Arab uprisings have greatly affected the political landscape of the Middle East. Gone is the era when autocratic or totalitarian rulers unilaterally decided their approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict. New and surviving political actors are now sensitive to their public's sentiments toward the Palestinian question, which runs deep in the collective consciousness of the Arabs. The Arab uprisings have foregrounded the Palestinian cause in the region’s politics, but it has remained secondary to immediate Arab concerns about the Syrian crisis and its implications for the region. In Washington, this has fed an impression that the fall of the Syrian regime would disrupt the Tehran-Damascus-Hezbollah-Hamas axis—on Israel, the thinking goes, their hands would be tied.
This Beltway conventional wisdom has serious flaws and implications for U.S. policy making. Broadly speaking, the uprising in Syria has compelled Hamas to begin steering away from Damascus—and by extension Tehran—and turn instead toward Egypt and Jordan. But this development cannot be misconstrued as a collapse or even a severe disruption of the Iranian-led rejectionist axis, which is constantly reinventing and adapting itself to changing conditions in the Middle East.
Hamas’s New Role
There is a growing consensus among Arab political elites, especially Islamists, that, after years of ineffectual negotiations and in a climate where Israelis are anxious about the implications of Arab uprisings for their security, Israel has all but abandoned the concept of the two-state solution in favor of the status quo. Neither Arab regimes nor Islamists can swallow this bitter pill. Nor will they pursue policies inimical to Hamas and favorable to Israel. While Jordan and Saudi Arabia have a national interest in resuming the peace process, the Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (and its affiliates in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Gaza) have a superficial interest in resuming the peace process, if only to conceal their immediate strategy—to reduce Egypt's and Jordan's economic and security cooperation with Israel—until the Syrian crisis is over. This strategy was described to me by an influential member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Although the Egyptian Islamist ruling party has played a role in trying to bring Hamas and Fatah together in May and November 2011, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) would support its sister organization Hamas more than Fatah. Notwithstanding the recent terror attack on Egyptian soldiers next to Gaza in Sinai, the FJP would try to legitimize Hamas regionally and internationally. Meanwhile, Hamas would most likely continue its policy of building a de facto state in Gaza.
At the same time, reducing Jordan's security cooperation with Israel is going to be both a priority and a challenge for the Brotherhood. Jordan's Islamic Action Front, a Brotherhood affiliate, has been vocal in condemning the country's diplomatic relations and security cooperation with Israel. So far, King Abdullah has been able to prevent public dissatisfaction from transforming into widespread demonstrations. Nevertheless, the threat persists as the pace and substance of reform do not reflect genuine change. Recently, the king swore in the third new cabinet since protests first rocked Jordan fifteen months ago.
The Islamic Action Front is pursuing two-track policy: supporting substantive reform, mainly the abrogation of the king’s prerogative to shape and suspend the government, and trying to broaden its base of support. Any disruption of stability in Jordan or any possible governmental change in the country could bring about a serious transformation in Jordanian and Palestinian politics. An Islamist victory in future elections would give Hamas the opportunity to affect Palestinian politics in Jordan and in the West Bank, potentially undermining Fatah's nationalist hegemony in the West Bank and in Diaspora.
Hamas's role as a member of the rejectionist axis has been diminished. Yet Hamas's potential new domestic and regional role could be far more challenging to Fatah and to Israel's national security.
Hamas's role pales in comparison to that Hezbollah may play. Hezbollah has consistently condemned peace negotiations as futile. Hassan Nasrallah, secretary-general of Hezbollah, has repeatedly asserted that Israel only understands the logic of force. Ominously, Nasrallah, toeing the Iranian line, has depicted the rebellion in Syria as a conspiracy concocted by United States and Israel to topple the Syrian regime. He has become more vocal about the Palestinian cause as an extension of what he considers the muqawama (resistance), in part to justify his party's stand by the Syrian regime.
