Washington: By sending secretary of state Hillary Clinton to the Middle East to put an American imprimatur on a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, President Barack Obama has thrust himself squarely into a conflict he has largely avoided over the past two years.
The stakes for him, and for the United States, are high. If Washington can help broker a deal to quell the violence, it could set the tone for Mr Obama's second-term relationship with three pivotal players in the region: Israel, the Palestinians and, most crucially, Egypt.
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Clinton arrives in Israel for peace talks
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives in Israel amid hopes that the US can help end the violence in the Middle East.
Mr Obama has been unstinting in his public support of Israel over the past several days, while a US-financed anti-missile system, Iron Dome, has destroyed scores of incoming Hamas rockets. The crisis holds the possibility of resetting the president's often-fraught relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
But Mr Obama has also reached out many times to Egypt's recently elected president, Mohammed Mursi, urging him to play a calming role with Hamas, the militant group that governs Gaza. As the United States gropes for a relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Egypt, much will depend on how Morsi navigates this perilous moment.
At one level, Mrs Clinton's emergency mission seems deeply familiar — a US secretary of state jetting in to yet another Middle East conflagration. Mrs Clinton's predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, spent her final weeks in office in 2009 desperately seeking an end to the last major outbreak of fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
But for Mr Obama, such direct involvement is a sharp shift from his hands-off posture of the past two years. Having expended energy and prestige on a futile effort to restart peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians during his first two years in office, a frustrated Mr Obama had largely pulled back from that effort — as did his secretary of state.
When his special envoy to the region, George J. Mitchell, resigned in May 2011, Mr Obama replaced him with David Hale, a career diplomat with a much lower profile and a less ambitious portfolio. Mrs Clinton, having made frequent trips to Israel, stopped traveling there regularly.
Mr Obama's waning appetite for Middle East peacemaking coincided with his re-election campaign, which made any attempt to jump-start a moribund process seem politically unwise. His relationship with Mr Netanyahu, which soured early on because of his demand that Israel stop building Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, deteriorated further when Mr Netanyahu appeared to favour Mitt Romney in the election.
For Mr Obama, the timing of the Gaza eruption underscores what is likely to be a recurring tension in the second term: his desire to reorient the United States to Asia, while the ancient conflicts of the Middle East keep pulling the United States back to that region.
The president made a historic postelection visit to Burma, capping a diplomatic opening that is part of a heightened US engagement in the region. But Mr Obama found himself working the phones late at night with Mr Netanyahu and Mr Mursi, pleading for "de-escalation" in the Gaza conflict.
Mrs Clinton, too, has devoted much of her time to Asia, developing a fast friendship with the Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. But a day after Mrs Clinton accompanied Mr Obama on a visit to Ms Suu Kyi's lakeside home, she had to race to her plane and fly overnight to Tel Aviv to meet with Mr Netanyahu and to travel to Ramallah to meet with the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas.
For Mrs Clinton, whose final days at the State Department seemed destined to be dominated by questions over the deadly attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, the fighting in Gaza may instead bring her term to a close on a more familiar theme.
The New York Times