WASHINGTON – If it holds, the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas could be the start of a greater peacemaking role for the United States in the Middle East, offering President Obama a rare opportunity to make good on his Nobel Peace Prize.
Obama’s rock-solid support for Israel during the past eight days of violence and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s shuttle diplomacy in the region helped pave the way for the cease-fire agreement announced Wednesday, experts agreed.
What remains to be seen is whether the agreement is honored, whether the new Egyptian government can police the border with Gaza to prevent the flow of weapons – and whether a brief peace can lead to a lengthier negotiation over issues that have long divided Israelis and Palestinians.
For now, even some of the administration’s occasional detractors are giving Obama and Clinton credit for their role in the fledgling peace process.
“The administration decided to exert some leadership here, and Secretary Clinton in particular stepped forward and exerted some leadership,” said Stephen Hadley, former national security adviser to President George W. Bush. “That’s very good news, because what the Middle East has been crying for is greater U.S. leadership.”
Two factors were critical along the way to a cease-fire: the administration’s firm support for Israel’s right to defend itself, and its offer to assist the new Egyptian government. The latter was the only one capable of speaking to all parties in the conflict, since the U.S. considers Gaza’s Hamas government a terrorist group.
Elliott Abrams, a former White House and State Department official in Republican administrations, said Obama’s “immediate and strong” support for Israel gave Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the cover he needed to cut a deal.
And Bruce Jentleson, a Duke University public policy professor and former State Department adviser, said the Egyptian government of Mohammed Morsi could not have brokered peace without U.S. help. Obama spoke by phone with Morsi six times in eight days – four of them since Monday – while in Southeast Asia, on Air Force One and at the White House.
“What we’re seeing here is 21st-century peacemaking, where the U.S. still has a very central role to play, but the old Camp David model is no longer sufficient,” Jentleson said in reference to past peace deals worked out at the presidential retreat in Maryland. “There have to be key players in the region who bring their own identity and credibility to the table.”
The cease-fire represents a Thanksgiving present for Obama: one less political headache as he pursues other objectives, ranging from the fiscal cliff negotiations with Congress to fleshing out his second-term administration.
He emerges with improved relations with Israel, a somewhat frayed partnership for which he took heat from Republican challenger Mitt Romney and other Republicans. In a phone conversation with Netanyahu on Wednesday, Obama offered additional funding for U.S.-Israel missile defense systems.
Obama told Netanyahu that “the United States would use the opportunity offered by a cease-fire to intensify efforts to help Israel address its security needs, especially the issue of the smuggling of weapons and explosives into Gaza,” the White House announced.
Obama also emerges with better relations with the Morsi government, amid concerns that its Muslim Brotherhood origins and ties to Hamas would make relations with Washington difficult.
“President Obama reaffirmed the close partnership between the United States and Egypt, and welcomed President Morsi’s commitment to regional security,” the White House said following a phone call between the two leaders.
The cease-fire also removes one more distraction as the administration tries to squeeze Iran – supplier of arms to both Hamas and Syria’s government – on its nuclear program.
“This is a reminder that despite the much vaunted pivot to Asia, we have real issues involved in the Middle East and an important role to play there,” Hadley said. The question now, he said, is “will they be able to make progress for a more durable solution?”
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