As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry labors to end the violence in Gaza and Israel, he’s confronting hostility and suspicion among Egypt, Qatar and Turkey, whose rival agendas and diplomatic jockeying bring new difficulty to the negotiations.
The top U.S. diplomat hurriedly departed for the Middle East this week with his customary eagerness to tackle complex international issues. “We’ve got to get over there,” Kerry told an aide in a phone call picked by Fox News microphones as he made the rounds of Sunday talk shows. “It’s crazy to be sitting around.”
Once he arrived in Cairo, Kerry encountered obstacles beyond the open warfare between Israel and Hamas and the bitter legacy of their two previous wars in six years. He’s also confronted hostility and suspicion among the longtime regional partners.
In this fractured environment, Kerry has a key role to play in trying to bring about a cease-fire, said Mohamed Elmenshawy, a resident fellow at the Middle East Institute, a Washington policy group.
“The U.S. is still the only superpower, the most influential in the region,” he said in a phone interview. “While that influence has declined in the last few years, it’s still the biggest foreign player on all Mideast issues, especially the Arab-Israeli one.”
Meeting yesterday with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Kerry sought to put the efforts so far in a positive light, even as Israel’s defense minister said his country would widen the objectives of its ground war in the Gaza Strip.
“We made some steps forward, but there’s still work to be done,” Kerry said at a news conference with Ban.
Complicating matters are the political transition in Egypt, which played the leading role in halting past conflicts in Gaza, and the regional ambitions of Turkey’s Islamist-rooted government and of Qatar, the emirate with the world’s third-largest natural gas reserves, which hosts Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal and has spent heavily to raise its regional profile.
“The negotiations are in essence a power struggle between Egypt and Qatar, who each want to take credit for ending the violence and get recognized as a regional leader,” said Michael Stephens, deputy director at Royal United Services Institute Qatar.
Egypt’s relations with Hamas have deteriorated under the current government, which cracked down domestically on the Muslim Brotherhood. The militant Palestinian group is an offshoot of the Brotherhood. Qatar and Turkey have been supportive of Hamas.
As the Palestinian death toll has passed 695, along with more than 4,500 wounded, international pressure has grown for a cease-fire, with Kerry’s travels putting U.S. credibility front and center.
Kerry’s strategy has been to brandish his signature style of engagement through meetings and phone calls almost around the clock. Kerry spoke today by phone with leaders including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid bin Mohamed Al-Attiyah, according to a State Department official not authorized to comment for attribution.
Part of Kerry’s effort is to try to build pressure on Hamas to accept an Egyptian cease-fire proposal -- which it spurned last week -- as “a framework available to end the violence.” It’s a message Kerry must deliver from a distance and through intermediaries such as Turkey and Qatar because the U.S. is a staunch ally of Israel and doesn’t deal directly with Hamas, which it has designated a terrorist group.
The fighting erupted after Gaza militants began barraging southern Israel with rocket fire following the murder of a young Palestinian in apparent retaliation for the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teens, which Netanyahu has blamed on Hamas. The Israeli leader said today his forces will continue their ground incursion aimed at destroying Hamas’s rocket arsenal and infiltration tunnels.
After three days in Cairo -- with a side trip yesterday to the West Bank and Jerusalem -- Kerry’s efforts haven’t brought Hamas visibly closer to signing on to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi’s cease-fire plan.
Nor is there any sign that its backers Turkey and Qatar are helping. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he can’t “understand America’s current approach” in the Middle East, while Qatar condemned “Israeli aggression” and called for lifting the embargo on Gaza.
At a press conference yesterday in Doha, Mashaal, the Hamas leader, said he sees “no real breakthrough” toward a cease-fire. He noted Kerry’s outreach to Qatar and Turkey and said he should visit the Gaza Strip to understand conditions there.
Egypt, under former presidents Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Mursi, played a leading role in brokering cease-fire deals that ended Israeli operations in Gaza in 2009 and 2012. A similar role in the current conflict would require El-Sisi, a former general, to balance Egypt’s aspirations as a regional leader and public sympathy for Palestinians with his efforts to crush the Muslim Brotherhood that he ousted from power.
The situation is also different from 2009 because there is no intermediary to match the late Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s powerful intelligence chief, who was trusted by the U.S., Israel and Hamas. In 2012, Mursi, a fellow Islamist, served as a sympathetic interlocutor for Hamas.
Hamas spurned the truce proposal Egypt put forward last week after Israel accepted it, saying it didn’t guarantee lifting the blockade on the Gaza Strip. Israel and Egypt have tightly controlled Gaza’s borders since 2006, citing security concerns. The embargo has battered Gaza’s economy and confined the territory’s 1.8 million people to a 140-square-mile (363-square-kilometer) patch of land.
With El-Sisi’s crackdown on Islamists in Egypt, there’s a “trust deficit” with Hamas, said Hani Sabra, who heads the Middle East and North Africa practice at the Eurasia Group in New York.
“Egypt’s role had been diminishing for two decades, but the one area where they had a lot of clout was negotiating a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas -- and they no longer even have that,” said Sabra.
At the same time, Qatar and, to a lesser extent, Turkey are providing Hamas with alternative channels. Erdogan “has taken a very vocal and emotional pro-Palestinian line,” said Sabra. “It’s good for him domestically, but it limits his ability to play a regional diplomatic role.”
After Qatari-backed rebels in Syria lost ground to the rise of more radical forces, “it’s not a surprise that they’re leaping at an opportunity to try to play this role,” said Sabra.
Israel, looking to its traditional partner Egypt, rejects mediation by Qatar and Turkey, particularly after Erdogan said Israel’s “barbarism has surpassed even Hitler’s,” according to an Israeli official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic developments.
Hamas is looking at the prospect that Qatar would sweeten a cease-fire deal with financial aid for its Gaza government, including the salaries owed to about 30,000 employees, Elmenshawy said.
“Qatar needs to understand that part of their idea of what Hamas wants as a reward for targeting Israel and causing casualties among the Palestinians is something that can’t be accepted,” Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni told reporters earlier this week.
El-Sisi said in a speech yesterday that Egypt won’t be upstaged by the others.
“Everyone is tiptoeing a bit around the Egyptians because, in the end, the Egyptians are the ones who have to give something here in terms of access to and from Gaza from the Egyptian side,” said Michele Dunne, a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
Dunne said Hamas and Israel “don’t seem ready yet” to end the fighting. A U.S. official said Israelis have indicated they need more time to find and destroy Hamas’s network of tunnels, which contain rocket-making facilities and enable fighters to sneak into Israeli territory.
The fundamental question -- that Kerry doesn’t have an answer to yet -- is what is needed to get a cease-fire, including what issues would have to be discussed after that, said a second U.S. official. Both spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic developments.
A cease-fire may tee up even more complicated diplomacy intended to avert yet another blow-up in a couple of years or sooner. Israel says it wants steps to, at a minimum, prevent Hamas from re-arming, while analysts such as Dunne said the prospects are slim for demilitarization of the enclave that’s the size of Detroit.
Kerry has signaled that the U.S. is counting on a leading role for Egypt by basing himself in Cairo, from where he makes calls to his regional counterparts. He expects to be there at least until tomorrow, according to a U.S. official.
His time is limited because he’s due for talks in India next week.
“It would be a huge setback for the United States and for him personally, after the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue earlier, to fail in this one as well,” said Elmenshawy.