The prevailing American narrative about the political upheaval in the Middle East maintains that the collapse of authoritarian regimes in the region would lead to a collision between democratic forces and Islamist movements and that the United States and its allies—including Israel—have an interest in ensuring that the former gain the upper hand in this power struggle.
But the changes emerging from the so-called Arab Spring go beyond a clash between pro-Western movements and Islamist groups. The shifting balance of power in the Middle East—triggered in part by eroding American influence in the region—is bringing to the fore realpolitik concerns that likely will overcome ideological considerations in the new Middle East. The Israel-Hamas prisoner exchange, the U.S. role in Libya’s civil war and the end of the U.S. military presence in Iraq all point in that direction.
Let’s begin with the prisoner exchange. The interesting thing about the exchange of one Israeli soldier for more than 1,000 jailed Palestinians was not that it happened, but that it happened now, when Islamist influence seems to be on the rise in Egypt.
Israeli leaders, with the support of most of the public and the elites, have been negotiating a deal along these lines for the last five years with Egyptian security officials playing the main role as mediator.
But following the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s pro-American in Egypt, the conventional wisdom in Cairo and Jerusalem was that the Israeli-Hamas negotiations would collapse. Pundits were predicting that the fall of a pro-American leader committed to the peace accords between Israel and Egypt would make it difficult for any new government to embrace policies perceived as beneficial to Israel.
In fact, anti-Israel rhetoric and demonstrations emanating from Tahrir Square and elsewhere—coupled with the growing diplomatic strains between the ruling Israeli Likud government and Islamist Turkish leaders and the continuing military tensions between the Jewish state and the Ayatollahs in Tehran—seemed to play directly into Israeli fears of being surrounded by a hostile Muslim entity.
Yet this nightmare scenario assumed that the Muslims in the Middle East—Egyptians, Turks, Iranians and Saudis as well as multiple tribes, sects and ethic groups—were going to form a unified political and military front to confront Israel. This scenario is based in part on real fears about the policies of Iran and Turkey and the rhetoric emanating from the Arab Street. But such fears have been amplified by Israeli ultra-nationalists and American neoconservatives with an agenda: They want to resist any serious challenge to the Israeli-Palestinian status quo and mobilize Israelis and their Washington supporters into new confrontations in the Middle East.
That the current Egyptian military leaders have decided to help the Israelis gain the release of Sergeant Gilad Shalit was clearly not a reflection of dormant pro-Israeli inclinations in Cairo. Neither was the freedom of the Palestinian prisoners a reflection of any support for the Palestinian cause. Like Anwar Sadat and Mubarak, these leaders operate based on what they consider Egyptian national interests. And those interests include preserving the peace agreement with Israel and avoiding a military conflict with that country for the foreseeable future.
Indeed, contrary to what some Americans seem to believe, it is not the Egyptian-Israeli treaty agreement of 1979 or the billions of dollars in U.S. economic and military assistance to Egypt that have induced the Egyptians to refrain from going to war with Israel. The 1979 accord reflected the reality that the evolving power balance led both Israel and Egypt to conclude that a war between them would be too costly and detrimental to their interests.
The global and regional developments since 1979 have strengthened the determination of both sides to maintain peace. Egypt, economically bankrupt and unable to feed and educate its own people, is certainly not positioned to pursue military confrontation with Israel.
Moreover, the rise in power and influence of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood makes it more likely that future governments in in Cairo will have an interest in co-opting Gaza Strip Hamas leaders, whose movement is a political offshoot of the Islamist party founded in Egypt in 1928.
In a way, Hamas may be evolving into a client (mini)state of a more Islamist-oriented Egypt. In that context, Egypt’s interest would be in providing Hamas with enough support to prevent it from coming under the influence of the more radical players in the region, such as Iran. At the same time, driven by the kind of calculus that affects any relationship between leading powers and client states, Cairo would need to ensure that Hamas’s policies would not draw Egypt into a military conflict with Israel. Helping negotiate the Hamas-Israel deal fits nicely into such a strategy. It encourages Hamas to start reorienting its foreign policy from Syria, and by extension Iran, and more towards Egypt. That could create conditions for more pragmatic deals between Israel and Hamas, negotiated with Egyptian assistance. These wouldn’t likely bring about a peace accord between the two sides but might allow the ministate in the Gaza Strip to become an Egyptian protectorate of sorts that could coexist with Israel for some time to come.
That Turkey has also played an active role in negotiating the Israel-Hamas prisoner exchange is also an encouraging sign, notwithstanding the stresses in the relationship between Ankara and Jerusalem. The Turks have no interest in exacerbating tensions between Israel and its Arab neighbors because that could destabilize the Middle East, Turkey’s new diplomatic and economic frontier.
It’s probably not realistic to expect the emergence of a diplomatic and military axis between Egypt and Turkey that would join with Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf oil sheikdoms to counter the influence of Iran and its satellites in Iraq and Lebanon and to manage the power transition in Syria. Turkey and Iran, after all, share common interests in curbing Kurdish irredentism inside their borders. Unlike the Saudis and the Israelis, Turkey wants to avoid a military confrontation between the United States and Iran.
But the reemergence of new cooperative and competing centers of power in the Middle East—Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia—provide the United States, the European Union (EU) and Israel with new strategic opportunities. Instead of wasting time and resources on fantastical freedom agendas and countering the imaginary or real influence of political Islam, a more effective policy would be to hedge one’s strategic bets by forming ad hoc partnerships with these players to advance concrete interests.
Hence, in the aftermath of the agreement with Hamas, Israel could improve its relationship with Cairo and Ankara and perhaps even create the conditions for some sort of coexistence with Hamas-ruled Gaza. This could, not coincidentally, put more diplomatic pressure on the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
Indeed, the Israeli-Egyptian-Turkish collaboration that led to the prisoner exchange is one example of such a creative strategic approach that seeks new opportunities rather than fixating on old threats.
What this suggests for the United States is that there may be cost-effective ways of securing American interests in the Middle East at a time of political change there and of diminishing American military and economic resources. Libya offers a better approach than Iraq. Rather than pursuing hegemonic and ideologically driven policies, the United States could provide incentives for other players to handle some of the heavy lifting.
Indeed, the Iraq War could provide a case study of how not to pursue U.S. interest in the Middle East. President George W. Bush and his neoconservative advisers disregarded the ethnic and sectarian realities in Iraq and the balance of power in the Persian Gulf. Thus they helped shift power in Iraq from the Arab-Sunnis to the Arab-Shiites, all the while strengthening Iran.
That policy only harmed U.S. interests while failing to advance democratic values in Iraq, and it antagonized regional partners (Saudi Arabia; Turkey) as well as global players with interests to protect. The EU, for example, might have provided military and financial support to a more modest project aimed at containing Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
In Libya, on the other hand, it was the European powers that took the military lead in bringing about regime change. America encouraged Britain and France to do so while it accepted a supporting military role.
The Obama administration’s policy in Libya, coupled with the announcement on withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq by year’s end, may not signal that Washington is about to embrace a grand new strategy for the Middle East. But it is does suggest it is beginning to adapt its policies to the changing balance of power in the region.
Leon Hadar, a Washington-based journalist and global affairs analyst, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).