Why Washington’s love affair with Myanmar might be too much, too soon

Head Over Heels

Why Washington’s love affair with Myanmar might be too much, too soon.

BY JOSHUA KURLANTZICK | NOVEMBER 16, 2012

When he arrives in Myanmar next week, President Barack Obama will mark a historic occasion. Not only will it be the first time a sitting American president has visited the country, the trip also represents the final step in Myanmar’s remarkable rehabilitation from international pariah status. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush made a point of ignoring the previous leaders of Myanmar (then known as Burma), almost all of whom were blacklisted from entering the United States. In 2005, the Bush administration began calling the country an “outpost of tyranny,” while Bush’s wife, the first lady, made change in Burma one of the highest-profile issues on her personal agenda.

Since then, Myanmar has come in from the cold. During Obama’s visit, part of a longer Southeast Asia swing that kicks off in Thailand on Sunday, the president will almost certainly praise the rapid and pervasive reforms that have supposedly transformed the country in two short years. Indeed, just the fact that the president is traveling to Myanmar, administration officials say, shows how impressed Obama is with the pace of change, and particularly with the reformist instincts of Myanmar president Thein Sein, a former army general who has worked with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to usher in a wave of political, economic, and social change.

And Obama is hardly Thein Sein’s only admirer. Nearly every other industrialized democracy that once imposed sanctions on Myanmar because of its harsh military rule and massive rights abuses — the European Union, Australia, Canada, and Japan, to name a few — have dropped those sanctions in the past two years. Instead, many of these countries are allocating large new aid packages to Myanmar and encouraging their companies to invest there. Earlier this month, the World Bank, which had shunned Myanmar after the country refused to pay its loans and pushed out most foreign NGOs during the 1960s and 1970s, authorized a landmark new aid package worth $245 million. In meetings with Norwegian officials in Washington, I learned that Norway, which has always had a close interest in Myanmar, plans to make the country its top priority for aid over the next five years.

Many other Western nations have opened new aid agencies in Yangon, the country’s largest city and its former capital, and NGOs have returned en masse. Some Burmese experts went as far as backing Thein Sein for the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, likening him to a latter-day version of F.W. deKlerk, though the prize ultimately went to the European Union. Still, Kristian Berg Harpviken, director of the Peace Research Institute of Oslo, listed President Thein Sein among the five frontrunners for the Nobel in recognition of his efforts “spearheading a gradually evolving peace process in the country.” Thein Sein’s prospects for claiming the prestigious prize next year look equally strong.

The entire landscape in Myanmar seems to be changing overnight — not only on the political scene. Sensing an opportunity in Yangon, companies have swamped the sprawling, low-lying city with foreign investment. Japanese manufacturer Suzuki has launched plans to build a series of large new motorcycle factories; Coca-Cola is projected to invest $100 million in Myanmar over the next three yearswith rival PepsiCo looking to follow suit; and, Visa, Mastercard, and numerous other Western and Japanese financial firms have announced plans to increase their presence in the country. Meanwhile, nearly every major oil and gas company in the world descended on a petroleum trade show in Myanmar last spring, to scout out opportunities in what might well be one of the world’s biggest new oil and gas finds. Earlier this year, officials from the Myanmar Energy Ministry announced that the country has proven oil reserves of almost 140 million barrels and 11.4 trillion cubic feet of gas, potentially putting it on par with some of the largest petroleum producers in the world.

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But Myanmar’s political and economic changes, though substantial, are not as secure as many Burmese reformers and outside observers think. The economic reforms that have been put in place are tenuous, and if they do not lead to broad-based growth, they could only fuel greater unrest. Civil wars still rage in parts of the country, and the end of the authoritarian era seems to have unleashed dormant ethnic tensions in places like Arakan State in the west. Meanwhile, though the former senior generals really do seem to have retired, that does not mean the army has simply vanished from power.

