The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Reaping What You Sow White House Blindsided By Israeli-Egyptian Relationship

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.

Published on August 7, 2014 8:39 am
  • Pete

    “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.

  • Pete

    “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. ”

    Marginalize that pompous American gigolo! I’ll drink to that no matter who does it.

    • Curious Mayhem

      Hey, don’t diss the Senator from Ketchup.

  • Fat_Man

    The White House is also surprised by the big ball of light in the eastern sky every morning.

    • Curious Mayhem

      It’s a self-sustaining, self-gravitating, isostatic thermonuclear furnace, otherwise known as a “star.” They took classes on that in college, right?

      • Fat_Man

        Don’t underestimate how little you need learn in order to graduate from a college these days.

        • Andrew Allison

          Especially, it would appear, in the field of Constitutional Law!

    • Breif2

      “White House Blindsided By Israeli-Egyptian Relationship”

      A sloth is walking through the forest one day. A gang of snails approach him and beat him up for 7 hours. He is left at the bottom of a tree with several cuts and bruises. Several hours later, he gathers up enough strength to go to the local police station. “What happened to you? the officer asks. “A gang of snails beat me up,” he replies. “Can you describe what they looked like?” “I don’t know,” the sloth says. “It all happened so fast.”

  • Arkeygeezer

    “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.”

    Thats because local solutions are always better than solutions imposed from outside the area of interest. If Washington’s goals are to establish a one-world order, they are in for a lot of frustration.

  • jbirdme

    Why does President Obama seem to support Hamas’ demands?

    • Andrew Allison

      See above!

  • http://www.syalconsult.com Verinder Syal

    Insightful.

    Israel must deal with the US because it gets munitions and some aid from them. So the charade of working with, and liking, the big brother must continue. Beyond that, this White House has done everything possible to weaken Israeli positions. Why would Israel, in its right mind – and if it had a choice – deal with this White House? Obama’s antipathy towards Israel is even greater than Jimmy Carter’s. Obama appears to lean positively towards everybody except friends of the US.

    The premise that he is smart and playing the long game needs to be seriously reexamined. It is more likely that he a mediocre thinker, a terrible manager, and his goal is not the well being of the United States but only the well being of Obama, whatever that mean, whatever the price. Perhaps his inner self resonates much more strongly with being “son of a man from Africa” than being the President of this great country.

  • Andrew Allison

    History’s take on the Obama Administration: “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight”!

  • Curious Mayhem

    I would suggest that US diplomacy is seriously hampered by having a clueless clown as Secretary of State, sponsored by a clueless, out-of-the-loop president.

    As per another posting on here, about Muslim states worried about jihadi armies, makes clear that that is their biggest single concern these days, with Iran not far behind. Remarkably, these interests align with Israel’s. If this administration weren’t out to lunch, they would be scrambling to lead the trend and not be dragged along by it, with Obama’s completely failed 2009 Cairo speech paradigm as the deadweight. There would be better relations with Israel, Egypt, the Kurds, and the few Arab governments that can be called friendly (Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia).

    Instead, Obama is still fixated on (a) making a deal with Iran, and (b) getting the Islamic radicals to push their agenda through elections, not with jihadi armies. But we’ve seen in Turkey (under the AKP), Gaza (under Hamas), and Egypt (under the MB) what the Islamic agenda means: at best, one man, one vote, once.

    Fortunately for Egypt, the military still had the upper hand. Too bad about Turkey, once the modernizing beacon in the Muslim Middle East.

  • rheddles

    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.

    That’s why they call it smart diplomacy.

  • FriendlyGoat

    What on earth is wrong with a nation heavy with Muslims being somewhat on the side of Israel and against Hamas and against any of Hamas’s kindred spirits? It’s true that al-Sisi had to “go all authoritarian” on Egypt to rescue it from the Brotherhood rat-hole, but having some groups of Muslims policing other groups is all we can hope for. The USA can’t do everything.

  • Andrew Allison

    The important question, it appears to me, is whether Kerry is a complete and utter idiot or is following orders.

    • Government Drone

      Those are not necessarily mutually exclusive choices.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    The Obama administration is incompetent, the evidence of other nations running rings around them is readily apparent.