The Israeli-Hamas Conflict: A Chance for the United States to Rebuild Alliances in the Region?

The United States appears to be a bystander in the Israeli-Hamas conflict currently.  The peace process between Israel and Palestine initiated by Secretary of State John Kerry broke down as well as cease-fire proposal after cease-fire proposal in the present conflict between Israel and Hamas.  While both sides have currently agreed to a 72 hour cease-fire to hash out negotiations in Egypt, reasons for the cease-fire seem to point to a conclusion in Israeli objectives as they pertain to the hostility.  The United States, for its part, has not been able to inflict its influence (whatever influence it has left in the Israel/Palestine region) to coerce a broader agreement.

However, the United States may be able to seize on the atypical shift in Arab policy toward Israel to strengthen fractured alliances – particularly with Egypt and Saudi Arabia.  As many scholars and commentators have pointed out, Arab nations such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates have supported Israel – not Hamas – in the struggle.  Given the rise of political Islam in recent history, many Arab nations are fearful of Hamas’s motives and ideology – Hamas is a Foreign Terrorist Organization designated by the US State Department.  Egypt has taken an especially hard line with Hamas with the “coup” of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi recently behind it.  In addition, Egypt shares a border with Hamas and has shut down access routes Hamas and other Gazans use to either move freely between the two territories or in Hamas’s case, wage attacks against Israel.

The New York Times noted that the Arab support for Israel (namely Egypt) may pose a further challenge to the ongoing conflict and a potential peace negotiation because, “[a]lthough Egyptian intelligence agencies continue to talk with Hamas, as they did under former President Hosni Mubarak and Mr. Morsi, Cairo’s new animosity toward the group has called into question the effectiveness of that channel, especially after the response to Egypt’s first proposal.”  As the Times also stated, the issue concerning Egypt’s credibility as a mediator forced Secretary Kerry to consult “more Islamist-friendly states of Qatar and Turkey as alternative mediators,” both of which have tolerated groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, much to the aversion of their neighbors.  The United States should use the peace talks to bolster its influence, resolve, and alliances in the region while assisting in the mediation process.

United States-Egypt relations have suffered since the apparent coup that deposed President Morsi.  The United States cut off some aid it supplies to the Egyptian military under what is known as the “coup provision,” which, “prevents many (though not all) forms of ‘direct’ foreign assistance after a democratically elected government is deposed by a coup in which the military has played a decisive role.”  Following the “coup,” Egypt has sought to supplement the US aid from other nations such as Russia, signaling a potential for waning US influence and an opportunity for Russia to gain an edge on the US.  Further complicating matters, Egypt has initiated several policies antithetical to democracy such as the imprisonment of journalists and state monitoring of social media, which the United States has been critical of.  The United States and their envoys can help rebuild the US-Egypt relationship through proactive contributions to a concrete Israeli-Hamas peace process.  Furthermore, the United States has been collaborating with other North African nations concerning the recent unrest in Libya, Egypt included.  Egypt has even mulled military action to quell the waning security situation in their neighbor.  The United States can also strengthen ties by showing Egypt (and other regional leaders) that it is committed to their issues and will listen to their interests.

Since the eruption of violence started in Gaza, Israel has strengthened ties with an unlikely partner in Egypt.  According to the Wall Street Journal, “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.”

The United States has also been subject to souring relations with Saudi Arabia.  For one, Sunni Saudi Arabia has been in a constant struggle for regional dominance with Shia Iran, which is evident in the Saudis intervention in Bahrain’s political upheaval in an effort to bring Bahrain closer to them and further away from Iranian influence.  In addition, Saudi Arabia is fearful that the United States will “‘sell them out’ for the lure of an historic rapprochement” with Iran concerning a permanent nuclear deal – which is also a major concern of Israel.  The United States has recently spat with Bahrain as well when an assistant secretary of state was told to leave the country after meeting with apparent opposition political party members.  The United States support of the election of President Morsi in Egypt has also contributed to chilly relations, as pointed out by The Economist, because the Saudis view the Muslim Brotherhood as “a threat from within Sunni Islam,” though the United States was simply supporting the democratic process and not any one individual candidate or political party in Egypt at the time.  Moreover, Saudi Arabia has been displeased with inaction by the United States in the ongoing civil war in Syria.  Saudi Arabia has been one of the top financers and suppliers of lethal aid to rebel groups.

Many inside the United States and around the world are concerned with the receding influence of the US and its apparent inaction in major world conflicts.  However, the United States has been a tenacious supporter of peace and diplomacy rather than jumping quickly to military might as a gut reflex to problem solving.  The current cease-fire between Israel and Hamas provides an excellent opportunity for the United States to assist in mediation and shore up alliances while allowing regional leaders to take the lead in resolving conflicts on their backdoor, especially given the interest of Arab nations.  The fractured alliance between the United States and Egypt and now the United States and Israel can be repaired.  While Saudi Arabia will not be directly involved, the United States can send a message through their actions of commitment to peace in the region.  The United States must be careful, however, not to favor one side too much and thus, push away or fracture relations with Palestine either.  Despite the failed efforts of Secretary Kerry in brokering a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine, this time could be different given the inclusion of other regional nations to provide reassurance – diplomacy always works best in numbers.  Hopefully, at the very least, a peace agreement can be brokered to desist the recent violence in Gaza.