US embrace of Morsi in Gaza conflict resolution shows the White House’s new detachment

American political analysts see Obama administration, while supportive of Netanyahu, deprioritizing the Israeli-Palestinian issue

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Then US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, November 21, 2012 (AP/Egyptian Presidency)
Then US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton meets with former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, November 21, 2012 (AP/Egyptian Presidency)

NEW YORK — It was a good week for Mohammed Morsi. The Israel-Hamas ceasefire, which sees Egypt as the responsible enforcer of the peace, marks the final embrace of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government by the West.

“Egypt’s new government is assuming the responsibility and leadership that has long made this country a cornerstone of regional stability and peace,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said glowingly, standing alongside Morsi’s foreign minister Mohammed Amr.

“This was a major moment for Mohammed Morsi,” noted Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary of state for political affairs and now a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

“There were a lot of doubts about how he would lead Egypt, whether he would maintain the peace agreement with Israel,” Burns told the PBS NewsHour on Wednesday. But Morsi “showed that he is very tough minded. He was willing to pressure Hamas, he was able to work with the Turkish and Qatari governments as well as the United States. He can be, based on this performance, I think an important partner for the United States. I think this is a confidence builder both for the Israelis and Americans in knowing they have a stable and impressive leadership in Cairo now that we can deal with.”

Perhaps it should not surprise, then, that the day after the signing of the ceasefire and the heaping of American praise, Morsi issued a presidential decree declaring his decisions as president are no longer subject to judicial review until a new Egyptian constitution is adopted.

A few commentators on the American right have pointed to the embrace of Morsi and suggested it marks an Obama administration that is weak in confronting the Middle East’s Islamists.

But if weakness in the face of Islamists was the problem, it’s strange that the Obama administration, along with hundreds of American leaders from across the political spectrum, was adamant and vocal throughout the crisis in its support of Israel, and placed the onus for the violence squarely on Hamas’s shoulders.

Indeed, Obama’s embrace of Israel was so complete that Jewish Democrats went to the trouble of celebrating it in a press release that seemed to continue the bruising election spat with Jewish Republicans over which party supported Israel more.

“We are proud to see that the Obama Administration has forcefully condemned Hamas’s terrorist attacks and reiterated its support for Israel’s right to defend itself,” the National Jewish Democratic Council declared last week. “We are also deeply gratified to see that President Obama and Israeli President Shimon Peres conferred about the situation this afternoon — an action that is a testament to the deep strength of the US-Israel relationship.”

But the partisan repartee seemed to miss the key shift in American policy that explained both Obama’s embrace of Morsi and his unconditional support for Netanyahu.

Simply put: Obama is walking away

Barack Obama in 2012 seems to be what Johnny Cash once called a “wiser weaker man.” Gone is the faith in the power of words or in the courage of the region’s leaders. The Middle East, the White House seems to believe, has its own peculiar dynamics and dysfunctions, and it’s a fool’s errand to invest political capital and reputation in once again dragging the region’s players kicking and screaming to the table.

Time magazine’s political analyst Mark Halperin spoke for many American analysts on Wednesday.

“You can’t say the administration has put a high priority on this or the kind of full-time engagement that Secretary Clinton’s husband [former president Bill Clinton] engaged in or we’ve seen in previous administrations. I don’t think anybody [in Washington] thinks we’re going to build off of this,” he said.

Susan Page, the veteran Washington bureau chief of USA Today, similarly suggested on Wednesday that detachment seemed to be the key message in the administration’s handling of the Gaza crisis.

“I think they’ve tried to stay clear of it,” she told MSNBC. “I think Hillary Clinton thought, ‘I’m almost out the door as secretary of state,’ and events there forced her to get involved and forced the president to get more involved. How many times have you been in a news conference and someone says, ‘last question,’ and the last question is the one you did not want to get.”

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most American observers seem to agree, has become the question the White House doesn’t want to touch.

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