* * *

Without a doubt, Myanmar has come a long way since late 2010, when the country held rigged elections that, at the time, few Burmese activists or outside observers thought would bring any real change. Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), boycotted those polls since they were viewed as simply a way for the military to create a falsely civilianized parliament and continue to rule from behind the scenes. When the polls were announced, Suu Kyi remained under house arrest, as she had for decades. In the election, 25 percent of the seats in parliament were reserved for the uniformed armed forces, and nearly all the rest were won by army-backed parties consisting of officers who had simply shed their uniforms. Nearly every leading democracy, including several in Southeast Asia, condemned the polls as unfree and unfair. Myanmar looked like it would remain encased in amber, as it had been, with brief exceptions, since the army first took power in 1962. Things looked equally bleak for Suu Kyi, who remained locked up — a symbol on the global stage, but aging and increasingly marginalized at home.

And then a strange thing happened. The members of parliament, who at first seemed like token former Army officers, began to act like, well, parliamentarians. They opened inquiries into state budgets, military spending, and other sacred cows. They held loud debates on the parliament floor and tried to explain their positions to the local media — a first. Meanwhile, the new president, Thein Sein, who had come up in the military and, though less corrupt than some other officers, was still seen as a status quo figure, began making major changes. Burmese officials claimed that the former dictator, Senior General Than Shwe, and his longtime number two, Maung Aye, had truly retired after 2010 and were no longer providing direct input into policy-making.

In a move that seemed to confirm these claims, Thein Sein quickly sacked many hard-line ministers and opened up the media, essentially ending censorship in what had been one of the most repressive environments in the world for print and broadcast journalists. Today, Yangon, where news once consisted of the Pravda-like state paper The New Light of Myanmar, boasts at least ten new broadsheets and other publications that are springing up, as well as online outlets staffed with journalists, many of whom were trained in exile, focusing on investigative reporting and political analysis that would have incurred long jail sentences just two years ago. In recognition of the changes, monitoring organizations like Freedom House have dramatically raised Myanmar’s scores on press and social freedoms. Today, the media is freer in Myanmar than it many other parts of Southeast Asia, such as Laos or Vietnam.

Thein Sein’s government also lifted other civil society restrictions. As thousands of educated Burmese exiles returned home and set up new NGOs focusing on environmental protection, labor rights, and many other issues that it would have been unthinkable to promote in Myanmar just a few years ago, the government has tolerated their efforts, allowing protests over dams and other environmental issues, and giving interviews with exiled media organizations returning to the country.

Thein Sein also built bridges to Suu Kyi, holding regular talks with her and, over the course of the past two years, releasing nearly all political prisoners from jail, including many NLD members. Their discussions eventually paved the way for a free and fair parliamentary by-election last spring in which the NLD swept 41 of 44 seats, putting Suu Kyi in parliament for the first time in history — though in a small minority in a lower house of over 400 seats. NLD supporters thronged Suu Kyi’s house after the by-election triumph, celebrating ecstatically in scenes that reminded some observers of the end of white rule in South Africa. The NLD even took seats in constituencies around the capital of Naypyidaw, which is populated primarily by military men and their families.

Suu Kyi, who had been held under house arrest for nearly 20 years, suddenly was free to travel, and embarked upon victory tours of Europe and the United States this past fall, where she picked up award after award in Washington and New York. NLD parliamentarians began making plans for the next national election, in 2015, when all seats in parliament will be contested, and Suu Kyi’s party and its allies hope to win control of the legislature and thus, they think, the country.

Thein Sein has also made progress toward reforming Myanmar’s crippled and archaic economy. In an effort to make the country less dependent on China, which had become Myanmar’s most important donor and investor during the sanctions era, he approved the cancellation of a controversial Chinese dam project — ostensibly for environmental reasons — and rolled out the red carpet for Western investors. The president, surrounded by a group of former exiles educated in the West and knowledgeable about the development paths of neighbors like Thailand and Indonesia, pushed to reform the foreign investment law, provide greater guarantees for investors, and shore up the country’s notoriously fragile banking system.

