Statements by Hillary Clinton and Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday night
At one point on Tuesday afternoon, it appeared that a ceasefire in the Gazan War was imminent. Following Egyptian-brokered efforts in Cairo, and amid diplomatic pressure that included trips to Gaza by Turkish and Arab Foreign Ministers, both Hamas and Islamic Jihad announced that a ceasefire would begin by midnight. The Turkish Foreign Ministry put out the same message.
"Senior Israeli officials" also said a halt to fighting was on the way. It only remained, they said, for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to confirm the details with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. This would fulfil the protocol of the Israelis being the last participant to accept the ceasefire while bringing the Americans --- who had effectively sidelined themselves with near-unconditional backing of West Jerusalem last Wednesday --- back into the diplomatic arena.
For an unexpected reason, Netanyahu changed the script. The reason has not been set forth. It may have been the Prime Minister's unhappiness that certain conditions --- notably a long-term Hamas guarantees to stop all rockets --- were not in the arrangement for an immediate ceasefire. It may have been specific developments, such as the death of an Israeli soldier and the injury of others when a Gazan rocket hit in Eshkol. It may have been his calculation that he did not have enough of a political "victory" to present to the Israeli people.
However, whatever the reason, the outcome was clear. For an unforeseen period, Israel will not only maintain its attacks, it will escalate them. It will hit not only supposed military targets but buildings that normally house civilians --- that much was made clear when the Israel Defense Forces dropped leaflets on Monday warning residents to leave their homes. It was further illustrated when, far from pulling back after hitting media centres three times in two days, Israel struck another one and also killed three journalists --- two of them in a car in Gaza City --- with missiles.
The ceasefire question was answered with a no. The question that returned, although with not as much intensity as the weekend, is whether Israel will move to a ground invasion.
And what now for Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama? When Netanyahu calculated that conflict rather than ceasefire was best for his personal fortunes, he handed the Americans a very big --- and very public --- problem.
Clinton was supposed to give a speech on Tuesday night that showed that the US had wielded its political influence to bring peace. Instead, she was forced to give yet another American speech presenting Washington as a partner in Israel's war, praising the Iron Dome anti-missile system that had saved Israeli casualties rather than talking about those who have died in Gaza. She again had to put the onus on Hamas as the aggressor, in a situation where the Gazan group had agreed to lay down any arms. Just to drive home the point and the image, the US delegation at the United Nations blocked a draft resolution calling on both sides to halt the fighting.
So the US once more returned itself to the margins. For many international actors, Washington is now no more than the backer of West Jerusalem. That leaves the diplomatic space for others --- notably the Egyptians and the Turks --- to try and occupy.
And that in turn not only affects the US position over the Israel-Palestine issue. It will have immediate effects for situations such as the handling of the Syrian crisis and the approach to Iran. And the longer that the fighting and death continues in Gaza, the greater the effect on the Obama Administration's long-term capital --- if it has any --- in the region and beyond.