Over the past few days a new Middle Eastern story managed to briefly squeeze its way into Western media consciousness: Tony Blair, Thursday’s al-Hayat headline proclaimed from London, has nearly succeeded in shepherding an Israeli-Hamas deal for an extended ceasefire in Gaza in return for the opening up of a sea-corridor between Gaza and Cyprus that would significantly relieve the Egyptian-Israeli embargo. The casual reader of the news here in the United States, or in Europe or South America or Asia, is liable to mutter “that’s nice” and move on. Easy to do; after all, today’s New York Times and Washington Post have nary a word to say about it, nor do any of the news wire services—possibly because the business fell through at the eleventh hour…or because it never even made it to 8 a.m. in the first place?But there are no casual readers of the news in the Middle East; there are only those disposed toward the apoplectic, the conspiratorial, and the resigned—the followers, as it were, of Chicken Little, Rasputin, and Eeyore, respectively. And there are no causal readers here among Middle Eastern groupies whose mental positioning is perpetually aloft in some metaphysical zone bordered by Jerusalem, Mecca, and certain subcultural bubbles located on the east coast of the United States. Here too, alas, we find exilic chapters of these same three groups.The result is that when a story like this emerges in bare outline—and then fixes to all but disappear—the non-casual rush to fill in the many gaps in the emerging tale as their particular form of interpretive neurosis requires. And in this case the gaps are dramatically numerous, so much so that any effort to enumerate and link all the logical moving parts conduces first to imaginative abandon, but then quickly gives way to headache. In schematic form, the mental agitations required resemble a game of chutes and ladders, which is just another way of saying that the story implies a serious levels-of-analysis challenge: What is going on depends in large part on where one thinks it’s going on.With the reader’s kind permission, I would like to leave Chicken Little, Rasputin, and Eeyore at the entrance to the cave for the time being as I attempt to ransack the darkness within. Let us start with some hypothetical questions, moving from a low level-of-analysis to higher ones. This will give us a sense of what is, or isn’t, going on.Assuming for the sake of our interrogation that some sort of deal is or soon will be real, it means that ships will be moving back and forth from Gaza to Cyprus carrying…what? As it is, plenty of stuff already goes into Gaza from Israel (electrical current included), but the Israeli government prohibits other stuff—like concrete, say, which the Hamas government used in the past overwhelmingly not to build schools or houses but rather tunnels for use by the terrorists of its armed wing. (Yes, it is fair and accurate to call them terrorists, because when they emerged from their holes inside Israel the last time out they did not distinguish between trying to kill civilians, even children, and military personnel.) So what would come into Gaza from Cyprus that Israel does not or will not supply? Not missile parts and explosives, presumably.Obviously, then, the first thing we do not know is who exactly would monitor the contents of any commerce, and how they would do it. One account, in an Israeli paper quoting the Hamas paper Al-Resalah, in turn quoting a Turkish official associated with the Foreign Ministry, speaks of a floating port three kilometers off the coast of Gaza and of NATO representatives inspecting goods just off the Cypriot coast.Is this correct? We don’t know, and that is not all we don’t know. For example, the Blair mission dates back several months already in one form or another—and the presence of a couple of Israeli civilians unaccounted for in Gaza is part of the picture. At whose behest is he working? Let’s assume that he is not, after all, a completely unattached do-gooder, but an emissary of someone’s and of some kind—and not of the Quartet, in whose employ Blair has not been for some time. Blair has met with Hamas leaders in Qatar twice in recent months; one would have to assume that both Blair’s brief and its source are clear to Hamas. Is Blair running interference for Netanyahu, either explicitly or on spec, so to speak? For the Americans? The French?And what about the Egyptians? The embargo of Gaza, which has been pronounced legal in international law according to the United Nations, is not just Israeli—it is also partied to and enforced by Egypt. So, presumably, since the Egyptian and Israeli governments have excellent security cooperation protocols in operation these days, the Israeli government did not embark on any prospective deal without discussing it in some detail with the Egyptian government. What was that discussion about? Was Blair a party to it? We don’t know. All we do know is that a sea corridor makes sense as a notion, at least, in direct proportion to the Egyptian refusal to open the Rafah crossing—and that refusal is adamant.Whatever the case, since Israel and Egypt will want some considerable control over any flow of stuff to Gaza—Egypt as much for what military contraband implies about its problems in the Sinai as for what it implies about Gaza proper—this tale about the “end of the embargo” begins more and more to look like the continuation of the embargo by the advent of other means (to paraphrase a certain dead Prussian guy). After all, even if NATO types (mainly Turks, one wonders?) are checking stuff near the Cypriot coast, it defies logic that Israel, with