Thein Sein has enjoyed the support of high profile economists like Nobel Prize laureate Joseph Stiglitz, who visited the country to assist with economic reforms, and international financial institutions, which barely knew who the president was two years ago. Even Suu Kyi has come to trust Thein Sein, allies of the democracy leader say in private. “The president is the key making all this change happen,” said one former exile activist who now has returned to Myanmar, emboldened by the changes. Suu Kyi and Thein Sein have dined together on numerous occasions and she has told supporters she feels a rapport with the president that she never had with any previous military leader in the country.

* * *

Why should we doubt the hype? For one, comparing Myanmar to Vietnam in the late 1980s or to another Asian tiger cub about to open up is a stretch. Myanmar does have a large market (50 million people), cheap labor, enormous natural resources, and a strategic location between two of the fastest-growing economies in the world. But unlike Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, or even Vietnam by the late 1980s, Myanmar remains wrecked by civil wars, some of which are still going on and show little sign of ending. Many parts of the country bear a closer resemblance to an African country like Rwanda or Angola emerging from years of severe civil strife, with low-level insurgencies still flaring in outlying regions.

In part because of the legacy of war and government mismanagement, more than 50 percent of Myanmar still lacks basic physical infrastructure — electricity, usable roads, and rails — of the kind that were taken for granted by investors coming into China and Vietnam, or other Asian tigers like Malaysia and Thailand. Worse, unlike Vietnam or China, the Myanmar government still has little control over many large areas of the country, making investment in these regions — which also happen to be the center of major oil, gas, and mining deposits — extremely risky. And neither the government nor the opposition has come up with a workable plan for creating an effective federal state system in one of the most ethnically diverse nations in the world. Without a system like Indonesia’s that devolves political power and control of resources to the sub-provincial and village level, Myanmar’s ethnic minorities are unlikely to ever see themselves as citizens of the country, saidTin Maung Than, a longtime Myanmar diplomat who is now a researcher at the Myanmar Development Resource Institute, one of the new think tanks launching in the country.

Complicating things further is the fact that Thein Sein’s government, while signing ceasefires with some ethnic armies, has also simultaneously ramped up attacks against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), a major ethnic insurgent group in the north of the country. Both sides have beenaccused by Human Rights Watch of massive atrocities, including killing civilians, forcing children to fight, and using forced labor and portering. The Kachin appear to be buying up arms, and Thein Sein himself appears to have limited control of how the military and his regional commanders fight the Kachin war, a worrying sign if the country is going to be a democracy in the future. Tens of thousands of Kachin refugees have fled the fighting, with some crossing the border into China and others stranded in some of the coldest and most inhospitable parts of Myanmar.

Meanwhile, the government has done little about another powerful ethnic insurgency in the northeast of the country, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), which is believed to be among the biggest narcotrafficking organizations in the world and which has tens of thousands of men under arms. Instead, the government appears to be continuing the longstanding policy of ignoring the narcotrafficking militia, much to the dismay of neighbors like Thailand, which absorb the majority of the UWSA’s potent methamphetamines. As a result, areas controlled by the UWSA, the KIA, and some other ethnic armies, are essentially beyond the control of the central government.

Moreover, just because Than Shwe and the other top generals have formally retired does not mean they are not pulling some strings from behind the scenes. Several close observers of parliament say that Than Shwe has seeded the ruling party with hard-liners who will make sure that any reforms proposed by Thein Sein or Suu Kyi don’t get too far, too fast. If the NLD were to win the 2015 election, these hard-liners, through the military’s seats in parliament, could hinder change or squash it completely. In addition, the constitution still gives the military the right to step back into power if it feels it is necessary, in the case of a national emergency, thus essentially offering the possibility of a coup at any time in the future. While Than Shwe, Maung Aye, and other senior officers retired with considerable wealth, younger officers did not get a chance to amass significant assets before the transition. Instead, these middle-ranking officers may find themselves without a job, and without the access to government funds and natural resources deals that their superiors received before retiring. This could be yet another powder keg in the country’s fractious transition. Angry that their old guard cashed in, but they could not, these middle-ranking officers could easily see justification, like each successively younger class of army officers in Thailand, to stage a coup when there is even the pretext of mild unrest.

