Israel's massive three-day aerial assault on Gaza
is likely to complicate President-elect Barack Obama's hopes of aggressively
pursuing Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, and it risks inflicting greater
damage to Washington's standing in the Arab world, according to analysts.
Indeed, if the current campaign goes on much longer and the Israelis launch
a major ground invasion of Gaza as they now appear to be preparing to do, Obama
could face a major international crisis comparable to Israel's failed
2006 war against Lebanon's Hezbollah just as he takes office in three
"With this assault, the fallout has already started to spread considerably
beyond the constituency of people who are Palestinians," noted Helena
Cobban, a veteran Middle East analyst, who cited popular protests in Egypt,
Jordan, and elsewhere in the Arab world since the Israeli campaign began Saturday.
"It has already started, and we can confidently expect that the longer
Israel's assault is maintained, the higher the regional stakes will rise."
The Israeli attacks, which came a week after the expiration of an increasingly
shaky six-month cease-fire, have so far reportedly killed more than 300 Palestinians,
while two Israelis have died in rocket attacks launched from Gaza.
While Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak initially insisted that Israel's
war aims were designed to reinstate and strengthen the cease-fire, the former
prime minister, who hopes to reclaim that post as head of the Labor Party in
Feb. 10 elections, appeared to broaden them in a speech to the parliament Monday
in which he pledged "war to the bitter end" against Hamas, the Islamist
party that controls Gaza. Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon said Israel aimed
to "topple Hamas."
As with the 2006 war, the administration of President George W. Bush has offered
strong backing for the Israeli attack, demanding that Hamas stop firing rockets
into Israel and agree to a "sustainable and durable cease-fire."
"The United States understands that Israel needs to take actions to defend
itself," said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe at Bush's ranch
in Texas, where the outgoing president is spending the Christmas holiday. Johndroe
called the leadership of Hamas "nothing but thugs" during a briefing
Meanwhile, Obama, who is vacationing in Hawaii, has declined to comment on
the violence and the threat of larger crisis. "The fact is that there is
only one president at a time, and that president now is George Bush," Obama's
top political adviser, David Axelrod, said on a nationally televised public-affairs
Axelrod went on to quote Obama as defending Israel's retaliation against
Gaza-based militants who launched rockets into the southern Israeli town of
Sderot when he visited there in July.
"If somebody was sending rockets into my house, where my two daughters
sleep at night, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that.
And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing," Obama had said at the
time. In his speech to the Knesset Monday, Barak significantly repeated the
quotation in defending Israel's action.
During the presidential campaign, Obama repeatedly insisted that he
in contrast to his predecessor would make Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations
a top priority "from day one" in his administration. He reiterated
his intention explicitly when he introduced the senior members of his foreign-policy
team in Chicago earlier this month.
A number of Obama's informal advisers including former national security
advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski have publicly urged
the president-elect to follow through on that commitment, arguing that nothing
could do more to help Washington recover its badly damaged credibility in the
Arab and Islamic worlds than to lead a major effort at achieving a two-state
But such an effort is now seen as increasingly problematic, particularly if
the Gaza conflict escalates further, according to most experts.
"It clearly, clearly complicates any effort to engage in a vigorous diplomatic
effort, because the Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip has necessarily weakened
[Palestine Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas and his efforts to negotiate with
the Israelis," said Steven Cook, a Middle East analyst at the Council on
Foreign Relations, who also noted the conflict also created "an untenable
situation for the Syrians to continue" their Turkish-mediated peace talks
The violence "is going to make an already dramatically complicated situation
worse," Aaron Miller, a former senior U.S. state department Middle East
negotiator now at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, told
the Wall Street Journal. "Obama's going to inherit a crisis without
the capacity to do much about it," he told Politico.com.
Not everyone is so pessimistic, however. Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace
negotiator currently based at the New America Foundation and the Century Fund,
noted that the current crisis serves as a reminder that the Israeli- Palestinian
conflict cannot be ignored.
"[These] events should be 'Exhibit A' in why the next U.S. government
cannot leave the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to fester or try to 'manage' it
as long as it remains unresolved, it has a nasty habit of forcing itself
onto the agenda," he wrote on his blog.
"The new administration needs to embark upon a course of forceful regional
diplomacy that breaks fundamentally from past efforts," he added, noting
that a consensus within the foreign policy establishment has emerged in favor
of a more assertive peacemaking role, including setting forth the basic elements
of final settlement, as laid out by Brzezinski and Scowcroft, among other major
Cook also agreed that Obama's decisive electoral victory and his vision
of more aggressive Middle Eastern diplomacy will give him more leverage over
the Israelis who "aren't looking for a fight with" with the new
Still, the ongoing violence makes it "hard to see any scenario which produces
remotely positive results for anyone involved," according to Marc Lynch,
a professor at George Washington University who specializes in Arab media and
"A bloody retaliation against Israelis seems highly likely, and if Abbas
is seen as supporting the Israeli offensive against his political rivals, then
Hamas may well emerge from this even stronger within Palestinian politics,"
he wrote on his widely read blog. "The
offensive is highly unlikely to get rid of Hamas, but it will likely leave an
even more poisoned, polarized and toxic regional environment for a new president
who had pledged to re-engage with the peace process."
Lynch and Cook, among others, also believe that the continued fighting in Gaza
will reopen and widen the breach already made clear during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah
war between Arab regime allied to the U.S. and their own publics to the
benefit of Iran and its regional allies, not to mention radical Sunni forces,
The fact that Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah called Monday for Arabs and
Muslims to launch "uprisings" in support of Gaza "should be cause
for concern," according to Cook, who noted that the catalyst for the 2006
war was an attack on an Israeli patrol designed to divert the Israelis from
ongoing military operations in Gaza.
"Obama has scrupulously [and wisely] adhered to the 'one president at
a time' formula in foreign policy up to this point," Lynch wrote, "but
you have to wonder how long he can sit by and watch the prospects for meaningful
change in the region battered while the administration sits by and cheers."
(Inter Press Service)