Frederick Engels wrote in 1854, “We must not forget that there is a sixth power in Europe, which at given moments asserts its supremacy over the whole of the five so-called ‘Great Powers’ and makes them tremble, every one of them. That power is the Revolution.”
The same is true in the Middle East today. If you only focused on the military balance of forces, you would conclude that nothing much had changed since Israel’s latest war on Gaza.
Hamas now has longer-range Fajr-5 missiles that can hit Tel Aviv. But the Israel Defence Force (IDF) retains overwhelming physical superiority. But simply looking at the hardware and troops would be superficial. In reality everything has changed.
The liberal Israeli daily Haaretz carried a fascinating piece on deliberations last week among leading government figures—prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, defence minister Ehud Barak and foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman—over the ceasefire proposed by Egyptian president, Mohamed Mursi:
“At Tuesday’s meeting, just before US secretary of state Hillary Clinton arrived, it became clear to Israel that the principles for a ceasefire being proposed by Egypt were much closer to Hamas’ positions than to its own.
“The assumption voiced by intelligence officials at the triumvirate meeting was that, contrary to the situation during Mubarak’s era, the Egyptians are aligning with Hamas and trying to provide it with achievements.”
Barak wanted to accept the ceasefire on the basis that the IDF had taught Hamas a lesson. Lieberman argued for a ground offensive and Netanyahu sat on the fence.
The three Israeli ministers asked Clinton to “pressure Egypt to present a more balanced ceasefire agreement”. Instead, backed up by phone calls from Barack Obama, she pushed them to accept Egypt’s terms.
And they did. Even the ultra-rightist Lieberman caved in, telling a broader group of ministers, “The decision is simple. Rabin [the Israeli prime minister assassinated for starting the ‘peace process’] said that if they fire from Gaza, we will reoccupy, but this is obviously difficult.”
Behind Mursi’s role in delivering a ceasefire that Hamas could claim as a victory lies the Arab revolutions. The latest Gaza war has shown how they are beginning to transform the geopolitics of the region.
Netanyahu has used Israel’s military superiority to regain the initiative. His demands for a war on Iran—technically very difficult to mount without the support of the US—were his first ploy. But he found himself blocked by a combination of his own security establishment and Obama.
Assassinating Hamas’s military commander Ahmad al-Jaabri at a time when a new Gaza ceasefire was being discussed was Netanyahu’s next stratagem.
Netanyahu backed Mitt Romney in the recent US elections. The Palestinian American journalist Ramzy Baroud speculates that the aim of the war was “to push the subject of Israel’s security on the top of the new administration’s agenda”.
But American eyes have turned eastwards. This was symbolised by the fact Obama visited Burma in an effort to draw it away from China during Israel’s assault on Gaza. So the last thing the US wants is another war in the Middle East.
And, inside the region, Netanyahu has lost some very powerful friends. Turkey, which had a military pact with Israel, has turned against it. Prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan denounced Israel as a “terrorist state” last week.
But Mursi and Erdogan have a problem. They may want to damage Israel symbolically and diplomatically, but they have no intention of resuming a military struggle against Israel.
Mursi in particular presides over a population for whom rhetorical denunciations and cabinet manoeuvres aren’t enough.
As he discovered last weekend, the Arab revolution is a dynamic force that can’t just be harnessed for the purposes of party intrigues. In Engels’s words, it makes every regime tremble, Arab as well as Israeli, even those who claim to be the product of the revolution.
The battle that Israel thought it would win
The Arab Spring has changed the dynamics of the conflict in Palestine, explains Simon AssafLast week Israel was forced to accept a ceasefire with Hamas in Gaza. Israel had not suffered any serious casualties, but neither had its Operation Pillar of Cloud had achieved the ends it wanted.
The situation Israel finds itself in can only be understood in the context of the popular rebellions that have sprung up across the region.
The Arab Spring has changed the whole situation. For the eight days that Israel bombed Gaza you could see the old world bumping up against the new.
The first sign of this shifting situation came when Egypt was still under the rule of dictator Hosni Mubarak. Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, its previous murderous bombing attack on Gaza, at the beginning of 2009.
Then Egyptian trade unionists and opposition activists tried to take medical supplies across the border. It was the Egyptian military that blocked them. Last week thousands of Egyptian activists rushed to the border at Rafah and the blockade disappeared.
Second was the changed international reaction to Israeli aggression. Turkey has long been a close ally of Israel and presented itself to the West as a moderate force.
But last week its prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that “Israel is a terror state”. He condemned the West for its hypocrisy. This is an extraordinary break which has added to the international pressure on Israel to agree to a ceasefire.
Third is the anger of the “Arab street”. In 2006 Israel invaded Lebanon and was eventually defeated by Hizbollah. Then solidarity from the Arab street was a threat to Israel.
But today that anger is not just a threat—Israel and the US have seen what it can mean. Two years ago six million Egyptians actively took part in a revolution and won. They overthrew Mubarak’s dictatorship and, along with Tunisia, unleashed uprisings across the region.