Egypt, would not be the ultimate arbiters of what goes in and what doesn’t.So allow some skepticism here, please. There is a big chute in this story, one that might land the reader the all the way back at the bottom of the board. Maybe that’s why the Israeli Prime Minister’s office is now (as of 1 p.m. EST today) leaking tweets that there is in fact no deal in works, no direct contacts with Hamas.But this is too much fun to leave as is, so we might as well finish up the “what if?” possibilities. Assuming some very experienced and clever people have worked all this out, or soon will finish doing so, what would Israel gain or lose—again hypothetically—from a deal with Hamas to adjust the embargo? Plenty, in theory, in both directions.Israel would gain, again in theory, an assurance of no more “grass-mowing” operations in Gaza for reportedly seven to ten years—though how anyone could trust an under-institutionalized, penurious, and increasingly fractious organization like Hamas to keep any promise for that length of time is a puzzlement unto itself. It would be swell if it were true, because every time one of these operations goes forward, an international orgy of hypocrisy breaks forth that damages Israel’s reputation and deepens its symbolic isolation, which in turns puts more pressure on the U.S.-Israeli relationship to rise to a level of specialness that strains strategic logic, and which also deepens the siege mentality within Israel to no good long-term end whatsoever.It would also gain what amounts to a policing promise by Hamas to make sure Islamic Jihad and self-propelled ISIS types do not shoot missiles across the border into Israel. Getting different groups of “bad guys” to square off against one another has a certain value to most Israelis, after all.Israel would also get off the hook for the embargo itself, which, although legal, is deemed otherwise by a lot of regimes—including especially the one resident in Ankara. Talk about a chute or a ladder, here comes the Turkish angle.The Turks are likely to figure heavily in any business conducted between Israel and Hamas, from both sides. Khalid Mashal was in Ankara last week, and he was photographed smiling alongside a clearly preening President Erdogan. The Turks (and the Qataris, for what it’s worth) have been both lawyers and bagmen for Hamas for a while, also for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (and elsewhere) and, until it began to backfire really badly, for ISIS as well. That’s the kind of U.S. ally Turkey has become under the aging AKP regime. Ever since Hamas’s relationship with Iran began to suffer badly thanks to the sectarian outpouring from the Syria civil war, Turkey has become a much more important potential patron. Hamas has been broke and bereft of good choices for patrons lately, which is one reason it started the July 2014 fighting in the first place: To get noticed and attract support, you do the one thing you do best, which is to try to kill Jews, the more the better.Ah, but Turkey is not Iran. The AKP, and especially its President, is no friend of Israel, to be sure. That said, for most of the AKP term in power—in the years before Erdogan’s outburst against Shimon Peres at Davos in 2009 following the Cast Lead operation of 2008–09, and before the May 31, 2010 Mavi Marmara incident—the bilateral relationship was pretty good. Even since May 2010, though Turkey downgraded its diplomatic relationship with Israel in early 2011 after a UN report found the embargo legal, the relationship has not gone entirely cold. The Turks know how to ring-fence their bilateral relationships so that, in this case, while the significant military-to-military relationship of the pre-2008 period has languished, commerce and tourism between the two economies has proceeded unperturbed.It is also worth noting that efforts to patch up the wound over the Mavi Marmara incident essentially succeeded in March 2013, aided by U.S. mediation. But at the last minute things fell apart, with Prime Minister Netanyahu rejecting the paper his own diplomats laid before him. It was a complicated moment, what with Turkish support for the Morsi government in Egypt and, supposedly, Turkish intelligence outing some Israeli agents working inside Iran. The point is that Turkey’s relationship to Israel is mixed, nuanced, and potentially restorable; that means that there are limits to what Turkey will do for Hamas without getting something in return, and Turkey’s extant and potential ties to Israel constitute leverage on Hamas should Turkish leaders wish to use it. This is, then, a very different situation from Hamas’s dealings with Iran.Now, just as soon as Tony Blair’s latest gambit became known, we heard about a renewed effort to put the Mavi Marmara incident finally (again) to rest. That would presage the re-establishment of full Turkish-Israeli relations and the return of an Israeli Ambassador to Ankara. The Iranians would notice and not like that. They also notice that Ankara is out gunning, still, for Iran’s only real ally—Syria—and that for all the hubbub about the recent U.S.