Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is traveling around the Far East this week together with her president, during which time she's also been working the phone to keep the conflict in Gaza from escalating even more. But even though she and President Barack Obama have been dialing between their stops in Thailand, Burma and Cambodia, American eyes are cast on Egypt, which the U.S. leaders feel can play a pivotal role in restoring relative quiet to the region.
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According to a State Department official, Clinton has spoken with Israel's foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman and King Abdullah of Jordan; twice with Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr of Egypt and also twice with the Qatari prime minister, Sheik Hamad bin Jasim. For his part U.S. President Barack Obama has been speaking with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.
Clinton is delivering in private the same message American officials have been delivering in public – that the situation in Gaza needs to be de-escalated. The hope is that the Egyptians can be persuaded to use their leverage with Hamas to halt the attacks on Israel.
"I don’t want to speak for either Hamas or Israel in terms of the precise choices they’ve made," the State Department official said. But in the past few weeks, the pace of rocket attacks on Israel accelerated so much that Israel couldn't "just sort of sit back without taking more decisive action, and so they acted," the official said.
"The other thing that you’ve seen is obviously the increasing capability of the rockets that are available to the extremist forces inside Gaza, and apparently their willingness to use them. So that is a changing dynamic as well," he said.
When the air-raid sirens sounded in Tel Aviv for the first time since the Gulf War in 1991, it served to remind just how acute the security challenges Israel faces are, he said: it clarified why Israel feels it’s so important that to take out the infrastructure that supports these rockets.
Clinton's message to the Israelis is that it has the right to defend itself from the kind of threat it's facing, the official said: "We believe that Egypt has an important leadership role to play on this. It has the relationships in Gaza."
Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil went to Gaza as the hostilities raged and met with Ismail Haniyeh, the prime minister of the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip and other Hamas leaders, the official pointed out. "We believe that they have the stature, the credibility, and the relationships to be able to persuade Hamas and its allies to stop. Our message to them has been: Use it. Use those things.
"We recognize they can’t simply snap their fingers, that this is a back and forth, it’s a process. There are other actors involved like the Turks and the Qataris who also have a role to play. But Egypt’s role is absolutely pivotal. I think the discussions with them have been constructive and they have been open to listening to our perspective."
The view from America and from Cairo may not necessarily align in every respect, he added. "But we share a fundamental interest in de-escalating the situation. And I think they are taking steps to try to do that."
In any case the multiple crises in the Middle East are linked, he said. "Syria cannot be viewed in isolation. Gaza cannot be viewed in isolation. Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon cannot be viewed in isolation. All have impacts on one another." And that said, with so much happening in the region – it is in every country's interest to de-escalate the situation in Gaza, he summed up.