The Obama administration notched two diplomatic successes in one stroke with the cease-fire announced Wednesday between Hamas and Israel.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s shuttle diplomacy yielded a short-term victory that experts say may translate to greater diplomatic leverage for the administration down the road.
But the more important success for the administration is that Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, not Clinton, is getting most of the credit.
Now the question is whether the United States can capitalize on the cease-fire and the role played by Morsi to help craft a broader peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
An administration official said ending the week-long fighting between Israel and militants based in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip was the most pressing concern. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic matters, said the next step will be turning that success into “a longer-term solution” for the region.
Dennis Ross, a former Mideast adviser to the administration, said it is too soon to tell whether the cease-fire will become a springboard to broader talks about the creation of a Palestinian state.
Israel is unlikely to budge on critical issues such as scaling back West Bank settlements before elections scheduled for January. For its part, the moderate Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank, appears set on resuming its bid for statehood at the United Nations, a move opposed by Israel and the United States.
Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel, said Clinton’s success demonstrates that U.S. diplomatic influence in the region has been underutilized since the Arab Spring revolutions upended the status quo.
“The prevailing wisdom in Washington has been that the United States should not touch the Middle East peace process” because it consumes too much time and offers too little chance of success, Kurtzer said.
But, he said, relegating the core Mideast conflict to the back burner means that hostilities are likely to keep flaring up, as they did the past eight days. The resulting increase in violence demanded the attention of the president and Clinton, overshadowing President Obama’s trip to Asia and creating the need for some risky emergency diplomacy.
There are still many obstacles to a durable peace between the Palestinians and Israel. Although Obama has greater leverage in his second term in dealing with Israel, his relations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are clouded by U.S. opposition to the Palestinian bid for U.N. recognition.
In addition, the internal Palestinian split between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas complicates attempts to reach a comprehensive agreement. Such a deal is likely to require Morsi and his government to cooperate with the United States and other regional players.
For that reason, several analysts said the most hopeful long-term benefit from the cease-fire may be that the United States and Egypt can still work in tandem. This is particularly true because Turkey, which often serves as the U.S. interlocutor in Middle East affairs, is involved in a bitter dispute with Israel.
“The Egyptians did what probably only they could have done,” Kurtzer said. “We do not have relations with Hamas, and Turkey took itself out of the game. You’re left with nobody else on the playing field, and Egypt did this as well as anybody could have.”
Morsi’s willingness to buck the most anti-Israeli elements of his constituency by asking for a cease-fire and engaging with Israel demonstrates what current and former U.S. officials describe as his pragmatic style.
The Egyptian president’s direct intercession with Hamas was a relief to U.S. officials, who are prohibited from negotiating directly with the group because Washington considers it a terrorist organization.
Morsi’s role also eased concern about his government’s first move during the conflict: dispatching the Egyptian prime minister to Gaza to offer what initially appeared to be moral support to the militants. The trip prompted some congressional Republicans to threaten to hold up future economic aid to Egypt over the objections of the State Department.
Any chipping away of a 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty threatens billions in U.S. aid that Cairo badly needs.
“If there is a tension between ideological tensions and economic imperatives, [Morsi] comes down on the side of economic imperatives,” Ross said.
The administration also sees the potential for further isolating Iran. “I don’t want to sound too rosy, but it is interesting and bad for Iran if Hamas is turning to Egypt and not to Iran,” the administration official said. “It’s a big diminution in [Iran’s] influence.”
Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.