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Case Analysis 14 August, 2014

The Israeli Assault on Gaza: Another International Test Failed by the Obama Administration

The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 

Israel and the United States: Background Positions

At the start of Israel’s July 2014 offensive on the Gaza Strip the Obama Administration announced its support for “Israel’s right to defend itself.” At the same time, however, the United States paid lip service to the need for Israel to show the highest levels of self-restraint towards civilians, revealing the White House’s desire that there be no large-scale Israeli military operation. Indeed, less than two days after the offensive began, Obama called Netanyahu to express his unease at the military escalation against Gaza. Obama also told his Israeli counterpart that the United States was ready to undertake diplomatic activity to reinstate the 2012 agreement, under which the United States and Egypt’s ex-president Mohammed Morsi acted as mediators to bring about a ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian resistance in the Gaza Strip.

Circumstances, however, would see the United States take a more biased stance than last time. The quick escalation of Israeli military action, an improved Palestinian resistance that surprised both Israel and the United States, and domestic politics that saw Obama caught between Republican criticism and Congressional pressure over support for Israel, all conspired to push American politics toward Israel. This can first be seen in the decision to hold Hamas entirely responsible for the violence, and then in the rush to ask Congress for hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of additional funding to enhance the Israeli Iron Dome missile defense system, which had been put in place as a measure against the missiles of the Palestinian resistance. At the beginning of August, the Senate approved the allocation of 225 million US Dollars in urgent funding for that system, and though Congress failed to pass the bill, Obama himself approved it in short order. The US Department of Defense had earlier in July announced that Israel would be allowed to obtain ammunition from local stocks of American weapons. This came as part of a program run by the US military known as the “War Reserve Stockpile – Israel” to resupply its ally in the Middle East with heavy weaponry, including old stockpiles of 40 mm and 120 mm shells due to be replaced. According to a Department of Defense spokesman, Washington was also processing further Israeli requests for American-manufactured ammunition.

The history of the American-Israeli alliance trumps any internal American partisan differences. The Obama Administration is no exception in this respect. What distinguishes this government’s bias towards Israel, however, is that it comes more from the administration’s impotence than its conviction. The White House has noted on several occasions the negative impact that Israel’s hardline stance on a peace deal has had on its own interests in the region. Indeed, despite unprecedented pressure on Israel to move forward, the Obama Administration has found only intransigence bolstered by the American media, as well as the country’s political, economic, and religious forces. These have helped to rein in the Obama administration’s “intractability” towards Israel and further weakened its stance. Having dramatically failed to exert pressure on Israel, Obama necessarily, and even enthusiastically, accepted defeat.

America’s Belated Intervention: The Wider Context

Within the current global political landscape, the Obama administration’s belated move to contain the escalation in the Gaza Strip can be read as a sign of the government’s fatigue. There were also, however, a wider set of realities in the Arab world to be taken into account.

First, the feeble efforts came despite open American channels between both Israel and the Arabs, particularly via Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. These avenues might have been used, as they were in the past, as a mechanism of asserting regional influence via Palestine-Israel. This time, however, the task of de-escalating was left in the hands of Egypt, with Israel’s support.

When it came to Egypt, Sisi was given space to convince Hamas and the other Palestinian resistance factions to agree to his Egyptian initiative and for a truce between the two sides to be enforced. Sisi’s mediation efforts, however, failed on all fronts; officials neither consulted the resistance factions, nor did they take into account the level of death or destruction that the attacks had wrought. Sisi’s truce did not acknowledge the uneven nature of the violence, and  his proposal for “quiet in return for quiet” and to be followed by discussion of other issues, did not cut muster. While waiting for Sisi’s failed truce project slowed an American reaction, the power of the resistance sped it up. The significant improvement in the tactics and arms of the Palestinian resistance movements meant that in the days after the ground invasion the factions caused significant Israeli military losses despite massive attacks from land, sea, and air.  When Egypt gave up mediation, the Obama administration had no choice but to act directly.

Two weeks into the Israeli offensive, on July 21, US Secretary of State John Kerry visited the region. His visit came after the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian civilians as Israel continued the targeting of population centers in the small and densely populated strip. Both Kerry and Obama condemned the targeting of civilians and the mounting death toll, but were unable to make political moves to preserve life or curb Israel’s military action. Obama, at a White House press conference on the same day that Kerry arrived in the region, expressed his outrage at the extent of Palestinian civilian losses and his deep anxiety over the situation, but followed the condemnation with reasserting “Israel’s right to self-defense.” Kerry had done the same thing a day earlier when, during a television interview with Fox News, a microphone picked up his telephone conversation with an aide. Kerry was recorded as he scoffed at Israel’s claim that the military was not targeting civilians, but rather carrying out pinpoint strikes against combatants. Whether the conversation was recorded by chance or was intended as a means of putting pressure on Israel, it was certainly an expression of the administration’s feeling that Israel had gone too far in its assault on the Gaza Strip.  Despite such a clear conviction, however, the Obama administration was unable to say it openly. What were the ideas contained in the Kerry document, which was leaked by the Israeli government to the Hebrew press in a way that annoyed the Americans and that Kerry described as “damaging behavior”? And how did it differ from the Egyptian initiative?

Because of the administration’s weakness, efforts to curb Israeli violence were limited to mediation and Kerry’s work to craft an alternative ceasefire deal. When a draft of Kerry’s alternative plan was leaked prematurely to the Hebrew press, American reaction was again limited, calling the move simple “damaging behavior.” This humiliated Kerry personally, and embarrassed the Obama administration overall. The embarrassment came not only at the hands of Israel but also from the Arab allies who had sought the space for Israel to destroy Hamas. Indeed, some Arab regimes had learned to ally themselves with Israel during the Arab uprisings believing that Israel understood the region better than Washington. The regimes particularly appreciated that the threat to their rule was also a threat to Israel.

This Report was translated from an original Arabic version, published on August 7, 2014, by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. To read the original Arabic version, please click here.

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