The Gaza War Reinforces Palestinian Division and Threatens Abbas's Palestinian Authority

11/25/2012 01:31 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2013

The most recent war in Gaza has provided an opportunity on the field for Israel to test its new anti-missile system, the Iron Dome, and for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to prove to Israeli voters his ability to protect his country's civilians from rockets fired by Hamas or Hezbollah. The war has also helped Netanyahu gather near-absolute American support for Israel, immediately after Barack Obama's election for a second term. In the process, Obama's hands have been restrained, before he could even dream of returning to put forward the vision with which he had led his first term towards the two-state solution and resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The rocket war between Israel and Hamas has deepened inter-Palestinian division as well, with the two enemies jointly making use of it on the short term to topple the Palestinian leadership, represented by the Palestinian Authority and its President Mahmoud Abbas. Indeed, this war has garnered support at the regional level for the leadership of Hamas, as represented by Ismail Haniyeh, and has in particular crystallized the support of new leaderships with roots in the Muslim Brotherhood for their sister-movement in Gaza. In addition, the war has diverted attention away from the events in Syria. It has raised questions about the reasons for the Iranian nuclear issue losing priority with Israel's prime minister, and being replaced at the top spot by the issue of Gaza. Speculations reinforced the notion that the leadership in Israel perhaps considers its best interest to reside, temporarily or transitionally, in strengthening Hamas over the Palestinian Authority, perhaps as "punishment" for Mahmoud Abbas heading to the United Nations next week, in a bid to secure an "observer" seat that would give Palestine the possibility of bringing cases against Israel at the International Criminal Court (ICC) if it were to commit war crimes or crimes against humanity. To be sure, whom did the rocket war give a broader margin for maneuver? And where did regional forces overlap or compete, specifically within the axis of the Muslim Brotherhood, as they position themselves on the new map of the Middle East?

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi played the most prominent role, and this was logical in view of the historical and current relationship between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. He seized leadership from the front when he declared his solidarity with Gaza and with Hamas in the face of Israel, but made sure to keep his back covered and did not rush to take emotional measures that would undermine the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. He played a role in reaching the truce and putting a stop to the fighting, while at the same time leaving a substantial margin for maneuver for himself in case Israel were to move forward with a land invasion of Gaza. Morsi left the impression that taking such a step could force him to take the Camp David Accords off the shelf -- at least to reconsider if not to suspend them. Mohamed Morsi thus reduced the margin for maneuver for Benjamin Netanyahu, who made threats then backed down -- not because of Hamas's rockets, but rather out of fear that the Egyptian president would be forced to review the Camp David Accords.

Egypt taking the driver's seat on developments in Gaza has come at a time when Turkey has moved itself to the back seat, becoming clearly marginal on the diplomatic stage. Turkey has abandoned the relationship that distinguished it as a regional power on the Arab-Israeli issue, after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan became angry at Israel during its last invasion of Gaza. He clearly expressed his support for Hamas and severed in-depth relations with Israel, thus stripping himself of the capacity for mediation. Turkey's foreign minister, for instance, joined the delegation of Arab ministers in their visit of solidarity with Gaza. Yet Turkey handed the car keys over to Egypt, which has ongoing relations with both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and which had been playing a role of mediation between the leadership of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and the Hamas leadership in Gaza. Thus the Turkish mediator departed and the Egyptian one arrived, wearing two mantles of mediation -- one between the Palestinians, and another between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

Erdogan was from among those Muslim Brotherhood members or sympathizers in embracing Hamas, quite often at the expense of the Palestinian Authority. After this, the emir of Qatar went on an unprecedented official visit to Gaza two months ago, which was the first of its kind for an Arab leader. There, he pledged funds and political support for the Hamas leadership, leaving the impression that he in turn had decided to embrace Hamas at the expense of the Palestinian Authority, regardless of what has been said about Qatar's desire to remove Hamas from Syria's embrace and replace its reliance on Iran with the possibility of relying on Arab sources of financing. The Egyptian president, who has his roots in the Muslim Brotherhood, was called upon to provide clear support for the Hamas leadership because of the rocket war - regardless of who started it. Indeed, one of the sides escalating was the Israeli leadership, who was perfectly well aware that such escalation would serve Hamas and raise its leadership's market value at the expense of that of the Palestinian Authority. In other words, Israel purposely partnered with the Muslim Brotherhood to raise Hamas's status high in terms of Palestinian leadership.