Such a pretext is not hard to find in an ethnically diverse country where conflict remains rife. Already, many Burmese believe that the army is meddling in events in the southwest of the country, helping to stoke anger and violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Arakan State. The violence there has lasted for months now, destroying tens of thousands of homes and leaving hundreds dead. At the same time, regional commanders have used the crisis to argue for a greater deployment of forces in Arakan State. Troops now patrol many of the larger towns in Arakan, an ominous sign in a country where, in the past, the army was accused of summary executions, forced labor, rape as a weapon of war, and other atrocities when it inserted itself into ethnic conflicts.

There are also reasons to think Thein Sein may be less of a reformer than we think. Liberal record aside, the president remains highly indebted to the army, which operates in the shadows behind him. Many Burmese officials wonder whether Thein Sein even has total control of regional military commanders operating on the ground across the country. Meanwhile, Aung San Suu Kyi has misstepped time and again, finding it difficult to make the transition from activist to politician, served by a staff with little training in the basics of policy-making. Burmese businesspeople in Yangon say that Suu Kyi and her party have little grasp of economic policy-making, and even less of a handle on how to enact policies that would ensure long-term foreign investment and protect investors from the types of nationalizations that have crippled Myanmar in the past. Suu Kyi also seems to have become far more reticent to speak out on rights issues as she has become an active politician. She has done almost nothing to try and heal the rifts in Arakan State or Kachin State, earning severe criticism from many rights activists around the world, as well as from Muslims in Arakan State itself. With Suu Kyirefusing to take a strong public stand, aggressive and xenophobic Buddhist groups across the country have taken control of the conversation about the Arakan crisis, and prevented many aid organizations from even operating in there. Hard-liners have also kept the Organization of the Islamic Conference, which wanted to play a mediating role, from even opening an office in Myanmar. Last week, Doctors without Borders reported that Buddhist radical groups were preventing many of its physicians from working in Arakan State, even though many of the fleeing refugees are suffering from acute malnutrition and malaria.

Thein Sein’s economic reforms also hardly guarantee that Myanmar will enjoy growth that actually benefits most people. The majority of investment, at least initially, is coming in the oil and gas sector, hardly known for its transparency or for broadly benefiting large numbers of locals. Though some manufacturing and textile firms, of the kind that have powered broad-based growth in countries like Bangladesh or Indonesia, might be attracted to Myanmar’s low labor costs, the poor infrastructure will most likely keep the majority of companies away. These weaknesses could put transport costs in Myanmar on the level of the most expensive places in Africa, as well as contributing to corruption: In its latest Corruption Perceptions Index, Transparency International ranked Myanmar the second most corrupt nation in the world.

Higher-tech firms will also likely shy away from investment in Myanmar because of the country’s low levels of education. For two decades the former military regime shuttered the finest secondary schools to prevent students from gathering for protests, so even though the country has a young labor force, its skill level is on par with the poorest countries in Africa. Today there are only a handful of well-educated young people skilled in information technology, communications, or management, which would make it hard for multinationals to build an office of any size in Myanmar.

* * *

Given all these problems, it may be too soon to crown Myanmar a reform triumph. Certainly, the United States and other leading democracies should support Thein Sein and Suu Kyi’s reform efforts, help address the refugee crises in Kachin State and Arakan State, among other places. They should also slowly increase aid and investment, especially in infrastructure — many Burmese economists fear that the country cannot even absorb investment that quickly, since it has such little capacity.

