“The U.S. is allowing the Egyptians to take the lead on this because they believe the Egyptians will be pragmatic and can deliver Hamas and won’t contravene Camp David,” said Leila Hilal, who spent years as a legal adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team and is now director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation, a research center in Washington.
“Now, the thinking is: Egypt can play that role and Israel will have to accept it. It’s the new regional order,” Hilal said. “This is an intention to back off and decrease American engagement in the region, not necessarily as a dismissive approach, but more, ‘Why not let Egypt be the counterpart to Israel?’ They’re the neighbors, and they have a clear set of interests the U.S. appreciates.”
The old model of U.S. engagement was “hub and spoke,” with the United States at the center of regional players, said Michael Singh, who served as a senior Middle East director for the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration and is now managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Even regional neighbors dealt with one another largely via American interlocutors, he said.
Now, Singh said, the hub has fallen out, and as a result, smaller groupings of Arab and allied states are emerging to vie for that central role – Turkey and Egypt, for example, or the Persian Gulf powers such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
But Singh said ceding the leadership role could be detrimental to long-term U.S. interests in the Middle East, which is still an important oil supplier and source of militant groups that aim to attack U.S. interests.
Singh said that U.S. leaders “don’t have the choice of ignoring the Middle East,” though that certainly seemed to be the message from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech Saturday at the beginning of a tour of Southeast Asia. Clinton told an audience in Singapore that economics would be at the heart of a new U.S. foreign policy, to include a much-touted Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
“Amid everything going on, she gives a speech basically saying that our future’s in Asia, not in the Middle East,” Singh said. “We have to recognize that we have enduring interests in this region.”
After so many years as the main driver in the Middle East, the U.S. shift to backseat diplomacy is sure to be bumpy. On Monday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland tried to defend the administration’s “quiet diplomacy” during a relentless line of questioning from Associated Press reporter Matt Lee, a notoriously hard-nosed journalist who’d challenged her on the U.S. “silence” on Gaza.
Israel has pounded Gaza with airstrikes for six days, killing at least 101 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians, in a campaign against Hamas, the militant group that controls the strip. In the same period, three Israelis died as a result of a rocket that was launched from Gaza and struck an office building. At least 100 more rockets were launched Monday, with no casualties reported. Regional tensions, already exacerbated by the Syrian civil war and rocky transitions in North Africa, are dangerously high.
“Well, you’ve been doing your quiet diplomacy for almost a week. How’s it going so far?” Lee asked the spokeswoman, his voice oozing sarcasm.
Nuland tried to respond, but Lee cut her off, saying, “You’re staying silent while people are dying left and right.” The spokeswoman accused Lee of picking a fight and quickly moved on to another reporter after repeating the administration’s Gaza talking points: Israel has the right to defend itself, and the United States regrets civilian casualties on both sides.
“We’ve made a decision that we need to engage in our diplomacy diplomatically,” Nuland said.
Jonathan S. Landay in Washington contributed to this report.