Few U.S. options as Mideast fight rages

A fire breaks out Tuesday when a rocket from the Gaza Strip strikes near the southern Israeli town of Ashkelon. Photo by Yossi Aloni/FLASH90

While Israel and Hamas have been mired in conflict for more than a week, U.S. officials have been mulling their limited options to pressure the parties into a cease-fire on a geopolitical map that is vastly different, and arguably much more complex, than previous conflicts. They’re finding that America has few dependable friends and less credibility to help it play its traditional role as peace broker.

As evidenced by the failure of an Egyptian cease-fire proposal Tuesday that Israel accepted, but Hamas flatly rejected, most experts believe that the United States no longer possesses the influence and trust in the Middle East it once did. They point to the recently failed U.S.-sponsored peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, inaction in Syria and the ongoing turmoil in Iraq as indicative of a world in which America has less leverage.

“The U.S. role is going to be extremely limited. I think the U.S. has really not a lot of credibility right now in light of the collapse of the [Israel-Palestine] diplomatic process,” said Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who recently returned from a visit to Israel. “I didn’t get a sense that either side was particularly impressed with U.S. diplomacy, and, on some level, one can argue that the heightened expectations from the diplomatic process has led to this. It’s sort of a pattern. When diplomacy fails, unrest begins.”

A day before Secretary of State John Kerry was scheduled to visit Cairo, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry revealed a plan designed to stop the latest round in hostilities that has seen thousands of rockets fired into Israel from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. In response to the rocket fire, which has struck into the farthest northern areas of Israel, the Israel Defense Forces launched Operation Protective Edge last week, pounding targets in Gaza with airstrikes and a limited ground incursion.


The Egyptian plan – which called for indirect negotiations between the two sides and the opening of the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, but did not take up Hamas’ demands for the release of Palestinian prisoners and the payment by Israel of Hamas government workers’ salaries – was quickly adopted by Israel. The Jewish state halted its airstrikes for six hours, but in the face of Hamas’ refusal to adopt the cease-fire proposal and continuing rocket fire, resumed attacks Tuesday afternoon.

Michael Eisenstadt, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, agreed with Schanzer’s assessment of the diplomatic environment, saying that not only is America’s relationship strained with its traditional Arab allies, but also with Israel and the Palestinians.

“Our ability to shape events will be influenced by the fact that the relationship between President [Barack] Obama and [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is frosty at best,” said Eisenstadt.
But like the United Nations, whose Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon called for an immediate cease-fire last week, U.S. officials believe that America has a role to play in leading the parties to an agreement and averting further civilian deaths.

“I think that certainly, the United States will have to play a role, not only in helping to bring about a de-escalation and a cease-fire, but also, once we do have a cease-fire in place, I think it’s going to take U.S. leadership to ensure that that calm remains and can be built upon,” said a senior State Department official on condition of anonymity. “If not for American leadership, I think we would not be able to get to a cease-fire.

“I think people forget that long before the current situation, and well before the last period of negotiations, the atmosphere was volatile and complicated just as it is today,” the official continued. “As we’ve said, the absence of … a peace process creates a vacuum that can be filled by violence. The absence of a peace process only empowers extremists.”

The U.S. State Department has from the beginning of the Protective Edge operation condemned Hamas’ actions and made clear that it believes Israel has the right to defend itself. And Kerry has been busy making calls, not only to Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, but also, as part of a “taking stock” of allies who can have more influence with Hamas, to such countries as Egypt, Qatar and Turkey, the State Department official said.

After the brief attempt at a cease-fire fell apart early Tuesday, Kerry canceled his planned trip to Cairo and slammed Hamas for not cooperating with cease-fire efforts.

“I cannot condemn strongly enough the actions of Hamas in so brazenly firing rockets in multiple numbers in the face of a goodwill effort to offer a cease-fire in which Egypt and Israel have joined together, and the international community strongly supports,” Kerry told reporters in Austria. “But Israel has a right to defend itself, and it is important for Hamas not to be provoking and purposefully trying to play politics in order to gain greater followers for its opposition, and use the innocent lives of civilians who they hide in buildings and use as shields and put in danger. That is against the laws of war, and that’s why they are a terrorist organization.”

During the last conflict between Israel and Gaza, which lasted eight days in 2012, the United States brought pressure on then-Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who acted as the go-between with cease-fire terms. But with the crackdown on the Islamic Brotherhood, of which Hamas is considered an ally, and Morsi’s overthrow by the Egyptian military, relations between Hamas and the new Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi are nearly nonexistent.

Eisenstadt said that such a backdrop presents few diplomatic options for the United States or for Egypt.

“Actually, this is occurring at a very bad time from the point of view of the geopolitics of the region, in terms of our being able to leverage other parties in order to help facilitate a cease-fire,” said Eisenstadt. “Egypt in the past has played a very important role as a mediator, and there’s been tensions with us because of Egyptian government actions with regard to human rights violations which we didn’t like, and I think the Egyptian government is just happy to see Hamas administered a bloody nose.”

The unnamed State Department official confirmed that Qatar has been active in trying to jump-start talks for a cease-fire, with contacts opening between that country and Hamas and Kerry in recent days.

“The secretary has pressed upon the Qataris to use whatever influence and leverage they can with Hamas to stop the rocket fire as a means to get the process toward de-escalation going,” the source said without disclosing whether Qatar is at the center of U.S. strategy.

“I think it’s going to take a combination of things to begin the process of de-escalation and achieve a cease-fire. So I wouldn’t say Qatar is the key, or Egypt, or Turkey,” said the source. “I think it’s going to take a regional effort to restore the calm and to prepare to work with all the countries in the region to facilitate a cessation.”

But Schanzer scoffed at the idea of engaging Qatar to solve the latest crisis, pointing out that the small, oil-rich Arab state has been one of Hamas’ principal financial and political backers.

“The idea that [Qatar] would be an honest broker in the deal, after helping Hamas grow to the place where it is today, it defies logic to bring them in in this way,” said Schanzer. “There’s a small chance that it could be done, but they’re not going to be easy to trust.”

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JNS.org contributed to this story.

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