But the White House is moving much faster. It is restoring military-military ties with Myanmar, despite the history of atrocities and the possibility that the army may be involved in stirring up the violence in Arakan State. It is pushing forward with closer diplomatic cooperation, and increasingly is trying to involve Myanmar in its broader Asia-Pacific strategy, known as the “pivot” to the region. For administration officials, Myanmar provides an opportunity to secure another partner in a region where many countries, worried by China’s growing maritime power and unpredictable moves in areas like the South China Sea, are already turning to the United States as a hedge against Chinese ambitions.

Of course, as sanctions have been lifted, the administration also now is coming under increasing pressure from the business community, which for more than a decade said almost nothing about Myanmar for fear of being tarred by association with one of the most brutal regimes in the world. And yet, despite the photo ops and warm welcomes that will surely greet Obama — and the fact that American engagement has helped push some reforms in Myanmar — the White House should consider waiting to see more concrete outcomes before going ahead with significant military ties, greater aid, and lifting sanctions forever.

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Asean and partners likely to form world’s largest economic bloc 1

MERGAWATI ZULKAFAR I

Asean and six of its dialogue partners are expected to start negotiations early next year on a proposed economic partnership which will form the world’s largest economic bloc.

Negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partner-ship (RCEP), an initiative involving the 10 Asean members and its partners – Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea – are expected to start in February.

Asean officials met here on the sidelines of the senior officials meeting yesterday expected the leaders to make the announcement when they meet at the Asean Summit which begins here tomorrow.

The RCEP, endorsed at the 19th Asean Summit in Bali last year, is aimed at consolidating Free Trade Agreements signed between Asean and its dialogue partners to ease trade procedures and boost the flow of trade and investment within the Asia-Pacific region.

Officials said the idea was to create a single FTA between Asean and its dialogue partners.

The potential is huge as it involves a single market with more three billion people and a combined GDP of about US$17tril (RM51tril).

Here, the leaders will also look at the deadline for the formation of the Asean Economic Community (AEC) by 2015 when member countries must remove all trade barriers.

While Asean is eager to move on to other issues to meet its AEC deadline and the adoption of the Asean Human Rights declaration, the nagging South China Sea dispute is also set to hog the limelight.

Asean officials are anxious to see how Cambodia, as the summit host and Asean chair, will handle the issue after the fiasco at the Asean Foreign Ministers meeting in July.

The ministers failed to issue a joint statement for the first time in 45 years after the territorial claims between China and Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam spilled into the meeting as they could not agree on the text referring to the dispute in the statement. The other non-Asean claimant country is Taiwan.

Cambodia was heavily criticised by several member countries as Phnom Penh was accused of pandering to China during the July meeting.

“As the Asean chair, Cambodia needs to play a more assertive role in ensuring cohesiveness and solidarity within Asean. This is a crucial time to show unity,” said one official.

A draft Code of Conduct (CoC) on the South China Sea has been circulated to Asean foreign ministers that comprises elements of conflict prevention and management for the maritime territorial dispute.

However, the grouping has yet to get China to sit down and negotiate on the legally binding CoC which is intended as a mechanism to implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea that Beijing signed and Asean member nations agreed to in 2002.

Asean leaders are also expected to adopt the Asean Human Rights Declaration here despite criticisms that it falls short of international standards.

Asean officials said critics must see the overall context of the declaration which took into account of cultural and religious sensitivities.

“We work on consensus and need to recognise some Asean countries have different perspectives on certain aspects of human rights.

“For example, certain member countries may be okay with gays and lesbians but for others it is a factor of religion and cultural sensivity,” said another official.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has called on Asean leaders to suspend the adoption of the first-ever Human Rights Declaration, saying it lacked transparency during the drafting process.

