Brokering a Ceasefire in Gaza: A Tale of Two Presidents

Consider for a moment the responses of two presidents to recent conflict in Gaza. One brokered the ceasefire of October 24 that both Hamas and Israel violated, and after the execution of Ahmed Jabari worked assiduously to mobilize regional leaders toward a renewed ceasefire and engaged in high-level talks with officials on both sides of the conflict. He has gone against the grain of popular sentiment at home and leaders of his own political party in crafting a position pointing to concessions that both sides must make: Hamas must ground its rockets, cooperate with the Palestinian Authority, and crack down on radicals; Israel must allow an economic rehabilitation of Gaza. The other president threw his support behind one of the belligerents, declaring through top cabinet members that its actions are justified, though—perhaps, if it is not too much trouble—that belligerent’s justified violence could be toned down just a pinch. Which of the two presidents deserves to be called a peace-broker? Which seems blindly to be supporting one side against the other?

The first president is Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi, who spent much of his time during the hostilities in dialogue with leaders from Jordan, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, asking all of them to use their influence in Gaza, Jerusalem, and Washington to push toward a truce. He hosted in Cairo separate talks with Hamas and Israeli officials, while Barack Obama heaped more attention on Myanmar than it has received from the West since Queen Victoria’s Burmese campaigns.

Of course, Morsi huffily (and briefly) recalled his diplomats from Israel after the Jabari killing, though before we cast this as Islamist demagoguery we should recall that it was a standard practice of ousted president Hosni Mubarak. The new president’s dilemma, as Zvi Mazel keenly notes in the Jerusalem Post, is to signal that his government will take a firmer stance against Israel’s victimization of Palestinians while at the same time not antagonizing Israel and the United States in a way that might isolate Egypt. Such isolation would scare off tourists and foreign investors and thus derail the real focus of Morsi’s presidency thus far: bolstering an economy crippled by the revolution and, more significantly, by three decades of reckless kleptocracy.

The shift in Cairo’s foreign policy under the new president has been an attempt to restore the nation’s prestige as a regional leader, a role that it has not played since the presidency of Gamal Abd al’ Nasser. But unlike Nasser, Morsi recognizes that such leadership will not be achieved through military assault on Israel. He seems to favor stability, though stability with a center of gravity that has shifted toward the interests of Arab states.

But Morsi’s power in the international arena is decidedly soft. His own military is an American gift and a willful entity over which he does not have complete control. It is not likely to turn its guns against Israel even if he were inclined to give the order. The only country that can immediately impact events in Gaza is the United States, though President Obama no longer seems to have any interest in attempting to do so. Hillary Clinton landed in Israel on November 20, an appearance carefully stage-managed to coincide with Israel’s cessation of its offensive and to give the appearance of a U.S. role in peacemaking. Her presence at the November 21 press conference in Cairo announcing a ceasefire is more than a bit of a sham. This is not shuttle diplomacy. It is photo-op diplomacy.

The latest episode of violence in Israel and Gaza thus adds even more evidence to the strong arguments of Rashid Khalidi’s new book, Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. has Undermined Peace in the Middle East. Looking at three key moments in the conflict between Israel and Palestine—the wake of the Lebanon War of 1982, the negotiations in Madrid in 1991-93, and the Obama administration’s actions since 2010—Khalidi argues that the United States cannot properly be called an “honest broker” in a “peace process.” If peace were an objective of American foreign policy, it would have been achieved by now. The United States has instead acted to prop up Israel’s interests, at times demanding larger concessions from the Palestinians than Jerusalem has. Though President Obama entered office mumbling about 1967 borders, he has since retreated from anything resembling a demand on Israel and has been quite content to arm a right-wing government favoring belligerent pseudo-security to lasting peace.

What we are seeing now is a new wrinkle in the pattern Khalidi identifies: another nation is emerging that seems to be making good-faith efforts to act as a broker between Israel and Palestine. And to add further inconvenience, that nation is doing so under the leadership of precisely the Islamist faction that was the great bogey justifying support for Mubarak’s tyranny. The response to the new wrinkle among this country’s hawkish commentariat has been utterly predictable: under-reporting Morsi’s efforts while in the same breath playing up the historical connections between the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, fomenting completely unfounded fears about the Egyptian government’s bellicose stance against Israel. In this light, aggressive support of Israel makes sense not only as self-defense against Hamas but also against the Islamist governments of the new Middle East.

That hawkish view is pure fiction: Israel’s Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom has described Morsi as “harsher on Hamas than the previous regime.” The president has sought to assert his government’s sovereignty in Sinai, which has included closing tunnels to Gaza and cracking down on the radical Islamists toward which Hamas habitually turns a blind eye. He has also rebuffed a proposal for a free-trade zone across the Rafah border crossing. These are not the actions of a president eager to be the henchman of Hamas.

Don’t get me wrong: the point here is not to cast Morsi as a hero. He is a deeply flawed member of a deeply flawed movement that has given rise to a deeply flawed political party. His constitutional declaration of November 22, to which I will turn my attention in an upcoming post, shows no small authoritarian streak. But we are obliged to notice that this round of violence has made two narratives untenable: that the Egyptian Revolution has yielded a government wildly hostile to Israel in a way that will destabilize the region; and that as a result the Obama administration is right to turn its back on Palestine and to support whatever measures Israel takes against threats old and new. The Arab Spring might in fact have yielded partners in peace that could further isolate the war parties in Gaza and Jerusalem. And Obama can and should see this as an opportunity to pursue a bona fide peace process. Even Britain’s Tory Foreign Secretary, William Hague, recognizes that.

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