The fallout of the Arab Spring continues, and the winter dance performances are complex indeed.
Newly installed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi is firmly in the Muslim Brotherhood camp, but as the ruling leader of a vast country with gaping economic, political and religious divides, he may not be able to take the kind of expected hardline against Israel that might be expected.
Today, November 16, President Morsi sent his Prime Minister, Hesham Kandil, on a “humanitarian mission” to Gaza. Kandil was traveling with a small delegation, but given the wracking poverty of so many in Egypt, it may be hard to justify a big showing of charity to outsiders. In addition, Hamas is the sworn enemy of the Egyptian old guard military and security forces, and Morsi needs to keep the displeasure of those groups in check. Complicating matters still further, is what is on the current dance card of U.S. President Barack Obama. While many either congratulate or blame U.S. President Obama for ushering out former Egyptian President Hosnai Mubarek, and thereby helping to usher in Morsi, at the moment the Obama administration is firmly playing the role of Israel supporter, committed to Israel’s right to self-defense and unequivocally casting Hamas as the party in the wrong in this November 2012 Gaza-Israel War.
Yesterday’s State Department and White House Spokesmen’s press conferences left no ambiguity.
Mark Toner, at the State Department:
MR. TONER: Anyway, let’s go to your questions, Matt.
QUESTION: Let’s start with the situation in Gaza and Israel. The Secretary made a call yesterday or took a call from the Egyptian Foreign Minister; is that correct?
MR. TONER: That’s correct.
QUESTION: What was the content? What was the message?
MR. TONER: Mm-hmm. Well, I mean, obviously, as I said, she did speak, as you noted, with Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr yesterday. I’m not sure what time, frankly. In the convoluted time zones that she’s in versus us, I’m not sure what time of day it was. But her core message was that we need – the necessity of a de-escalation of the ongoing situation and an end to the violence. That’s what’s most important here. And for –
QUESTION: And based –
MR. TONER: Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: I’m sorry. Go ahead.
MR. TONER: No, no. You go ahead.
QUESTION: Well, based on that conversation and also on what you know, what you may know, about the President’s conversation with President Morsi –
MR. TONER: Correct.
QUESTION: – do you think that Egypt is going to do the right thing here, or do you have the sense that they’re going to? What was the response from the Egyptians? It’s –
MR. TONER: Well, I –
QUESTION: Because publicly, their response doesn’t seem to be very consistent with what you’re asking of them.
MR. TONER: I think – and in fact, the White House has issued in a readout of the President’s calls yesterday – both we and the Egyptians agree there needs to be a de-escalation, and we urged the Government of Egypt to take steps to support that kind of de-escalation.
QUESTION: Such as?
MR. TONER: Well, obviously, using their influence in the region. But we want to see, obviously, a de-escalation of the violence. We need to see the violence to -stop. We need to see Hamas stop its rocket attacks on Israel so we can end the violence.
QUESTION: Okay. And the other day, I asked you whether or not the United States spoke to – or not spoke to, but had messages delivered to Hamas to knock it off, if you’ve used Egypt or Qatar, particularly since their Emir just visited Gaza, to send a message to Hamas that these rocket attacks have to stop whether or not they are actually firing them or not. I was told and – or I was led to believe that the answer is no, that you don’t pass any messages on to Hamas through third parties; you don’t talk to them yourselves. And I’m curious; is that correct? And if it is, why? Why not?
MR. TONER: I’m not sure – again, I’m not sure – you’re talking about what I told you in terms –
MR. TONER: – of my response? Okay. I think what I said was that – at the time was we certainly do convey our concerns, certainly to Egypt as a regional leader, as someone who has influence in the region. We convey our concerns and we consult closely on them whenever there’s this kind of outbreak of violence.
QUESTION: Yeah, but do you tell the Egyptians or the Qataris or other people or other countries –
MR. TONER: And I’m not going to get into the substance of our phone calls –
QUESTION: No, no, no, no.
MR. TONER: – or our conversations with them, other than to say that we’re obviously consulting closely with them. We value their input on the security in the region.
QUESTION: Well, but the question is do you tell them to tell Hamas – do you tell people who have contacts with Hamas, since you don’t have any contacts with them, to cut it out?
MR. TONER: And I think I –
QUESTION: I mean, you go on the record all the time –
MR. TONER: I think I answered your question to say that, certainly, we ask Egypt to use its influence in the region to help de-escalate the situation. I’ll leave it there.
QUESTION: All right. Well, why is it that you’re willing to say, “use influence in the region” but you’re not willing to say “with Hamas?”
MR. TONER: Because I – because that’s what I decided to say.
QUESTION: Mark, the Egyptian Prime Minister just announced that he’s going to Gaza tomorrow.
MR. TONER: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Has he informed you of that? Have you discussed the content or the purpose of his visit?
MR. TONER: We haven’t. I don’t believe – I know the Secretary hasn’t had any conversations with her counterpart today. I can’t speak for the White House, obviously.
QUESTION: So do you expect this visit to actually mitigate the – sort of the tension that is ongoing, or delay (inaudible)?
MR. TONER: I think there’s one clear way to mitigate the tensions, and that is for Hamas to stop its rocket attacks on Israel so we can de-escalate the situation and end the violence. That’s the clearest path.
QUESTION: Okay. We understand. But are you dissuading or are you telling Israel not to conduct a major land invasion of Gaza, a la Cast Lead back in 2008, 2009?
MR. TONER: We’re obviously in close consultation with Israel, as you well know. The President spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday. Let me finish. Let me be very clear that Israel has a right to self-defense. As of yesterday, I believe the Israeli Government noted that since the beginning of 2012, more than 768 rockets have been fired into Israel from Gaza, and over 12,000 in the past 12 years, and I believe over a hundred today alone. They have a right to self-defense.
QUESTION: Are –
MR. TONER: The onus – let me be very clear – the onus here is on Hamas. And as Jay Carney just said from the White House, it claims to have the best interests of the Palestinian people at heart, but through its actions it’s showing a far different agenda.
QUESTION: Are you counting the number of rockets and air raids that Israel has conducted on Gaza into (inaudible)?
MR. TONER: Again, we need to see Hamas stop its rocket attacks and then we can see a de-escalation of the violence.
QUESTION: Do the Palestinians in Gaza have the same right to self-defense?
MR. TONER: This is violence instigated by Hamas. We have – as we’ve said very clearly in our statement yesterday, that we extend our sympathies to the victims, innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians that have been affected by this violence. But let’s be very clear where the onus likes.
Go ahead, Said – Samir.
QUESTION: No, no I just – I was going to say you quoted Mr. Carney, but he said the same thing you said yesterday yourself in your statement.
MR. TONER: We’re in lockstep, I guess.
Yeah. Anything else on Hamas? Or in Israel, Gaza?
QUESTION: Yeah. Which is the reason that you think that Hamas was attacking Israel? Do you think it has any connection with the Syria situation?
MR. TONER: I have no idea. You’ll have to ask them.
QUESTION: Egypt recalls its ambassador in Tel Aviv. Do you have any comment on that?
MR. TONER: No. I mean, look, you’ll have to ask the Egyptian Government to explain its actions, but we’ve been in close contact, as Matt pointed out, with Morsi and the Secretary with her counterpart. We’re consulting with them closely. We both agree on the fundamental point that there needs to be a de-escalation here so that the violence can stop.
About the Author: Lori Lowenthal Marcus is the US correspondent for The Jewish Press. She is a recovered lawyer who previously practiced First Amendment law and taught in Philadelphia-area graduate and law schools. You can reach her by email: Lori@JewishPressOnline.com
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