Losing ground

The Arab world is turning on us as Israel pounds Gaza

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LUXOR, Egypt

I am writing this after six days in Cairo and now in Luxor, home of phaoronic tombs and temples, before heading off to sail the Nile, where I am unlikely to have Wi-Fi.

The talk here, almost entirely, is of the carnage in Gaza rendered by the Israeli Defense Forces.

International and some Arab media carry statements of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and even of official Israeli government spokesmen explaining that the aerial bombardment and armored incursions into Gaza are posited on Hamas rocket attacks on surrounding Israeli towns.

But the numbers of deaths and the relative amounts of physical destruction belie their arguments. The Palestinians have lost more than 940; the Israelis, 13, as of yesterday afternoon. The Israelis continue to bar international journalists from entering and reporting from Gaza.

Since Americans in general are being presented -- and tend to see these matters -- from the Israeli point of view, it is important to look at Israel's goals and objectives in the Gaza offensive before passing to the perspective of the Palestinians, the Egyptians and other Arabs.

The Israeli government's immediate objective is to stop Hamas rockets fired from Gaza from falling on towns in Israel. It isn't so much the damage or casualties caused by these rockets -- both relatively light until the Israeli assault on Gaza began -- as the insult they represent and how they reflect on the ability of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government, led by the Kadima party, to protect Israelis. This question becomes critical as next month's Israeli elections approach in which Kadima will face Benjamin Netanyahu's hardline Likud party. Likud already is anticipating success as Hamas and Gaza refuse to succumb to Israeli force.

A second major Israeli objective is to destroy Hamas, the more militant of the two major Palestinian parties, Hamas and Fatah. Hamas defeated Fatah in 2006 in free, democratic elections, which the United States and Israel professed to support at the time. In Gaza, Hamas also defeated Fatah security forces backed by Israel and the United States on the battlefield in 2007, an event which Ms. Rice has sought to reflag as a Hamas "coup d'etat." Israel and the United States want to get rid of Hamas because Fatah is safely on their payroll and the West Bank, Fatah's base, is thoroughly under occupation by Israeli troops and settlers and is partly fenced in by the infamous Wall.

Israel's third major goal is to preempt any potentially successful effort on the part of the incoming Obama administration to resume a valid, potent Middle East peace process under the leadership of likely Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Peace efforts were dropped by President George W. Bush when he succeeded her husband as president in 2001.

The goal of the resumed peace process would be two states in the former Palestine -- Israel and Palestine -- living side by side in peace. What the Israelis hope to achieve by their current long assault on Gaza is to leave so much physical and political wreckage on the ground that no one, including a new, vigorous Obama administration, can re-craft and resurrect a two-state negotiation.

There are some startling flaws in Israel's logic.

The first is that they can turn Palestinians against Hamas by killing hundreds of Palestinians and trashing Gaza. It would be as if the Japanese had expected to provoke a revolt of the people of Hawaii against American rule in 1941 by attacking Pearl Harbor, or the Germans had expected Londoners to overthrow King George VI as a result of the Blitz. People respond to bombing and shelling by hating those who rain death and destruction on them, not their own leaders.

From the point of view of the Arab street, Hamas has a major advantage over Fatah. Hamas is far and away the most Islamist of the two Palestinian groups. Fatah, too, is predominantly Muslim, but Hamas is the one Muslims and their imams prayed for in mosques across the Muslim world last Friday.

There is even a question if Israeli forces can defeat Hamas, even though Hamas has only 15,000 to 20,000 combatants. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 2006 to seek to put Hezbollah out of business, all that organization had to do to "win" the war in the eyes of Muslims, Arabs and the world was survive. It did. It was still firing when the Israelis pulled out, and it has gone from strength to strength since. In fact, rockets fired into northern Israel last week raised the unpleasant specter for Israelis of a two-front war. Israel's lack of success in Lebanon badly damaged the Israeli Defense Forces' won-loss record.

The continuing conflict in Gaza puts Arab governments in the region between a rock and a hard place. Egypt's is a particularly poignant example. (Egypt even has a short border with Gaza. Otherwise, Gaza's borders are completely controlled by Israel.)

Arabs' natural tendency is to side strongly with the Palestinians against Israel and, I hate to say it, against the United States for supporting and providing the arms that the Israelis are using to hammer Gaza. A cartoon in Cairo's Al-Ahram newspaper this week caught the zeitgeist perfectly. A war plane with "USA" is dropping a bomb with a Star of David on it onto Gaza.

Arabs largely believe that their governments are complicit with the United States and Israel in pounding Palestinians in Gaza. They do not believe their governments are doing even the minimum to support the people of Gaza. (Speeches at the United Nations they consider to be meaningless.) Those undemocratic governments are unpopular anyway, for a combination of other political and economic reasons, so it is easy to combine the two sources of anger and take actions in the street that can shake thrones.

The United States is still to some degree getting the benefit of the doubt in the Arab street. One can shut down some criticism by asking, "What about Obama?"

That will hold us until Jan. 20, but then, absent a sharp change in U.S. policy direction, our new president may need his renowned athletic and political agility to start ducking shoes.


Dan Simpson , a former U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor (dsimpson@post-gazette.com, 412 263-1976).


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