Two smart takes on the Gaza War were published recently that really help make sense of exactly what happened. The first, by Aaron David Miller, one of the sharpest observers of the Middle East, argues that while Israel fared best of the belligerents, it was Egypt that fared best of all—notably better than either the Palestinian Authority or the United States:
Egypt’s new government under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi actually comes out of this round faring better than anyone else — in part, because it was only semi-invested. The Egyptians had no illusions about this conflict. They wanted to cut Hamas down to size, keep the Qataris and the Turks out of the equation, and marginalize U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, too, for that matter. Indeed, it was Egypt that produced what appears to be the successful cease-fire. And Cairo is now the venue for the follow-on negotiations at a longer-term agreement. Egypt once again demonstrated its centrality in Arab-Israeli politics by maintaining good ties with Netanyahu and the PA. Even Hamas understands that it needs Cairo’s assistance to maintain control of Gaza.
More good detail on Egypt’s role comes from a Wall Street Journal piece, which tracks just how the Israelie-Egyptian rapprochement unfolded under Egyptian president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi:
Israeli intelligence analysts interpreted Mr. Sisi’s comments about keeping the peace with Israel and ridding Egypt of Islamists as a “personal realization that we—Israel—were on his side,” the Israeli official said.
The revelation that Hamas was equally abhorrent to Mr. Sisi as it was to the Israeli government spurred efforts to reward him. Israel used its clout in Washington to lobby the Obama administration and Congress on his behalf, in particular arguing against a U.S. decision to cut off military aid to Egypt, Israeli officials said.
Mr. Sisi followed Israel’s lobbying effort closely and was appreciative, the Israeli official said.
“It came at a very formative time for him” and helped cement a trusting relationship between friends who realized they were vital to each others’ national security, he said.
The kicker in the piece comes later:
U.S. officials, who tried to intervene in the initial days after the conflict broke out on July 8 to try to find a negotiated solution, soon realized that Mr. Netanyahu’s office wanted to run the show with Egypt and to keep the Americans at a distance, according to U.S., European and Israeli officials.
The Americans, in turn, felt betrayed by what they saw as a series of “mean spirited” leaks, which they interpreted as a message from Mr. Netanyahu that U.S. involvement was neither welcomed nor needed.
Reflecting Egypt’s importance, Mr. Gilad and other officials took Mr. Sisi’s “temperature” every day during the war to make sure he was comfortable with the military operation as it intensified. Israeli officials knew television pictures of dead Palestinians would at some point bring Cairo to urge Israel to stop.
“We knew we could not do something that went beyond what they could digest,” a senior Israeli official said of the Egyptians. Egypt’s view mattered more than America’s, Israeli officials said.
It is clear from the above account that the White House has been consistently behind the eight ball on shifting patterns in the Middle East, and that U.S. diplomacy was seriously hampered by its failure to grasp the consequences of the burgeoning Egyptian-Israeli relationship.
A further irony emerges from all of this upon some consideration: this White House has been looking to the ‘offshore balancer’ model in which the U.S. would step back from the Middle East and let regional actors play a greater role. The Egypt-Israel-Saudi entente is at its core a reaction to the perception that the U.S. is stepping back and that these three powers need to work together against Iran and radical Sunnis who won’t toe their line.
Yet official Washington still seems surprised that when the U.S. steps back, others come forward with ideas for the region that don’t match Washington’s preferences, and that they will sometimes act in concert to frustrate Washington’s goals.