By John Rapley
The other day, over coffee in Cambridge, I asked a colleague who teaches Middle East politics what she made of the Gaza conflict (and I am, of course, talking of that Gaza). She threw up her hands and said, "Who knows?"
In a region whose statecraft is bewilderingly complex, this conflict reveals the endless layers of the region's politics. Sure, we know the Israelis attacked the Gaza Strip in order to neutralise, or at least minimise, the threat of missile attacks. In the process, they apparently discovered that the threat was greater than they realised - that the Islamist Hamas, which runs Gaza, now has the capacity to build medium-range missiles, and isn't just importing them from Iran.
So, claiming to have met their immediate goals, the Israelis accepted a ceasefire mediated by the Americans and Egyptians. Yet, the timing of the action left some analysts speculating that Israel's ultimate target was Iran. According to this line of reasoning, Israel is planning an assault on Iran, to nip its nuclear programme in the bud. But since Iran would use proxy forces to retaliate against an Israeli attack, such as getting Hamas or its Lebanese ally Hezbollah to launch missiles on its enemy, Israel decided to launch some pre-emptive strikes. As the Israeli ambassador to Washington puts it, Gaza was Israel's Cuban missile crisis.
A very strange thing
Yet, the strange thing is, it's not clear that Israel needs to remove Hamas from the picture to weaken the Iranian threat. Most analysts seem to think that in the short term, Tehran's mullahs benefited from the Gaza fighting because it took attention off Iran, its nuclear programme, and its support for the increasingly isolated Syrian regime.
Longer term, though, the rise of Egypt's Islamist government has drawn Hamas out of Iran's embrace, and into the sympathetic arms of its old friends in Cairo. Hamas emerged from the same Muslim Brotherhood that now controls the Egyptian regime. Meanwhile, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi appears to have emerged a clear winner from recent events, since his success as a mediator has recentred Egypt in the region's diplomacy.
The big losers in recent events are Syria and Hezbollah - Syria for its ongoing repression of its own people, Hezbollah for its support for Syria. And since both are closely allied to Iran, Iran is actually losing influence in the region.
Israel finds itself in an ambiguous place now. On one hand, the rise of Islamist governments has left it feeling ever more isolated. On the other, the civil war in Syria has weakened its most serious military rival in the region. And Egypt's apparent willingness to broker a peace deal rather than rally behind Hamas suggests that the new government, despite popular Egyptian support for Hamas's goals of defeating Israel, will not sacrifice peace with Israel for the cause of Arab unity.
Yet, Israel's victory is not necessarily Hamas's loss, either. While the Palestinian Authority, which runs the much larger West Bank, claims to be the legitimate government of the Palestinian people, it is seen as corrupt, ineffective, too close to Israel, and with too little to show for it. Hamas defiance has left the impoverished Gaza Strip isolated and marginalised. But Hamas resistance has burnished the organisation's credentials in the eyes not only of Palestinians, but in much of the Arab world.
The ceasefire remains fragile, and it is not clear if Hamas will be able to contain the more militant elements in its midst. But a strange balance is emerging in which Israel is powerful, Egypt is influential, and the torch of Palestine may pass from the West Bank to Gaza. Iran may have enjoyed the spectacle of its foe getting bogged down in war. But the conflict ends with it probably weakened.
Try to apply binary logic, with its friends and foes, to that set of conclusions, and you'll be pulling your hair out.
John Rapley is a foreign affairs analyst. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.