Gaza crisis: Kerry rushes to Cairo, but does he have a strategy?

Kerry appeared to be chomping at the bit before he dashed to Cairo, hoping to end the bloodshed in the Gaza Strip. The cost of failure is high, some experts say.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to reporters as he meets with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon in Cairo, Monday, July 21, 2014. Kerry has returned to the Middle East as the Obama administration attempts to bolster regional efforts to reach a cease-fire and sharpens its criticism of Hamas in its conflict with Israel.

Secretary of State John Kerry’s hastily arranged trip to Cairo Monday, a day after the single deadliest day for both sides in the Israel-Hamas fighting in Gaza, underscores how Mr. Kerry has emerged as perhaps the most “interventionist” member of President Obama’s foreign policy team.

Less clear is just how effective the peripatetic Kerry (addressing Afghanistan and Iran one week, Ukraine and now the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the next) can be in the Gaza conflict, after more than a week of the United States largely sitting on the bench, some regional analysts say.

“Maybe there’s a role for Kerry to play as an assembler, maybe he can assemble the pieces” of a cease-fire that would draw in not just the belligerents, but some Arab countries to play specific roles, says Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East adviser to various Democratic and Republican administrations and now a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

“But of the roles Kerry might play,” Mr. Miller adds, “he’s certainly ill-equipped to determine who’s in charge in Gaza [and] what Hamas will need to climb down.”

Others are even less charitable, saying Kerry’s trip was unwanted in the region – and could further damage America’s standing among the players in the conflict if it produces nothing.

“It’s clear the Egyptians and the Israelis did not want him coming,” says Eric Trager, an expert on Egyptian politics and the Muslim Brotherhood at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. If Kerry ends up coming home with nothing, he adds, “This will be seen as further evidence not only of American ineffectiveness, but of an administration that simply doesn’t understand the players it’s dealing with in the Middle East.”

Kerry’s eagerness to jump into the Gaza fray was captured Sunday in a hot-mike moment, as the secretary spoke on the phone with an aide during a commercial break in his appearance on Fox News Sunday.

“We’ve got to get over there, I think we ought to go tonight,” Kerry says to the aide, meaning to Cairo, where he was not to meet with major Egyptian officials until Tuesday. He then adds, “I think it’s crazy to be sitting around.”

It’s not clear what (or who) caused Kerry to express such a strong sense of frustration, but the short dialogue suggests a diplomat chomping at the bit to get involved.

“Clearly he made a quick decision to go with hopes of stopping the fighting,” Mr. Trager says, “but with very little strategy.”

By Sunday afternoon, the State Department issued a statement announcing that President Obama was dispatching Kerry to Cairo immediately to help try to nail down a cease-fire.

Kerry had planned to make a stop in Cairo early last week on his way back from a trip to China with the objective of security a cease-fire.  But the Egyptian government beat him to the punch in a sense by announcing a cease-fire plan that Egypt had negotiated with Israel – but without consulting Hamas. Kerry skipped Cairo, but the Egyptian proposal was rejected by Hamas.

Mr. Obama said Friday that in a phone conversation that day with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu he had told the Israeli leader he was prepared to send Kerry to the region if it could be helpful.

The Wilson Center’s Miller says it was the intense violence of Sunday and the elevated loss of life – more than 100 Palestinians and 14 Israeli soldiers killed – that prompted the decision to send Kerry.

But the lack of clarity on who is making decisions for Hamas, as well as Israel’s insistence that its operation will continue until rockets stop flying from Gaza, lead Miller to predict that the violence will not end immediately. “I can’t imagine anything happening in three to four days,” he says, adding that “it will take another week” at least to reach an agreement.

Kerry reiterated Sunday what Obama told Netanyahu on Friday: that the US supports a return to the 2012 cease-fire that halted rocket fire into Israel from Gaza. Hamas says Israel did not hold up its side of that agreement. And the militant group that governs Gaza is also deeply suspicious of the Egyptian government, which – since the 2012 cease-fire – has banned the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

But just returning to the 2012 agreement is unlikely to happen, says WINEP’s Trager. “Egypt today is not going to accede to anything that would allow Hamas to come out of this strengthened,” he says. Egypt is also not likely to accept opening the Gaza-Egypt border at Rafah, another Hamas demand.

The “big question” for Trager is whether Kerry responds to “failure in Cairo” by moving to engage Qatar “more forcefully” in cease-fire efforts. Qatar is supportive of Hamas and might be brought on board to finance the economic elements of an agreement, Trager says – but it would also signal that the US is “strengthening a player that does not share America’s traditional view of Middle East diplomacy.” 

Miller says that as difficult as Kerry’s mission to deliver a cease-fire may be, it strikes him as “much different” from Kerry’s failed Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative, which collapsed in April after eight months of negotiations.

Saying he never supported the position concerning those talks that “it’s better to try than not to try,” Miller says the Gaza situation is different: “People are dying every day here.”

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