It was Hamas’ most serious mistake, which did not take into account the determination of then-Defense Minister Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi, who could not let his soldiers be killed without being able to punish their assailants. A short time afterward, Sisi ousted Morsi and started a purge throughout Egypt, during which he effectively destroyed the power of the erstwhile American clients.

כתף קרה למצרים של מובארק; אובמה בקהיר. צילום: שגרירות ארה"ב בקאבול, אפגניסטן CC BY-ND 2.0
A cold shoulder to Mubarak’s Egypt. Photo: American Embassy, Kabul, Afghanistan CC BY-ND 2.0

Washington took a negative view of the coup, and relied on issues of formality to harm the new regime, including denying aid to the land of the Nile. His determination to fight the emissaries of Qatar, charismatic leadership and victory in Presidential elections have placed al-Sisi at the head of a rival camp to that of the Turkish-Qatari one. He succeeded in gaining support from a number of heavy hitters in the Sunni camp, who also felt – with a great deal of justice – that they have been shunted aside by the American government. The most important member joining Sisi is Saudi Arabia, which sees Obama’s appeasement of Iran as nothing less than a betrayal.

To sum up: the Arab world is presently split in three – a Shiite camp under Iran’s leadership, including Iraq, Syria and Lebanon (thanks to Hizballah); the Islamist camp led by Turkey, funded by Qatar and enjoying American backing; and the conservative Cairo-Riyadh camp, including the Gulf principalities, the Palestinian Authority and the Lebanese opposition, with silent support from the European Union.

Under this new ordering of power in the Middle East, Hamas is an important ally to the United States, and with Israeli interests mortgaged in Washington, Hamas has a “Get out of jail free card” from Washington. The price of the card: $11 billion, the value of the weapons deal recently signed between Washington and Doha, a deal which may deepen ties between the two, turning the small principality into a military power and providing jobs for the American economy.

Learning from the past

It’s no secret that America dislikes regional wars and does everything it can to prevent them. But when war does break out, the US prefers to see it as an opportunity, an event to be contained so as to ensure no clear outcome – thus allowing the US to steer events to its advantage. This has been consistent American policy in almost all of Israel’s wars.

In 1948, Washington enforced a strict embargo on weapons destine for the Middle East to ensure that neither side could win decisively. Indeed, if it were not for the Czech weapons Israel procured (with Stalin’s silent assent), the war might well have ended with an Israeli defeat.

The years following Israel’s victory in this war saw heavy American pressure to appease the Arabs, including plans to force Israel to give up critical parts of the Negev to Egypt (“Plan Alpha”). America was completely opposed to the Israeli-British-French coalition of the Suez Campaign in 1956, and forced it to give up the Sinai in exchange for guarantees which collapsed in 1967. The only exception is 1967, possibly due to the speed of Israel’s victory and the overwhelming it support it had throughout the world.

The 1969-70 War of Attrition was more typical of American policy. The US shut its eyes to the advance of ground-to-air missile batteries up to the Suez Canal – much like it ignored Hamas rocket smuggling – a crucial step towards the far bloodier Yom Kippur War. In that war, the Nixon Administration prevented Israel from winning the war by destroying the Egyptian 3rd Army, as the US wanted to bring Sadat under its wing and away from the Soviets – and that meant saving Egypt from total defeat. America forced Israel to withdraw from the Suez Canal, the Sinai oil fields and the Syrian city of Quneitra in order to promote a separation of forces agreement and an interim agreement between the belligerents.

At the end of the First Lebanon War, the Reagan Administration pressured Israel not to destroy PLO forces in Beirut, pushed for an Official Commission of Inquiry on the massacre of Sabra and Shatila and even tried to promote his own peace plan. The US also restrained Israel in the Second Lebanon War for a variety of reasons, chief of which was protecting the pro-Western government in Beirut. But in this particular war, Israel was given significant leeway – 34 days to get the job done. Unfortunately, they didn’t.

The historical pattern is consistent and logical. America is not interested in Israeli interests but their own, knowing that Israel’s limited room for maneuver creates almost complete dependence on the sponsor form Washington. US Middle East policy is based on a set of checks and balances achieved through regional alliances. As the sole global superpower, it has no interest in allowing a clear decision in regional conflicts, fearing the rise of a regional power strong enough to collapse America’s balancing acts.

