Last week's agreement that temporarily halted missile attacks from Gaza to Israel and Israeli air strikes into Gaza, ironically has further unsettled an already turbulent region. Hamas, by scoring what the "Arab street" sees as a victory over Israel, has gained a place on the world stage. Still classified as a terrorist organization by the European Union, the U.S. and many other governments, Hamas now has a shot at usurping Mahmoud Abbas' West Bank-based Palestinian Authority and becoming the main player in the Arab-Israeli stalemate.
By allowing a range of factions in Gaza to stockpile weapons and ultimately attack Israel with missiles of increasing range and capability, Hamas gambled that the Israelis would retaliate but shy away from another ground invasion of Gaza. With the cease-fire, Israel has deactivated its reserves and, to the dismay of nearly 50 percent of Israelis, has pretty much ruled out such an invasion. Hamas is now demanding that Israel and Egypt agree to open the Egypt-Gaza border and that Israel loosen other restrictions on Gazan farmers and fishermen.
The result of Hamas' gamble is that it is calling the shots and Egypt, the U.S. and Israel are in reactive modes. This is the same Hamas whose stated goal remains the destruction of the Jewish state and the return of all pre-independence Palestine to Arab control. Make no mistake: a "two-state solution" is not on Hamas' agenda.
To forestall the marginalization of his more moderate West Bank leadership, Abbas intends to ask the U.N. today to grant "nonmember state" status to Palestine, i.e., to his Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, a move long opposed by the U.S. and Israel. This is likely to further complicate efforts to encourage the next Israeli government to negotiate after Israeli voters go to the polls Jan. 22. It may also trigger Congressional action to cut off funding to the Palestinian Authority, as was done a year ago (only to be reversed at Israel's request).
Meanwhile, fallout from the abortive Gaza war has extended to Egypt, where Muhammed Morsi, basking in his international acclaim for halting the Hamas-Israel duel, saw fit one day later to suspend major portions of the Egyptian Constitution, effectively shutting down the country's Supreme Court. With the U.S. indebted to Morsi for brokering the cease-fire, he apparently feels he can use the opening to consolidate his hold on power and further marginalize holdover jurists from the Mubarak era. He is also courting favor with the more fundamentalist elements of his ruling coalition and banking on the U.S. looking the other way while he assumes extra-legal powers.
The U.S. needs to tread carefully in this morass. Islamic fundamentalists in Egypt, Libya, Mali, Yemen and Saudi Arabia might see this elevation of Hamas as an opportunity to seek more authority and influence for themselves. U.S. support for Egypt's Morsi has to be tempered by a longer-term focus on democratization and respect for the rule of law.
U.S. dealings with Hamas must not undermine the Palestinian Authority's ability to offer a moderate Arab option, nor weaken our and Israel's demands that Hamas acknowledge Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state before it earns a place at the Palestinian Authority's negotiating table.
One lesson to be learned here is that despite our recent focus on the Iran nuclear issue, the underlying cause of instability in the Middle East remains the six-decade-long failure to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Jack Segal served in the White House under President Clinton and was a senior NATO official and U.S. diplomat. From 1988-1991, he was in charge of political military affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Israel where he made regular visits to the Palestinian territories. He now teaches extended education courses at Northwestern Michigan College, is Chairman of the International Affairs Forum of Traverse City and lectures at the National Defense University in Washington.