Waiting for Washington

After the latest Gaza blowup, does Obama plan to reengage in the peace process or will he make do with crisis management?

Morsi and Clinton 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Morsi and Clinton 390
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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 peace negotiations.
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.
The Obama 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 initiative.
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 peace.
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 Palestinian plight.
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.
I don’t think anybody thinks we’re going to build off of this,” he said.
But this was little more than speculation, uninformed by real insight into the president’s thinking.
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.”
Morsi 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 Hamas.
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.
“It’s 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.”
The Gaza 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.
The 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 Israel.”
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.
We 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 Rice.
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 elsneraa@gmail.com and his website is www.alanelsner.com