Forget Asia. It's time for Obama to put his focus back on the Middle East.
Thank goodness President Barack Obama overcame his pivot penchant to Asia and has sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton back to the Middle East. Her arrival can come none too soon.
Given the high potential for the crisis to escalate and for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) to launch a ground war into Gaza, the adverse fallout for U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East could be quite dramatic. As Palestinian civilian casualties mount, the anger that is already roiling the streets in Egypt and Jordan could grow into more shrill demands to abrogate the peace treaties with Israel, which are the foundation stones of U.S. strategy and influence in the region.
In the meantime, Hamas’ claim that violence is the only way to liberate Palestine, or at least put it back on the world’s agenda, gains credibility, casting a shadow over the forlorn efforts of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank to negotiate peace with Israel. And under the cover of this distraction — which it helped create — Tehran is able to complete the deployment of 3,000 centrifuges in its underground Fordo enrichment facility without any international outcry.
What’s urgently required is not just the establishment of a ceasefire before continued rocket fire prompts Israel’s leadership to send the IDF into Gaza. Also needed now is a longer-term strategy to stabilize relations between Israel and Gaza as a basis for healing the longstanding rift between Palestinians, which is the only way Israel could even begin to contemplate negotiating a final resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But none of these can happen if the White House continues to focus on Asia. Obama’s critical partner in this strategy is an unlikely one: Mohamed Morsy, the Muslim Brotherhood president of Egypt. Morsy seems prepared to play the role but he is engaged in a high-wire act, balancing efforts to negotiate a ceasefire with his need to play to the Egyptian street with harangues about the Israeli "aggressor." If the IDF moves into Gaza, it will be increasingly difficult — if not impossible — for him to maintain that balancing act. But if he can be turned into a partner in reestablishing calm and laying the basis for a new effort at peacemaking, all sides could greatly benefit.
The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is the progenitor of Hamas. Nevertheless, since the days of the second intifada, Hamas’ military wing has been dependent on Iran for arms and funding. Many of the rockets now being fired at Israel, especially the longer-range Fajr-5s that are reaching the outskirts of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, have been supplied by Iran. Ahmad Jabari, the Hamas militant leader that Israel assassinated last week, was a principal architect of this military alliance with Iran. Breaking that alliance is a strategic and ideological imperative for the Egyptian president. Egypt, as the natural leader of the Arab world, is an inevitable rival of Persian Iran, which seeks to dominate the region. And as Sunni Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood is an unavoidable religious rival of the revolutionary Shiite clerics in Tehran. Moreover, Iran’s smuggling of weapons through the Sinai to Gaza is creating a national security challenge in Cairo.
This should be a strategic imperative for President Obama, as well. Working with a willing Morsy to broker a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel can prevent an escalation that could threaten the peace treaty, while taking Hamas out of the Iranian "rejectionist camp" and placing it in the Egyptian-led "peace camp." If this were just another case of Sunni-Shiite rivalry it would be understandable for President Obama to say, "been there, done that, didn’t work out well." But the critical difference between this case and the sectarian rivalry in Syria, Iraq, or Bahrain (that he prefers to remain aloof from) lies in the need to protect the Israel-Egypt peace treaty and the opportunity to develop a positive dynamic between post-revolutionary Cairo, Washington, and Jerusalem on the hot-button Palestinian issue that he promised the world he would resolve.
But Obama may have reason to go for a quick ceasefire and avoid the larger objective. The U.S. president might be wary of attempting this larger objective given his less than productive experience with Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli prime minister’s intervention in the U.S. elections (on the side of Obama’s rival) has only deepened the gulf between them. Yet Obama now has acquired considerable leverage over his bête noir. Netanyahu needs his help to extract Israel from the dilemma he has created for himself. It cannot be his preference to invade Gaza: it will vastly increase the price Israel pays in international opprobrium, threaten the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, and leave unanswered the real question of whom the IDF would hand over power to when and if they withdraw. That means Netanyahu should be willing to respond to Obama’s efforts — if the administration gives him a better choice than the one he now faces.
Obama also will likely have a trump card in these particular circumstances that he lacked during his first term: the support of an Israeli public grateful to him for standing up for Israel’s right to defend itself in this conflict, and for funding the Iron Dome anti-rocket defense system that is doing so much to protect them. In addition, Netanyahu is facing an election in eight weeks. While he clearly leads in all polling, he knows that the electorate will punish him if he mishandles this conflict — or his relationship with a newly popular, newly elected American president who is trying to extract Israel from a sticky predicament.
But just how should President Obama engage? The first step was dispatching his secretary of state to Israel and Egypt. The large number of would-be negotiators that have already turned up there – Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the U.N.’s Ban Ki-moon, Qatar’s Hamad bin Jassem, and now the Quartet’s Tony Blair — can only complicate the process. They cannot substitute for a partnership between the United States and Egypt — one using its influence with Israel, the other with Hamas — to put together a ceasefire package as the foundation for a wider resolution of the conflict.
Hillary Clinton’s first objective should be a comprehensive ceasefire which Hamas commits to impose on all the terrorist groups now operating in Gaza. This should be complemented by a series of reciprocal commitments. Israel will need to implement the ceasefire on its side, open the passages that would allow the flow of goods into and out of Gaza, and allow Gazans access to the sea; Egypt would have to agree to open the Rafah passage between Gaza and Egypt. In return, Hamas would have to commit to prevent any act of violence against Israel emanating from Gaza — including attacks from Sinai that originate in Gaza. Hamas also has to commit to prevent the smuggling of offensive weapons — rockets, in particular — into Gaza. Monitoring mechanisms would need to be established to ensure compliance, including passage monitors, stepped up Egyptian patrols of its border with Gaza, and an international maritime inspection force. To this end, the Palestinian Authority would need to be given responsibility for policing the passages on the Palestinian side, as it is the only recognized Palestinian government and the only one that Israel will deal with directly. In the event of non-compliance by Hamas, the passages would simply be shut down until they came back into compliance.
Clinton can set all this up for him, but Obama’s indispensable role will be to sharpen the choices for each of the parties and provide the necessary incentives for them to make the right ones. Only an American president committed to resolving the conflict rather than just tamping it down can achieve that. If Hamas is willing finally to choose between feeding the people of Gaza and fighting Israel, this arrangement could hold, providing the foundations for a Hamas-Fatah reconciliation that would present Israel with a unified Palestinian partner for peace negotiations. If Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president is willing to make his own choice between feeding the Egyptian people and the Brotherhood’s anti-American, anti-Israeli ideology, he could help persuade Hamas to take the right course and regain Egypt’s role as a broker of Israeli-Palestinian peace and a power player in the region. And if Israel’s prime minister is willing to choose between lifting an increasingly counterproductive siege of Gaza and returning to the unsatisfactory status quo of intermittent rocket attacks on his citizens, a virtuous dynamic can be created to replace the destructive cycle that threatens to dramatically worsen the region’s tumult, and Israel’s well-being.
But there is only one person in the world that can make this happen. And doing so will require that President Obama pivots back to the Middle East once more, before he heads off to Asia again.