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Who Benefits from the Gaza Conflict?

A Word From Afar: Who Benefits from the Gaza Conflict?


A Word From Afar is a regular column that analyses political/strategic/international interest.

By Paul G. Buchanan

The human misery caused by the resumption of hostilities in Gaza has prompted much indignation and finger pointing as to who is to blame. The seemingly intractable senselessness of the dispute has been the bane of well-intentioned politicians, diplomats and pundits alike. Meanwhile, ordinary people on both sides of the conflict continue to suffer in ways unimaginable to those who do not live in the disputed territories. What is not scrutinized as much is the role of those who benefit from the conflict. Herein is a brief synopsis on those who have a vested interest in the conflict.

Let’s start with the Palestinians. Hamas is facing elections this year. As a ruling party it has fallen short of its achievements as an armed resistance movement. Some of that may be attributed to Israeli blockades, but most of it can be attributed to partisan factionalisation and corruption in the wake of its electoral victory and subsequent purge of Fattah elements in Gaza. Although less corrupt than Fattah (the previously dominant faction within the PLO displaced in the 2006 elections), Hamas is rendered by divisions between its militant (mostly theocratic and armed) and moderate (primarily secular and political) wings. One way for Hamas to consolidate its support in the build up to the elections is to reaffirm its militant, armed resistance origins rather than its failures as the de facto government of Gaza. Allowing militants to violate the 2008 ceasefire and then abandoning it entirely in December demonstrated to the Palestinian electorate that Hamas remained true to its origins. In reaffirming its ideological purity it believes it will find electoral strength—although that remains to be seen.

For Fattah, the opposite is true. Moderation brings with it tangible rewards, and the Israeli offensive in Gaza demonstrates the perils of adopting overly militant approaches to the Palestinian cause. Fattah nominally governs the occupied West Bank and for its moderation receives international as well as Israeli support. It sees the renewal of conflict in Gaza as an opportunity to demonstrate the fighting is futile, and that the best way forward for the Palestinian cause is to negotiate rather than militate. The more Hamas, particularly its armed militant wing, is crippled by the Israeli offensive, the more Fattah sees the possibility of reclaiming political ground in Gaza.

In Israel, the offensive provided the Olmert government an opportunity to increase electoral support for the Kadima Party in the run up to February elections, After the corruption scandals that have beset it and the failures of the 2006 Lebanon conflict, Kadima was hard pressed to make a case to continue in power. Confronted by a resurgent Likud Party led by ex-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (and which contains conservative hardliners in its first twenty parliamentary list positions), Olmert needed to outflank Likud to the right if his successor, Tzipi Livni is to have any chance of running a competitive race. By raising the existential question of national survival weeks out from the election, the Olmert government not only rallies public support for the offensive of national security grounds. It better positions Kadima against its rivals in the upcoming political contest.

The Israeli move also backs incoming US president Barack Obama into a pro-Israeli corner. This is important because Obama had spoken during the campaign of engaging direct talks with Hamas about the future of Palestine, which in effect legitimates Hamas as the primary interlocutor of the Palestinian people. Now, with the conflict ongoing, Obama has been forced to allow the overtly pro-Israel Bush administration to handle the US approach while he remains silent. If he were to publicly come out and support Israel, it would pre-emptively discredit him as a viable mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. If he demurs on taking sides, or expresses sympathy for Hamas’s claims with regard to the disputed territories and the question of illegal Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, Obama will be accused of being, at the very least, pro-terrorist. Since Obama will inherit the Bush administration’s stance on the Gaza conflict, it will be very difficult for him to reverse it or change it in any significant way without appearing weak or unreliable. In effect, Israel has wrapped Obama in a Middle Eastern policy straightjacket even before he has assumed office.

In its military campaign, Israel is clearly trying to cripple Hamas in order to assist Fattah in its return to power as the central government of Palestine. It is doing so by targeting militant Hamas cadres and military commanders while sparing its moderate political wing. Although its military operations in Gaza may appear indiscriminate to outsiders and the collateral damage it is inflicting on the civilian population is regrettable, in fact the IDF is being rather selective in its choice of targets. By allowing moderate Hamas leaders to live while militants die, it creates the bases for a Hamas-Fattah dialogue on a coalition government once a ceasefire is declared, which is the pre-condition for the resumption of land-for-peace negotiations with the Israeli government that will assume office after the upcoming elections.

Beyond the principals involved, there are others who benefit from the violence in Gaza. Leading Sunni Arab states such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Algeria and Kuwait have remained remarkably silent on the conflict even as the Arab street boils over in anger. The Sunni elites fear a militant Hamas as the Shiia vanguard into traditionally Sunni lands and are extremely worried about Iran’s ideological and material support for what the Sunni elites see as its proxies in Palestine and Lebanon (Hezbollah being the other predominantly Shiia militant resistance movement). This perspective even extends to Syria, which fears rising militancy of its own Shiia minority even as it continues to house and facilitate the re-supply of Hamas cadres from inside its national territory. Beyond that, ongoing conflict in Gaza raises crude oil prices on the futures market at a time when those prices have fallen nearly to pre-Iraq invasion levels and demand has softened due to the economic crisis in advanced capitalist states. Thus war is good for the oil business, and while there is no oil in Gaza, OPEC has plenty.

Iran also benefits from the conflict. In the measure that Hamas can prolong the fighting and force a truce before Israel has completed its offensive, its utility as a proxy will have been demonstrated. In parallel, the Iranian leadership’s relative silence on the fighting gives it negotiating room vis a vis the US and Europe with regard to other issues of strategic interest, the fate of its nuclear program being foremost amongst them. By showing moderation with regard to Gaza and not inflaming things by openly siding with Hamas, Iran shows the restraint the international community requires for it to be treated as something other than a pariah state.

A similar situation applies for the Hezbollah leadership in Lebanon. While pointing out that it was its military success against Israel that confirmed its status as a major player in Lebanese politics, Hezbollah’s restraint in not opening up a second front in Northern Israel shows that it understand the politics of diplomacy as well as those of armed struggle. This allows it to confirm its role within Lebanon because it silence is essentially an implicit nod in Israel’s direction and a confirmation of the extant status quo.

Beyond the Middle East, there are other beneficiaries. Led by French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, European mediators have an opportunity to establish their bonafides as diplomatic heavyweights. The outgoing Bush administration leaves its successor with a pro-Israel agenda that will be hard for the Democrats to abandon without suffering negative political repercussions at home. The UN gets to reaffirm its role as the preeminent forum for the adjudication of disputes—or at least in which to debate them.

Private actors benefit as well. Along with the oil industry, weapons manufacturers and arms suppliers (legal and illegal) profit from conflicts in general and this one in particular because of the mix of high and low military technologies and the logistical infrastructures involved. There is serious money to be made in bloodshed, and the Middle East has been the global military-industrial complex’s golden goose.

This is just a short list of beneficiaries of the Gaza conflict. There are undoubtedly many others as well, both public and private in nature. The bottom line is this: while common people suffer the ravages of wars both big and small, there are political and economic elites who will always benefit from them.

*************

Paul G. Buchanan studies strategic thought. He is currently a Visiting Associate Professor of Political Science at the National University of Singapore.

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