-Turkish accord concerning Incirlik and ISIS, there is still no evidence that the Turkish military has yet to drop so much as a rock on any ISIS military formation. The Iranians will notice that, too.All this has led some observers to vault to a very high level of analysis, to claim that what we are seeing is a response to the Iran deal in the form of the coalescence of anti-Iranian forces in the region into some kind of messy, tentative, and inchoate but still real front to oppose Iranian hegemony. Maybe, but back to ground level for a moment more.Clearly, Israel would gain something, potentially, from a long-term ceasefire deal with Hamas: reduced risk of security issues from Gaza, a Hamas obligation to coerce other salafis in Gaza, reduced international isolation, and the resuscitation of its relationship with Turkey at least to some degree. Is that all there is?Not necessarily. Presumably, if it proves real—whether now or soon—this would be something the Obama Administration would like, all else equal, and all else is equally terrible between the U.S. and Israeli governments about now. But that has to be a minor-to-negligible concern compared to Israel’s presumably deepening its all-but-direct engagement with Hamas. Is that wise, since doing so would help legitimate worldwide an organization that has vowed to destroy Israel? And would that not harm the PA and the PLO in the West Bank. That’s bad, isn’t it? Doesn’t that mean making a deal with the devil at the expense of Palestinian moderates?Well, it may not seem so bad—this Israeli government might reason—if Hamas is showing signs of terminal weakness, of a real split between its political and military wings, and a real form of de facto moderation under duress. After all, what has the PA/PLO complex under Mahmud Abbas been willing and able to deliver? And it’s especially not so bad if the Prime Minister is not actually interested in a peace process that could lead to Israel’s ever really leaving the West Bank, and if he is interested in deepening the alienation of the two parts of a potential independent Palestinian state. This is what the PA/PLO types fear and they are furious at Blair as a result.Perhaps, too, a deal with Hamas—or the prospect of one—could translate into a kind of lesser leverage against Mahmud Abbas; say, to deter him from running to the ICC seething with complaint about Israel. And perhaps seeming signs of progress, represented (again in theory) by this deal, can be manipulated to delay or kill a French gambit to hoist the peace process up on some UN-sponsored petard, where it would inevitably explode of course—but not before causing a lot of awkwardness and unpleasantness all around.That’s all, right? Not right.At the risk of sending you, oh patient reader, down another unexpected chute, one has to think of the Leviathan. No, not Hobbes’s Leviathan, and not the one mentioned in Isaiah, Job, and Psalms; but the gas field.There is a large undersea gas field in the Mediterranean between Israel and Cyprus, with the potential to change economic realities and possibly aspects of political life as we know it in the region. And in the face of this godsend for Israel, what has the Israeli political system managed to do? Thanks to the inscrutabilities of Israeli coalition politics and the legal rigidities of Israel’s anti-trust office in the person of David Gilo, the main investors and jobbers involved in the project to bring Leviathan on line—Noble Energy and others—got knocked on their heels in December of this past year. The government declared the arrangements too monopolistic, too wired, and too closed. It was impossible to imagine that this blockage would not in due course be cleared away—way too much is at stake—and it now seems as though it has. Just yesterday the Israeli cabinet approved a revamped arrangement to get the gas developed flowing. The new arrangement seems promising.Now, just consider the energy volumes here and their meaning. The consortium developing the Leviathan field needs to be able to sell about eight billion cubic meters (BCM) annually to justify the up-front investment of some $6.5 billion—a big number for fairly small economies. But that seems a synch. Egypt is a key customer—if the pipelines can be kept secure. So is Jordan (maybe 3.5 BCM per year), whose economic stresses would be much alleviated by a cheap source of energy. But above all there is (again) Turkey, which has no natural gas resources of its own and which pays high prices now for what it imports. Turkey could be a customer for seven or perhaps all eight of the minimally necessary BCMs per annum.Is there a connection between the possible easing of Israeli-Turkish tensions and the prospects of a major, mutually beneficial deal over energy supplies? Could this be the case even without reference to Blair, Hamas, or a ceasefire? And would a deal involving Cyprus in some shape or form help to allay legal and security worries about exploiting the field, which of course must rely to an extent on a sharing and boundary delimitation agreement between the Israeli and Cypriot governments? Oh, perhaps.So what’s really going on here—if anything? Is this prospective now-you-see-it/now-you-don’t deal mainly about Hamas in Gaza? About the so-called Israeli-Palestinian peace process, or Israeli maneuvers to derail its fulsome return? About the repercussions of the Iran deal? About Turkey’s relations with Israel (and never mind for now the amazingly complex U.S. angle in all this)? About Leviathan? How about, perhaps, “all of the above”? Or maybe, “very little of the above”? Hey, it’s the Middle East; so look out for that chute, and careful on that ladder!
This is your free article this month. A quality publication is not cheap to produce.
Subscribe today and support The American Interest—only $2.99/month! Already a subscriber? Log in to make this banner go away.
Subscribe today and support The American Interest—only $2.99/month! Already a subscriber? Log in to make this banner go away.
Published on: August 17, 2015
Behind the HeadlinesAnother Middle Eastern Game of Chutes and Ladders
What’s really going on—if anything—with the Hamas-Israel deal reported to be in the offing?