Israel’s military onslaught against the militant Hamas movement will probably make it harder for President-elect Barack Obama to fulfill a campaign pledge of early and vigorous Mideast peacemaking, and the pre-inauguration timing may frustrate any effort he plans to establish new footing among Arab partners.
Obama’s foreign policy advisers are lying low out of deference to President George W. Bush and are refusing to speak to the implications of Israel’s three-day-old operation in the volatile Gaza Strip. But transition aides are being briefed by Bush administration officials and quietly pondering its effects.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has had "direct conversations" about the situation with both Obama and her designated successor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the State Department said Monday. An Obama aide said the president-elect would be discussing the matter with Clinton and his choice to be national security adviser, retired Gen. James Jones.
Analysts believe Israel timed the air attacks to prevent the situation in Gaza from becoming Obama’s first major foreign policy crisis when he takes office Jan. 20, as well as for domestic political reasons. But they also think the offensive against Hamas may undermine any short-term initiative the incoming administration might try.
"The Israelis don’t want to greet the president-elect with this problem as the first thing when he enters the Oval Office," said Steven Cook, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Yet, he added, "It clearly, clearly complicates any effort to engage in a vigorous diplomatic effort."
Another council fellow, Dan Senor, agreed, saying the Israelis had calculated that they would have to act quickly before Obama moves into the White House or else wait months.
"The last thing (they) wanted was when the president-elect is sworn in that the first thing on his welcome mat is this incursion into Gaza," said Senor, a former Bush administration communications official. "It wouldn’t be good for Israel, it wouldn’t be good for President Obama’s new administration. In a sense, it wasn’t in anybody’s interest."
Israel can count on firm support from the Bush administration for the sensitive Gaza operation, despite broad condemnation in the Arab world and rising calls elsewhere for Israel to pull back in the face of mounting civilian casualties.
But a primary risk is that the offensive in Gaza will further undermine the already weakened Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who controls only the West Bank and has little to show from more than a year of negotiations with the Israelis that began in November 2007 at a peace conference in Annapolis, Md., according to Cook and others.
Another is inflamed tensions against Israel and its chief ally, the United States, that could undermine high hopes the Arab world has for a change in U.S. course in the region under Obama, they said.
Rice, meanwhile, also has reached out to more than a dozen foreign leaders and senior officials in a bid to prevent the situation from spiraling out of control and keep the Annapolis process, recently enshrined as "irreversible" at her urging by the U.N. Security Council, at the forefront of the peace push.
Clinton and Jones, who has been supervising Palestinian security arrangements in the West Bank, are familiar with the intricacies of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. As New York’s junior senator, Clinton has been a strong supporter of Israel, a history that may help her with Israelis and hurt her among Arab leaders.
The operation in Gaza has at the very least muted Rice’s effort, which is also complicated by the transition in Washington and the upcoming Israeli election, in which all candidates are eager to appear tough on Palestinian militants.
Abbas also has said he’ll call general elections soon, signaling he’s ready for a new showdown with Hamas.
Hamas, which wrested control of Gaza from Abbas 18 months ago, contends that his term as president ends Jan. 8. Abbas initially said he has another year, but polls indicate most Palestinians disagree with him.
A call for elections appears to be the only way for Abbas to retain legitimacy. However, it remains unclear whether he actually intends to hold them, or just plans to call for a vote as a tactical move, with the expectation that Hamas would refuse to go along.
It’s also not certain whether elections would unify the Palestinians or deepen the divisions.
A vote could potentially strengthen moderates like Abbas. Or it might be a repeat of the 2006 contest that saw Hamas win a surprise victory, beginning a violent process that led to Hamas’ seizure of Gaza the following year.
The Arab American Institute said Monday that the Gaza assault is the third Israel has launched on Arab populations "with the Bush administration’s acquiescence."
The Arab advocacy group counts Israeli military action in the West Bank in 2003 and action in Gaza and Lebanon in 2006 as the others.
In the Lebanon war, Arabs were outraged by the Bush administration’s refusal for weeks to demand a full Israeli cease-fire. Then, as now, the White House accurately blamed Arab militants for provoking the conflict, in that case Iranian-backed Hezbollah militants based across Israel’s border with fragile Lebanon.
Israel’s heavy response in Lebanon was widely seen as disproportionate, while the Bush administration’s reaction was interpreted across the globe as an attempt to give Israel cover to do as much damage as possible to Hezbollah despite mounting civilian casualties.
Arab groups said both U.S. and Israeli policies drain Palestinian hopes that negotiation is worthwhile.
"Should the White House once again fail to act to restrain Israel and to provide real leadership in the search for peace, this tragedy will continue to grow: Palestinian suffering and bitterness will deepen, Israelis will remain insecure, and extremism will be further fueled by anti-American anger," the Arab American Institute said in a statement.
Tens of thousands of Lebanese Hezbollah supporters stood under pouring rain Monday to protest Israel’s air assault on Gaza. The rally was by far the largest protest in the Arab world.
Responding to the tide of anti-Israel protests and a U.N. Security Council plea for cessation of military action, the largest pro-Israel lobby urged the Bush administration "to stand with Israel at the U.N."
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee also noted Sunday remarks by Obama adviser David Axelrod that "Israel has a right to defend itself." During a Sunday interview, Axelrod referred to Obama’s comments about Israel’s need for security — a statement made during a Mideast visit in July.
AP Military Writer Anne Gearan contributed to this report.
Matthew Lee covers U.S. foreign policy for The Associated Press and has reported on diplomacy and international affairs for 14 years.