On Tuesday President Obama sent Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to the Middle East in an attempt to end the deadly fight between Israel and Hamas. Why now? After all, to this point US involvement in the escalating war of missiles and air strikes has seemed reticent, instead of forceful.
The short answer as to why Secretary Clinton is suddenly involved in shuttle diplomacy is that the conflict may have reached a moment when the presence of a high-ranking American official can do some good. In that sense Clinton’s trip may be a lagging indicator of a possible cease-fire, not a leading one.
Presidents don’t generally like to dispatch their secretaries of State to war zones unless they’re fairly sure something positive will occur during the trip. Otherwise, the US looks even weaker, as if they tried to influence events, but nobody would listen.
And indeed, following the announcement of Clinton’s visit, media reports are claiming that Hamas will cease firing rockets at Israel beginning at 2 p.m. Eastern time. These reports say Israel is asking for 24 hours of calm before it will accept a formal cease-fire.
The longer answer about the timing of Clinton’s trip involves the changed triangular relationship between the US, its traditional ally Israel, and the new pro-Islamist government of Egypt.
The last time Israel struck Gaza to “mow the grass,” or deter rocket fire against its territory, was in 2008. As Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, points out in a recent analysis, back then the US could count on authoritarian figures such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to rein in Hamas in an effort to keep violence at lower levels.
They can’t any longer. Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and other Arab leaders now face domestic pressure to “demonstrate that they are responsive to public opinion and hold Israel and the United States ‘accountable’ for their actions,” writes Mr. Cook.
At the same time, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu all but campaigned for GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney during the 2012 election cycle. At the highest level, the US-Israeli friendship, in a word, is “strained.”
In this context, the timing of a secretary of State’s visit to the region becomes all the more delicate. The US has no relations with Hamas, which it labels as a terrorist organization, and thus depends on Egypt to press the group to cease rocket fire. It needs an Israeli prime minister whose bluster has angered the White House to refrain from sending his troops over the border in a ground assault.
Indications are that both these things are occurring. (Or not occurring, in the case of the ground war.) President Morsi has voiced loud public support for Hamas, even visiting Gaza, but behind the scenes he seems to be trying to restrain Hamas leaders from an escalation of violence that could result in a devastating Israeli response. At the same time, Israel has massed troops and tanks on the Gaza border, but hasn’t yet unleashed them, despite threatening for days that it was just about to do so.
Any cease-fire in this conflict would be as fragile as balsa wood, weak enough to be shattered by only one Hamas rocket. Yet if Israel agrees to stand down its troops, the US might get some credit in the region for pressing restraint upon its ally.
In any case, this is not the Middle East of 2008; US influence now goes only so far with Egypt and other nearby nations newly sensitive to their own population’s demands. For Clinton, who is soon to leave her post, and Mr. Obama, who isn’t, the combat in Gaza is a difficult test in a region full of new tensions.