Everyone knew it was coming. Once the giddy days of the Arab uprising had passed, it was the subject of discussion at almost every roundtable, panel discussion, and bull session among Middle East analysts: What about Gaza?
How would Arab governments, newly responsive to their people, handle a replay of Israel's Operation Cast Lead, the bloody offensive in Gaza that commenced almost exactly four years ago? At the time, U.S. President George W. Bush's administration and President-elect Barack Obama's team could rely on figures like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdullah II to help contain the conflict and ensure that the status quo remained, even after the Israel Defense Forces withdrew their tanks and the rockets stopped flying.
That was another era. The dynamics of the Israel-Hamas conflict that led to the current fighting are similar to those of 2008, but nothing else is. With citizens throughout the region demanding a reversal of the policies of the past, observers of the region implicitly understood that the Arab world's leaders -- both old and new -- would face great pressure to demonstrate that they are responsive to public opinion and hold Israel and the United States "accountable" for their actions.
At those bull sessions -- invariably called, "The Middle East Undergoing Change: Strategic Implications" or something equally snooze-inducing -- the response to a new Gaza war was often shrugs, sighs, and raised eyebrows. The body language meant: "Let's hope nothing happens so that we don't have to think about it." So despite the endless questions about what would happen, nobody succeeded in coming up with any answers. Yet when Israel assassinated Hamas military chief Ahmed al-Jabari -- the keeper of the uneasy Israel-Hamas cease-fire over the last four years -- last week, suddenly the conflict came roaring back to the forefront of Washington's collective consciousness.
This is, indeed, a dangerous moment -- but the sky hasn't fallen yet. In Egypt, the new leadership has engaged in full-throated rhetorical support for Hamas, but at the same time has played a central role in diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the current fighting. This carries domestic political risks should diplomacy fail, but so far President Mohamed Morsy and his handpicked spy chief, Mohamed Shehata, have burnished their credentials as mediators. Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil's Nov. 16 visit to Gaza was particularly instructive: Qandil arrived in the strip to express solidarity with the Palestinians, but his visit was also aimed at providing a lull in the fighting to open an opportunity for negotiations.
The conflict has also not yet wreaked havoc on Israel's other borders. Hezbollah has not opened a second front. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's dubious effort to deflect attention from his murderous campaign against his own people fell on deaf ears throughout the region. Jordan's large demonstration last week over fuel price hikes, which included groundbreaking calls for King Abdullah II to step down, has not morphed into protests against Israel's military operations in Gaza.