WASHINGTON – In frantic diplomacy, the Obama administration helped seal a cease-fire that puts heavy responsibility on Egypt's young Islamist government to ensure the end of Hamas rockets from the Gaza Strip. If Egypt delivers, the United States will have rediscovered the stalwart regional partner it has lacked since the autocratic Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in a popular revolt last year. If it fails, stability across the region will suffer.
Much depends on whether the agreement brokered by Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi proves durable and halts not only a week of open warfare that killed more than 140 Palestinians and five Israelis, but definitively ends rocket attacks on southern Israel from Gaza that grew increasingly frequent in recent months.
Standing beside Morsi's foreign minister in Cairo, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham said the deal would improve conditions for Gaza's 1.5 million people while offering greater security for the Jewish state — but the fierceness of the recent encounter meant no one was declaring it a success yet.
And U.S. officials familiar with Clinton's last-minute diplomatic shuttling warned against making any judgments until the cease-fire proves to hold.
The U.S. is counting on Morsi to shepherd the peace. The former Muslim Brotherhood leader emerged from his first major international crisis with enhanced prestige and now has a track record as someone who can mediate between the two sworn enemies, something the United States cannot do because it considers Hamas a terrorist organization and doesn't allow contacts between its members and American officials.
Hours into the cease-fire, Morsi seemed to have persuaded Hamas, a Brotherhood offshoot, to abide by its conditions.
He won immediate praise from Washington, with President Barack Obama thanking Morsi "for his efforts to achieve a sustainable cease-fire and for his personal leadership in negotiating a cease-fire proposal." In their sixth phone call since last week, Obama on Wednesday welcomed Morsi's "commitment to regional security" and the leaders agreed to work toward a "more durable solution to the situation in Gaza," according to a White House statement.
The diplomacy clearly strengthened a U.S.-Egyptian partnership that has been strained in the 21 months since Egyptians toppled Mubarak. In that time, Washington angrily protested Cairo's crackdown on U.S.-funded pro-democracy groups, its slow response to attacks on the Israeli and U.S. embassies and its inconsistent control over the Sinai Peninsula. The U.S. regularly threatened to withhold aid and Obama remarked in September that he no longer considered Egypt an ally.
That breakdown was a marked reversal from the legacy of Mubarak's three-decade autocracy, when the Arab world's most populous and influential country closely cooperated with the United States in fighting al-Qaida, containing the influence of Iran and mediating between Israel and the Palestinians. Although Morsi's government has promised to abide by the 1979 Camp David Accords with Israel, his Muslim Brotherhood resume had raised concerns about his true commitment. And continued comments against the peace treaty from Brotherhood members raised ire in Israel and the U.S.
Getting Egypt back on board as a good-faith mediator appeared to be a major selling point in winning the Israelis to the conditions of the cease-fire. "Egypt shall receive assurances from each party" that they are committed to the deal, the cease-fire agreement says. "Each party shall commit itself not to perform any acts that would break this understanding. ... In case of any observations, Egypt — as the sponsor of this understanding — shall be informed to follow up."
In a telephone conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Obama seemed to be trying to re-establish the strong triangular relationship between the U.S., Israel and Egypt that had been a bulwark of regional security under Mubarak.
The president expressed his "appreciation" for Netanyahu's willingness to work with Egypt's government on the package and reiterated full U.S. support for Israel's right to self-defense. But the White House noted that Obama had specifically "recommended" that Netanyahu accept the Egyptian proposal. Obama also vowed to help the Israelis address the smuggling of weapons and explosives into Gaza and pledged additional funding for Iron Dome and other U.S.-Israeli missile defense programs.
Israel launched well over 1,500 airstrikes and other attacks on targets in Gaza, while more than 1,000 rockets pounded Israel. In all, more than 140 Palestinians, including dozens of civilians, were killed, while five Israelis died in the fighting.
According to the cease-fire agreement, Israel and all Palestinian militant groups agreed to halt "all hostilities." For the Palestinians, that means an end to Israeli airstrikes and assassinations of wanted militants. For Israel, it brings a halt to rocket fire and attempts at cross-border incursions from Gaza.
After a 24-hour cooling-off period, the cease-fire calls for "opening the crossings and facilitating the movement of people and transfer of goods, and refraining from restricting residents' free movement." That could amount to the biggest easing of Israel's blockade of Gaza since it shut off the territory from much of the world five years ago. Hamas officials said details on the new border arrangements would have to be negotiated.
If the cease-fire holds, Israel and Egypt will be clear beneficiaries. But Hamas, too, comes out a winner, having long been isolated by Washington's Arab allies but now embraced by much of the region.
The Western-backed government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in charge of the West Bank, was cut out of the cease-fire equation, and Clinton reminded him during her visit to Ramallah that Washington remains firmly opposed to his plan for U.N. recognition of an independent Palestine.
The Obama administration hopes the end to the immediate crisis could advance a broader Mideast strategy that promotes Israeli-Palestinian peace, reinforces the Israel-Egypt peace treaty and reduces Iran's influence in Gaza. The calculation is that Morsi's mediation between Israel and Hamas and elevated standing on the world stage brings with it a responsibility to maintain the cease-fire, forcing him to deliver on Israel's behalf.
In the U.S. view, maintenance of the truce also means cracking down on Iranian weapons shipments to Gaza. Iran has long used Hamas and other groups as proxy forces against Israel.
The goal of a larger peace treaty that allows for the establishment of an independent Palestine may remain far away, but it would be not be feasible if Hamas continues to launch projectiles at the Jewish state and Arab powers led by Egypt aren't engaged in the process.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Bradley Klapper and Matthew Lee cover diplomacy and international affairs for The Associated Press.