Israeli troops massing on the border of Gaza pose a dilemma for a U.S. administration that supports America’s closest Mideast ally while trying to defuse an escalating conflict before it deepens the instability in a changing Arab world.
The Obama administration’s prospects for containing the crisis rest largely on economically fragile Egypt and its president, Mohamed Mursi, who was drawn from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood, the parent organization of Hamas, which controls Gaza and sparked the latest confrontation by lobbing hundreds of rockets into Israel. The U.S. and Israel consider Hamas a terrorist group.
“Right now, the United States is torn between the solidarity with its closest ally in the Middle East and a desire to court the new Egyptian government and the Egyptian people, the latter in particular who are very sympathetic to Hamas and hostile to Israel,” said Daniel Byman, a professor of security studies at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington policy group.
Domestic political considerations are in play as well, as President Barack Obama faced criticism during his re-election campaign that he wasn’t doing enough to support Israel. In the Nov. 6 election, Obama won 69 percent of the Jewish vote, down from 78 percent in 2008, according to national exit polls.
Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Wilson Center, a Washington policy group, said: “There’s absolutely no way this president is not going to demonstrate full and complete support for Israel on this issue, particularly as this involves jihadi groups which are operating with a fair degree of impunity.”
The last time Israeli troops entered the Gaza Strip, in late 2008, Obama was waiting to take office and the Arab world was a different place. Autocrats such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak hadn’t been felled by the Arab Spring movement and provided the U.S. and Israel with stability.
Four years later, Syria is in chaos, with mortar shells and random artillery fire hitting Israel’s north. The U.S. and its allies are convinced that Iran is edging closer to a nuclear weapon. Jordan, an important U.S. ally and long a source of stability on Israel’s eastern border, is facing growing unrest that has erupted in shooting, according to the Petra News Agency.
While Egypt remains a signatory to a 1979 peace treaty with Israel and its Suez Canal gives the U.S. Navy a route between the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf, the Obama administration is still trying to forge ties with the new Islamist government in Cairo.
As Egypt’s first democratically elected leader, Mursi must reckon with pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli public opinion, even as he must maintain U.S. support for continued American aid and loans he’s negotiating with groups such as the IMF.
An administration official, who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record, said the Obama administration has asked Mursi, Turkey and Europe to mediate between Hamas and the Israelis. The message the administration sent to Egypt, the official said, was that the Gaza conflict risks greater threats to civilians and could escalate if it continues.
“Any time violence springs up in the Middle East, wherever it is, it’s cause for concern because you never know quite where it’s all going to lead,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in an interview in Bangkok with the Voice of America.
The U.S. and Egypt “agree there needs to be a de-escalation, and we urged the government of Egypt to take steps to support that kind of de-escalation,” deputy State Department spokesman Mark Toner said yesterday.
Mursi shares the Obama administration’s goal of preventing any escalation in Gaza, even as he will protect his domestic political image while doing so, said Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland.
“He doesn’t want his opponents to taunt him by saying there’s no difference between him and Mubarak,” who often kept quiet in the face of Israeli actions in Gaza, Telhami said.
Mursi has styled himself a leader who can restore Egypt’s regional leadership. After Israel’s Gaza operation began, he recalled his ambassador to Israel, appealed to the UN Security Council to end the fighting, condemned Israel and sent his prime minister and intelligence chief to Gaza today.
Obama also faces the danger that the Gaza operation could further destabilize Jordan, which has a population that’s roughly half Palestinian. Riots over food prices and the lack of political reform have rippled through the kingdom. A crisis there would leave Israel surrounded on three sides by active instability.
If King Abdullah doesn’t take the sort of symbolic moves in support of Palestinians that Mursi has made, “a lot of people could latch onto that to broaden claims against the king,” Telhami said.
Israeli leaders took into account the regional tensions that might be inflamed by the Gaza operation, Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., said in an interview. “We’re factoring in instability throughout the region, how it impacts situations in neighboring countries,” Oren said.
“We pay a price in terms of some of our relationships in the world, in the media; but you have to weigh that against the lives of a million Israelis,” Oren said.