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Will Arabs turn out for Gaza?

Israel's assassination of senior Hamas military commander Ahmad Jabari and launching of a major air campaign against Gaza on Wednesday poses the first serious test of the effect of the Arab uprisings on Israel. Egyptian President Mohammed el-Morsi declared that "Egypt today is different from yesterday, and Arabs today are different from yesterday."  Israel is gambling that he's wrong, that the Arab uprisings have changed little, and that Arab leaders will continue to act much as they did during its 2008-09 war against Gaza, controlling popular anger while doing little beyond perhaps some more heated rhetoric.  

This poses the first real test of some of the biggest questions about the real strategic significance of the Arab uprisings of the last two years.  Do the uprisings really constrain Israel's ability to wage wars such as the 2006 war against Hezbollah or 2008/09 war against Gaza?  In what way?  Would the empowerment of a mobilized Arab public force Arab leaders to adopt significantly different policies towards Israel?  Would democratically elected Islamist leaders like Morsi really change core foreign policy positions such as the commitment to the Camp David peace treaty? Would intense political competition, popular mobilization, or different ideologies outweigh the cold calculations of Realpolitik and hopes for international acceptance?  It's far too soon to know the answers to these profound questions -- and the signals are mixed.

First, images and video from Gaza have been circulating widely through Arab (as well as international) social media and satellite television channels.  The anger and identification which those images have sparked across the region, across ideological trends and across borders, suggests that there has been little change in the centrality of the Palestinian issue to Arab concerns.  Syria has clearly disrupted the traditional lines of political consensus, intensifying the bitter arguments, mutual recriminations and charges of hypocrisy, while the relentless stream of images of death and devastation from Syria have perhaps had a numbing effect.  But overall I don't see much evidence that Arabs aren't focused on or outraged over the attack on Gaza.  

At the same time, it's important to recognize how strikingly little popular mobilization there has been in the Arab world over Gaza thus far.  Protests have happened, of course, but they have been relatively small and contained in Ramallah, Tunisia, Yemen and elsewhere.  The quite significant protests in Amman have remained largely focused on the lifting of fuel subsidies and political reform (including previously unheard of chants calling for the overthrow of the King) rather than shifting focus to Gaza.  Even in Cairo, Muslim Brotherhood mobilization and a major sermon by Yusuf al-Qaradawi in al-Azhar seems to have produced only a march of a few thousand.  I think it's safe to say that most of us would have expected more. 

This may soon change, of course, if the war continues for an extended period.  As much as it likely prefers to lead the charge against Israel, the Muslim Brotherhood may well see an interest for now in controlling and moderating the level of public pressure on the President.  But if other Egyptian forces, Islamist and secular, begin to mobilize in a big way it will be exceedingly difficult politically (and ideologically) for the Brotherhood to remain restrained. Jordanians involved in extraordinary protests may not continue to avoid the emotive appeal of the Palestinian issue.  The unifying and intensifying effects of the new Arab public sphere may take hold and build momentum, sparking demonstrations across the region.  But we haven't really seen this yet. 

Israelis and many in the West might draw comfort from these early signals to conclude that the Arab uprisings won't matter much in the course of a war with Gaza.  Perhaps Arab publics are now so focused on domestic issues that they have either lost interest in the Palestinian cause, or don't want to be distracted from pressing their local demands.   Or perhaps the fever of the Arab uprisings has broken, and that Arab regimes who have long been comfortable with Israel and hostile towards Hamas are again strong enough continue their traditional patterns of rhetorical posturing while suppressing popular mobilization and blocking significant policy shifts.

Such conclusions are premature.  The conflict has only just begun. If this extends into a longer battle, with or without an Israeli ground offensive into Gaza, it seems likely that protests will begin to mount and calculations will change. The caution of Arab leaders is at least in part imposed by their recognition of what an unstable and complex moment this is, and how quickly it could spiral out of control.  Morsi in particular is painfully aware of his precarious position, trapped between conventionally defined Egyptian interests and the passions of most Egyptians (not only Islamists). 

