European Council on Foreign Relations

Bibi wins, everyone else loses

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In the US, no incumbent Presidential candidate has lost an election when the country was at war. In Israel, it now seems no Prime Minister can enter an election without a war in Gaza. Once the rocket and missile smoke clears, and barring a much longer ground invasion of the blockaded Strip, the only clear winner will be Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Despite earlier predictions he would be handily re-elected in January, in recent days Netanyahu has felt slightly less assured. Bibi has so far campaigned on a national security strategy (mostly against the Iranian threat) and found a convenient moment to give himself a boost.

The first day of the Muslim new year was Ahmed Jaabari's last. A former Fatah loyalist-turned-Hamas fighter, Jaabari led Hamas's Izzedddin al-Qassim Brigades. He also engineered the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and later negotiated his release. And since 2009, he was ironically Israel's best defense against haphazard rocket attacks out of Gaza, guardian of a fairly stable truce. With the release of two other Islamist operatives back to Gaza, Jaabari's authority in the strip was increasingly eroding. As such, it seems he had outlived his usefulness and would be more useful to Bibi as a dead terrorist for election fodder.

Perhaps Netanyahu's Gaza gambit surprises observers because 2012 is not 2008, and consequently that Israeli decision making might be more circumspect in the uncertain terrain of a revolutionary Middle East. But in this, the risk-averse Prime Minister and his advisors seem to have calculated the limpness of international response exactly right.

Egypt's Islamist government, much touted as Israel's new strategic threat, has done precious little to support their Muslim brothers beyond the Rafah crossing. The border between Gaza and the Sinai remains firmly shut and though Prime Minister Hisham Kandil traveled to Gaza this morning, President Morsi is in no burning rush to tear down the peace treaty with Israel. Though the Muslim Brotherhood expressed its dissatisfaction with its Freedom and Justice Party politicians, the muted response from Cairo is another sign that under the right conditions the Brotherhood's transnational identity politics are neatly subsumed by pragmatic domestic calculations.

Kandil was followed by former presidential aspirant Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, and Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalam is expected to be in Gaza tomorrow. Apart from the Emir of Qatar, no Arab leader has visited Gaza since Israel's Cast Lead assault in 2008. The symbolism of solidarity won't be missed on the streets in Cairo and Tunis, but solidarity is a consolation prize from actors who can't offer more.

Despite the legitimacy that official visits to Gaza might confer it, Hamas, itself increasingly unpopular in Gaza, is likely to emerge weaker still from the current round of violence. So too is PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who has done little more than ask for the Arab League's attention; his diminished credibility is likely to crumble further among Palestinians in Gaza and raises the inconvenient question of what weight UN recognition for Palestinian observer status carries when he has nothing to offer his citizens living under blockade and violence.

The responses from the usual cast of characters during flare-ups of violence in the holy land have been almost comically predictable. Newly re-anointed President Obama strayed nowhere from the biblically prescribed line of Israeli security being sacrosanct, but if nothing else, the latest offensive against Gaza ties his hands in one respect: potential rapprochement with Tehran. The Iranian government will have a difficult time justifying a political dialogue with the US when one of their key allies has been so keenly undermined.

The Arab League, perhaps still reeling from their first ministerial dialogue since 2008 with the European Union this week, have demanded an emergency meeting on Saturday to discuss Gaza. And the European Union, despite the fact that High Representative Catherine Ashton has been in Cairo for days cheek to jowl with other Arab leaders, has left management of the crisis to the ever-present Quartet Representative Tony Blair, issuing the usual bland rejoinders about calm and proportionality. The GCC, meeting with Russia to discuss Syria (where Bashar al-Assad can't be too dismayed that dying Palestinians are taking the spotlight away from dying Syrians), trotted out the usual prefabricated outrage.

There is no talk yet of a ceasefire (though at least one Israeli activist claims a permanent ceasefire agreement was under negotiation when Jaabari was assassinated), neither at home, in the region or abroad. And this may yet be the most dangerous outcome of a Cast Lead redux  - the revelation that the winners and losers are exactly where we left them in 2009, with ever-shrinking prospects for a political settlement. European leaders should consider what category they're in - and whether they in fact matter at all.

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