No Gaza cease-fire: Dramatic shift in Egypt deprived Kerry of vital tool

Secretary Kerry has come under harsh criticism, particularly in Israel, for his efforts to secure a cease-fire in Gaza. Experts say Egypt's shift vis-à-vis Hamas has made diplomacy much harder.

Charles Dharapak/AP
US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with Qatari Foreign Minister Khaled al-Attiyah (r.) and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (l.) at their meeting regarding a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel in Gaza, Saturday, July 26, 2014, at the US ambassador's residence in Paris, France.

Last week’s round-the-clock but ultimately unsuccessful effort by Secretary of State John Kerry to secure a cease-fire in the increasingly costly Gaza war has come under withering criticism, particularly in Israel, for offering too big a stage to Hamas and its supporters in the region.

The Israeli press has been especially brutal with the top US diplomat, accusing him of betraying Israel by circulating a draft cease-fire document that did not meet all of Israel’s demands concerning Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that governs the Gaza Strip.

The harsh tenor of that criticism could help explain why diplomatic efforts on Gaza so far have failed. But more important than a sudden surge in Israeli vitriol toward the US, some regional experts say, are the shifts in the Middle East’s political orientation and balance of power since the US brokered the last Gaza cease-fire, in 2012.    

“The regional constellation is very different from 2012, and in ways that make the diplomacy for getting some kind of cease-fire agreement in this conflict much harder than it was just a couple of years ago,” says Robert Danin, senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington.  

And the biggest change, he and other experts say, is with Egypt.

“Egypt doesn’t have the relationship with Hamas that it did, and its conception of its interests are very different from 2012,” Mr. Danin says.

Indeed, President Obama dispatched former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Egypt in 2012 – as hostilities between Israel and Hamas flared but before Israel launched a ground incursion – knowing that his envoy was meeting with an interlocutor who had influence with the Hamas leadership.

That is no longer the case today.

“In 2012 you had [former Egyptian President] Mohamed Morsi, an indispensable interlocutor who could work with Hamas and deliver them” on a cease-fire agreement, says Daniel Levy, director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London. “Today, under [Egyptian President Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi, you have an Egypt taking sides against Hamas.”

If anything, Mr. Levy says, Egypt under Mr. al-Sisi – who as commander in chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces deposed Mr. Morsi, whose Muslim Brotherhood is the source organization of Hamas – “probably has more far-reaching goals vis-à-vis Hamas for this war than does Israel.”

The shift in Egypt also meant that Kerry had no one to turn to in the region who was in some level of communication with all of the players involved in the conflict. “No party is in a position to talk to all sides,” Danin says. The US does not work with Hamas, which it lists as a terrorist organization.

That reality prompted Kerry to turn elsewhere – specifically to Turkey and Qatar – for interlocutors with Hamas. It was in doing so that Kerry and his diplomatic initiative reaped the most stinging criticism.

Especially galling to some Israelis was the sight of Kerry making a high-profile stop in Paris on Saturday to meet with the foreign ministers of Turkey and Qatar, two countries that have not held back in their criticism of Israel’s operation in Gaza. Turkish officials in particular have spouted attacks on Israel that at their worst have verged on anti-Semitism.

Danin says he doesn’t doubt that both Israel and moderate Arabs understand the useful role that Turkey and Qatar can play in addressing the conflict. Instead it was the “pride of place” afforded the two Hamas supporters – and by extension Hamas’s demands – that was jarring, he says. “It enshrined them [in the process] in a way that Egypt in particular was not prepared to accept,” he says.   

But without Egypt, Kerry had to turn somewhere to nail down commitments from Hamas for a cease-fire, Levy says. “It was the right thing to do to work with the Turks and the Qataris,” he says. “You need someone to act as guarantors on the Hamas side.”

Levy says he suspects that another reason Kerry’s consulting of Hamas’s friends in the region became such a source of tension between the US and Israel is that it underscored the different conceptions the two seem to have of what a cease-fire would be.

“The Israelis had led Kerry to believe they wanted a cease-fire, but that is different from wanting Hamas defeated,” Levy says. “If you really want a cease-fire and not a Hamas surrender, then you have to have Hamas on board,” he adds. “And that requires working with those, in this case the Turks and Qataris, who could get them on board.”

That perspective is rejected by some Israelis, who are now questioning any future role for Kerry in negotiating an end to the Gaza war. But Danin, a longtime US diplomat in the Middle East, says it is “premature” to “conclude this war will end without an American role.”

Washington has been “startled at the degree to which Israelis have been critical of Kerry and his effort,” Danin says. But he says experience suggests that in a few days “this US-Israel spat will be behind us.”

Kerry’s inability to get a cease-fire “doesn’t mean this effort is over,” Danin insists. “There’s going to be more American diplomacy.”  

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