Gaza conflict scrambles delicate dance of Mideast diplomacy

The continued fighting between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip has scrambled the already-complicated world of Middle Eastern diplomacy, pitting occasional allies against one another and making strange bedfellows of countries that have watched their interests unexpectedly align.

The consequences of these emerging fault lines for U.S. interests in the region are hard to predict, analysts say -- but America needs to tread delicately.

"The United States has to navigate very carefully these waters, because any step we take vis-a-vis Israel and the Gaza situation has implications for [regional] alliances," explained CBS News Senior National Security Analyst Juan Zarate.

"The obvious problem is the United States has a whole series of allies which are conditional," explained Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "They don't have some magic common interests, but they need to preserve their ties. Turkey is a major ally. Qatar has the main U.S. air facility and provides a source of prepositioning in the region, and it's also a key ally in terms of the U.S. ability to deal with Iran."

The most significant development is the widening rift between Turkey and Qatar on one side, which have come down "much harder on the side of Hamas," Zarate said, and Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates on the other, which are "ardent opponents" of Hamas.

The Egyptians and Saudis have offered "tacit or quiet approval to what Israel is doing," Zarate said, but they've been careful to not offer full-throated support for Israel, largely because they continue to support many of the Palestinians' goals in the broader conflict.

"They would never change their position on the right of Palestinian statehood or the right of the Palestinian people, and they certainly are not going to mute themselves in terms of objecting to what they view as the slaughter of innocents" by Israel in Gaza, Zarate explained.

"There is no alliance or underlying broad common interest between Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Gulf states," said Cordesman. "They do have a common interest in this one limited area."

What that common interest can accomplish, Zarate said, is a muting of the official public opposition to Israel's actions from other countries in the region. And that, in turn, could give the Israelis more breathing room to continue carrying out their military campaign in Gaza.

"Everybody wants a ceasefire, provided it isn't on the terms that would allow Hamas to rearm or claim victory," Cordesman said. "The problem for the Gulf States isn't a deep emotional concern for Israel's security. It's that Hamas if it appeared as any kind of victor, they might well be able to displace the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and they would further empower ISIS in Iraq."

Those are also concerns for the U.S., which has struggled to contain ISIS' ferocious Islamist insurgency in Iraq, and has labored to build up the Palestinian Authority as a moderate alternative to Hamas in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Much of Egypt's tacit support for Israel can be blamed on the close ties between Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, which the current Egyptian government under Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has been trying to "eradicate," according to Zarate.

"This is no kind of alliance, it's just a matter of parallel interests," explained Cordesman.

A candidate friendly to the Muslim Brotherhood won the presidential election in Egypt following the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring in 2011. That man, Mohammed Morsi, was himself ousted from the presidency roughly two years later by Egypt's military under al-Sisi. Since then, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood have occasionally skirmished with Egyptian security forces.

"What you have is a realignment of a forces given the tumult of the Arab revolutions, some of which has been festering for some time, but has crystallized in the context of this conflict, so much so that you have real tensions diplomatically," Zarate explained.

And those tensions could make the task of peacemaking dramatically more difficult as U.S. officials navigate a minefield of conflicting interests and regional pressure points.

For example, "when [U.S. Secretary of State John] Kerry meets with Turkey and Qatar to try and bring a ceasefire forward, that sends a very strong signal to Israel, Saudi Arabia Egypt, and the U.A.E. that in some way the U.S. is kowtowing or empowering that alliance in opposition to them," Zarate explained. "And so this is a very fluid dynamic, but one that impacts even American diplomacy."

But Cordesman cautioned that for all of the diplomatic upheaval sown by the fighting in Gaza, stability and constancy have never been a feature of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

"The underlying patterns, in many ways, have not been all that different," he explained. "If you look back, we've had problems with Turkey and Qatar before, we have to keep adjusting our relationship with major Gulf States. We've had tensions before with Israel."

"Welcome to the new, old Middle East," he quipped.

Despite all the complications and unresolved questions, one simple fact seems certain about the conflict in Gaza, which has already killed over 1,400 Palestinian civilians, 56 Israeli soldiers, and 3 Israeli civilians: It's not likely to end any time soon.

"Israel has made the determination that they are in this for a longer haul, because they have to destroy the infrastructure that Hamas has built," Zarate said, citing the rockets Hamas has stockpiled and the tunnels they've used to infiltrate Israeli territory and launch suicide attacks. "[The Israelis] think they have to destroy this capability, otherwise they're going to be vulnerable."

  • Jake Miller

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