Post Morsi: Egypt, Israel, and Hamas

The dramatic events of July 3, which saw the unseating of Egypt’s first and only democratically-elected government by a military coup stimulated by enormous popular demonstrations, has created a huge question mark as to the future governance of the Arab world’s largest and most important country. The ramifications and repercussions will be playing out for months and years, whatever steps are taken in the next days and weeks. However, two parties acutely affected by these events are watching with particular concern. Israel is assumed to have gained by Morsi’s deposition and Hamas to have lost. However, I suggest that the situation, insofar as it can be foreseen, has the potential to change the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, and that it should be recognized as an opening for American diplomacy.

Immediately before the coup I presented a paper in which I contended that the events of the current “Arab Awakening” had destabilized the Middle East but, paradoxically, were serving to stabilize the Hamas-Israel relationship. Hamas’s exit from its long-term alliance with Iran, Hezbollah, and Syria, due largely to its opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s present course of slaughter, had facilitated its entry into the Sunni (anti-Shi`a, Iran, and Syria) bloc led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar and supported, to various degrees and in various ways, by Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, and the Gulf states. For most purposes, the interests of this Sunni axis parallel the interests of the United States and western Europe, though the former would presumably be horrified to think of itself as implicitly on the side of Hamas.

My paper argued that both Hamas and Israel were quietly satisfied by the current situation and that neither had any reason to endanger it. Hamas was reportedly trying exceedingly hard to prevent unauthorized rocket attacks on Israel,[1] and Israel, having loosened its blockade over the last two years,[2] was much less threatened by Hamas’s control of Gaza. Moreover, unlike what would be the case with a formal agreement, both were free to denounce each other to their hearts’ content while securing their positions. Israel would continue to build settlements and Hamas would consolidate its control of Gaza.

Since the policies of Iran’s and Syria’s embattled governments have no reason to change in the wake of the recent Egyptian events, the main outlines of the Sunni axis can be expected to remain in place, that is, support for the Syrian rebels and opposition to Iran.

Israel’s position vis-à-vis Egypt and most of the Arab world also seems unlikely to change. Under Morsi, most of Israel’s contacts with Egypt were routed through the military and, since the military is now in control, that will presumably continue. Moreover, not only do no serious Egyptian leaders advocate a belligerent policy toward Israel, popular feeling against Hamas seems to be at an all-time high.[3] Hamas is blamed, whether rightly or wrongly, for attacks in the Sinai, while in Cairo demonstrations protested against it.[4] Fervent Islamists presumably still support Hamas, but their situation at home leaves little opportunity to help Hamas in any way. Morsi’s policies, which included keeping the Gaza-Egyptian border closed to commercial traffic and flooding the Hamas-controlled tunnels into Gaza, are unlikely to change.

However, Hamas’s membership in the Sunni axis may be already less comfortable. Qatar, whose emir promised Hamas $400 million in aid last year, has a new ruler, who welcomed the coup and who may well not continue his generosity to Hamas. Saudi Arabia, which has long feuded with the Muslim Brotherhood and never liked Hamas, also welcomed the coup. Turkey, which deplored the coup, has been experiencing considerable domestic unrest lately, and its “Islamist-lite” government has been the target of severe criticism for being too Islamic. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had promised to visit Gaza, will probably not do so under current conditions, and is also unlikely to pay it much attention in the near future, being busy at home. And while there is no reason to believe that Egypt’s new rulers, civil or military, will actively destabilize Hamas in Gaza, they are unlikely to give it much support, either.

Thus Hamas, while not likely to face any immediate challenges, can no longer count on either its old or new set of allies. In my view, Israel will not attack Gaza so long as Hamas continues to suppress rocket or other attacks. However, if Qatar ends or significantly cuts its subsidy, Hamas’s economic problems are likely to worsen significantly and soon. In any case, it needs allies. Where can it turn?

One choice could be to listen to Hamas’s hardliners and allow or instigate violence against Israel. Israel would certainly respond, and the Arab states and people might be distracted from their own issues enough to create a war of some sort that would put the Palestinians back on the agenda. Perhaps the only thing that could unite the Arabs at this point is a new Israeli-Palestinian confrontation.

