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Jonathan Eyal
Thursday, Jul 31, 2014

World, Asian Opinions

Uncle Sam's influence in M-E wanes

The Straits Times | Jonathan Eyal | Thursday, Jul 31, 2014

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

The United States is talking, but is anyone listening? That's the question facing American diplomats in the Middle East, as they scramble to stop the bloodshed in Gaza.

The current flare-up has highlighted America's diminished influence over all the protagonists in the Middle East; the US is now consigned to playing the role of an impotent firefighter, still expected to douse the flames but with none of the necessary tools and little influence over the sources of the fire.

None of this is due to want of trying. Secretary of State John Kerry has devoted the past nine months to dozens of shuttle diplomacy trips to the region, in an effort to shape even a partial political settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

And when the latest fighting erupted between Israel and the Hamas militant group which controls Gaza, Mr Kerry yet again ignored both the doomsayers in Washington who warned him of the pitfalls and the potential physical dangers of being in a war zone by travelling to the region.

Yet the outcome was total failure: not only did the fighting continue, but Mr Kerry experienced the dubious honour of having his proposals publicly rejected by the Israeli government, a strong rebuke from the Jewish state to its most important backer.

This is not the first time Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu is embroiled in a spat with the US administration. However, the current rift is especially bitter.

Israeli officials accuse the US of favouring Hamas, making ceasefire proposals which leave the militant organisation in control of its arsenal of missiles.

And even Israeli commentators who oppose Mr Netanyahu's stance have joined in the Kerry- baiting: "It's as if he isn't the foreign minister of the world's most powerful nation, but an alien, who just disembarked his spaceship in the Middle East," read a scathing commentary in Haaretz, Israel's leading centre-left newspaper.

Mr Kerry would have been happy to ignore such barbed Israeli comments if his diplomacy had at least gained some traction with Hamas. But he didn't succeed in that objective either.

One reason for the failure is Mr Kerry's own peculiar style of diplomacy. He doesn't always read the briefs prepared by his officials and, once he makes up his mind, has a tendency to ram through his proposals with little preparation.

That's what accounts for the current bizarre dispute between Israel, which claims to have rejected a formal US ceasefire proposal, and Mr Kerry, who claims that he made no such proposal and that all his suggestions were mere "drafts".

Mr Kerry is also too gaffe- prone. He greeted the grieving mother of an Israeli soldier killed in the current fighting with the phrase: "How's your day?" And he also allowed himself to be recorded making off-the-cuff remarks which only sowed further confusion about America's negotiating positions.

But the deeper reasons for the current weakness of US diplomacy is that the Middle East has changed beyond recognition over the past few years, and Mr Kerry's instinctive approach of dealing with each crisis separately no longer works.

The US has no direct links with Hamas; it has always had to deal through intermediaries. In all previous Gaza flare-ups, these intermediaries were either Egypt, Iran or Syria.

But Iran no longer trusts Hamas, a group it once vigorously sponsored, Syria is in the throes of its own vicious civil war, and Egypt despises Hamas, which is sees as indistinguishable from the Muslim Brotherhood which the Egyptian military recently overthrew from power.

Mr Kerry, therefore, has had to rely on the mediation of Turkey and Qatar, the only two countries now supporting Hamas in the region.

Yet that, in turn, not only infuriated Israel but also raised the hackles of all pro-Western Arab governments which view Turkey and Qatar's regional aspirations with deep suspicion and resent the idea that they should exercise any influence.

More significantly, both Hamas and Israel are locked into the current war not because they are strong, but because they are weak. Bereft of friends and financially bankrupt, Hamas reckons it has little to lose by continuing the fighting.

And Israel, surprised by the range of the missiles being fired at it and the scale of the networks of Hamas tunnels and fortifications, cannot be seen to be humbled in this confrontation. A poll by Israel's Channel 10 television showed 87 per cent of Israelis backed the military offensive.

Ultimately, all the protagonists in the Middle East know that, as cruel as it may seem, Gaza remains a sideshow to the wider question of what will happen with Syria, Iraq and Iran's nuclear quest. A US Secretary of State who has no workable answer to any of these questions cannot, therefore, expect much support on Gaza.

So, even if a ceasefire is reached later this week, it would only mean a temporary lull. The killing will continue in other parts of the region, and doubts about America's commitment to the Middle East will deepen.

Jonathan.eyal@gmail.com


This article was first published on July 29, 2014.
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