Regional leaders are trying to position themselves in support of Gazans, but very cautiously.  And so Tunisia's President Moncef Marzouki spoke with Ismail Haniya, and its Foreign Minister is scheduled to visit Gaza on Saturday.  Egypt has sent its Prime Minister -- but, notably, not President Morsi himself.  Qatar, which had invested heavily in a new outreach to Gaza and Hamas, has been relatively muted, calling for a UN Commission of Inquiry but not yet more.  Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, after an unusually long silence, has canceled his scheduled trip to Gaza and instead will remain in Cairo to consult with Morsi.  The Arab League has called an emergency meeting, which may get around to convening this weekend.  All seem likely to focus their efforts on pushing Hamas and Israel to accept a ceasefire, and on mobilizing international support for their efforts.

Morsi has demonstrated his preference to pursue a pragmatic foreign policy here, offering some sympathetic rhetoric and a visit from his relatively anonymous Prime Minister but thus far avoiding dramatic gestures such as opening the border with Gaza or throwing Camp David on the table.  But as much as Morsi values solidifying relations with the U.S. and the international community, and is constrained by the status quo orientation of the Egyptian military and foreign policy apparatus, he may also see real opportunities to gain domestic popularity and assert Egyptian regional leadership.  Morsi's conversations with Erdogan may be implictly focused as much on coordinating to avoid a bidding war over Gaza which pushes both countries towards overly risky moves.  But it is not clear that such a stance can be maintained if the tempo of protests and the human toll of the war escalates.  

The coming days will, among many other things, offer some of the first real evidence about the strategic effects of the Arab uprisings.  It is important to recognize how limited the response of the Arab public and leaders has been thus far.  But it's also important to recognize how quickly this could change, and how unsurprising this would be should it happen.  The Arab uprisings have introduced far greater unpredictability and complexity into everyone's calculations, raising the potential payoff to dramatic political gestures and decreasing the confidence of rulers that they can safely ignore public demands.   All of those ready to confidently dismiss the possibility of such rapid developments should go back first to read what they wrote about Tunisia in December 2010, Egypt in January 2011, or Syria in February 2011.  All the more reason for all parties to push hard for a ceasefire now, so that it isn't put to a test.  

AFP/GettyImages

Marc Lynch

On to the next one

President Barack Obama's solid, hard-fought re-election victory represents a significant moment not only for America but for its changing relations with the Middle East. While the election was not primarily fought on foreign policy issues, I don't fully agree with my Foreign Policy friends that foreign policy didn't matter. Obama's strong, consistent, and significant lead on his handling of national security and foreign policy -- with, if judged by the debates and the campaigns, the rest of the world (outside of the economically nefarious China) defined overwhelmingly in terms of the Middle East -- both defined him as a leader and blocked potential lines of Republican attack. It may not have been decisive for many voters but that doesn't mean it wasn't a crucial background feature of the evaluation of the incumbent. Had he not been viewed so positively on foreign policy, it would have mattered. 

So what now? The election campaign, and not only the outcome, should be seen as the rout of the neo-conservativism of the disastrous 2001-06 period of the Bush administration and the consolidation of a broad, bipartisan foreign policy consensus. This new consensus began when the Bush administration cleaned house at the end of 2006 and carried out its major course correction, and has been developed, changed, and institutionalized by Obama over the last four years. It was telling that in the foreign policy debate, Romney desperately attempted to embrace the very Obama policies which his conservative base had long denounced as worse than disastrous. Some GOP hawks will probably argue that he lost because he failed to articulate such a clear, hawkish foreign policy vision. But it seems more likely that Romney's polling showed that Obama's approach resonated with the American popular mood and that he stood little to gain beyond his base with an open embrace of the failed Bush policies of 2001 to 2006.

What about Benghazi? In retrospect, I suspect that the intense focus on Benghazi hurt Romney more than Obama. I suspect that most voters quickly recognized Benghazi for the Republican pseudo-scandal it always was, and received it at roughly the same wavelength as Donald Trump demanding a birth certificate. The prospect of a hammer blow to bring down the incumbent enemy may have thrilled the base, but the very fact of its identification with Fox News and the right wing bubble limited its ability to travel farther. So did the fact that it fairly clearly was not a "scandal" of any significance. Yes, the tragic deaths revealed serious, relatively low-level, issues with inter-agency coordination and communication, and more major issues about intelligence and the changing nature of al Qaeda's strategy and organization. But it was never the scandal which Republicans so desperately wanted it to be, nor Libya the failure so many believe it to be. Hopefully the real issues can now be addressed outside of the partisan frenzy. 

