Just hours after a celebration of the Obama administration’s most significant engagement success, the transformation of U.S. relations with Burma, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton returned to Jerusalem, the epicenter of its greatest engagement disappointment. She was successful in helping to broker a ceasefire, but there are still critical intermediate and long-term challenges that remain. They are all connected.
Even while addressing the immediate crisis, as Secretary Clinton arrived in the region on Tuesday, she rightly put events in a long-term context.
“In the end, there is no substitute for security and for a just and lasting peace,” she said while standing with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “The current crisis focuses us on the urgency of this broader goal.”
To a large extent, this brings the Obama administration full circle. When coming into office it inherited a peace process badly damaged by the previous Gaza crisis of late 2008 and early 2009. Over four years, it tried and failed to achieve sustained direct negotiations between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. There were a number of reasons for the lack of progress, including Israeli settlement activity, uneven regional support, and a fundamental lack of trust between the parties.
What makes 2012 different than 2008, and complicates the way forward, is the Arab Awakening. Leadership changes, populist politics and security uncertainties have dramatically altered strategic calculations on all sides.
It remains to be seen how durable the ceasefire will be, since the underlying issues that precipitated the latest violence will be addressed in follow-on meetings. Wednesday’s bombing of a Tel Aviv bus is another grim reminder that there are combatants who want the conflict to continue. For its part, Israel evidently inflicted sufficient damage to Hamas’ military capability to agree to halt its air campaign. In her discussions with Prime Minister Netanyahu, she undoubtedly cautioned against an Israeli ground operation that would increase civilian casualties in Gaza and strategic costs to Israel and the United States.
But the ceasefire, while complex, is the easy part. Now come difficult negotiations aimed at preventing the crisis from reoccurring. They will have a very different tone than what we have seen in the past. Hamas will feel politically strengthened by the events of the past week. Egypt, while rightly praised by Clinton for its “responsibility and leadership” in recent days, will be the lynchpin if the ceasefire is to hold.
The difficult political transition over the past year has affected Egypt’s ability—and perhaps its willingness—to interdict weapons both through and under Egypt’s border crossing into Gaza.
The cascade of Hamas missiles over the past week has highlighted the significant failure of the Israeli embargo of Gaza, with weapons smuggled from multiple sources, including Libya and Iran. The difficult political transition over the past year has affected Egypt’s ability—and perhaps its willingness—to interdict weapons both through and under Egypt’s border crossing into Gaza. Secretary Clinton likely made clear that open conflict between Hamas and Israel on Egypt’s doorstep is not in its national interest. Egypt must do all it can to stop the weapons flow into Gaza.
Morsi undoubtedly communicated what Hamas wants from a ceasefire arrangement, particularly an end to Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Israel may resist an end to the embargo, but has to recognize that changes are needed. It should consider making lemonade out of lemons. A more effective approach, given the evident holes in the embargo, is to greatly expand the flow of civilian goods into Gaza (a focus on the population much like the U.S. strategic shift in Iraq in 2007) but to do so through the Palestinian Authority, not Hamas.
The final challenge is salvaging the peace process itself.
Secretary Clinton’s stop in Ramallah literally brought Abbas back into the Middle East picture. He has been the missing man throughout this crisis. Clinton was the first top tier U.S. official to confer with Abbas since it began. President Abbas stands to be its biggest potential loser unless the United States acts more assertively than it has over the past two years since negotiations stalled.
But things are likely to get worse before they get better. Even before the Gaza crisis, Abbas announced plans to petition the United Nations for enhanced observer status, a move that both the United States and Israel strongly oppose. Abbas’s political weakness forces him to follow through. Israel could respond by stopping the transfer of tax revenue that it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. Congress, in turn, will likely suspend all U.S. assistance. This potential double-whammy could push the Palestinian Authority towards insolvency.
Clinton signaled in her comments in Cairo that the ceasefire “is a step that should be built on.” This requires a return to greater activism by the Obama administration, which understandably felt burned by failed negotiations two years ago. Since then, it has waited for conditions to improve. It needs to try again to shape conditions that make a return to negotiations possible, using the political leverage and flexibility the President gained through his reelection.
On the heels of the successful Clinton intervention, President Obama should follow up quickly with clear and direct messages to these three leaders.
To President Abbas, the message is straightforward: the only way to remain relevant is to return to the negotiating table. At the United Nations on November 29, Abbas should declare a willingness to negotiate with the new Israeli government immediately following January elections without preconditions. Absent such a commitment, President Obama, just as he did with former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, should publicly call for new leadership within Fatah and the Palestinian Authority.
The message to Prime Minister Netanyahu is similar: during the upcoming campaign, commit to negotiations and, if reelected, be far more creative and flexible. The status quo is increasingly untenable, with rising costs for both Israel and the United States. The difficult relationship between Obama and Netanyahu is already an election issue; the peace process and what is required of the next Israeli prime minister should be as well.
And for President Morsi: If Hamas wants to be a part of the peace process, it must accept Israel’s right to exist, just as Egypt has. If Hamas wants to play a role in the emerging Middle East, if it realistically expects to govern a future Palestinian state, it must do what Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party has done and focus on ballots, not rockets. Egypt has leverage with Hamas; now is the time to use it.
The Gaza crisis could create a slim window of opportunity, but the Obama administration needs to retake the initiative, and accept the risks that come with it. If it is waits for better conditions, the opportunity will fade and with it hopes for a permanent peace.