Under Trump, US a mere bystander in Israel-Hamas ceasefire efforts

Preferring to stand in Jewish state’s corner, White House allows Egypt and UN to fill vacuum as mediators during Gaza conflicts in break from traditional policy

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and US President Donald Trump are seen prior to their meeting at the Palace Hotel in New York City ahead of the United Nations General Assembly on September 18, 2017.(AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and US President Donald Trump are seen prior to their meeting at the Palace Hotel in New York City ahead of the United Nations General Assembly on September 18, 2017.(AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski)

Sticking to the policy of his predecessors, US President Donald Trump came out ardently behind Israel’s right to defend itself amid the onslaught of rocket fire from Gaza over the weekend.

“We support Israel 100% in its defense of its citizens… To the Gazan people — these terrorist acts against Israel will bring you nothing but more misery. END the violence and work towards peace – it can happen!” he tweeted Sunday.

Similarly carte blanche support for Jerusalem was expressed by other Trump officials such as Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. But while the top US diplomat said he “hoped” Israel and armed groups in Gaza would be able to “return to the ceasefire that had been in place,” there was little indication he was doing more to make it happen beyond vocalizing that desire.

Officials in the White House, State Department and Israeli Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment on whether Washington was involved in the ceasefire talks which bore fruit at around 4:30 a.m. on Monday, when rocket fire at Israel and retaliatory air strikes throughout Gaza subsided; but United Nations Special Envoy Nikolay Mladenov said on Saturday that his office had been working to restore calm with Egyptian mediators, making no mention of a US partner in that effort. Officials at the UN and in Hamas also confirmed to The Times of Israel that Washington had indeed been a non-factor in mediating the cessation of hostilities.

In this image made from Egyptian State Television, US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, left, and Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr, right, give a joint news conference announcing a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in Cairo, Egypt on November 21, 2012. (AP Photo/Egyptian State Television)

That has been standard for the last two and a half years, as the US under Trump has taken a backseat in efforts to broker calm along the volatile border.

The administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama both stood by Israel’s right to defend itself and fingered Hamas as responsible for conflicts with Gaza in 2009, 2012 and 2014. But they also played an active role in trying to bring an end to those wars, flexing considerable influence on the world stage.

In December 2008 and January 2009, Bush’s Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice feverishly phoned international leaders in an effort to end the three-week long Operation Cast Lead, even as the administration prepared to leave office.

She was also involved in drafting a UN Security Council resolution calling for an “immediate ceasefire.”

In 2012, Obama held phone calls with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi throughout Operation Pillar of Defense, laying the groundwork for a ceasefire brokered by his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, who flew to Israel to finalize the deal in November of that year — one week after fighting broke out.

US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, July 23, 2014. Kerry is meeting with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Netanyahu, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as efforts for a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel continues. (AP Photo/Pool)

When fighting broke out again between Israel and Hamas two years later, Clinton’s successor John Kerry flew to the Middle East and Europe, where he met with the leaders of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Turkey, Qatar and various EU states in an effort to reach a ceasefire that would end Operation Protective Edge.

Speaking with The Times of Israel, former US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said that the extensive role played by the Obama administration in 2014 was less effective in terms of shortening the seven-week conflict because Egypt was not motivated to play the role of primary mediator.

“I think [Abdel-Fattah] el-Sissi’s government was not sorry to see Hamas, an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood and its enemy, take a significant amount of punishment before it was motivated to become active in the negotiations,” said Shapiro, who served as ambassador from 2011 to 2017 and is currently a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

He argued that the combination of a motivated Egyptian negotiating partner and strong US support for Israel’s self defense are the two most important components in successfully reaching ceasefires in a limited amount of time.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with the US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, in Tel Aviv last year. (photo credit: Matty Stern/US Embassy/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with the US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, in Tel Aviv in 2011 (photo credit: Matty Stern/US Embassy/Flash90)

Those two factors came together after just seven days of fighting in 2012 and Shapiro credited them for having helped “keep the conflict short and garner positive (ceasefire) terms that Hamas previously rejected and then was forced to accept.”

The former envoy admitted that the agreement wasn’t able to hold for more than a year and a half, but he pointed out that “at the end of the 2014 conflict the sides returned to the terms from the end of the 2012 conflict, which then lasted for several more years.”

Ultimately though, these ceasefires are only able to stop rounds of conflict, rather than address the fundamental problems plaguing the Gaza Strip, “which are very hard to solve as long as Hamas remains in power,” Shapiro said, explaining that the terror group’s motivation to rearm in periods of calm before again using violence to gain concessions from Israel has left the sides at a stalemate.

Nonetheless, he argued that when the US has been involved in ceasefire talks coordinated with both Cairo and Jerusalem “the outcomes have been better and have lasted longer,” even if they are not permanent.

While it is too early to judge the success of the deal brokered Monday, if the six other rounds of violence between Israel and Hamas in the past year alone serve as any indication, it is unlikely to hold for long.

Commenting on the Trump administration’s decision to not play a role in such efforts over the past two and a half years, Shapiro cited it as part of the White House’s broader “diminishment” in diplomatic processes around the world.

“I don’t know whether they’re responding to requests from Israel not to be involved. Our participation in ceasefire negotiations was generally well coordinated with Israel and responsive to their requests,” he said.

French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, center, delivers his speech during a press conference flanked with, from left, U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, British Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, and German Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier after a meeting at Quai d’Orsay in Paris, France on, July 26, 2014 to press for a cease-fire in Gaza. (AP Photo/Francois Mori )

While no current Israeli official agreed to speak on the record, Shalom Lipner, who served in the PMO from 1990 to 2016, argued that the Netanyahu government prefers the current scenario under which Trump, instead of taking on the role of “honest broker,” has been unabashedly in Israel’s corner.

But as a result, the Palestinians have become “less amenable to American arbitration,” forcing officials from Egypt and the UN to “fill the vacuum and shepherd understandings which came into effect on Monday morning,” said Lipner, who is currently a senior fellow for the Atlantic Council in Washington DC.

Asked whether he saw the US disengagement from ceasefire negotiations as a positive development, the Hamas official who spoke with The Times of Israel said, “I don’t think it’s (a matter of) whether we are happy or not, but America lost its credibility among the Palestinians.”

Adam Rasgon contributed to this report.

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