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Gaza cease-fire: Clinton role shows US still dominant in tough neighborhood (+video)

After two days of shuttle diplomacy, Hillary Clinton and Egypt's foreign minister announced a cease-fire agreement between Hamas and Israel. Despite its weakened influence in the Middle East, the US is still the dominant diplomatic force.

By Staff writer / November 21, 2012

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr shake hands after announcing a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in Cairo, Egypt, Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2012.

(AP Photo/Egyptian State Television)

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Washington

After two days of Middle East shuttle diplomacy, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stood in Cairo Wednesday evening as Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammmed Kamel Amr announced a cease-fire agreement between Israel and Palestinians in Hamas-governed Gaza designed to end eight days of deadly fighting.

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The cease-fire, set to take effect later in the evening local time (2 PM EST), would, most urgently, end the rocket fire from Gaza into Israel and the Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, in which more than 140 Palestinians and five Israelis have been killed, most of them civilians.

But at another level, Secretary Clinton’s role in securing the cease-fire demonstrates how the United States, despite its weakened influence in a region of empowered Islamists less inclined to America’s call, remains the dominant diplomatic force in the Middle East.

When President Obama dispatched Clinton to the region Tuesday to try to negotiate an end to the violence, it was a sign of a shift by the White House to a more overt – and traditionally American – role in the region. It was also seen by some regional experts as belated recognition by Mr. Obama that, despite his apparent preference for a less overt role for American diplomacy in the region, the Middle East risks slipping deeper into conflict and instability without forceful US engagement.

Clinton’s apparent success in defusing the Israeli-Palestinian fight could influence how Obama approaches the Syrian conflict, some analysts suggest, if it serves as a reminder that Middle East conflicts often threaten to expand into broader wars if diplomatic efforts – led by the US – don’t intervene first.

That is not to say the challenge Clinton faced from the moment she landed in the region Tuesday was an easy one.

The situation she stepped into in stops in Jerusalem and Ramallah, and on Wednesday in Cairo, presented a Middle East quite different from the one US diplomats, including Clinton, have encountered in recent years and decades.

The changed landscape is one reason an anticipated cease-fire between Israelis and Palestinians fell through Tuesday night.

On Tuesday some Arab diplomats spoke confidently of an impending cease-fire that would allow breathing space for more substantive negotiations on a long-term settlement of issues between Israel and Hamas. But those assertions proved illusory, as Israel appeared to stick to its demands that a “long-term solution” to rocket-fire into southern Israel from Gaza be reached at the outset.

With no agreement in place Wednesday morning, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued to hold out the prospect of launching a ground offensive into Gaza. In the meantime Israel continued to hit targets in Gaza, while rockets continued to sail toward Israeli territory and a bomb exploded on a bus in Tel Aviv.

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