In his 2012 speech on the anniversary of the July 2006 war, Nasrallah not only reasserted his support of the Syrian regime but also hailed the slain Syrian officers in the bombing of the National Security Headquarters as "martyr leaders and comrades-in-arms on the path of the conflict with the Israeli enemy." Nasrallah's speech implies that the battle for Syria has become linked with the Arab-Israeli conflict and that the resistance—Iran, Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas—is up to the challenge.
As the war escalates in Syria and the regime is put on the defensive, Hezbollah, in conjunction with Tehran and Damascus, may trigger a diplomatic confrontation with Israel. The Islamist party might pressure Palestinian refugees in Lebanon to rush en masse to the border of Israel and therefore compel Israel to fire at them, creating an international outcry; an extensive redo of what happened in May and June 2011 when Israel fired at a number of Palestinians.
Similarly, notwithstanding the fact that Iraq has more or less moved into the Iranian political orbit, sectarian polarization in the region would compel Baghdad to support Iranian initiatives. Commenting on the recent summit of Muslim leaders in Mecca, Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki stated that the "the objective of the Mecca summit is to conspire against Iraq, Syria and Lebanon." In fact, Maliki's statement confirms that Baghdad has joined the rejectionist axis.
Most importantly, as some analysts observe, Hezbollah would not be forced into a sclerotic situation if the Syrian regime collapses. Even if the weapons land route from Syria to Beirut is disrupted, Hezbollah's stealthy ability to smuggle weapons via Lebanon's international airport and ports should not be underestimated. After all, Hezbollah seized West Beirut in 2008 when the then government tried to remove the pro-Hezbollah officer in charge of airport security from his post. For a party harnessing its political and military power to protect and strengthen the muqawama as a societal and ideological form of Arab-Muslim identity, the uprising in Syria has been unfortunate. Nevertheless, Hezbollah has monopolized the muqawama as a sectarian Shia Islamist party. As such, its waning appeal to the larger Sunni community in the Arab world has not taken a toll on the party's strategic decision-making process, especially in respect to its jihad against Israel and attitude toward Arab conservative states.
In fact, in a speech commemorating Hezbollah's “martyrs” on February 16, 2010, Nasrallah drew the qualifying framework for any future confrontation with Israel. He introduced the deterrence-by-terror equation where Hezbollah would retaliate proportionally to any Israeli aggression: "Tel Aviv for Beirut, and Ben Gurion international airport for Beirut international airport.” The purpose of this strategic parity by terror goes beyond altering the balance of power between Hezbollah (and by extension Iran) and Israel. It introduces an asymmetrical warfare equation targeting no less Israel than those Arab conservative states that opposed Hezbollah in its 2006 war with Israel.
Addressing thousands of people on "Jerusalem's Day," in the last day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in August 2012, Nasrallah sent a chilling message to Israel. The timing and occasion of his message apparently were meant to dispel any illusion about Hezbollah's purported weakness as a consequence of the Syrian crisis. In unequivocal terms, he stated that "there has been a sharp escalatory rhetoric about Lebanon . . . in that if something happens Israel would destroy all of Lebanon, and not only Hezbollah." Then he asserted that "Hezbollah with its capabilities cannot destroy Israel, but we can turn the lives of millions of Israeli Zionists throughout occupied Palestine into a real hell." He went on to elaborate that Hezbollah has rockets set and ready for launching against specific targets, which could make the cost of any coming war extremely costly.
Nasrallah's message has to be taken at face value and read against his deterrence-by-terror strategy and what's happening in Syria. This chilling message does not reflect a near collapse of the rejectionist axis but rather is an unnerving reminder that in the Middle East you should be careful about what you wish for.
Robert G. Rabil served as a chief of emergency for the Red Cross in Lebanon during the country's civil war. He is associate professor of political science and the LLS Distinguished Professor of Current Events at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of Syria, United States and the War on Terror in the Middle East and most recently Religion, National Identity and Confessional Politics in Lebanon: The Challenge of Islamism.