Middle East: Barack Prefers Mohamed over Benjamin

Edited by Gillian Palmer

International diplomacy is close to preventing the already tragic tensions between Israelis and Palestinians from evolving into a conflict and spreading through the Middle East. There is little Europe in this result; there is more America and plenty of Egypt, and there is also the fact that Israel and Hamas are more likely to test themselves and their new counterparts than to start a real war. Israel is ready to attack, but recognizes that a diplomatic solution would be better, while Hamas is considering a ceasefire. Egypt was the center of yesterday’s diplomacy, but today, Israel and the Territories see the arrival of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The Middle East’s outburst is a delicate test on many fronts: It is the first major Israeli-Palestinian crisis after the Arab Spring, a test for Egypt after Mubarak and the first international political challenge for “Obama 2.” The recently re-elected president did not modify his alliance with Israel, which “has the right to defend itself” against Hamas’ attacks, and insists on asking [Palestinians] to cease launching rockets from Gaza. But the confirmation of the alliance, which was reinforced by the American stopping of the U.N. Security Council’s initiatives, goes at the same pace with an invitation to moderation.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, one of the Muslim Brotherhood, holds a similar symmetrical line: In words, he does not fail to prove solidarity with Palestinian brethren, but then he “only” sends prime minister Hesham Qandil to Gaza, which emphasizes the need to stop attacks against Tel Aviv and nothing more, and has been transforming Cairo into a research laboratory for the ceasefire.

There is a widespread awareness that the fragmented and brittle Arab framework, with Syria in the middle of a civil war, Libya still looking for a post-Gadhafi structure and a confrontation between Shiites and Sunnis probably more bitter than ever, increases the potential instability in the region. It can also foster attempts at coups within Hamas or Hezbollah at Israel’s borders, while the uncertainty should rather suggest caution.

Obama’s voice comes from Asia, where he is on a mission. Surprisingly, “Obama 2” begins in the name of foreign policy. On one hand, this reflects the choice of U.S. president to participate in the APEC Summit, an annual event for the countries overlooking the Pacific. But on the other hand, it is a suffered choice because Obama would surely have done without the Middle East tensions.

The president’s Monday had an exhausting day in three different time zones. In Washington D.C. there were the financial negotiations between the Democratic administration and the Republican opposition. In Gaza, he had evening calls to President Morsi and Prime Minister Netanyahu. And finally, less than 24 hours [later] in Rangoon and Phnom Penh, he became the first U.S. president to set foot on Myanmar and Cambodia.

And [what about] Europe? The Council of E.U. Foreign Ministers, who met in Brussels yesterday, appealed for an immediate ceasefire, which would be “in the interest of all.” Furthermore, Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi sees “the premises for a ceasefire in the coming hours.” But he added that Israel can “self-limit its use of force only in case of an absolute certainty that the rocket attacks will not recur again.” Tony Blair, Special Envoy of the Quartet on the Middle East (U.S., Russia, E.U. and U.N.), and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle showed up in Israel, but Blair is considered, diplomatically speaking, a ghost, and Germany has very little impact here.

Some people believe that Netanyahu, who doesn’t get along very well with Obama, preferred his rival Mitt Romney and that he has been intensifying the military retaliation in this case just to test the U.S.’ resolve to stay on Israel’s side. Whatever the reasons for the action are, the response outlines a kind of Obama-Morsi axis: The balance [is not equidistant], but above all, it lacks drama. Hamas’ rockets and Israeli raids cause not only death and devastation, but also the flicker of hope for understanding, and maybe for a friendship between Barack and Mohamed.

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