At the same time, by sucking up an unbelieavable amount of the air in the foreign policy debate, Benghazi crowded out a much more serious debate which might have taken place about Syria, Egypt, and the Arab spring. Now, I believe that Obama has done a very good job in responding to the major developments in the Middle East over the last few years -- a case I've made before and will make again. But there could have been a serious, difficult argument about the costs of Egypt's transition, the merits of democracy against stability, the implications of rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi movements, the inconsistency toward Bahrain and the Gulf, the sustainability of a drone-based counter-terrorism strategy, the horrific stalemate in Syria, the long-deceased Israeli-Palestinian peace process, or even war with Iran. The Obama campaign was ready for those arguments (I offered some unpaid advice to the campaign on such issues, for what it was worth, though they hardly needed it). But instead we got little more from Romney than vapid paeans to American leadership and complaints about apology tours. Again, perhaps now we can have that debate -- and, given their own deep internal differences over whether, say, their support for democracy outweighs their fear of Islamism, Republicans might take the lead in sorting out their own ideas on these difficult issues.

What about the new Obama administration? Obama's caution and pragmatism in the face of regional turmoil, along with his real commitments to helping with democratic transitions, finding a path to Israeli-Palestinian peace, engaging moderate Islamists and fighting al Qaeda, are unlikely to change. His team clearly believes, correctly in my view, that the emerging Arab world neither wants nor needs the American rhetorical claims to leadership for which so many American pundits seem to yearn. Nor does he (or the country) have any interest in risky new military adventures. Here are a few places his second administration might usefully push:

- Syria: There's no quick solution for Syria's ever worsening conflict, including military ones. The new administration should not, and I expect will not, contemplate any kind of military intervention, but something more needs to be done to block the Syrian regime's use of air power. It needs to continue its renewed efforts to build a more effective Syrian political opposition, to try to broker a political transition, and failing that to mobilize international consensus for war crimes prosecutions of Bashar al-Assad's regime. 

- Iran: With military action in the background but not imminent, and sanctions taking a real political and economic toll inside of Iran, now seems to be the right time to begin a serious effort at real talks with Iran over its nuclear program -- and to be prepared to take yes for an answer.

- Israel and the Palestinians: The new administration should try to take advantage of the reorientation of Hamas toward Qatar, and work with Egypt to make a serious push to finally reconstitute a representative and legitimate Palestinian negotiating partner. It should also do what it can to encourage the renewal of a peace camp in the upcoming Israeli election. Those two steps would at least set the stage for a possible return to peace talks, though I don't think anyone's optimistic. 

- The Arab transitions: The administration has done a much better job than credited on Egypt and the other Arab transitions. It needs to continue that engagement behind the scenes with all actors, from the military to the Muslim Brotherhood to liberals and beyond, to try to keep the endlessly rocky transition on track. It needs to stay engaged with Libya, which is not yet even close to the failure portrayed in the media. But it also needs to be much more direct and forthright in pushing friendly regimes -- especially Bahrain, Kuwait, and Jordan -- to enact serious reforms before their political crises spiral out of control. 

- Al Qaeda: While al Qaeda is far weaker than it was four years ago, its new adaptations and franchise strategies will require some rethinking. The implications for al Qaeda and for the United States of the rise of Islamist governments and movements, and the intense battles between Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi trends, will require careful new thinking. Paradigms which made sense a few years ago may no longer have as much traction. And there will have to be a serious reckoning with the drone program, both legally and strategically.

The pages of Foreign Policy and the Middle East Channel will no doubt be filled with advice for the second term in the coming days on these and other issues. But for today, a heartfelt congratulations to Barack Obama. He has got his four more years. Let's hope he does something with them.