Sameh Shoukry is the Egyptian Foreign Minister, and yesterday he said what no Arab leader said before. Not clear whether it was his intention, but his statement about the Gaza situation, even more importantly its timing, is of major significance, with the potential of becoming a turning point in the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The minister unequivocally blamed Hamas for the failure of the cease-fire, and went on to categorically blame them for the Palestinian casualties of the Israeli ground operation which was launched only hours later.
Was this THE ''thing'' which the Netanyahu government was waiting for, in order to launch the inevitable strike? No way to know it, and formally the Israelis connect the timing of the ground assault to the discovery and foiling of an attempt by 13 heavily-armed Hamas terrorists to penetrate Israel from a tunnel 3 kilometers long which was dug for months.
Still, the Egyptian minister must have been aware of the impending Israeli attack, and yet he made his statement.
Egypt will criticize Israel's operation in public, but this is part of the usual ritual. God forbid, any major human tragedy happening involving Gazan civilians, the Egyptians will protest and strongly, but -- and this is where the big change is -- Egypt makes it clear that they want Israel to decimate Hamas, though not necessarily totally destroying it.
The Israelis understand it, and it has been the line of this blog for quite some time, that the Israeli calculus about Gaza is heavily influenced by the desire to coordinate with Egypt. Events of the last few days tend to substantiate this sense.
That said, some background is needed here. Hamas threw in its lot with the Morsi Muslim Brotherhood [MB] administration, was supported by Qatar and in close touch with Turkey. The Hamas connection to acts of terror in Sinai leading to the killing of Egyptian soldiers was well established by the Egyptians, and in recent days Hamas propagandists called President Al-Sisi ''a Jew'.' Too much, far too much, for the new Egyptian administration. The payback is inevitable and it comes with venom. Egypt already defines Hamas as a terror organization, views P.M Erdoghan of Turkey as an enemy, loathes the Qataris and the ''objective'' Al-Jazeera coverage of internal incidents in Egypt and on top of that were deeply offended by the slap in the face from Hamas which rejected off hand the Egyptian cease-fire plan, which Israel was eager to accept. Imagine the turning of the wheel of Middle East politics; Israel solicits and welcomes Egyptian mediation, Hamas rejects.
This should be a little lesson also to some countries in the West, which still somehow try to create an unacceptable moral equivalence between Hamas and Israel.
Egyptians and Palestinians have never been bosom bodies, and now is the time to remind our readers of the famous incident in Cairo in 1994, when President Mubarrak publicly called Yasir Arafat ''a dog',' when the former withheld his signature on one of the agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority [PA], which was supposed to be signed in a big ceremony in Cairo.
Arafat quickly complied with the ''friendly'' exhortation from Mubarrak and signed...
Egypt traditionally regards itself as the country which could and should tell the Palestinians what is good for them, not the other way around...
When Hamas misunderstood its role in this equation, they sealed their fate, and became the strategic enemy of the new Egyptian administration.
The enemy of my enemy is my friend, but is that enough to define the Egyptian-Israeli relationships as a new strategic alliance? I will not go as far as that, although it is clear that a meeting of interests over an important issue, such as the need to defeat Hamas militarily is of strategic importance, but the questions which are still open and are lingering are the ones which will show us where exactly the wind blows. Is there an agreement between Egypt and Israel about the extent and ferocity of the ground campaign? Is there an agreement about the day after?
I believe there is one regarding the former, but not about the latter.
Hours after the initial ground invasion, there still is no concerted Israeli effort to push quickly towards the epicenter of the Hamas military power in Gaza. It is so not for lack of power and ability, but because the Israelis in concert with the Egyptians are still waiting for a Hamas acceptance of the Egyptian cease-fire plan, before the final, most decisive attack takes place. Surely, the Israelis are aware of the potential for tragic mistakes involving civilians, such as the terribly sad loss of four innocent children few days ago. Surely, the Egyptians will have a lot to explain if that happens, and clearly both Israelis and Egyptians have common interest here.
Still the onus is on Hamas, and they are the ones who need to understand by now, that continuing the indiscriminate firing of rockets on Israel will lead to an escalating Israeli operation, while Egypt continuing to block the crossings to Sinai.
Beyond the immediate military situation, it seems clear that there is no political understanding regarding the day after if it is becoming relevant and Hamas is collapsing. The PA will be welcome there by both Egypt and Israel , but then what about Abbas demands from Israel, on which Al-Sisi and Netanyahu will be poles apart?
Yet, an important precedent was set yesterday; the largest Arab country all but giving its blessing to an Israeli military strike against other Arabs. A change of major proportions which is a new element in Middle East politics.