As the cease-fire between Israel and Gaza takes effect, it’s worth asking what the week-long conflict, which has left five Israelis and at least 140 Palestinians dead, actually accomplished. It’s probably too soon to know the answer for sure, but some early signs are emerging regarding who the conflict may have helped, who it hurt, and what it may have changed.
The biggest losers here will likely be, as they so often are, the civilians in Gaza and in nearby southern Israel, where Hamas-fired rockets and Israeli airstrikes caused dozens of deaths. If the fundamentals of the Israel-Gaza conflict remain unchanged, then it is difficult to see either this latest round of fighting or the cease-fire breaking the cycles of violence driving the conflict. In that sense, the short answer to “who won” is no one.
Still, this is a part of the world where optimism does not exactly reign. By the not-high standards of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the fighting might have actually provided some benefit to some of the region’s most important players — including, paradoxically, both of its primary antagonists. Here’s a quick rundown of how the leader actors may have been affected:
Israel: Winner in weakening Hamas. As Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak put it inannouncing the ceasefire, “What we set out to do has been fulfilled completely. Hamas has suffered and its senior officers have been killed.” And they did it without suffering any catastrophic attacks or launching a costly ground invasion as in early 2009. Though the underlying, long-term problem of Hamas’s willingness to fire rockets into Israel is still present.
Hamas: Winner in securing a deal to ease border crossings. The cease-fire agreement hints that Israel, which maintains a near-blockade of the impoverished Palestinian territory, might loosen border restrictions. That would certainly be good news for Gazans, 40 percent of whom are unemployed and 38 percent of whom are below the poverty line. Hamas’ popularity among Palestinians had reportedly been declining, so this significant concession could help its stature in Gaza. The high-profile negotiations with world leaders didn’t hurt, either.
The U.S.: Winner in gaining leverage with Israel on other matters. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked President Obama in announcing the cease-fire, and many Israelis are likely expressing gratitude for the high-tech, U.S.-funded Iron Dome missile defense systems that proved so successful. The New York Times says Obama “is now in a far better position to start pressing Mr. Netanyahu on issues from the Israeli siege of Gaza to Iran to the dormant Middle East peace process, where he has had little leverage.”
Egypt: Winner in boosting stature in the Mideast, reassuring the West: Egypt is the official sponsor of the cease-fire and is credited with bringing Hamas to the negotiating table. Some observers, particularly in the West, worried that post-Mubarak, democratic, Islamist-led Egypt would quit is past role as Israel-Palestine mediator, instead counterproductively siding with Hamas. New Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi gets to look like an emerging player in the Middle East. His work on behalf of Hamas looks good among sympathetic Middle Easterners, and his advocacy for a cease-fire will reassure Western observers that he’s a partner for peace.
Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah: Loser in looking less relevant compared to Hamas.Meanwhile, in the West Bank, Abbas-led Palestinian political party Fatah is struggling for the kind of political cachet that Hamas gained this week. As the BBC’s Middle East bureau chief Paul Danahar put it, “Palestinian politics is a zero-sum game and Hamas has probably come out of this stronger among Palestinians. So Abbas is weaker.”
Turkey: Loser in sidelining itself where it was once more influential. The country has long played an important role in mediating Middle Eastern disputes; though non-Arab, the majority-Muslim democracy after all once ruled most of the Arab world. But the Islamist-leaning government’s severely anti-Israeli stance of recent years has left the country with little influence there. Michael Koplow, an expert on Turkish politics, sees a string of failures: “Now not only does Turkey appear impotent when it comes to Israel or pressuring the Assad regime in Syria, it has also lost its credibility as a valuable interlocutor.”
Long-term prospects for peace: Probably a loser. Fighting distracts from Israeli and Palestinian efforts to secure a long-term peace deal, and entrenches habits of opting for short-term military solutions. That both Israel and Hamas are in a position to walk away believing the conflict has left them better off would not seem to augur a dramatic shift in strategy. It’s impossible to predict the future, particularly in the Middle East, but the status quo is often a safe bet there, and that status quo does not seem to have Israelis or Palestinians moving any closer to peace.