As a ceasefire began November 21, 2012, in the eight-day-old Israel-Hamas conflict over Gaza, it became evident that Arab Spring had not eradicated U.S. influence in the area. The 2011 revolutions changed diplomatic dynamics, to be sure, but the U.S. is still in the Middle East game, despite what Obama administration detractors claimed during the presidential election.
Clinton To The Middle East
On November 20, President Barack Obama dispatched U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the Middle East to lend her weight to ending the conflict. She left a U.S. diplomatic tour of Southeast Asia with the president to begin negotiations.
Clinton talked with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (the PA controls the West Bank region), and Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. Egyptian voters elected Morsi, a pro-Palestinian Islamist, to replace ousted President Hosni Mubarak after Arab Spring. Clinton did not speak with Hamas officials directly as the U.S. considers Hamas a terrorist organization. Nevertheless, she used Morsi as a liaison with Hamas.
Mubarak, while an autocrat, was diplomatically in line with U.S. backing of Israel in its ongoing conflicts with Palestinians. Morsi is sympathetic to Hamas, which led Republicans in the election seeing to charge that Obama's support of the democratic tendencies in Arab Spring actually let the Middle East slip from American influence.
Working With Morsi
Morsi certainly gets much of the credit for brokering the Israeli-Hamas ceasefire, and his willingness to work with Israel has earned him some political capital in Washington.
But coincidences are rare things, and the ceasefire coming just a day after Clinton's arrival suggests that American influence in the region is not on the wane.
Morsi and his administration, from all appearances, were also willing to work with Clinton and the U.S. Clinton announced the ceasefire with Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr, and she said, "I want to thank President Morsi for his personal leadership to de-escalate the situation in Gaza and end the violence."
She suggested that the the U.S. and Egypt will continue working together to see that the ceasefire holds. "President Morsi and I discussed how the United States and Egypt can work together to support the next steps in that process. In the days ahead, the United States will work with partners across the region to consolidate this progress, improve conditions for the people of Gaza, and provide security for the people of Israel," she said.
Politico columnist Byron Tau said "Clinton scored a major victory in a difficult region" by "finding the kind of workable ground with the Egyptian government that's proven difficult for the administration since [Morsi replaced Mubarak]."
Howard LaFranchi, writing for the Christian Science Monitor, said simply of the deal that the United States "remains the dominant diplomatic force in the Middle East.
Obama Calls The Antagonists
Meanwhile, President Obama called both Netanyahu and Morsi to congratulate them on the deal and encourage them in further progress.
Obama and Netanyahu have, at times, had an icy relationship, especially since May 2011 when Obama suggested (as has other U.S. presidents) that Israel must sooner or later accept a Palestinian state crafted along pre-1967 war borders with "mutually agreed swaps." The ceasefire, however, has ushered in a period of goodwill between the two.
Obama reaffirmed Israel's right to defend itself; indeed, the Gaza fight began when Hamas started firing missiles, some of Iranian design, into Israel. A White House spokesman said "the President commended the Prime Minister for agreeing to the Egyptian ceasefire proposal - which the President recommended the Prime Minster do." Obama also said he was going to seek additional funding the Iron Dome missile defense system that the U.S. helped Israel install. The Iron Dome had great success knocking down Hamas rockets during the conflict.
The White House said Obama "thanked President Morsi for his efforts to achieve a sustainable ceasefire and for his personal leadership in negotiating a ceasefire proposal."
Obama also "reaffirmed the close partnership between the United States and Egypt, and welcomed President Morsi's commitment to regional security."
The ceasefire still has to hold, and even then the tension between Israel and Hamas in Gaza is not over; neither is tension between Israel and the PA in the West Bank. But it is clear that the U.S. is still able to work within the shifting relationships in the Middle East.