A quick scan of the daily headlines from the Middle East reveals news of unrest, tumult, and instability in countries spanning the region. From news of the bombing in Hezbollah’s stronghold over its involvement in the Syrian conflict, to competing explanations for Morsi’s ouster and where Egypt is headed, to the Russian accusation that the Free Syrian Army used homemade sarin gas against regime forces, it has become clear that the region has been turned on its head. Apparently, so have its priorities.
For what seemed like a never-ending stretch of time, the issue that dominated the Arab, Iranian, and Turkish discourse – from the regimes to the street – was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, there was an entire axis of state and non-state actors allied almost solely on the basis of their mutual obsession over this issue. But with the beginning of the Arab uprising and the unpredictable series of events that have followed since throughout the Middle East and North Africa, public attention has turned inward.
Husam Itani laments that “the Palestinian cause and everything related to it seem to be in a state of deep slumber.” He explains the waning of the Palestinian issue from its sacred position as “the central cause of the Arab populations” by relying on a mix of a tried and true conspiracy theory with an actual policy critique, arguing that “the neglect that is clear to all observers is not only the outcome of the ‘American-Israeli conspiracy,’ but also that of the bankruptcy affecting the Palestinian and Arab policies in approaching this cause.”
Hamas’ uncertain footing in the wake of the Syrian conflict may be another explanation for the silence on the Palestinian front. Having sided with the Syrian people against its erstwhile ally – the Assad regime – Hamas not only lost its home-away-from-home in Damascus, but also alienated itself from its major benefactor – Iran. Qatar seemed to be waiting in the wings to rescue Hamas, having already thrown in its lot to the tune of $18 billion with the now-fallen Morsi regime in Egypt. However, now that the Brotherhood is out (potentially for the foreseeable future), Hamas’ stalwart support system is in question, as it is financial security. This is the case so much so that groups like the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which seems committed as ever to continuing “the resistance” against Israel, stands to gain from Hamas’ losses. Though it claims that it is not interested in being top dog, Hamas’ resistance credentials seem to be getting a bit old for many still waving the resistance banner.
For the United States, this situation may actually provide an opportunity – one not lost on Secretary of State Kerry. It has long been in the strategic interest of the United States to broker a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians, no matter how intransigent both parties seem to be. However, with the eyes of the region turned inward on domestic issues, Hamas’ somewhat weakened position, and frankly Abbas’ unexpected longevity, there may be some hope in reaching some sort of accommodation between the two obstinate sides.
When Mubarak was ousted, it inspired the region, especially since it was followed by the collective rise of Islamist parties in Egypt and beyond. However, with the events that have developed since, and more specifically, the Syrian case serving as a constant reminder of how bad it can get, pragmatism may be able to trump resistance. This may be too optimistic and most people agree that Kerry wants peace a lot more than Bibi and Abu Mazen (to say nothing of Hanniyah), but the point is that sometimes a lot can be accomplished out of the spotlight.