Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi on Thursday condemned Israel's air strikes in Gaza. At the same time, Morsi instructed Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Kandil to visit Gaza as the head of a large Egyptian delegation. Morsi is facing a serious challenge: on the one hand he needs to appease the Palestinians, but on the other he also needs to keep Washington happy to protect the $2 billion in annual aid that Cairo relies on.
Morsi knows full well that he can't stop the Israel Defense Forces from operating in Gaza. The high-level delegation he is sending, which includes his intelligence chief, health minister and his closest advisers, can, at most, delay Israel's Operation Pillar of Defense. In the meantime, the IDF is calling up reserves units and Morsi can't leave his prime minister in the Strip. The violence in Gaza will continue.
The big question is what's next. Israel managed to assassinate Hamas military commander Ahmed Jabari and destroy Hamas' rocket stores. Israel has received a green light from the West to take further action. But it won't be for long. Within a limited time frame, Israel must restore its eroded power of deterrence and significantly weaken Hamas, much to the satisfaction of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. A planned visit by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in Jerusalem, Cairo and Ramallah next week is also geared toward achieving a ceasefire.
Anti-Israel demonstrations were expected in Egypt on Friday. An Israeli flag was publicly burned in Cairo on Thursday, across from the Arab League headquarters, and another in Alexandria. The historic peace agreement between Egypt and Israel is going through some rough times at the moment. The U.S. administration, with four years of experience, has, by now, understood how difficult it is to strike new peace deals in our region these days. The challenge now facing U.S. President Barack Obama is not achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians but preserving the peace between Israel and the Egyptians.
In a phone conversation with Obama on Thursday, Morsi stressed how important it was to Cairo to maintain good relations with Washington. In this Muslim Brotherhood era, this was his way of saying "help us preserve peace by restraining Israel and preventing an IDF ground op in Gaza."
Obviously the new reality in the Middle East limits Israel's maneuverability. However, there is a limit to how drastically the rules of the game can change. In any case, Hamas has to come out of this round the loser. But Israel can't embarrass Morsi too much either.
Incidentally, Operation Pillar of Defense has achieved another success, almost without anyone noticing: For the first time on Thursday, the Egyptian president explicitly said the word "Israel" during a public condemnation of Israel's actions. Never before has a condemnation been so well received in Jerusalem.