The US success in helping to broker a Gaza ceasefire shows it cannot turn its back on the Middle East and should perhaps seize the moment to try to rekindle peace talks, experts said.
With Egypt’s new Islamist President Mohamed Morsi emerging strengthened from his first big test, having shown he can act as a broker between Israel and the Palestinians, the time could be right for a new American push, they said.
After a day of shuttle diplomacy, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, standing side-by-side with Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr, announced the deal, acknowledging “this is a critical moment for the region.”
The deal set out a ceasefire between Hamas militants and Israel after a week of cross-border violence between Israel and Palestinian militants that killed at least 160 people in the Gaza Strip.
Under its terms, and providing the ceasefire holds, the two sides will also start to discuss opening up Gaza’s borders to people and goods within the next 24 hours — a move which could bring some relief to the impoverished, and heavily-populated Palestinian territory after a six-year blockade.
But Clinton herself said there now had to be a “focus on reaching a durable outcome that promotes regional stability and advances the security, dignity, and legitimate aspirations of Palestinians and Israelis alike.”
She was dispatched to the region by President Barack Obama off the back of an important trip to Asia — a region which the US administration said will be the new pivot of its foreign policy in the coming years.
“I’ve always smiled when people talk about the pivot to Asia. The Middle East will not let the United States go so easily. There is always going to be something to draw the US back in,” former US ambassador to Israel and Egypt, Daniel Kurtzer, told AFP.
“You may wish you could pivot to Asia, but that doesn’t mean you can,” agreed Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
There has been frustration that Obama’s 2009 promise in a landmark speech in Cairo of a new start in relations between the United States and the Muslim world has not fully come to fruition, with his much-touted bid to revive the Middle East peace process floundering within months.
The question now will be whether Obama will treat the week-long Gaza crisis as “just another bushfire” to be put out, or whether he will seize the moment to make a more lasting impact during his second four-year term, said Kurtzer, who argues in his new book “Pathways to Peace” that the status quo is unsustainable.
“They say that you should wait for opportunity to come knocking and this one is knocking pretty hard… and not just because we got to the edge of the abyss and looked over,” he said, but also because of some of the players who are standing on the sidelines.
The Palestinian Authority, led by president Mahmud Abbas, was left largely marginalized in its West Bank headquarters, until Clinton briefly visited him early Wednesday. And Kurtzer said that if he were Abbas it might be “time to pick up the phone to Obama and say ‘I’m ready’ for new talks.
Not that it will be easy. The final status talks, which would work towards the goal of two states living side-by-side, include such thorny issues as the fate of Jerusalem, claimed by both sides as their capital, the contours of their borders and the right of return for Palestinian refugees.
“We needed to solve this immediate problem. Obviously those longer terms problems need to be tackled,” a senior administration official acknowledged.
Meanwhile, Egypt, which has a vital peace treaty with Israel, is basking in praise and has burnished its credentials for any future talks.
“If Egypt emerges strengthened because the ceasefire holds… that could reverse the existing conditions and at that point (Obama) could decide to invest himself” in a new Middle East peace bid, Justin Vaisse, a director of research at the Brookings Institution told AFP.
Obama’s personal involvement, and in particular his steadfast support for Israel’s right to self-defense against militant rocket attacks from Gaza, will also have gone a long way towards restoring frosty ties with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu, running for re-election in January polls, said he agreed to Obama’s “recommendation to give a chance to an Egyptian proposal for a ceasefire.”
“Giving Israel that support was a very smart thing for the president to do and I think it contributed to some flexibility on Netanyahu’s part,” said Abrams.
But as celebrations erupted in the Gaza Strip, and Hamas claimed victory in the brief, bloody conflict, the experts cautioned that it was early days yet.
Tough negotiations lie ahead, with many pitfalls, such as whether Hamas can rein in other Palestinian militant factions operating in Gaza, and whether Israel will really meet Palestinian demands to ease the blockade.