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Limited options for U.S. as Israeli-Palestinian conflict escalates

On July 11, 2014, the fourth day of “Operation Protective Edge,” Israelis in the southern town of Nitzan pray together inside a street-level bomb shelter in anticipation of a Code Red siren for incoming rockets. Credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90.
On July 11, 2014, the fourth day of “Operation Protective Edge,” Israelis in the southern town of Nitzan pray together inside a street-level bomb shelter in anticipation of a Code Red siren for incoming rockets. Credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90.

By Dmitriy Shapiro/ Jewish Week

With Israel and Hamas mired in their latest conflict, United States officials have been mulling their limited options to broker a cease-fire, finding that America has few dependable friends in the region and less credibility to help it play its traditional role as peace broker.

Most experts believe that the U.S. no longer possesses the influence and trust in the Middle East it once did, largely due to the recently failed peace talks it sponsored between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), inaction in Syria, and the recent turmoil in Iraq.

In response to ongoing rocket barrages from Hamas terrorists in Gaza, the Israel Defense Forces began an offensive called Operation Protective Edge. After the Israeli cabinet accepted an Egyptian-proposed cease-fire on Tuesday morning, Hamas continued the rocket attacks, prompting Israel to resume its military operation.

“The U.S. role is going to be extremely limited,” said Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “I think the U.S. has really not a lot of credibility right now in light of the collapse of the [Israel-Palestinian] diplomatic process, which was U.S.-led. … I didn’t get a sense that either side was particularly impressed with U.S. diplomacy, and on some level one can argue that the heightened expectations from the diplomatic process has led to this. It’s sort of a pattern. When diplomacy fails, unrest begins.”

Michael Eisenstadt, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said America’s relationship is strained with its traditional Arab allies, but also with Israel and the Palestinians, which could lead both parties to ignore America’s efforts.

“Our ability to shape events will be influenced by the fact that the relationship between President [Barack] Obama and [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is frosty at best,” said Eisenstadt. “And that we just had kind of the informal conclusion of a prolonged period of U.S. peace making which led to the resignation of the individual, [U.S. Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations] Martin Indyk, who was leading the process.”

Yet U.S. officials believe that America still has a role to play in leading the parties to an agreement.

“I think that certainly, the United states will have to play a role, not only in helping to bring about a de-escalation and a cease-fire, but also, once we do have a cease-fire in place, I think it’s going to take U.S. leadership to ensure that that calm remains and can be built upon,” said a senior U.S. State Department official on condition of anonymity. “If not for American leadership, I think we would not be able to get to a cease-fire.”

The State Department official also confirmed that Secretary of State John Kerry has been busy making calls, not only to Netanyahu and PA President Mahmoud Abbas, but taking stock of allies who can have more influence with Hamas, such Egypt, Qatar, and Turkey.

A day before Kerry was scheduled to visit to Cairo, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry presented a cease-fire proposal on Monday, which included the opening of the Israel-Gaza border crossing at Rafah “once the security situation becomes stable on the ground,” according to the New York Times. Israel quickly moved to adopt the plan, pausing its airstrikes on Gaza for six hours. But Hamas rejected the Egyptian plan and continued its attacks on the Jewish state.

Egypt’s plan, which called for separate negotiations in Cairo with delegations from the Israeli and Palestinian sides within 48 hours of the cease-fire’s implementation, did not address any of Hamas’s other demands besides the opening of the Rafah crossing. Hamas has demanded a transfer of PA money to pay for its 40,000 government employees, the lifting of Israeli import-export restrictions on Gaza, the release of prisoners, and more.

After the brief attempt at a cease-fire fell apart early Tuesday, Kerry canceled his planned trip to Cairo and slammed Hamas for not co-operating.

“I cannot condemn strongly enough the actions of Hamas in so brazenly firing rockets in multiple numbers in the face of a goodwill effort to offer a cease-fire in which Egypt and Israel have joined together, and the international community strongly supports the idea of a cease-fire… the compelling need to have a ceasefire,” said Kerry. “But Israel has a right to defend itself, and it is important for Hamas not to be provoking and purposefully trying to play politics in order to gain greater followers for its opposition, and use the innocent lives of civilians who they hide in buildings and use as shields and put in danger. That is against the laws of war and that’s why they are a terrorist organization.”

During the last conflict between Israel and Gaza, which lasted for eight days in November 2012, the U.S. brought pressure on then Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who brokered a cease-fire along the lines of terms outlined by America.

But with Egypt’s current crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood—Hamas’s parent group—and last year’s overthrow of Morsi by the Egyptian military, Egypt-Hamas relations are now nearly non-existent.

“Actually, this [Israel-Hamas conflict] is occurring at a very bad time from the point of view of the geopolitics of the region, in terms of our being able to leverage other parties in order to help facilitate a cease-fire,” said Eisenstadt, adding that he thinks the Egyptian government “is just happy to see Hamas administered a bloody nose.”

The State Department source confirmed that Qatar has been active in trying to jumpstart talks for a cease-fire.

“[Kerry] has pressed upon the Qataris to use whatever influence and leverage they can with Hamas to stop the rocket fire as a means to get the process toward de-escalation going,” the source said.

A small, oil-rich Arab state, Qatar has long had an unusual relationship with America. It has hosted the U.S. Air Force’s Al Udeid Air Base, which played a critical role in U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But at the same time, Qatar has become one of the few sponsors of Hamas since the fall of Morsi and the beginning of the Syrian civil war, which is preoccupying another former Hamas ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Following the Hamas-Fatah split in 2007, Qatar has been one of its principal financial and political backers, which included a 2012 visit to Gaza by Qatar’s ruling emir Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, his wife, and the Qatari prime minister. During the visit, the delegation pledged $400 million to support Gaza’s Hamas-led bureaucracy and infrastructure.

“The idea that [Qatar] would be an honest broker in the deal, after helping Hamas grow to the place where it is today, it defies logic to bring them in in this way,” Schanzer said. “There’s a small chance that it could be done, but they’re not going to be easy to trust.”

According to Schanzer, America’s reliance on Turkey or Qatar as peacemakers would legitimize Hamas and the terror group’s alliances.

“I think if they’re sponsoring Hamas, and they’re supporting Hamas and in many ways and egging Hamas on in this conflict,” he said. “Why give them the opportunity to look like the good guy for bringing an end to the conflict when in fact they were part of the creation of the conflict?”

Another problem with any potential cease-fire in Gaza is that Hamas has splintered, as its various factions work independently with little or no centralized control.

“There’s the West Bank Hamas; there’s the Gaza Strip Hamas; there’s the Qassam Brigades, which is the so-called militant wing of Hamas; there’s the politburo, which is the external political wing of Hamas,” said Schanzer. “So each one of these has different interest. I think it’s going to be a problem that they will be dealing with and is going to make it a lot harder to broker calm or to be able to reach even a modest understanding with the organization.”

“Hamas was in a weakened state of affairs at the start of the confrontation and as a result was not able to control the other groups that were involved in missile launches at the start of this year,” Eisenstadt explained. “And there was a sign that I think that Hamas was losing either the will or the authority to impose their will on these other groups. Unless they are strengthened vis-à-vis other groups, I don’t think a ceasefire would be effective at this time because you’re in a situation where Hamas is not able to control these groups at the outset.”

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