The eight-day war between Israel and Hamas once again showed that asymmetric conflicts produce no winners. To be sure, all the parties involved will spin the situation in their favor. In fact they are already claiming victory. Israel maintains that it has seriously weakened the ability of Hamas to launch rockets. Benjamin Netanyahu believes he made his point by showing the leadership of the al-Qassam Brigades (the military wing of Hamas) that their actions will not go unpunished. In addition to Ahmed Jabari, the top military leader of Hamas, the Israeli government claims that several other very senior Hamas leaders were also killed in air raids on Gaza. In short, Israel believes that it managed to teach Hamas a lesson. The message was clear: Don't mess with us or you will pay a serious price. Netanyahu can also claim victory because its missile defense system -- the Iron Dome -- worked. There were only four civilian casualties despite the hundreds or thousands of rockets fired by Hamas onto Israeli territories.
Hamas, on the other hand, claims victory as well. For non-state organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas, victory is a relative term. Survival often equals victory. Avoiding total annihilation is victory. The fact is, they suffered devastating civilian casualties -- hundreds, or even thousands, of innocent women and children were killed. But somehow this situation doesn't amount to defeat. Exposing the cruelty of their adversary is a victory. Such is the perception of Israeli power that forcing the enemy to step back, instead of a humiliation like the ones suffered by Arab armies in 1948 or 1967, amounts to a major victory. Like Hezbollah in 2006, Hamas in 2012 now boasts a tactical victory against Israel. They forced Israel to a draw. They were not annihilated. Therefore, they won. What about the conditions in Gaza? Will the blockade be lifted? If your ultimate goal is to improve the living standards in Gaza, how can you claim victory when hundreds of innocent people are no longer alive or if your infrastructure is totally destroyed? I guess you make a point by proving that you are ready to die for your cause. Never mind if nothing changes on the ground. What has changed in Gaza after the last war in 2009? Not much. Yes, victory is a relative term.
Israel and Hamas are not alone in claiming victory. Somehow, Cairo and Washington, D.C., also appear satisfied with how the conflict came to an end. Egypt is back as the leader of the Arab world. Mohammed Morsi proved his responsible leadership by successfully mediating between Israel and Hamas. The skeptics who believed Egypt would end its peace treaty with Israel have been proven wrong. Washington is also happy with its performance. After all, it became clear that without the presence of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the room, there was going to be no deal. America is still an indispensible nation in the Middle East. There are elements of truth in all these statements.
But it did not take very long for Morsi to significantly overreach after his diplomatic victory. Using the momentum of international praise and capitalizing on the weakness of his opponents, Morsi is quickly consolidating his power in an opportunistic way. He is very good at getting rid of whatever checks and balances are left in the system. The president of the new Egypt is increasingly behaving like the president of the old Egypt. Is one type of authoritarianism being replaced by another in Egypt? I have to admit: I did not think Egypt would be so good at adopting the Turkish model. Soon, Turkey and Egypt will become the shining twin models of illiberal democracy in the region.
Finally, a word about US leadership: I think the bar for success is too low. Can you really claim to be an indispensible nation when the only role you play is to be at the table? There has been no US leadership on the Arab-Israeli front since the end of the Bill Clinton administration in 2000. Yes, US leadership will not produce miracles. But it is time for the Barack Obama administration to pivot back. Otherwise, the problems of the region will pivot to the United States in unexpected ways.