Thursday, May 26, 2011

Rafah: Opening the Gate to Mideast Change

Cairo has just taken the initiative, upping the ante for all those trying to woo her: Rafah will be opened. Now for the devil in the details: let the bidding begin.

There is a world of difference between allowing Palestinians to visit local Egyptian towns in the Sinai to do their shopping and offering them access to the whole world via Egyptian ports and airport. There is a world of difference between allowing Hamas to control international trade and filtering it through Egyptian border guards. Cairo has signaled that it will be listened to but has left everything else open to negotiation.

Nonetheless, the fundamental shift to a “permanently” open border sets something new in motion: Tel Aviv has lost the initiative, and how it is to regain that initiative through its usual brute force is unclear. Gaza, it seems, will in principle at least no longer be a ghetto. Instead of the principle of a ghetto, with occasional exceptions, the reverse will be true: in principle, Gaza will have access to the world, with some exceptions. That shifts the initiative to Hamas. Will it be able to play the international negotiation game?

More, what will Cairo do the next time Israel attacks Gaza? When faced with 1.5 million refugees walking through an open gate, it will need a plan it can put into effect instantly: offer Gazans defensive military aid, set up a very costly refugee city, close the gate and return to the status of Israel’s lapdog…That looks like a very unpalatable set of choices for Cairo.

The alternative is to develop a preemptive policy. Thus, the opening of Rafah will pressure Cairo to continue moving toward the creation of a logically complete policy of resolving the Palestinian issue in a way that will be acceptable to Palestinians. That logic, powered not so much by morality as by very practical political concerns for any Cairo regime, will promote continued change. By a low-keyed shift in border regulations, Cairo will shift not so much the "situation" as the "dynamics" of Mideast politics. 

A small change on Saturday will quite likely transform via multiple,positive feedback loops into an ever more influential political movement as Cairo defends its decision by supporting Hamas and Hamas moderates to facilitate its new cooperation with Cairo and as Tel Aviv blunders from insult to injury, forcing Hamas and Egypt ever closer. The more Cairo starts looking like Arab nationalism's new champion, the more beleaguered Riyadh will feel, with the likely impact being rising Saudi support for Palestinian justice as it struggles with its cognitive dissonance of being simultaneously "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques" and ally of Israel.

Opening Rafah can thus be expected to break the Palestinian-Israeli logjam. Rather than constituting a new definition of stasis, it seems likely to launch a process the end of which is invisible but almost sure to require significant strategic repositioning by all the players.

  • Israel will become increasingly isolated and its policy of reliance on superior force increasingly irrelevant.

  • Hamas has the opportunity to become the unquestioned leader of Palestine but will have to reinvent itself to do so.

  • Saudi Arabia and Egypt will begin a tug-of-war to see which can influence the other the most. Riyadh just cut a deal with Cairo to give it $4 billion in aid. Whatever the terms of that deal, it did not prevent Egypt from announcing the opening of Rafah, suggesting that Saudi wealth will have a tough time trumping Egypt’s spirit of reform, size, and new-found confidence.

  • The U.S. alliance with Israel will become steadily more counter-productive and harmful to U.S. national security, though Israeli firsters in Congress will remain in denial.

Two processes are now promoting Mideast change: the Arab spring and Egyptian relations with Palestine, with each reinforcing the other. Egyptian democracy will promote Arab nationalism, which will promote a desire for justice for Palestine, which will further promote Arab nationalism. Whether or not that reinforcing feedback loop will in turn promote Egyptian democracy will depend on many other factors, including economics and the broader international environment, but over the medium term, the two forces for Mideast change will intensify each other. The Cinderella story of peaceful protest gave way in March to the Saudi-sponsored counterrevolution. Now Cairo is reinvigorating the forces of change by using its joint border with Gaza, a tool that Israel will have trouble countering.

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