Obama sends Clinton to Cairo to shore up his Muslim-outreach policy

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is flying to Cairo on Tuesday as President Barack Obama’s Islamic-outreach policy is faces a critical test of its claimed ability to curb Islamists’ use of jihad

After Obama launched his “New Beginning “ outreach to Islamists in 2009, he pressured the Egyptian army to avoid involvement in politics, which opened the door to the Muslim Brotherhood’s subsequent 2011 and 2012 ballot-box takeover in Egypt.

The takeover, he argued, would be a body-blow to jihadis’ claims that Muslims’ political aspirations can only be achieved by force.

However, Egypt’s 80 million Muslims have elected a new Islamist government that has provided far more ideological and political support to the Gaza-based Hamas jihad group than was ever shown or allowed by the ousted Egyptian strongman, Gen. Hosni Mubarak.

Observers say Egypt’s elected Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, may suffer in political polls, and perhaps the next election, if he uses his control over Gaza’s borders to stop Hamas’ attacks without also extracting controversial concessions from Israel.

“If tries to stop it, he does it at his own peril,” said a former U.S. intelligence official. “Everybody understands that, except the White House,” he said, adding “if it wasn’t so sad it would be laughable.”

On Nov. 20, Morsi said “Israeli aggression” would end the same day, according to the Egyptian government’s news agency MENA. “The efforts to conclude a truce between the Palestinian and Israeli sides will produce positive results in the next few hours,” he said, according to MENA.

Morsi did not describe the ceasefire terms he’s seeking.

But Morsi’s use of the term “ceasefire,” rather than “peace,” highlights the Islamists’ and jihadis’ reluctance to ever sign a peace deal that would accept Israel as a legitimate state.

Morsi is slated to meet with Clinton on her trip, which will also take her to Israel’s capital of Jerusalem and to the Arab communities in the West Bank.

Prior to her departure, Obama called Morsi three times in a 24-hour stretch to get his support for a ceasefire.

In a call made early Nov. 20, from Air Force One en route to Japan, Obama “commended President Morsi’s efforts to pursue a de-escalation.. [and] underscored that President Morsi’s efforts reinforce the important role that President Morsi and Egypt play on behalf of regional security and the pursuit of broader peace between the Palestinians and Israelis,” said Obama’s spokesman, Ben Rhodes.

The White House’s official statements showcase Obama’s fractured policy, which simultaneously claim that the Islamist vs. Israel conflict is complex but that everyone agrees on a solution, and that Hamas is excluded from U.S.-Egyptian talks but that concessions might be granted to Hamas.

“We all know how difficult the situation is,” White House spokesman Rhodes told reporters at a press conference Nov. 20 in Cambodia, where Obama is attending an Asian summit.

“We all know how charged the issue of Gaza is; we have seen conflict there in the past… this is a difficult challenge,” he said, as he described Obama’s late-night decision to send Clinton from Cambodia to Cairo to help broker a ceasefire.

Yet Rhodes also claimed wide agreement on a solution to the conflict. “I think we all agree that the best way to solve this is through diplomacy so that you have a peaceful settlement that ends that rocket fire and allows for a broader calm in the region,” he claimed.

But he also acknowledged Hamas’s ideological and religious hostility to Israel. “Hamas has not met the conditions that we’ve set for many years — to renounce terrorism, to recognize Israel’s right to exist, and to abide by preexisting agreements,” he said, adding “so we do not engage directly with Hamas.”

Nonetheless, Rhodes also hinted at possible Egyptian-brokered Israeli concessions to Hamas, which Israel likely would strongly oppose out of fear that Hamas will just launch another wave of missile attacks to get more concessions.

“We need to walk through the door here of restoring calm to the region, and then address some of the underlying challenges both within Gaza, where of course we’ve worked to support progress in the humanitarian situation,” he said.

Hamas officials say they won’t stop their attack unless Israel ends its practice of limiting the import of military-related items into the territory. Israel allows the transport of food, medicine and electricity into the Hamas-run enclave.

Despite Obama’s opposition, reports indicate the Israeli government may be preparing to send ground force into the enclave unless Hamas agrees to stop importing missiles from Iran, and to set up a kilometer-wide buffer along its border with Israel.

It is not clear how the rival demands from Hamas and Israel can be reconciled, even temporarily.

Egypt’s former U.S.-allied strongman, Hosni Mubarak, was removed in 2011 by a combination of public, Islamist and army pressure, with vocal support from Obama.

Egypt now has a parliament dominated by the combination of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamist members and even more theocratic Salafi Islamists. Egypt’s current president, Mohamed Morsi, was a long-time member of the brotherhood’s political party.

The latest battle began when the brotherhood’s Gaza-based affiliate, Hamas, started launching rockets at Israel soldiers and Jewish civilians.

Since then, the Egyptian government has repeatedly described Hamas as the victim of Israel attacks, and its prime minister — Hisham Kandil— held up a dead child during a staged press event at a hospital with Hamas’s leader, Ismail Haniyeh.

“Egypt will spare no effort to stop the aggression,” Kandil later said.

“What I saw in the hospital, the wounded and the martyrs, the boy, the martyr Mohammad Yasser, whose blood is still on my hands and clothes, is something that we cannot keep silent about,” he said.

Subsequent reports suggested the child was killed by an errant Hamas rocket, not by an Israeli strike.

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