20 November 2012
Claire Spencer

Dr Claire Spencer

Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme & Second Century Initiative


As the exchange of missile and rocket attacks was escalating between Gaza and Israel, an urban myth began doing the rounds of the Arab world. The essence of it was that when the newly re-elected President Barack Obama phoned Egypt's recently-elected President Mohammed Morsy to say that he wanted Egypt, and President Morsy himself, to broker a ceasefire between the Israelis and Hamas, President Morsy was said to have replied: 'Yes, Mr President, and what role are you going to play?'.

As has been subsequently seen, the answer spoke for itself: President Obama was scheduled to go to South East Asia this week. Having spoken out publicly to support Israel’s right to self-defence and urge restraint on both sides to avoid civilian casualties, the US presidency handed matters over to the US State Department, working largely from behind the scenes. Since then, it has been the Middle East’s leaderships and representatives along with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon who have assembled in Cairo or made the necessary running and declarations to halt the escalation of hostilities and loss of lives. 

Only after reports of a ceasefire emerging did President Obama dispatch US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Cairo to cajole and urge negotiators into concluding the final, if most intractable, details.

If a ceasefire deal succeeds, and then holds in the face of the difficulties of its implementation, this may well be a first in the Middle East, or at least a first in a trend that has been the clearest signal yet of President Obama's intentions towards the region during his second term in the Oval Office. As the journalist Tom Friedman pointed out in the New York Times, Obama would not be the first US president to set out wanting to avoid the diplomatic and political quagmires of the Middle East, only to find himself ineluctably dragged into brokering and managing the details: '[v]irtually every American president since Dwight Eisenhower has had a Middle Eastern country that brought him grief'.

In respect of Israel, however, Friedman sounded a different kind of warning in an earlier commentary. Obama, he suggested, had learnt that unless the region's leaders actively sought their own ways out of the multiple and inter-related crises now spreading across the Middle East, the US would not do it for them. Obama, and Americans as a whole, have domestic priorities to address. With the US's stronger Asian focus, the time when Israel could wait for the US to make the first moves to kick-start regional peace processes is over.

If so, this may be music to the ears of those on the Israeli right who have never sought peace with the Palestinians nor countenanced the sacrifice of land for the two-state solution. It may also suit the purposes of the region's many sub-state actors, emboldened by what appears to be a lack of US sanctions on their actions in pursuing their own goals, whether in opposition to the US’s traditional allies in the region (Israel, Turkey and the Gulf monarchies) or in coalition with them, as in the Syrian opposition groups armed directly or indirectly by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

It has long suited many in the Middle East to blame the US (and by association Israel) for its ills, whilst also expecting Americans to be present somewhere in the region to fix the ensuing fall-out from the escalation of tensions, or as in Syria, engineer the swift departure of President Assad's regime. Even the opponents of the US, such as Iran, have expected some kind of US response to their public declarations and regional manoeuvring.

Quick Exit?

With the recent publication of the International Energy Agency's annual 'Outlook' report on energy futures, which predicted that the US would be producing and exporting more oil than Saudi Arabia by 2020, temporary alarm bells went off around the region. If the already diminishing dependence of Americans on Gulf oil was to dissipate so swiftly, perhaps President Obama really could orchestrate the US's exit from Middle East affairs this time around. Calmer heads have subsequently pointed out that the US still needs stability in and around Saudi Arabia to ensure market price stability for the oil on which the US economy will also depend.

Allies Elsewhere

However, if Israel and Palestine are to be left to their fates (at least beyond continuing US assurances over Israel’s security, with or without a peace process), it is most likely that the Europeans will face the most immediate dilemmas. Caught in the bind of bankrolling the majority of the fading Palestinian Authority's budgets, the European Union has long since lost the cover of justifying its 1 billion euros annual subsidy on the grounds that it is assisting the Palestinians to reach a negotiated deal with the Israelis. If despite the Gaza crisis, the beleaguered Palestinian President Abu Mazen persists in seeking non-member observer status at the UN General Assembly on November 29, the prospects for returning to a negotiating process will suffer yet another twist. The widespread belief among many Palestinians is that Israel will never now accord them voluntarily the statehood they seek.

There remains one forum that has been overshadowed by recent events: the second EU-Arab League summit at Foreign Minister level. This offered surprising succour to the idea that issues of principle, if not substance yet, might still be re-affirmed without the US in the room. In the summit's joint Cairo Declaration on November 14, all present 'reaffirmed their shared position not to recognize any changes to the pre-1967 borders other than those agreed by both parties including with regard to Jerusalem'. In a world in which the EU 'has sub-contracted its geopolitical thinking to the US since the Second World War', as a colleague who specializes on EU affairs put it recently, this is a small, but potentially significant start to rethinking who decides what in the Middle East.

Read more on the Gaza conflict:  

Egypt and President Morsi Make A Good Impression on West
Jane Kinninmont, The Daily Telegraph, November 2012 

Jane Kinninmont, Expert Comment, November 2012 
Yossi Mekelberg, CNN, November 2012 
Programme Report 
Nicolas Pelham, September 2012