Another round of protests in Gaza — triggered by the May 14 opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem and the 70th anniversary of the nakba, or "catastrophe," the Palestinian term for their displacement during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war that followed Israel's creation — highlights how much has changed and how much, in many ways, has not. No one expects borders to change, alliances to shift quickly or the peace process to suddenly gain speed. In the background of this all-too-familiar round of unrest and violence, new opportunities — and new risks — await the old players.
On its broadest level, the Palestinian question has long represented a way for regional rulers to win or buttress their legitimacy at home and claim leadership in the Muslim world. But over the past decade, slow-moving forces have reshaped how legitimacy is derived from the Palestinian issue, and how much value different states see in seeking to be the leader of the region's Muslims.
The Palestinian issue is a means for regional states to gain influence and appease domestic audiences. But how states do so has changed over time, with some, like Iran, gaining more with each new Palestinian crisis, while others, like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, have to navigate between the traditions of condemnation and a very real desire to get closer to Israel.
The proximate cause of this latest Gazan crisis is economic and political. Gaza's economy is in free fall. Foreign powers have substantially cut aid to the impoverished territory, power outages often last most of the day, leaving hospitals unable to guarantee electricity, and there's a shortage of schools. In addition, a much-hyped unity deal between Hamas, which rules Gaza, and Fatah, which governs the West Bank, has failed to bring about a working government. Outside the Palestinian territories, states look to take advantage of the crisis, or insulate themselves from it, even as they offer few workable solutions.
For Iran, this Gazan crisis offers greater opportunities than past crises. The Palestinians feel abandoned by much of the world, even by their own government, the Palestinian Authority. There seem to be few who will stand up to Israel. But Iran just fought an open battle with Israel, even if it came out battered, in the first state-to-state clash between the two countries. Accused by domestic critics of wasting money on overseas adventures, Iran's leaders find political value in showing that their foreign deployments put the Islamic Republic's missiles where its mouth is. The crisis also undermines Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president who has helped tamp down Iranian influence in the West Bank in cooperation with Israel. To weaken Abbas is to open a door for Hamas — and behind Hamas, Iran.
In this sense, Iran rivals Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is using the Gazan crisis to bolster his own Muslim credentials. An election called by Erdogan is coming in June, and the president is not quite certain he will win. To nudge the needle in his direction, he must convince pious Turks that his religious rhetoric has meaning. By offering aid to Gaza and by cutting diplomatic ties with Israel, Erdogan can score political points at home. Longer term, Turkey, with or without Erdogan, may yet find justification in the Palestinian question to play spoiler to Israel's hopes of exploiting the eastern Mediterranean's abundant hydrocarbon fields, should Ankara's relationship with Israel become negative enough.
For Qatar, the blockaded country has an opportunity to regain some of its lost influence. It was once Gaza's biggest patron, giving billions, but in the austerity of the blockade led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and stung by Saudi and Emirati accusations that it was supporting Hamas' terrorism, Qatar has held back. Now the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and the pan-Islamic condemnation of Israel's use of force that killed at least 59 Palestinian protesters on the Gaza border on May 14, can nudge the door open for Qatar to restore some of that support and return some shine to its reputation as a little power punching above its geopolitical weight.
For Saudi Arabia and many of the Arab Gulf states, the Palestinian issue is an unwelcome distraction from a budding alliance with Israel that is coalescing around a mutual fear of Iran. Few Gulf rulers get much domestic legitimacy from pandering to the anti-Israel lobby anymore; those Gulf citizens who are ardently against Israel are also increasingly against their monarchies as well, like members of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. For Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, Israel represents trade and defense opportunities — particularly against Iran — which are of greater value than the sheen of resistance to Israel.
Finally, for Israel itself, a Gazan crisis is no longer the preeminent defense challenge. The greater concern is Iran, and what it might do as it builds its influence in Syria and endangers Israel's northern border. As of now, there is little risk that Israel's use of force on the Gaza border will result in meaningful diplomatic or economic blowback, not with the United States standing solidly behind it. Even the risk of another intifada won't upend Israel, should protests spread to the West Bank. Having spent years preparing for this scenario, Israel is better positioned than ever to fend off such a challenge.
The core conflict — of Israelis against Palestinians, of two peoples in a crowded land, unable to agree on their roles within it — ensure that this latest round of protest and violence will hardly be the last. But while the conflict may recur with familiar patterns, the geopolitical currency that regional powers may gain — or risk — in the struggle will shift in response to their own needs.