Thus, the US prefers instead to see belligerents fight to exhaustion until they finally appeal to the US to arbitrate an end to the fighting. In the event one of the belligerents is not an American client – Egypt in 1973 or the Muslim Brotherhood during the Arab Spring – the US will often seize the opportunity to correct that oversight, even at the expense of older allies.

כוח עולה בשמי המזה"ת; מטוס של קטאר איירליינס. צילום: Andrew W. Sieber CC BY-NC 2.0
A rising power in the Middle East; a Qatar Airways plane. Photo: Andrew W. Sieber CC BY-NC 2.0

Protective Edge

The regional constellation on the eve of Protective Edge was fairly complex. As mentioned above, the US relied on the rising power of the ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ to bring quiet and stability, especially regarding the Sunni-Shiite conflict. Reliance on Qatar and the Islamists on the one hand and the appeasement of Iran on the other led to a serious crisis in America’s relationship with another loyal ally – Saudi Arabia. The Saudis also became dependent on America for war materiel and a presence of thousands of US soldiers. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia has far more room for maneuver than Israel because of its economic power and its control over Mecca and Medina, the two holiest sites in Islam.

During Protective Edge, the Cairo-Riyadh axis succeeded in positioning itself as a mediator in the Gaza fighting. President al-Sisi’s insistent attempts to distance Qatar, Turkey and the US from a mediating role and his unprecedented support for Israel’s military efforts sharpened disagreements between Washington and Jerusalem. For the first time in a long time, Israel found itself with far more room for maneuver than before – both regional and global. The insistence on the Cairo formula of “quiet for quiet” gave it the leeway for a ground incursion to deal with the terror tunnels.

Saudi support behind the scenes led the EU to adopt an even harder line towards Hamas than America. The EU does not have billion dollar deals with Hamas’ patron, it is cool towards Turkey, involved in events in Ukraine and internal problems with radical Islamists do not incline European leaders to be sympathetic to organizations like Hamas. In fact, the US is the one who is isolated, trying desperately to court Egypt, who for its part cannot conceal enjoying the fact that the key to ending the fighting in Gaza is to be found in Cairo.

In such a situation, the US is using a carrot and stick approach to Israel. The Department of Defense recently approved $200 million worth of aid to the Iron Dome project. At the same time, it has placed Israel under heavy pressure to be flexible towards Hamas and accept most of its demands for a cease fire. These conditions are, of course, unacceptable to Israel, who thanks to the new international conditions is able to reject the American formula.

החברים החדשים של אובמה; אסמאעיל הנייה בדובאי. צילום: מוחמד אל אוסטאז, פלאש90
Obama’s new friends: Ismail Haniyeh in Dubai. Photo: Mohammad al Ustaz, Flash90

The $11 billion question

The American administration is very interested in Hamas’ survival. Contrary to doomsayers, its fall would not lead to the rise of an even more extreme power. Hamas has a natural replacement in the form of the Palestinian Authority, backed by Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It is convenient for Washington to scare people into thinking ISIL will replace Hamas in the Strip, ignoring the fact that such a takeover does not happen overnight, certainly when there is a legitimate Palestinian authority in Ramallah.

No, Obama’s support has nothing to do with “the Devil you know” arguments. For the American government, Hamas’ survival and the preservation of its capabilities would prevent a mortal blow to Qatar’s regional position, allowing it and its Turkish partner to preserve its hegemony in the Sunni camp in the Middle East. In this scenario, Israel, now under the threat of rockets and missiles from north and south, would increase its dependence on the US for defensive systems like Iron Dome and for diplomatic backing.

The rise of the Cairo-Riyadh axis pulls the rug from under America’s longstanding policy towards Israel. The favorable international atmosphere – the result of effective public diplomacy and more importantly Saudi lobbying – gives Israel far more breathing room than it had in the past, making it far less dependent on America for international legitimacy for military action. Egypt’s hostile attitude to Hamas also gives Israel a serious regional alternative, meaning it does not need Washington’s backing against an exclusively hostile coalition of Arab states. Hamas, meanwhile, is playing into Israel’s hands with its so far uncompromising and hardline stance.

But can Jerusalem finish the job under these conditions and force Washington to accept a fait accompli? That truly is the $11 billion question.

Guy Maayan is a Doctoral Student in Middle Eastern Studies at Bar Ilan University.

English translation by Avi Woolf.

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