This is not the first time Israel supports Hamas -- as it in fact radically contributed to establishing it in order to topple the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Such a decision by the Israelis today could be tactical and transitory, meant to dwarf the Palestinian Authority and distract it with the inter-Palestinian struggle over leadership and decision-making. Yet it could also be a strategic one, if Israel has decided that it does not want the two-state solution. In such a case, Hamas would be a better and more appropriate partner than the Palestinian Authority, knowing that the latter still clings to the two-state solution and refuses to militarize the conflict. The militarization of the conflict would help Israel justify any measures it might take under the headline of self-defense, including measures of mass expulsion in order for Israel to expel its Palestinian population (i.e. the Israeli Arabs). The militarization of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will not lead to gathering Arab armies in a war against Israel. This is how it looks today. Yet such an equation is not guaranteed in the age of the rise of Islamists to power -- regardless of the West's labeling of the Muslim Brotherhood as moderate. Indeed, these are a group of men who have exercised patience for many years before coming to power. They say that Palestine is their battle at the end of the day, and they are against the moderate stances taken by the Palestinian Authority, which clings to the two-state solution and to not militarizing the conflict because the current balance of power does not favor the Palestinian people.

What the Palestinian Authority was waging before the rocket war was a war for the standing of the State of Palestine at the United Nations, and that is what has aroused Israel's anger, as well as that of the United States to a lesser extent and for different reasons. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made clear that he would not back down on his bid for an observer state seat through a resolution at the United Nations General Assembly, after similar efforts were thwarted at the Security Council a year ago, with the United States having played an essential role in this. Mahmoud Abbas sought to wage a diplomatic and political war, at a time when his Prime Minister Salam Fayyad was waging the battle of establishing the features of the Palestinian state on the ground through state institutions. Both of them have made the choice of peace and coexistence with Israel on the basis of the internationally accepted two-state solution. Ismail Haniyeh opposed such a solution and such a direction, and he received support from Bashar Al-Assad's Syria and from the Mullahs and Ahmadinejad's Iran, both of them mobilizing to make use of the Palestinian people in their proxy wars. Today, Haniyeh is receiving rockets from Iran, funds from Qatar, moral and political support from the leaderships of the Muslim Brotherhood which include Egypt and Turkey, and a boost from the Israeli leadership.

Yet the rocket war, which targeted Mahmoud Abbas too, also became ammunition for him as he heads to the United Nations next week to gather the largest number of votes in support of the "observer" status for Palestine. Indeed, the rocket war has succeeded at temporarily dwarfing the Palestinian Authority by backing it into the corner of inaction and showing it to be unable to affect the Palestinian scene, especially as it seemed to be completely neutralized when it came to making the decision to escalate or to stand down. It was also backed into the corner of confronting the United States, with what this entails in terms of measures to be taken by the US Congress. Indeed, the rocket war has forced the Palestinian Authority to move forward and to disable any margin for delaying the confrontation. What Mahmoud Abbas will be able to wave in the face of Hamas is his ability to garner the support of over 130 countries to stand alongside Palestine's efforts to become a state -- and that is something Hamas would never be able to achieve, no matter how many rockets it fires or how much support it gathers from major regional powers such as Turkey, Egypt or Qatar. He will do this in the face of American threats to take punitive measures against Palestine, including suspending payments to the Palestinian Authority.

The Palestinian Authority's wager is on those threats not being carried out, because the collapse of the Palestinian Authority would come at a very high cost for Israel as well. For one thing, the Palestinian Authority has fulfilled its obligations under the Oslo Accord, including its obligations in terms of security towards Israel, and its collapse would fling open the doors of security to all players as well as to Israeli vengeance -- and thus the keys to preventing the eruption of a war between a strong Israel and the Palestinians under occupation would be lost. If the United States were in fact to carry out its threats of withdrawing its support for the Palestinian Authority, the collapse of the latter would not take place automatically. Rather, active Arab countries like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would not stand idly by and watch the Palestinian Authority collapse while Hamas rises to a position of leadership.

This is a battle between regional players, not just between the Palestinians and the Israelis. It is the war for leadership between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. It is the choice between the two-state solution and the chaos of loose rockets without a survival strategy or a Plan B. And Israel will remain the main contributor to these tactical and strategic wars equally.