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Unrest in Egypt, after Gaza Crisis: Obama's choices in the Middle East

All sides involved in this month's Gaza crisis face an array of choices. Israeli generals and politicians have chosen to declare victory -- saying that they have "restored deterrence," basically meaning that Israel's Arab neighbors have again seen the might of the Israeli military so they will hesitate to start large armed conflicts.

The Palestinian Hamas faction is insisting that it was victorious. It withstood eight days of pounding by the Israeli military (as a response to many months of rocket fire from the Gaza side), and in the ceasefire talks hosted by Egypt, Hamas was able to act as though it was the equal of any other party involved.

True, Israel and the United States still refuse to speak directly with Hamas, labeling it as a terrorist organization. But no truce could be arranged without the mediators turning to Hamas, again and again, for agreement.

Within days, the chief mediator -- Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi -- shocked the region by declaring, in effect, that he is above the law. Morsi claims to be the supreme protector of the "revolution" that deposed the pro-American president, Hosni Mubarak, last year.

Confronted with this set of new facts -- and a host of older facts, such as Iran's nuclear program, which President Obama has warned must not produce nuclear weapons -- the American president could choose to be highly active, or to stand back for a while and let the Middle East simmer.

The problem is that the Mideast, left practically unwatched to simmer, tends to boil over.

So far, because the United States is so pleased that Morsi mediated successfully between Israel and Hamas, Washington is giving Morsi a fairly easy time. In the first Obama administration comment on the apparent power grab in Cairo, the State Department meekly said that it raises "concerns" because "the revolution" was supposed to mean that no one man will ever again wield too much authority in Egypt.

But, beyond that, the U.S. only urged that everyone keep calm -- and perhaps move toward writing a constitution that would protect the civil rights of Egyptians.

Mr. Obama may decide to be more ambitious in the Middle East, but at the least he will probably wait until after the Israeli election on January 22 before launching any major initiative. He had a special envoy for peace in the Middle East for a few years, former Sen. George Mitchell, but Mitchell quit after finding that he could not make much headway in keeping Israelis and Palestinians at the negotiating table.

In the Gaza talks, however, Mr. Obama demonstrated the unique role of the U.S. by sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to push the talk forward in Jerusalem, Ramallah (in the West Bank), and Cairo. She was able to preside over the announcement of a cease-fire on Wednesday in the Egyptian capital, where she spoke of a need "to consolidate the progress" and improve the lives of Israelis and Palestinians.

As well as trying to help Israeli and Palestinians negotiate -- defying strong skepticism on all sides -- Mr. Obama could pursue a wider goal of creating a pro-peace, pro-stability coalition in the Middle East. Sunni Muslim nations that opposed the growing influence of Iran, a Shiite Muslim country, could take part -- notably Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.

In Turkey, there is the challenge that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been saying hostile things about Israel. But for many years, often kept hush-hush, Turkey and Israel had strong military and intelligence cooperation. They have many shared concerns -- including what will emerge from the instability and deaths in Syria, the Arab country that is sandwiched between them.

Western diplomats note that, during the recent Gaza truce talks, the heads of Turkish and Israeli intelligence were both in Cairo.

Mr. Obama could help a new push for a pro-stability regional coalition by mediating an end to the bitter argument over the killing by Israeli troops of nine people on a Turkish aid ship that was heading for Gaza in 2010. Israeli officials say Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did recently come close to issuing an apology to Turkey.