Or, there is another direction that would make more sense. Since 2010 Hamas and Fatah, at the helm of the Palestinian Authority (PA), have fitfully announced their intention to “reconcile,” that is, to form some sort of unity government encompassing both Gaza and the West Bank. The two parts of the Palestinian territories have been separated since 2007, when a coup by Hamas (according to Fatah) or the counter-coup against Fatah’s coup (according to Hamas) split the Palestinian Authority and the two parts of Palestine.

I, in common with most observers, have derided the likelihood of reconciliation. There is little current incentive for either side to compromise with the other. Peace talks between Israel and the PA have been suspended since 2009, despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s energetic efforts. Reconciliation would seemingly make these talks harder since the United States and Israel would presumably boycott any new unity government, as they did the last one. Hamas has seen its star rising and the PA’s falling for years now, and the PA is now in particular disarray, with two prime ministers having resigned in as many months and a serious financial crisis barely being staved off. But now Hamas, with the Brotherhood no longer in power in Egypt, may also be in trouble.

I have long argued—as a voice in the wilderness—that a  PA-Hamas reconciliation would be good for Israel and, in fact, is the only way to forge a viable peace. Hamas has maintained the allegiance of 25-35 percent of Palestinians fairly consistently for years. Thus, if Hamas opposes a peace deal, it is almost certainly impossible to achieve. Conversely, if Hamas allows one to proceed—something on which it has given mixed signals for years—then it is likely to succeed.[5] Hamas could well decide that its only viable current option is reconciliation with its fellows in adversity: its fellow Palestinians. Talks between Hamas and Fatah are scheduled for August; they could assume a new urgency.

Hence, Morsi’s misfortunes could provide the impetus for Palestinian reconciliation for the purpose of making peace. But for this to happen, Israel and the United States must be willing to play along and not simply rejoice in Hamas’s isolation. The United States, which has resolutely ignored Hamas’s signals of moderation (which have admittedly been equivocal)[6] and highlighted its hard-line statements, would have to quickly adopt a more nuanced approach—and show Israel why it should do the same. It is not a matter of negotiating with Hamas or recognizing it; the question will be whether Hamas would allow a PA-led government to accept a peace based on the 1967 borders. Will the United States seize the opportunity to put Hamas in that position? Or will it allow Hamas to reap the benefit of a failure of Kerry’s current negotiations?

Events in the larger Arab world have once again left the Palestinians without allies. In some ways this situation resembles 1992-1993, when the aftermath of the First Gulf War created a similar state of isolation for them. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin bit the bullet and allowed the Oslo process to proceed, which could have worked.[7]  President Clinton strongly supported the Israeli peace effort. The question now is whether the current American president can and will prevail on Israel to recognize that a fair deal for the Palestinians is the only way out of the perennial and stalemated Israeli-Arab conflict. That requires including Hamas as part of the solution instead of encouraging it to remain part of the problem. Given the changes and instability now rampant in the Middle East, it behooves all parties to recognize the dangers of worsening the situation. It is by now a cliché that no crisis should be wasted. Let’s not waste this one.


[2] Geoffrey Aronson, “The Good War: Israel, Egypt, and Hamas,” Al-Monitor, 30 December 2012, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2012/al-monitor/hamas-israel-ceasefire-gaza.html.

[3] Hazem Balousha, “Hamas Lies Low on Egypt Crisis,” Al-Monitor, 3 July 2013, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/07/hamas-gaza-egypt-protest.html

[4] Shlomi Eldar, “Hamas Isolated After Coup in Egypt,” 4 July 2013, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/07/fall-egyptian-brotherhood-trouble-hamas.html.

[5] See Paul Scham and Osama Abu-Irshaid, Hamas: Ideological Rigidity and Political Flexibility (Special Report), United States Institute of Peace, 2009, http://www.usip.org/sites/default/files/resources/Special%20Report%20224_Hamas.pdf.

[6] Scham and Abu-Irshaid, Hamas: Ideological Rigidity and Political Flexibility.

[7] The Oslo process has inspired an industry of its own that fights over whether it could have succeeded. I am convinced that it could (and should) have. See, e.g., Ron Pundak, “From Oslo to Taba:  What Went Wrong?” Survival 43, 3 (Autumn 2001): 31-45; Jeremy Pressman, “Visions in Collision: What Happened at Camp David and Taba?” International Security 28, 2 (Fall 2003): 5–43.