The US is now in a panic about what to do next. It no longer has the dictatorships of the region to rely on. The Egyptian, Tunisian and even Qatari governments have all sent delegations of senior political figures to Gaza. This has crippled Israel’s strong arm.
The new reality in Egypt means that the revolution broke the siege on Gaza and that Israel can no longer impose that siege by itself.
Israel intended this operation to isolate Hamas—to destroy its leadership. Palestinians were to be forced into abandoning their support for resistance to Israel’s daily abuse of the Palestinian people. Instead the operation has exposed an ever more jumpy imperialism.
Where were Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in all of this? Rather than cheering Israel on they were moving desperately behind the scenes to make it back off.
They need the support of Turkey and others more than ever if they are going to shore up a “moderate” mood in the region. But this is going to be difficult.
Egyptian president Mohamed Mursi gained some credibility in the country by publicly offering solidarity to the Palestinians in Gaza. He also gained respect in the West by negotiating a ceasefire.
But as pressure builds on Mursi inside Egypt, it will be harder for US imperialism to have its way in the country and the region as a whole.
The Qatari and Tunisian ruling parties are watching closely to see how the situation Mursi faces in Egypt and internationally develops.
Essentially Israel got told to stop, and it did. But we know that this is not the end of the conflict. On the day after the ceasefire was announced Israeli troops piled into the occupied West Bank and arrested 55 people they accuse of being militants.
They did this as a show of strength because the operation in Gaza did not end in defeat for Hamas. Israel’s belief in its own military invincibility has been undermined.
In 2006 its invasion of Lebanon was defeated. It overplayed its hand in 2008-9 with Operation Cast Lead, which killed 1,400 Palestinians but kickstarted a new wave of global solidarity for Gaza.
Israel is no longer dealing with a compliant Arab world. And there is a further radicalisation taking place in Egypt. In the middle of the Gaza crisis there were battles between revolutionaries and the state in the capital Cairo.
On 19 November thousands of protesters marked the first anniversary of the killing of 43 protesters in a street battle in Mohamed Mahmoud Street in the city centre.
They had been demanding that the military hand power to the people. A year later the military regime is gone, but protesters chanted the same slogan: “The people demand the fall of the regime.” Police attacked them with tear gas and protesters replied with rocks.
This proved that while Mursi gained temporary popular support from his handling of Israel, it is far from stable. Pressure from below, such as a call for a mass march to the border with Gaza, would put him in a difficult situation.
The Palestinians are not alone. Alongside huge international solidarity the Palestinians have other, more practical help.
Many of the rockets that Hamas has fired at Israel came from Libya. Rebels raided the regime’s arms dumps when they overthrew the dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Israel provoked Hamas into firing off all its homemade rockets, only to find the Palestinians had significant, Libyan-made back up.
In 2006, Lebanon’s Hizbollah militia fired rockets right up until the moment when the ceasefire began. It sent a message that “We have not been defeated, we can still respond.” Hamas did the same thing last week and Israel understands what that means.
Israel’s Operation Pillar of Cloud shows beyond doubt that the world has changed. The key to the liberation of Palestine—the Arab masses, particularly in Egypt—are aware of their strength and power.
The battle that Israel was so sure it would win has in fact exposed its weaknesses. It has put increasing pressure on US imperialism which relies on Israel to represent its interests more than ever.
The US can no longer look to its old friends in the Arab dictatorships who have been overthrown by movements from below.
How can Palestine get its freedom?The Arab revolutions have shown the power of ordinary people. They have not only challenged their dictators, but rejected their role as tools of imperialism. But they also offer a solution to the problem of Israel.
The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) led the resistance to Israeli occupation for decades. But it got caught up in a long “peace process” pushed by the US.
Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the main PLO group Fatah, has kept talking while Israel occupies more Palestinian land and proves its promises are empty.
The PLO is now committed to a two state solution. It accepts the idea that the best Palestine can hope for is to exist as a statelet overshadowed by a militarised Israel.
Hamas, the radical Islamist movement, was elected in Gaza in 2006 as a popular rejection of the PLO’s cronyism. Hamas too believes in a two state solution.
It demands that Israel retreats to the borders before it expanded further into Palestinian territory in 1967. That would still leave Palestine as a tiny dominated state.
But Israel only exists because it operates as a tool of Western imperialism. That is why it is always defended by the West.
Egyptian president Mohamed Mursi won popularity by calling on Israel to stop the bombing. But he also proved his worth to the West in leading negotiations with Israel. Barack Obama phoned to thank him personally.
Israel feels endangered so it will constantly threaten war with any state that is not submissive to imperialism.
But the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt show the possibility of another kind of Middle East, one that is not dominated by war and imperialism. Muslims fought alongside Christian Copts to overthrow dictatorships.
The revolutions offer a path to states where people of all religions can live side by side. They have the power to defeat Israel and imperialism.