WASHINGTON — As a 72-hour truce came to an explosive end with rockets fired into Israel Friday morning, it seemed as if the US had turned to other issues. In the days and hours leading up to the Gaza ceasefire’s demise, the US appeared largely absent at the crunch point in Cairo and, by Thursday night, it was the anxiously awaited humanitarian food drop to some 30,000 starving Yazidis on an Iraqi mountaintop that topped the administration’s foreign-policy talking points.
After weeks of blustering and blundering, with pronouncements from Washington podiums and Secretary of State John Kerry’s lengthy attempt at securing a negotiated ceasefire through shuttle diplomacy, Washington kept a low profile as delegations met in Egypt’s capital in the past few days.
The US was, in fact, represented in Cairo. Acting Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations Frank Lowenstein — Martin Indyk’s successor — arrived in the Egyptian on Wednesday, August 6, after talks began. His role was treated ambivalently, with State Department Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf describing it as “to monitor progress and advise in areas where the US can be helpful and achieve — in achieving a lasting ceasefire and forging a sustainable long-term solution for Gaza,” but noting that “he will not be involved in direct mediation between the delegations.”
Harf suggested that the limited involvement stemmed from the fact that “obviously, Hamas is a designated foreign terrorist organization” and that Washington does not maintain “direct contact with Hamas officials.”
Kerry was nowhere to be seen — at least, not in the region. He was redirecting his focus on a seven-day whirlwind tour to Kabul, Afghanistan, Naypyitaw, Burma; Sydney, Australia; Honiara, Solomon Islands; and Honolulu, Hawaii.
The State Department emphasized that far from distant, “Secretary Kerry also continues to be engaged with — at the leader level — with the key stakeholders.”
“Obviously, what we need to see is a longer-term ceasefire put in place, and if Frank can help and our team there can help, if Secretary Kerry can help by making phone calls, we are absolutely there to do so,” Harf said Thursday, in a barrage of ‘if’s. The takeaway message between the lines was that Kerry was not currently engaged, but was willing to make phone calls if somebody thought it would help. Yet nobody — at least publicly — was clamoring for a Kerry call, nor were any such calls announced in the critical hours before Friday’s morning’s Hamas resumption of rocket fire and the subsequent Israeli response.
The ceasefire — for better or for worse — appeared to be a regional show, run by Egypt. While Egypt traditionally has served as a mediator in such conflicts, it did so in previous years with strong, top-level US backing and involvement in talks.
Part of the challenge to US engagement is Washington’s own ambivalent relationship with the Egyptian government.
Noting that there were aspects of Egyptian politics that the US found “objectionable,” the Washington Institute for Near East Policy Executive Director Robert Satloff said, during a Thursday panel on the Gaza ceasefire, that “if any strategic matter puts itself front and center and requires a rethink of the need for high-level sympathetic engagement between the US and Egypt, it is the events of the last few weeks.”
He said that senior members of the Obama administration are divided on their perspective on Egypt and its potential role in the Middle East. “There are some who believe that Egypt is part of the problem, and some who think it is part of the solution. And this difference of view stymies the potential for a serious, strategic rethink and a serious, strategic reset of our relationship with Cairo,” Satloff explained. “This is, to me, utterly regrettable, as underscored by the events of the last couple of weeks.”
In this round of conflict, the US has nominally supported Egypt’s endeavors for weeks, even writing off a United Nations attempt at brokering a deal with a statement that the US supports the “Egyptian plan.” But the US has seemed reluctant to throw its weight around after the fallout from Kerry’s Paris meetings with Qatari and Turkish representatives. Two weeks ago, Kerry submitted a proposal based on Qatari and Turkish input, taking Hamas demands into account, which Israel’s leaders flatly rejected and privately slammed. Kerry said later it was just a draft.
“The problem with the US proposal at the time, which raised a lot of consternation at the time not just in Israel but in the PA and Egypt, was not that they wanted Turkey and Qatar to play a role, but that they wanted to establish an alternative channel to the Egyptian role in this rather than direct everything in that role,” explained Mike Herzog, a former IDF general, member of Israel’s peace negotiations team and a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy during the Thursday discussion on the Gaza ceasefire.
Ultimately, Herzog said, “the United States was less relevant in bringing about the solution than Egypt and some regional actors, and that is very unfortunate.” As the US drew back from involvement, Egypt appeared to lead a coalition of concerned Arab states — Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and some Gulf states — who were invested in achieving a deescalation.
Egypt, with its control of the gate of the Rafah crossing, was the only state — other than Hamas’s financial supporters, Qatar and Turkey — that seemed to be capable of generating leverage over Hamas.
At the same time, Washington seemed to be losing some of its leverage. Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Institute, suggested that US-Israeli tensions, which came to a head following the Paris conference, had also served to limit Washington’s role in Cairo.
“The US at this point has little credibility with Israelis and no influence over Hamas,” Miller said, explaining the low US profile during the talks.
Miller continued that an additional factor in Washington’s relative quiet in Cairo was the fact that “there is a risk at this stage that a higher-profile role would complicate what it is that they’re trying to achieve.”
Low levels of US involvement in this round of talks also meant, he added, that the US could reassess its role should the ceasefire break down — as it did.
Speaking during the Washington Institute panel, Washington Institute Senior Fellow and former US special envoy to the Middle East Dennis Ross suggested that the US — and perhaps other western powers — could again take an active role toward a more lasting agreement after successful ceasefire talks.
“One of the things we can count on, and it’s understandable, is that there is going to be a push diplomatically to see what we can do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Ross suggested. President Barack Obama’s comments Wednesday, in which he looked beyond the ceasefire toward a more comprehensive resolution in Gaza, seemed to reinforce such a direction.
Ross went on to delineate possible steps that the US could take to create a more hospitable climate through conflict management, if not resolution, in an environment of intense mutual distrust between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, while still sidelining Hamas.
Ross’s colleague, Satloff, added that Washington’s relative sidelining in the ceasefire talks emphasized the fact that “it would be really important for the US to turn a page from recent events, to take on, to revisit the question of what are our priorities in this part of the world, what type of leadership are we going to be projecting.”
The tendency for US behavior in the region as a whole, he warned, “is very reactive.”
“The comments of my colleagues point not toward a reactive posture, but the need for a very active posture — one that is coordinated very well between the White House and the State Department,” Satloff commented.
With the ceasefire lying in shambles, it has yet to be seen whether Washington’s low-profile strategy will position the United States back in the center of any renewed attempts to deescalate, or whether it missed a critical opportunity to take advantage of a brief window of respite to achieve a lasting peace.