'Egypt of today is entirely different from the Egypt of yesterday, and the Arabs of today are not the Arabs of yesterday." So said Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi after Friday prayers last week, adding: "We will not leave Gaza alone."
And Gaza will not leave Mr. Morsi alone. As in decades past, Egypt is playing mediator between the Palestinians and Israel—but Mr. Morsi finds himself in a more precarious position than his predecessors. He has been involved in a delicate balancing act since his election in June, mindful of his indebtedness to the Hamas-allied Muslim Brotherhood that brought him to power and of his need not to alienate his foreign-aid benefactors in Washington.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's mission to the region this week will include talks in Israel with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the West Bank with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and in Cairo with Egyptian leaders and officials of the Muslim Brotherhood. Whether Mr. Morsi will join the talks is not clear.
Mr. Morsi didn't rise to power to carry the burden of the Palestinian question. The 18 magical days of protests in Tahrir Square that upended the military regime, and the elections that followed, weren't about pan-Arab duties. Egyptians could rightly claim that they had paid their dues for Palestine. Enough was enough—the last of Egypt's four wars with Israel (in 1973) appeared to deliver a binding verdict: Egypt would put behind it the furies and the dangers of the struggle of Palestine. Yet here was Mr. Morsi indulging the radicalism and ruinous ways of Hamas when even the Palestinians have fed off that diet for far too long.
It is commonplace to observe that the Arab Awakening of 2011-12 has remade the region, that the rise of Islamist governments in Egypt and Tunisia, and the rebellion in Syria, have brought a new balance of Arab forces.
The men of Hamas could see this new landscape as favorable to their kind of politics. Hamas fought a fratricidal war against its rival, Fatah, and the prize in 2007 was Gaza's virtual secession, under Hamas rule, from the Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank. The established Arab states had cast their lot with the "legitimate" order of Fatah, and Hamas was left to the isolation of Gaza.
Iranian patronage became a lifeline for Hamas, which was soon riven by tension between the leadership in Gaza and a "political bureau" of exiles in Damascus who claimed authority over strategic direction and political theology. A militant Sunni movement sustained by the Shiite theocrats in Tehran and the Alawite rulers in Damascus wasn't in the most tenable position.
Greed and plunder, and the rise of more radical factions and brigands within Gaza, sapped Hamas's reign of any legitimacy. Soon, the Sunni-Shiite schism that Hamas was sitting astride became a veritable civil war in the House of Islam. The ground burned in Syria, forcing Hamas to choose between a regime that had granted it sanctuary and a Sunni Arab world that had taken up the cause of Syria's (Sunni) rebellion. Hamas broke with Damascus and hoped that its Iranian patrons, who provided money and rockets, would look the other way.
But the Arab rebellions suddenly gave Hamas a reprieve from this dilemma. The secular regimes toppled, and political Islam began riding what looked like an irresistible historical wave. Gone was the Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak, who had been a partner of Israel in the blockade that isolated Gaza. Hamas could read his demise as evidence that 'collaborationist" regimes aren't destined to last.
The ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia and Egypt only added to Hamas's conviction that history was breaking its way. Throughout their modern history, the Palestinians have looked for a redeemer—a man, a power—that could spare them the rigors of a compromise with their Zionist adversaries. In the 1930s, the Palestinians invested their hopes in the Axis powers. More recently, they chose the Egyptian Gamal Abdul Nasser, the Iraqi Saddam Hussein, the power of the Arab oil weapon, etc.
Of late Hamas also drew solace from Turkey's Islamist leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Ever since the demise of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War I, Turkey (wisely) quit Arab affairs, but Mr. Erdogan surveyed the Arab scene and concluded that he could fill the vacuum left by the autocrats. His willingness to turn his back on the Turkish-Israeli alliance that was a pillar of the Turkish military class made him a darling of the "Arab street." On Monday, he decried Israel as a "terrorist state."
Then, as luck would have it, there was the emir of Qatar, eager for a role beyond his small principality. He has vast treasure and sway over the Qatari-based satellite channel al-Jazeera. He bet big on the Libyan revolution against Moammar Gadhafi and on the Syrian rebellion, and he had some sympathy for Hamas. Last month, the emir made a highly publicized visit to Gaza, bringing aid of $400 million and the promise of more.
So an Egyptian-Turkish-Qatari alliance formed. But after the wilderness, travelers can be forgiven their propensity to see oases over the horizon. These are, invariably, mirages.
Hamas has a fairly sympathetic government in Cairo today, but the group won't be given a veto over Egypt's choices. The Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood will hold on to the peace of Camp David. It can facilitate the intelligence traffic between Hamas and Israel, giving cover to that exchange, but the Egyptians are shrewd enough to know that the Palestinians are keen to frustrate the Arab tutelage of their affairs.
On Sunday in Egypt's leading official daily, Al-Ahram, I came upon a daring column by one of that paper's writers, Hazem Abdul Rahman. The solution lies in the development of Egypt, not in Gaza, he observed. He minced no words: President Morsi wasn't elected to serve the cause of Palestine—his mandate was the "pursuit of bread, freedom, and social justice." The popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood has eroded, but it cannot find salvation in foreign policy: "That road is blocked, the other players are ill-intentioned, including Hamas, Syria, Hezbollah, Iran, even the United States."
Mr. Abdul Rahman didn't think much of Mr. Morsi's decision to withdraw the Egyptian ambassador to Israel after its counterattack against Hamas began last week. Egypt needed its ambassador there to conduct its own diplomacy, the columnist said, and this was nothing more than grandstanding.
The Palestinians ignore a fundamental truth about the Arab Awakenings at their peril. These rebellions were distinctly national affairs, emphasizing the primacy of home and its needs. Indeed, the Palestinians themselves have bristled in indignation that the pan-Arab media have zealously covered Syria while all but ignoring Palestine, which was the obsession of the 1960s and 1970s.
History has moved on, and Arab populations have gone their separate ways. They caught on to the sobering conclusion that the cause of Palestine had been hijacked by military regimes and tyrants for their own ends. As they watched the Syrian fighter jets reduce so much of the fabled city of Aleppo to rubble, they understood that their wounds are self-inflicted, that their political maladies have nothing to do with Israel. Hamas better not press its luck. Palestinian deliverance lies in realism, and in an accommodation with Israel. Six decades of futility ought to have driven home so self-evident a lesson.
Mr. Ajami is a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and the author most recently of "The Syrian Rebellion" (Hoover Press, 2012).