WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s call for a ceasefire to Israel’s assault in Gaza got him nowhere. Secretary of State John Kerry returned to the U.S. empty-handed after a try at a truce, amid a volley of ridicule from the Israelis.
The Obama administration is finding limits to its influence as it tries to walk a fine line between what it says is Israel’s right to defend itself and its alarm over the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian civilians, including children.
The White House has said the administration is continuing to talk with Israelis, Palestinians and countries in the region and it sharply condemned the shelling of a United Nations’ school in Gaza on Wednesday, saying it underscores the need for an immediate ceasefire.
But the administration’s options in quelling the violence any time soon appear limited — by geopolitics in the region and at home, and by its track record of failing to achieve progress with peace talks, say Middle East experts.
“Privately I’m sure they’re saying to Israel, ‘You’ve achieved as much as you can tactically. Why not end this thing, unless you want to occupy Gaza,’” said Michele Dunne, a former Middle East specialist at the State Department who is now a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “But the signal Israel is sending is that they’ve not yet achieved what they set out to do.”
Still, she notes, past episodes of Israeli retaliation for Hamas attacks have shown “at some point the human costs and the international criticism start escalating to a point that the Israelis have to recalculate.”
Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have long had a frosty relationship and the president’s leverage with the Israeli leader is “about zip,” said Arthur Hughes, a former ambassador to Yemen and a scholar at the Middle East Institute.
Yet even if they were close, “the conversation might be nicer,” but the result would likely be the same, he said.
Netanyahu is determined to try to cripple Hamas and is facing no domestic pressure to slow down his campaign to destroy its cache of missiles and underground network of tunnels, some of which have been dug toward Israel to carry out cross-border attacks. Indeed, polls in Israel find overwhelming support among Israeli Jews for the offensive that Israel calls Operation Protective Edge.
“And to a large extent that attitude will be played out in the strong supporters of Israel in this country,” Hughes said.
That includes both chambers of Congress. As lawmakers readied for an August vacation, the House on Wednesday passed a bipartisan resolution that condemns Hamas for rocket attacks against Israel and for using civilians as “human shields by placing their missile batteries in densely populated areas and near schools, hospitals, and mosques.” The Senate passed a similar resolution on Tuesday.
Every nation has the right to defend itself, and Israel is no different,” said House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who is the incoming majority leader replacing Rep. Eric Cantor. He said calls for both sides to exercise restraint “have done nothing to stop Hamas’ wanton violence, ignore the extraordinary restraint exercised by Israel, and, worse, imply that Israel is just as much to blame as Hamas.”
The U.S. shares Israel’s goal of a weakened Hamas, which it has designated as a terrorist organization, said Elliott Abrams, a National Security Council officer under former President George W. Bush and a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“We want to weaken Hamas and strengthen the Palestinian Authority and it’s not at all clear that asking Israel to stop strengthens the authority,” he said.
But the U.S. is viewed as wanting to disengage from the region and Khaled Elgindy, a former adviser to Palestinian peace negotiators and a fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the drift contributes to the U.S. lack of leverage.
“All of these actors in the region have very concrete views on the conflict and instead of having our own, we’ve just kind of gone along with this, that or the other,” Elgindy said. “There’s not a lot of engagement and now we’re scrambling to articulate a position out of this murkiness.”
White House deputy press secretary Eric Schultz said the administration had made it “very clear that Israel needs to do more to live up to its own standards to limit the civilian casualties.”
But the U.S. for decades “has refrained from putting strong pressure on Israel to do what it doesn’t want to do,” said Philip Wilcox, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and former U.S. counsel general in Jerusalem.
“For the U.S. to take a lead would mean a more contentious relationship with the Israeli government,” Wilcox said. “It’s a tough dilemma for the administration and a product of decades of delay by the U.S. in confronting this issue and using its relationship with Israel more wisely.”
He said he believes Israel needs to counter a terrorist threat, but also wants to prevent a united Palestine.
“They’re trying to permanently govern another nation-in-waiting through the use of military force,” he said. “If we’re committed to Israel’s security and well being, we need to be honest with them.”