from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Why Secretary Kerry Should Come Home

July 14, 2014

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

Secretary of State Kerry will go to Cairo on Tuesday, it seems, but it isn’t clear why. To push a Gaza cease-fire, the press reports, but his presence there will not help.

Why not? After all, he was successful just now in Kabul in helping negotiate a deal between the two presidential candidates. That showed energy, determination, and negotiating prowess.

But it is irrelevant as a model. There he could mediate between the two Afghan parties--both of whom we wanted to "win" in the sense that we wanted a deal that both could live with and would strengthen Afghan politics. In the Gaza war, the real issue is when Hamas will decide to stop shooting unguided rockets at Israel’s civilians. Kerry cannot talk to Hamas. President Sisi and his agents can, and are doing so; so what will Kerry’s contribution be?

If it is to urge Sisi to weaken his own position and give Hamas more, that’s a terrible role for an American Secretary of State. If it is to convey the views of the Israeli government or the Palestinian Authority, Sisi can hear from them directly; Kerry is superfluous. If it to urge Sisi to do more and do it faster, that’s insulting to Sisi and assumes he has no national interests at stake here. But he does, and a visit from Kerry is unlikely to lead him to ignore or abandon them.

So we are led to conclude that Kerry is going there because he thinks we need to be seen to be doing something, anything, to end the violence. To show we are not indifferent (perhaps because the President has given a decent imitation of uninterest?) and are not without influence, I suppose.

Kerry’s timing may be good, because I suspect a cease fire will come this week. Post hoc ergo propter hoc: if there is a cease fire soon after Kerry’s visit, he will get some credit whether he deserves it or not.

Netanyahu can only go a few more days --at most-- without using the reserves he has called up, so the real variable here is whether Hamas genuinely seeks an Israeli ground invasion. They may, but they may also be willing to go for a deal that promises them an immediate opening of the Rafah crossing into Egypt and payment of salaries for the more than 40,000 "civil servants" on their payroll.

What is interesting about these two demands is that they do not depend on Israel. The Hamas demand of Israel is that it free the Hamas figures let out of prison in the trade for Gilad Shalit and recently re-arrested. Israel will not agree to this, so Hamas will either accept an Egyptian agreement to try to get them freed or it will reject a deal and guarantee an Israeli invasion.

The salaries can be promised by Qatar or the PA, just as Egypt can promise to keep Rafah open, but these are after all just promises. What we do not know yet is whether Hamas is suffering enough to accept these promises as achievements it can trumpet (regardless of how they look, or whether the promises are kept, down the road). That Palestinians are suffering plenty is clear, but Hamas has never concerned itself much with that problem. Its high command remains safe, hidden --if experience is a guide-- beneath the al-Shifa hospital in Gaza. All of Hamas’s special tricks-- the number of its rockets, their longer ranges, the tunnels, the drones-- have failed to make much of an impact. So the high command must decide, soon, how much pain to inflict on the people of Gaza.

Secretary Kerry’s visit will not affect that decision, so it will not shorten the war. He may dramatize American concern by being in Cairo, but equally display our lack of influence.