Washington Watch: Is this trip necessary?

Michael Oren, Israel’s previous Israeli ambassador to Washington, suggested Kerry was sent but not invited.

John Kerry quitte Israel (photo credit: REUTERS)
John Kerry quitte Israel
(photo credit: REUTERS)
John Kerry went on all the Sunday talk shows to say how anxious he and Barack Obama were for the secretary of state to return to the Middle East to help broker the “immediate” cease-fire the president had called for. Israel and Egypt weren’t all that interested in seeing him, however. A diminished US role and interest in the region, Washington’s badly damaged credibility and emerging – and radical – shifts in the region are converging to undercut Kerry’s influence.
Michael Oren, Israel’s previous Israeli ambassador to Washington, suggested Kerry was sent but not invited.
He told Israel’s Channel 2 that the Obama administration’s strained relations with Egypt and “tension” in ties with Israel mean Washington is unable to play as constructive a role as it has before, reports The Times of Israel.
Earlier this month Egypt and Israel quietly told Kerry to stay home. They were upset with his effort to bring Turkey and Qatar into the negotiations – both of which are seen not only as unfriendly to Cairo and Jerusalem but, more critically, as Hamas’ closest allies and eager to protect and reward the terrorist group.
That Kerry is still talking about a role for Turkey is just one more sign of the Obama administration’s cluelessness about the new realities shaping the Middle East.
Turkey has long sought to replace Egypt as the leader of the Arab-Muslim Middle East, but an inept foreign policy has quashed that dream.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was close to Egypt’s deposed president Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, last week called the man who replaced him, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a “tyrant” leading an “illegitimate” administration.
But that was kind compared to what he’s been saying about Israel. He accused it of “state terrorism” and “barbarism that surpasses Hitler.” He is notorious for his anti-Semitic slurs and attacks on Israel. He recently vowed relations between Turkey and Israel would not improve while he remained in office, despite promises to President Obama.
He’s no longer speaking to Obama either, he said, because of disagreements over Hamas and Syria.
Sisi outlawed Hamas, which has repeatedly rejected Egypt’s proposed unconditional cease-fire that has been endorsed by Israel, the United States, the Palestinian Authority, the Arab League, the Europeans and the United Nations.
Hamas and its allies want the United States to guarantee compliance and monitor any cease-fire agreement; Jerusalem and Cairo want Egypt to play that role as it resumes its regional leadership role following the moribund Mubarak years and unsettled Morsi administration.
They also reject Turkey’s desire to replace Egypt as the traditional mediator between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
Sisi has no use for Hamas, which he sees as a spawn of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood and in collusion with extremists in the Sinai that have been battling Egyptian authorities for control of the peninsula. He has been closing down Hamas’ smuggling tunnels which are used not only to bring weapons into Gaza but also food, cars, narcotics and other goods, avoiding Egyptian tax collectors. Egypt also charge the tunnels have been a route for weapons and militants to and from Gaza to aid the opposition to Cairo’s rule in the Sinai.
Sisi announced his cease-fire proposal, which Israel quickly accepted and Hamas rejected, without consulting Washington.
He is miffed at the Obama administration for taking so long to bless his election and for cutting back aid. Washington now backs the proposal. As Kerry arrived in Cairo early this week Egypt announced it would not soften its opposition to negotiating terms until cease-fire is in place.
Egypt, in the view of some Israeli analysts, may be more intent on delivering a fatal blow to Hamas than is Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Israel is not anxious to see Hamas go for the same reason it wasn’t anxious to see Bashar Assad overthrown in Syria – better the enemy you know because the next one could be a lot worse.
Besides, as long as the Islamist rejectionists of Hamas control Gaza and the secular PLO runs the West Bank there will not be a united Palestinian movement and Netanyahu will be able to fend off pressure to make peace. Kerry has indicated he sees a cease-fire as opening an opportunity to return to the peace table, but neither side has shown the slightest interest.
A cease-fire agreement is more likely to lead in a different direction, said Dan Schueftan of Haifa University.
“A realistic outcome of this is a strategic partnership between Israel and Egypt,” he said. “This would create a new center of gravity in the region.”
He and others see a new regional strategic and economic alliance emerging, centered around Egypt and Israel with Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia and other moderate Gulf and Maghreb states.
A major driving factor is a shrinking American role in the region fueled by frustration with lack of progress in more than two decades of peace negotiations, diminished dependence on Arab oil and costly and failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A cautious Obama administration no longer sees the region as strategically vital as it once was, and is pivoting its attention to the other end of Asia and to the Pacific rim.
On the opposing side to this new moderate coalition would be states like Iran, Syria, Qatar and Turkey and an array of non-state extremists like Hezbollah, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaida, Salafi jihadists and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
“From a strategic perspective, this new alliance of moderates led by Egypt and Israel would be the center of gravity in the region,” Schueftan said.
Both will remain American strategic and political allies, both will be dependent on billions of American aid and top technology, but they will play a greater and more independent regional leadership role as Washington pivots farther east. The process is beginning with Cairo and Jerusalem taking control of the cease-fire negotiations and putting Washington in the back seat.