The cease-fire agreement concluded Wednesday between Israel and Hamas is a triple-crown foreign policy achievement for U.S. President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: 1. It strengthens the moderate posture of Egypt and cements Washington-Cairo relations; 2. It helps extract Israel from a strategic trap of its own design and enhances Obama’s stature in both Israel and America and 3. It marks a dramatic return of the U.S. to Middle East diplomacy, after an extended absence and ahead of the start of Obama’s second term.
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But the main reason why Obama felt it necessary to send someone as senior as Clinton to the area was to prevent the absolute worst-case scenario: an Israeli ground incursion that might have sparked a regional chain reaction that could de-stabilize the Middle East and damage American strategic interests. Not only would Tehran have rejoiced and Cairo be forced to radicalize, but the specter of angry Arab masses converging on U.S. embassies throughout the Arab world is a nightmare for an administration that is still criticized for, and traumatized by, the recent September 11 riots and the deadly terrorist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi.
Clinton’s personal presence was necessary to dot the i's and cross the t’s of the agreement, to lend U.S. prestige to Egyptian President Morsi’s mediation efforts and to nudge Netanyahu to compromise on a deal that would also include American guarantees. Netanyahu’s conversations with Clinton and Obama were aimed at allowing Israel to back away from its threat of a ground invasion, which it clearly did not wish to carry out. The Chekhovian gun that was placed on the table in the first act, when Israel called up tens of thousands of reserves, could now be placed back safely in its holster instead of shooting up the neighborhood, which is what Washington feared.
Obama’s steadfast support for Israel throughout Operation Pillar of Defense, his decision to refrain from criticizing Jerusalem even when innocent Palestinians were killed and his role in financing the phenomenally successful Iron Dome project – all of these bolstered his popularity many times over and blunted some of the suspicions and criticisms against him, in both Israel and the U.S. Netanyahu’s profuse expressions of gratitude to Obama at his press conference last night may not mark the beginning of a beautiful friendship just yet, but could nonetheless signal a new page in the often turbulent relationship between the two leaders.
At the same time, by allowing Cairo to take center stage and to get much of the credit for the agreement, Obama and Clinton steered Cairo in the direction of diplomatic moderation and highlighted the potentially positive side of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascent to power, thus responding to some of the criticism that has been leveled at the administration for its support for the fledgling Egyptian democracy. Instead of Hamas diverting Cairo towards a dangerous confrontation with Israel, as many feared, it was Cairo that seemed to be steering Hamas to more political avenues.
Obama has now repositioned most of the main players in the Middle East arena and created a potentially positive framework for advancing a diplomatic process, if he chooses to do so, after his inauguration and following the Israeli elections. The big loser in the process is Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority, who have been pushed even further to the sidelines as Hamas celebrates what will be widely perceived in the Arab world and in the Palestinian street as its victory.
Perhaps Clinton has already discussed with Netanyahu steps that might be taken in order to strengthen Abbas, and perhaps she sought to reassure the Palestinian leader in her talks in Ramallah Wednesday. But if all else fails, the U.S. may have to set up the basis for a viable alternative. Hamas may not be interested in peace, but it could be capable, if it wishes, of delivering long-term security arrangements, which, contrary to peace, might be attainable as well.
If the cease-fire accord doesn’t fall apart within days or weeks, that is, as many are now predicting.