WASHINGTON -- As Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton headed to the Middle East last Tuesday, news reports from Cairo advertised that an agreement was at hand. A quick round of calls by an aide on the plane to American diplomats in Egypt and Israel made it clear that the excitement was premature: formidable differences remained.
In a whirlwind series of meetings over the ensuing days, President Obama and Mrs. Clinton played an instrumental role in sealing the accord, a review of those meetings suggests. But it is also clear that the cease-fire announced Wednesday was achieved by deferring some of the toughest issues, including the pace and conditions under which Gaza's border crossings might be opened.
American officials assert that they have helped lay a foundation for progress, including a provision for meetings between Egyptian and Israeli officials on the thorny remaining issues. But that will require careful attention in the days and weeks ahead.
The Obama administration did not rush to send Mrs. Clinton to the region. After more than a day of deliberation by administration officials, Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton discussed the question at lunch in Myanmar last Monday.
The United States had strong influence with Israel and Egypt, whose leaders were close to Hamas. But administration officials did not want to dispatch Mrs. Clinton only to see the fighting escalate and the United States' credibility diminished.
That night, Mr. Obama made two calls to President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt and one to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. Ambassadors in Egypt and Israel were instructed to take discreet soundings about what a visit by Mrs. Clinton might accomplish.
By Tuesday morning, the Americans had traveled to Cambodia for an Asian summit meeting. At an 8:30 a.m. meeting with Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Obama decided that she should make the trip. The logistics were more complex than some officials realized. With a crush of heads of state jamming the Phnom Penh airport with their jets, the secretary of state's plane had been parked in Thailand. So the aircraft had to be refueled and flown to Cambodia, and the crew had to meet standards for rest before it could take off for the Middle East.
As Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, announced the trip around 3 p.m., Mrs. Clinton and her staff were driving to the Phnom Penh airport. Her plane had to slow down as it was approaching India so that American officials could complete arrangements to fly through India's airspace. Mr. Obama called Mr. Morsi to get an update and assured him that Mrs. Clinton was on the way.
Israel was the first stop. At 11 p.m., Mrs. Clinton and her team met with Mr. Netanyahu and other top Israeli officials in his office in a session that lasted until 1:30 a.m.
The Egyptians had submitted a draft proposal, clearly influenced by Hamas, and the Israelis suggested changes. One subject under discussion was the scope of military activities that were to cease. Other issues concerned how to deal with Hamas's demands that border crossings be opened and Gaza residents be given free access to a buffer zone Israel had decreed near the Gaza-Israel border, as well as Israel's insistence that steps be taken to halt the smuggling of rockets into Gaza.
On Wednesday, Mrs. Clinton went to Ramallah to meet with Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, while members of her staff stayed behind in Jerusalem to work with the Israelis on the Gaza text. A cease-fire was always the goal, but in public American officials talked about securing a "de-escalation" of the conflict, a more vague and less demanding objective.
Returning to Jerusalem, Mrs. Clinton met again with Mr. Netanyahu. After checking with the White House, she told the Israeli prime minister that Mr. Obama was prepared to call him to recommend that he accept the cease-fire, which was being criticized by some of the prime minister's opponents who argued that it would never last.
Mr. Obama was also prepared to pledge increased financial support for the Israeli Iron Dome antimissile system, which has received significant financing from the United States, and to promise stepped-up efforts to stop the smuggling of rockets into Gaza. A written summary of the presidential call, she said, would be released to make public the American commitments.
Mr. Netanyahu indicated that if the Americans could get the Egyptians to go along with certain changes the Americans and Israelis had discussed, there would probably be a deal.
The next stop was Cairo. Armed with the Egyptian text on which proposed changes were marked, Mrs. Clinton sat down with Mr. Morsi and his top aides. The Americans were eager to seal the deal before events on the ground got out of control.
After the Egyptians agreed to some of the changes, Mrs. Clinton went to an empty conference room in the presidential compound and called Mr. Netanyahu on her cellphone to secure his approval as servants hauled in platters of food for an event later that day. The Egyptians, meanwhile, consulted with Hamas.
After the deal was struck, Mr. Obama called Mr. Netanyahu, as promised, and then Mr. Morsi.
The accord called for an end to "hostilities," including targeted assassinations, but did not refer explicitly to Israeli reconnaissance flights of Gaza, Middle East experts note. It stated that issues like opening border crossings and allowing Gaza residents near the border with Israel "shall be dealt with after 24 hours from the start of cease-fire." But the accord did not stipulate when such steps would be taken. Instead, they were to be a matter of discussion between the Egyptians and the Israelis.
The ambiguity provided room for differing interpretations by Hamas and Israel over the pace for taking such steps and the conditions under which they would be put into effect. The Israeli insistence that the smuggling of rockets into Gaza be stopped was referred to elliptically as "other matters" that might also be taken up by the two sides.
As Mrs. Clinton headed to the airport in Cairo for the flight to Washington, one aide said, she was not exuberant. The cease-fire seemed fragile, and the agreement was just a step toward resolving the underlying tensions over Gaza.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.