Four years ago, as US President Barack Obama prepared to take office, his close
friend and aide Rahm Emanuel, now mayor of Chicago, famously said, “You never
want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity
to do things you think you could not do before.”
Emanuel was referring to
the US economic meltdown, but his adage has also proved true in the past in the
Middle East. In 1974, US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was able to exploit
the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War to forge a separation of forces agreements
between Israel and Egypt and Israel and Syria.
The first of these two
agreements became a building block for the later, successful Israeli- Egyptian
In 1991, Secretary of State James Baker used the
regional upheaval caused by the first Gulf War and the power realignment that
stemmed from the end of the Cold War to engineer the Madrid Peace Conference.
This in turn led to the Oslo breakthrough between Israel and the Palestinians
and the Israel-Jordan peace agreement.
Opinions are divided about whether
the latest eight-day confrontation in Gaza could be that kind of crisis – one
that could offer a springboard for renewed US engagement in the peace process –
or whether it will be seen to be just one more in the endless spasms of violence
that periodically erupt between Israel and the Palestinians.
Administration, while making the usual noises about the Gaza episode
demonstrating once again the need for peace between Israel and the Palestinians,
gave no indication of whether it was considering a major
Partly because an exhausted Washington political
establishment is still recovering from the presidential election campaign,
partly because Obama himself was in Asia when the Gaza crisis reached its most
dangerous phase and partly because the days after the cease-fire took hold coincided with the Thanksgiving break when Washington
shut down, we still don’t know how serious Obama is about Mideast
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According to one theory, the fact that Obama stood so firmly and
unequivocally behind Israel as the Hamas rockets fell was a sign that the
president was not mulling a major peace initiative in his second term.
Otherwise, the argument went, he would have adopted a more “evenhanded”
approach, balancing support for Israel with more expressions of sympathy for the
The US news magazine Time’s political analyst Mark
Halperin expressed this view on the day of the cease-fire agreement. “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 the kind we’ve seen in previous administrations.
think anybody thinks we’re going to build off of this,” he said.
was little more than speculation, uninformed by real insight into the
Lacking hard information, much of the analysis in
Washington revolved around assessing winners and losers from the conflict. While
there were different opinions about whether Israel or Hamas had come out better
– and most thought both sides had grounds to claim some success – analysts were
unanimous in picking one big winner and one big loser.
The big winner was
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who shored up his status in Washington as a
pragmatic and effective regional player by playing a key role in negotiating the
truce that ended the miniwar.
“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 in
announcing the cease-fire.
Former undersecretary of state for political
affairs Nicholas Burns said, “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.”
immediately capitalized on his success with a blatant power grab, declaring his
decisions as president would no longer be subject to judicial review until a new
Egyptian constitution is adopted. But although the Obama Administration was less
than thrilled with this move, it was unlikely to diminish the Egyptian leader’s
newfound regional clout. The Obama Administration now knows that Morsi is a man
they can work with and that he can also deliver concessions from
The big loser from the crisis was Palestinian Authority President
Mahmoud Abbas, relegated to irrelevance during the crisis and diminished both in
the eyes of his own people, the Arab world at large and the West.
testament to the weakness of Abbas and the PLO that it is Hamas’s rockets, not
Abbas’s diplomacy, which have placed the Palestinian issue once again on center
stage. The Palestinian president is nowhere to be found,” former US peace
negotiator Aaron David Miller, wrote in the US journal Foreign Policy, in an
article entitled, “How Hamas won the war.”
Richard Haas, President of the
Council on Foreign Relations, who worked alongside Miller on the peace process
in the early 1990s, made a similar point. “Hamas is in competition with the PA
that rules over the West Bank for who represents all Palestinians. Hamas enjoys
an advantage, though: its agenda of political Islam much better captures the
zeitgeist in Egypt and throughout the region, whereas those ruling the West
Bank, including many former associates of Yasser Arafat, are widely seen as in
the image of Arab strongmen who have been removed from power.”
conflict completely overshadowed Abbas’s bid to raise the diplomatic status of
the Palestinians in the United Nations General Assembly from observer entity to
observer state. But that bid, scheduled to be formally l aunched o n N ovember 2
9, n ow presented itself as a welcome opportunity to boost Abbas by granting him
a convenient consolation prize.
Although Clinton asked Abbas not to
proceed with his bid when the two met in Ramallah, the majority of European
nations were now almost certain to back the Palestinians, boosting their
majority from comfortable to overwhelming in the General Assembly.
extent to which the Palestinian UN bid becomes yet another obstacle in the way
of renewing the peace process depends to a large extent on Israel. If Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chooses to make it a major problem, it will become a
major problem. If he decides to treat it as a mainly symbolic move, the parties
should be able to move past it.
That still leaves open the question of
whether Abbas can deliver the Palestinians to a peace deal at all without the
blessing of Hamas. As Haas noted, “Right now Israel has two potential but deeply
flawed partners. The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has an apparent
desire to make peace but is too weak to make meaningful concessions. Hamas is
easily strong enough but is unwilling to reject violence and accept
This leaves Israel with a choice, Haas argued. Either it can try
to strengthen the secular leadership on the West Bank or it can work to moderate
Hamas. A third option would be to do nothing, watch while Hamas rearms and then
go through the whole military exercise again in a year or two, once the rocket
fire becomes intolerable.
“This president’s legacy is ending wars not
starting new ones; keeping America safe from terror attacks and fixing the
country’s broken economic house if he can,” wrote Miller. “If, along the way,
Obama can figure out a way to help the Middle East be less of a mess, too, that
would be a real bonus, especially if he can find a way to stop Iran’s quest for
a nuclear weapons capacity short of war.”
In any case, the calendar will
dictate future moves. Before there can be a peace process, there has to be an
inauguration on January 21 and an Israeli election the following day.
have to get through the nomination and confirmation of a new secretary of state,
which may set off a new battle in the Senate if the nominee is Susan
Only sometime after that will we know the administration’s
intentions – whether it intends to “manage the situation” by defusing the
periodic crises that will inevitably blow up or whether it intends to launch a
bid to solve the conflict once and for all.The writer was Reuters State
Department correspondent for five years. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org and his
website is www.alanelsner.com
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