President Barack Obama is being abruptly pulled back into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after failed peace efforts left his administration less equipped to shape the outcome.
Secretary of State John Kerry vowed yesterday that the U.S. “will do everything in our power” to halt the violence between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza, which Israel has pounded with airstrikes in response to hundreds of rockets fired toward Israeli cities this week.
Yet U.S. influence may be limited. Israel, rebuffing cease-fire calls, says it’s determined to act in self-defense. The U.S. has no dealings with Hamas, which controls Gaza, because its charter calls for Israel’s destruction and it’s designated a terrorist group.
The U.S. role is further complicated by the fallout from the nine months Kerry invested in unsuccessful Mideast diplomacy, according to Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt.
“U.S. credibility and U.S. clout throughout the region, including with Israel, is definitely on the decline,” said Kurtzer, now a professor at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. “The failure of John Kerry’s diplomacy a couple of months ago and the fact that President Obama called a pause in the peace process has hurt the U.S. even more.”
Obama called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday to express U.S. support for Israel’s right to defend itself and to “express concern about the risk of further escalation,” according to a White House statement.
Obama told Netanyahu that the U.S. is prepared to help “facilitate” a cease-fire, such as the one that ended a previous conflict in November 2012, according to the statement.
National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden quickly issued a clarification that “our longstanding policy of having no contact with Hamas has not changed” and any efforts would go through other nations in the region.
Politically, any effort by the Obama administration to pressure Israel toward an accommodation or reach out to Hamas would provoke condemnation.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group, has circulated a memo saying Israel has the right to defend itself and that its response to Hamas rockets has been “proportionate and in compliance with international law.”
Kurtzer and former Mideast peace negotiator Aaron David Miller said Kerry -- who is now in Kabul attempting to untangle Afghanistan’s troubles -- shouldn’t go to the Mideast at this point because there’s little evidence that the U.S can do much until the adversaries desire a diplomatic resolution.
The U.S. also should be cautious in its public words at this stage, said Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
“The more it calls for calm and restraint and the less it gets for its calls, the greater the gap that opens up between its rhetoric and its capacity to deliver,” he said. “It is doing what it can be doing right now, which is frankly not much.”
Because the U.S. has no dealings with Hamas, the Obama administration should encourage pressure on the group from countries that do, including Egypt, Turkey and Qatar, said Dennis Ross, a former Mideast negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations.
“To the extent that there is a role for us to play, I think it would be talking to those who have at least some potential to influence Hamas and talking to the Israelis at the same time to see about under what circumstance you can bring this to an end,” said Ross, who is counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi is “making diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the crisis” in Gaza, the president’s office said yesterday in a statement.
Kerry, while in Beijing this week for high-level U.S.-China talks, called both Netanyahu, who is mobilizing 20,000 soldiers for a possible ground invasion to stop the missiles, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who has little influence with Hamas in its rule over the Gaza Strip. Gaza is an impoverished area about the size of Detroit that is home to more than 1.5 million Palestinians.
Kerry also has consulted with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohamed Al-Attiyah, according to State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki. Obama’s Mideast coordinator Philip Gordon, in Israel this week, has held talks with Israeli and Palestinian Authority officials, according to Psaki.
“It’s a dangerous moment and we’ll do everything in our power,” Kerry told reporters in the Chinese capital.
“We’ve made it clear that the United States of America is available, to do everything possible,” he said. “We’ve already engaged in trying to see if it’s possible to bring an end to the violence and find a different way forward.”
UN chief Ban said he has asked Egypt to help restore the Egyptian-brokered truce that ended the November 2012 conflict. Qatar is also involved in cease-fire efforts, he said.
Kerry spent much of his first year as secretary of state trying unsuccessfully to negotiate a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, talks that excluded Hamas because of its unwillingness to accept Israel. He warned at the time that failure could lead to further violence.
Since that effort collapsed in April, Kerry has turned to other crises, including Syria’s civil war, Russia’s moves against Ukraine, Iraq’s growing turmoil, the disputed election in Afghanistan and the approaching deadline in nuclear talks with Iran.
Israel’s UN envoy said his nation doesn’t want a cease-fire now that would enable Hamas to threaten Israelis with rockets, including new ones shown to be able to reach Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
“We aren’t looking for a Band-Aid solution that will allow Hamas to rest and regroup and then replenish its rockets and hit Israel again in a few weeks,” envoy Ron Prosor said yesterday after an emergency session of the UN Security Council.
The Palestinian UN ambassador, Riyad Mansour, appealed to the Security Council to “act immediately to protect civilian lives, which are being lost and destroyed with each passing minute of the Israeli military aggression.”
Netanyahu said yesterday there will be “additional phases” to the campaign against Gaza militants. The military operation will continue “until we complete the mission of restoring peace and security to Israel’s cities,” according to a text message from his office yesterday.
An Israeli ground offensive would be risky because of potential Israeli military casualties and a larger number of civilian Palestinian deaths.
No Israelis have been killed or seriously injured by the more than 440 rockets the army said have been fired since June 8, which have forced thousands of Israelis to run to shelters. Most fell in open fields or were shot down by Israel’s U.S-funded Iron Dome defense system.
“The Iron Dome is working pretty effectively and that gives Israel much more space not to have to rush into making a decision” about a ground attack into Gaza, Ross said.
More than 90 Gazans have been killed since Israel ramped up its air offensive on Tuesday, many of them civilians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.
Two previous episodes involving Hamas rocket attacks ended in different ways. In January 2009, Israel unilaterally declared a cease-fire after about three weeks of clashes that included airstrikes and a ground incursion into Gaza. In 2012, then-Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi, whose Muslim Brotherhood had ties to Hamas, negotiated a cease-fire with support from Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after eight days of fighting.
“There’s not much we bring to the show at the moment,” said Kurtzer. “We’re not going to come down too hard on Israel, given that we support Israel’s right to self-defense, and we don’t have much to say to the Palestinians.”
“So we are watching this as a big power but without the clout that usually comes with big-power status,” said Kurtzer.