‘We were convinced that Israel would not retaliate’

It was a brilliant intelligence-driven military operation, reminiscent of the 2008 assassination of Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyeh. The assassination of Hamas’ military commander Ahmed Jabari with a direct missile hit to his car, along with the killing of additional key Gaza terror figures, were a resounding opening shot. In a string of subsequent strikes from the air and from the sea, additional cars and stationary targets were eliminated. There is no doubt that Jabari’s assassination severely crippled Hamas’ military operations and greatly contributed to Israel’s power of deterrence. It is very likely that Israel’s precise intelligence and the intensity of the subsequent attack have also prompted Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah to hide even further underground in his bunker.

Senior Hamas officials didn’t heed the warnings that Israel was keeping score and continued to fire rockets into southern Israeli towns — as orchestrated by Jabari. In this way, the various Gaza terrorist organizations dictated the daily routines of thousands of Israeli civilians, as well as the fate of their children. This week, it seems, the idea that Hamas is running a legitimate regime collapsed as terror organizations under its command continued to fire more and more rockets. The rhetoric and the threats aim for “beyond, beyond Tel Aviv” (a reference to a speech by Nasrallah in 2006, who threatened to strike further south than Haifa, saying “baada, baada” or beyond, beyond). But reality keeps getting better.

Jabari, born in 1960 to a Hebron family that immigrated to Gaza, has been a dead man walking since 1982 when he joined the ranks of Fatah. His life path, paved with terror attacks against Israelis, led him to an Israeli prison, where he served a 13-year sentence. During his time in prison he became friends with top Hamas terrorists, including Salah Shehade, Mohammed Deif (both of whom served as commanders of Hamas’ military wing), Adnan al-Ghoul (an explosives expert considered to have invented the Qassam) and Ibrahim al-Makadmeh. Some of these murderers later joined the procession of shahidim (martyrs) like Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi and others in heaven.

It was the assassinations of Yassin and Rantissi that offered Jabari a shortcut to the top of Hamas’ chain of command. In 2004, already with a lot of Israeli blood on his hands, Jabari evaded an attempt on his life that killed his son, his brother and an additional person. He managed to survive, strengthen Hamas and arm it, and star in additional terror attacks in between. All the while he smuggled weapons into Gaza. Most importantly, he planned and executed the abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit in 2006, held him captive for over five years and ultimately released him in exchange for 1,000 Palestinian terrorist prisoners.

His terrorist activities only served to make Jabari increasingly popular and he rapidly climbed to the highest echelons of the organization. Meanwhile, he displayed exceptional organizational skills and managed to incorporate changes into Hamas’ armed forces, transforming the organization into a multi-branched military like any other, with links to Iran.

The man was not only brazen outward; he also waged internal battles against the very leadership of Hamas, especially against “outsider” politburo chief Khaled Mashal. In 2007, Jabari, along with key Hamas figure Mahmoud al-Zahar and others staged a military coup and forced Fatah out of Gaza — making Hamas the sole ruler of the Strip.

Among other roles Jabari also served as the so-called Hamas chief of staff — commanding the group’s military wing, the “Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades.” In this capacity, he was responsible for the organization’s terrorist attacks and rocket fire on Israeli civilians. That is, up until the moment his crushed body parts were successfully launched into the “heavenly procession of the dead” that he so longed to join.

When these lines were written the Israel Air Force was still striking Hamas targets with full force. In the course of these strikes the IAF destroyed, among other things, stockpiles of long-range Fajr rockets, hidden in camouflaged pits. These pits were to be used to launch rockets further into Israel and shed the blood of Israelis living in the center of the country. These long-range rockets were being saved precisely for times such as these: the plan was that if Israel were to launch a full blown attack, the Israeli victim pool would be widened to include central Israel, rather than just the south. Instead, the Iron Dome missile defense system is turning out to be a cornerstone of Israeli deterrence, because it severely undermines Hamas’ threat to the Israeli homefront.

