WASHINGTON D.C.: The United States stuck to arm’s length diplomacy on Wednesday even as the battle of Gaza saw Palestinian children cut down on the seashore and fresh volleys of Hamas rockets streak toward Israel.
Whether it is fatigue with Middle East peace making, a paucity of partners to pressure Hamas into concessions or the fact that its focus is elsewhere, the Obama administration has yet throw itself wholeheartedly into an effort to end the violence.
Washington, a key player in the 2012 ceasefire deal that ended a previous similar showdown, has shown no sign of pressuring Israel to back off, even as the Palestinian death toll has topped 220. One Israeli has died as a result of Hamas action.
America’s primary involvement in the drama has been behind the scenes, with Secretary of State John Kerry making multiple phone calls to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and regional players like Egypt, Qatar and Turkey.
President Barack Obama has also spoken to Netanyahu.
Officials declined to go into details of those conversations, but it seemed likely that they centered on the framework of a possible deal that could be presented to Hamas and Israel when political and military conditions line up.
In public, Washington has been careful to express deep concern for civilians on both sides of the Gaza/Israel border: Obama said television pictures of the wounded were heartbreaking.
“We’re going to continue to encourage diplomatic efforts to restore the ceasefire, and we support Egypt’s continued efforts to bring this about,” Obama said.
On Monday, he had chosen the symbolic venue of a White House Iftar dinner breaking the fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan to describe the Hamas rocket barrage as “inexcusable.”
Obama has had a sometimes tenuous relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but his aides have made clear who he thinks is to blame for the latest Middle East maelstrom.
“We certainly would like to see Hamas accept the ceasefire. We certainly would like to see Hamas stop firing rockets aimed squarely at innocent civilians in Israel,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
“There is no doubt about that,” he added.
So why has Washington—often the key player in mediating Middle East conflicts—not stepped in?
It is an oft repeated cliche of US peacemaking in the Middle East that Washington cannot want solutions more than the parties themselves.
And so far neither Israel nor Hamas appear to have extracted sufficient advantage from the clash to build up significant political cover to make any concessions in a ceasefire deal.
Israel has not yet succeeded in degrading the Hamas arsenal sufficiently to stop rocket attacks. Hamas, at a moment of political weakness, may judge it is benefiting from the showdown—despite growing civilian carnage.
“The Israeli government as a whole . . . doesn’t expect to gain any significant political advantages from this—they just want the rockets to stop,” said David Pollock of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Hamas does want to gain some political advantages, or at least to say it gained some advantages by relaxing what it calls the siege, or some other concessions. That’s why they keep doing this,” he added.
Netanyahu bought more goodwill and time from the international community by accepting an Egyptian ceasefire proposal that Hamas refused.
Israel also agreed to a temporary humanitarian truce. This time, the Islamist movement joined in.
One factor distinguishing the current Gaza showdown from the 2012 conflagration is the diminished leverage of Egypt, which has in turn left Washington looking for partners.
Last time around, Egypt’s then Muslim Brotherhood government had links to Hamas, and joined then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton to negotiate a ceasefire.
Egypt’s current government, which emerged from the military’s ouster of president Mohamed Morsi, has cracked down on the Islamist group—and therefore has less leverage.
The killing of four Palestinian children by suspected Israeli shelling notwithstanding, the civilian carnage seems yet to have reached a critical mass that might incite political pressure on Washington to weigh in.
Several veteran Washington Middle East watchers privately wondered this week if the brutality tearing Iraq and Syria apart had left the suffering in Gaza seem less severe by comparison.
And the Obama administration may also be slow to move because it has not yet come under overt decisive pressure from European and Arab allies to intervene—reflecting Hamas’s growing isolation.
Israel has also heeded US advice, so far, not to launch a ground invasion of Gaza.
But there were signs the diplomacy was cranking up.
Deputy Hamas leader Mussa Abu Marzuq met Egyptian officials in Cairo. Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas also flew to the Egyptian capital.
Aides hinted that Kerry could travel soon, if it would help.