As Rockets Fly In Gaza, U.S. Influence Seems To Wane

The Obama Administration is hoping allies like Egypt and Turkey use their influence to persuade Hamas to stop firing rockets into Israel. But can the U.S. count on that kind of help, with a new government Egypt that doesn't see things the same way? The U.S. has shown no sign that it will pressure Israel to ease tensions. Officials have repeatedly said that Israel has the right to defend itself.

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U.S. diplomacy on Gaza has been handled from afar with President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other top officials traveling in Asia. So they have been working the phones, calling on Egypt and others to use their influence with Hamas to get them to stop firing rockets into Israel. But as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, America's influence in the region seems to be waning.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The U.S. military assistance to Israel has been key in this latest flare-up between Israel and Hamas. The Iron Dome defense system, which the U.S. funded, has proven its value, intercepting many of the rockets fired from Gaza. But the U.S. has kept a much lower profile diplomatically, says Michele Dunne of the Atlantic Council.

MICHELE DUNNE: Although President Obama has done more for the Israelis militarily than any of his predecessors, he seems to enjoy less influence in Israel. And I think that's because of a failure to engage effectively with Israeli political leaders and also with the Israeli public.

KELEMEN: Dunne says the U.S. relationship with Egypt also needs to be reinvented.

DUNNE: There's a lack of trust on both sides, on the part of the new elected Egyptian government and on the part of the U.S. government. And so that makes it more difficult for the United States to work with Egypt closely and openly in a crisis like this.

KELEMEN: So while U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and others rush to the region to try their hand to diplomacy, the U.S., she says, seems to be taking a back seat. That might be wise, says Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He says there's been a pattern to these flare-ups in the past.

JON ALTERMAN: The time for heavy lifting for the U.S. often comes later in the crisis.

KELEMEN: For now, he says, neither Hamas nor Israel seems ready for a deal.

ALTERMAN: What Hamas is trying to do is to lock in progress as a consequence of the military action. I think Israel is determined to have Hamas emerge weaker as a consequence of military action. And for that reason it seems to me that diplomacy is going to be very hard-pressed to be successful for several days to come.

KELEMEN: Alterman says the U.S. has to keep a close watch on Egypt and tread lightly. So far, he points out, Egypt has kept open channels with Israel and has largely kept the border with Gaza closed.

ALTERMAN: You have to be more careful because we don't know exactly what the Egyptian government will do. What we can say is what the Egyptian government has done is not dramatically different from what the Mubarak government did before.

KELEMEN: And for now, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland is sounding encouraged.

VICTORIA NULAND: The Egyptians have been playing a leading role in trying to get this de-escalated. We've been supportive of those efforts. We've been in close contact with them at all levels.

KELEMEN: She wouldn't say much about any of the conversations the U.S. has been having with Egypt or with Turkey, Qatar, Israel and others.

NULAND: As we have said again and again, we want to see any leaders with influence use it to help the parties de-escalate.

KELEMEN: From the U.S. perspective, that starts with Hamas. President Obama says no country can tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens, and Israel, he says, has the right to defend itself. Over the weekend, though, he suggested it would be better to avoid an Israeli ground operation.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: That's not just preferable for the people of Gaza. It's also preferable for Israelis, because if Israeli troops are in Gaza, they're much more at risk of incurring fatalities or being wounded.

KELEMEN: President Obama called Egypt's president and Israel's prime minister again today to receive an update on Gaza. The White House says he will stay in close contact with both leaders. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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