Commentators have remarked with awe in recent days that the hum of drones, which had become a fixture in the auditory Gaza experience, has now ceased. According to these sources, Israel is now using a new type of weapon that guides missiles directly toward the target from a great distance, silently, while exploiting the element of surprise.

Jabari’s assassination also prompted some of them to admit bitterly that Palestinian society was coming apart, and that Palestinians working with Israeli intelligence were providing information about Hamas targets.

Confusion and accusations

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri self-righteously argued after the assassination that Hamas was actually preparing for a hudna — a sort of temporary ceasefire — with the “Zionist enemy.” He made sure to stress, however, that even a hudna would include, as it has in the past, “incessant reminders” in the form of sporadic rocket salvos, which would continue, presumably, until Palestine is liberated.

The spectrum of indignant responses to Jabari’s assassination was accompanied by self-righteousness and surprise at the Israeli response. After all, they keep insisting, the rockets fired from Gaza into Israeli towns haven’t killed that many civilians. Therefore, they ask innocently, what is Israel so upset about? The Palestinians’ spokespeople — including Israeli-Arab MK Taleb a-Sana — try to portray Hamas and the plethora of other Gaza terrorist groups as innocent parties; their only sin is that they have been turned into tools in the hands of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman as part of the former’s “bloody elections campaign.”

These spokespeople claim that the Israeli operation in Gaza was intended to divert the Israeli public’s attention away from internal economic and social ills, and to win votes with a populist invasion. One after another, these Hamas spokespeople can’t seem to understand what could possibly be wrong with firing rockets at Israelis.

Meanwhile, there is also an extensive diplomatic effort underway. In the initial stages Hamas is mainly looking toward Egypt as well as the Arab League and other Arab countries that are veterans of the Islamic Arab Spring revolutions. According to Hamas’ spokespeople, Israel underhandedly tricked Egypt. They say that Israel’s response to Egypt’s reconciliation efforts suggested that they were going to delay the planned Gaza offensive for the time being. That is how Israel deceived Egypt, put Hamas to sleep, and with “betrayal and deception” managed to surprise its operatives and exact revenge on Jabari for the prisoner exchange deal they were forced to make to secure Schalit’s release in 2011, crippling Hamas in the process.

Hamas, therefore, is expecting Egypt to take action against Israel. From their perspective, Cairo must now prove that it is no longer Mubarak’s Egypt, and fight for its Muslim honor. They must renounce the Israeli deception, freeze relations with Israel, deport the Israeli ambassador and recall the Egyptian ambassador from Israel. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt passionately and defiantly voiced even tougher demands.

Senior Palestinian Authority officials also condemned Israel’s actions, but in their case it sounded more like lip service, in light of the blows being dealt to the organization that has as much hostility toward the PA as it does toward Israel.

In the meantime, as Egypt begins a slow rehabilitation process while dealing with internal divisions and upheaval alongside a crippling economic dependence on the West, Cairo has displayed solidarity with Hamas and has warned Israel that escalation in Gaza would invite repercussions. Egypt even convened a meeting of Arab League foreign ministers and approached the United Nations Security Council demanding an emergency meeting on Israeli aggression. The Israeli ambassador has indeed left Egypt, and the Egyptian ambassador has been recalled until further notice.

In the background there is an essential contradiction between the extreme Islamist identity of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s anti-Semitic regime and the country’s existential interests. Egypt’s survival depends, for the time being, on a positive relationship with the West. That is why Egypt, which hosted Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas this week, will continue to mediate between Israel and Hamas, under American supervision, despite the crisis with Israel it has deliberately created to appease Hamas.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ associates accused Israel’s government of adopting an opportunistic approach in deciding the timing of the Gaza offensive. This, they say, is motivated by the upcoming Israeli elections. These associates argue that the basis for the offensive was actually a move to foil Abbas’ initiative to upgrade the PA’s status at the U.N.

