Israel-Gaza conflict: Is US’ back seat role a mistake?

By Elsa Buchanan

Gaza Conflict

The United States’ choice to take a more passive role in the Gaza conflict and delegate the responsibility of leading a ceasefire to Egypt is a blunder from the Obama administration, a leading academic has warned.

But the US Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to express a growing frustration over the number of Palestinian civilians killed in Israel’s offensive in Gaza, which reached 500 on Monday evening.

Unfortunately for the Obama administration, Kerry’s comments made for a diplomatic gaffe after an open microphone picked up one of his conversations with Jonathan Finer, his deputy chief of staff, hours before he was due to leave for Cairo to meet with the Egyptian and international officials to push for a cease-fire.

In the taped conversation, Kerry is heard saying: “It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation. It’s a hell of a pinpoint operation. We’ve got to get over there. Thank you, John. I think, John, we ought to go tonight. I think it’s crazy to be sitting around.”

So what has the US been waiting for? Is it purposefully staying on the sidelines?

There is a certain thinking that the US needs to give Israel enough time to carry out its military objectives, instead leaving space for regional powers to play good cop bad cop.

“The US has taken a more passive back seat role here, giving Israel a bit of leeway in its actions providing that the Palestinian body count doesn’t rise too much, which isn’t much different to previous escalations in 2008-2009 and 2012,” Hugh Lovatt, Middle East Peace Process project officer for the European Council on Foreign Relations noted.

This view is shared by Dr James Boys, expert on the role of the US in the Middle East and senior visiting research fellow in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean Studies at Kings College, who argued the US has been standing back from the fray to allow regional powers to step up to the play.

“We saw this with The Arab League left acting effectively with regards to Gaddafi and Libya a few years ago, and now we are witnessing this to a certain extent with the rise of the Egyptian offer to get involved.”

This time, however, Egypt is given a larger role in the conflict resolution with its ceasefire. “And that is a mistake, because this Egyptian government is very different to the regime the US let negotiate in 2012,” Lovatt explained.

Then-President Mohamed Morsi, who was seen as more sympathetic to Hamas, was able to play an effective bridge between Israel and the Hamas, leading to a ceasefire agreed upon by both sides in 2012. Conversely, current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is openly ‘very hostile’ to the Hamas, and not able to lead an effective mediation.

Under the Egyptian ceasefire, Israel and Gaza would return to the status quo – something the Palestinian militant movement the Hamas will not accept. However, at the time of writing, it seems Egypt might be willing to amend its truce initiative in order to accommodate Hamas, Reuters reported.

Alternatively, a Turkish-Qatari ceasefire track has also been put forward, this time proposing a long term reopening of the Rafah Crossing with Egypt, and pushing back the fishing zone for Gaza fishermen.

“Albeit still openly backing Israel’s right to defend itself, the Obama administration is very vocal in its support of the Egypt initiative, having not made a reference to the Turkish-Qatari alternative in the past two days [as at Monday 21 July], and that is problematic,” Lovatt explained.

Mounting frustration in the passive US also goes to show its reliance on Egypt isn’t working, and that it’ll have to take a more pro-active approach if it wants to stabilise the death toll.

Passive, but strong

In Boys’ words, however, the conflict is being addressed, “but it is not necessarily been done with megaphone diplomacy.

“There are flaws on both sides and it is a difficult, delicate diplomatic situation that the Americans loathe to get too heavily involved in because of the rest of the crises they are having to deal with,” Boys said, pointing to the tensions in Syria, the apparent threat posed by ISIS and the reported missile attack on a passenger jet of Malaysia Airlines.

For the King’s College leading academic, the US has retained all its power, in spite of Kerry’s tapped comments “I think it’s crazy to be sitting around”, and Kerry’s stay in Egypt is evidence of that.

The ceasefire deal bought forward by the Turkish-Qatari coalition will not have much weight in the conflict’s resolution, he said, because Qatar, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are lacking “the all-encompassing grand strategy approach the US can bring to the table.”

Qatar might well be the richest country of the world with a GDP per capita reaching $88.222, it is seen by experts as a ‘shell of an entity’.

“An awful lot of these countries are beholden to the US, and Egypt is a classic example,” Boys added. Although it is playing a diplomatic role currently, Egypt is still indebted to the US and the amount of aid and weaponry it provides Israel with is a direct result of its inclusion in the Camp David 1979 accords.’

Ultimately, a new counterweight is necessary in the region – someone who can come forth with the relevant leverage and act without the input of the US.

“But no one is going to come along and outweigh the US at that table, really,” Boys said.

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