Both Hamas and Abbas’ PLO have voiced the need to join forces in the face of the “malicious” Israeli hostility. But unfortunately, even the tone of these voices gave away the fact that these were empty words, and that there is no chance, not even under the current circumstances, for reconciliation between these two rival Palestinian factions.

The Palestinian obsession, especially on behalf of Hamas, with Israel’s upcoming elections as a motive for Israeli actions actually raises suspicion that Hamas itself had timed the digging of a terror tunnel (which failed), meant to attack an IDF border patrol unit, and its escalation of rocket fire on Israel’s south, to coincide with the Israeli elections campaigns. They did this fully aware of the political deliberations within Israel and the opportunity to pit Israeli politicians against one another with mutual accusations. Hamas may have assumed that this infighting would tie the Israeli government’s hands, preventing Israel from retaliating for the attacks coming out of Gaza for fear of damaging accusations from the left-wing opposition. Because a retaliation is something that is inextricably linked with the elections process, in their minds. Therefore, Hamas’ most recent onslaught was launched with the impression that Israel’s hands would be politically tied and they would not respond.

Israel’s response was their second surprise.

The agitated spokespeople for both Hamas and for the PLO called upon their groups to join forces against the Zionist enemy. They appealed to Arab nations, to the leaders of the Arab Spring revolutions and to the nations of the free world to take action to prevent Israel’s aggression. The only thing missing was someone to remind us that the Arab countries are currently looking the other way while masses are being massacred daily in Syria. These countries won’t do anything for Hamas but make declarations. From the perspective of most of the regimes in the Arab world, Hamas is an extension of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which poses a threat to their leaderships.

But Arab news commentators had to admit that the Palestinians, and Hamas in particular, are currently not the center of the world’s focus, and Israel can take advantage of that to advance its own ends. They even pointed out Israel’s successful public diplomacy campaign.

Hamas’ conduct before and after Jabari’s assassination demonstrated that in essence there is no difference between the organization’s military wing and its so-called political (diplomatic) leadership. This was evident in the remarks made by Hamas’ spokespeople, who called for targeted revenge attacks against the Israeli homefront (more of the “beyond, beyond Tel Aviv” rhetoric). At the same time, the same spokespeople were whining about the counterstrike launched by Israel on Gaza, which, contrary to an attack on the homefront, was characterized by a surgical focus only on terror-related targets.

The problem is that Hamas’ spokespeople actually believe their own arguments. After all, even according to Jabari himself, every Jew in “Palestine” is as good as dead. This rhetoric again accentuated the inherent contradiction in the Hamas leaders’ declarations, who claim to have a “lust” for death but still vow revenge when their operatives are sent to heaven.

A military solution

Hamas and the other terrorist organizations in Gaza view the ongoing confrontation with Israel as a years-long war of attrition. Their leaders are listening and can quote certain Israeli circles as remarking that “there is no military solution” — which serves to boost their motivation.

But Hamas actually only believe in a military solution, one that will continue until the Israelis get tired and go away. Even the hudna, as they see it, includes periodic but consistent rocket attacks (as a reminder), and not a permanent truce. Peace is not even a possibility for the Islamic movement, which sees recognition of Israel as heresy.

Operation Pillar of Defense, named after the biblical cloud pillar that guided the Israelites in the desert, is now guiding a new approach to handling terror: key figures and infrastructure. Taking the initiative back into Israel’s hands and dealing a premeditated, painful and methodical blow to Hamas’ key figures and its infrastructure. This is the best way to tire Hamas out and convince its leaders that the price of terror is intolerable.

Now, if Hamas wants to take out whatever resources it has left and exact revenge, their weapons reserves will be revealed, and pulverized. Hamas and the popular front organizations know full well that the hunt for people like Jabari will be followed by attacks on Gaza infrastructure. The Arab media is reporting that much of the Gaza population is hysterical. The question is, when will these hysterical voices reach Hamas?