President-elect Barack Obama’s studied silence on the subject of Israel’s 10-day-old war against Palestinian Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip is only partly out of deference to the man who still has the big job for two more weeks.
Obama’s reserve is also a political calculation that saying nothing is the better of his unappealing options. At least it lets all sides think he’s in their corner for a little while longer.
Obama’s promises to start fresh in the Middle East, and Arab hopes for a more sympathetic U.S. ear are part of that calculation. So are the strongly pro-Israel views of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama’s choice for secretary of state.
Anything Obama says about the crisis, either now or on Jan. 21, will be taken as a clue to his longer-term approach to peacemaking, and it is bound to disappoint someone.
There is little in Obama’s resume or his public statements to suggest he suddenly would be tough on Israel or brimming with fresh ideas to address the dismal web of interlocking economic, political and security problems in the Palestinian territories. Obama’s only extensive remarks about the Israel-Palestinian conflict during the presidential campaign were strongly pro-Israel.
Clinton was considered naive for a gaffe as first lady in which she kissed PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s wife, but as a New York senator she’s been consistently pro-Israel.
Nonetheless, Palestinians look to Obama.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki expressed disappointment that the president-elect has refused to comment on the Israeli offensive in Gaza, even though he made a statement on the recent attacks in Mumbai, India.
"We expected him really to be open and responsive to the situation in Gaza," Malki said Monday. "And still … we expect him to make a strong statement regarding this as soon as possible."
Talking about the crisis in the same terms Bush uses would drain the goodwill of Palestinians and the Arab intermediaries Obama needs, said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator and a scholar at The Century Foundation. It also would limit Obama’s maneuvering room later.
Talking about Gaza in markedly different terms — for instance, by calling for an unconditional truce — would be awkward in the extreme, Levy said.
"I’ve been getting briefed every day. I’ve had consistent conversations with members of the current administration about what’s taking place," Obama told reporters Monday in his only comments on the Gaza crisis.
"I will continue to insist that when it comes to foreign affairs, it is particularly important to adhere to the principle of one president at a time, because there are delicate negotiations taking place right now, and we can’t have two voices coming out of the United States when you have so much at stake."
The voice that is coming out belongs to a president who is a stout defender of Israel, as he affirmed Monday.
"I understand Israel’s desire to protect itself," President George W. Bush said in the Oval Office. "The situation now taking place in Gaza was caused by Hamas."
Over the weekend, Israel began moving tanks and troops into the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip after a week of punishing aerial bombing of Hamas targets, which caused dozens of civilian casualties and drew widespread condemnation in the Muslim and Arab world. By moving ground forces into Gaza, Israel has raised the risk of escalating the latest Mideast conflict into urban warfare, which would surely increase the casualties and consequences for the region.
Bush, however, laid the blame squarely on Hamas, which the United States labels a terrorist organization.
Israel may end its broad ground war before Obama takes office on Jan. 20, but the festering problem of Israeli-Arab hostilities will remain.
In the near term, if the Israeli incursion continues under an Obama administration, Obama must decide whether to continue Bush’s policy of defending Israel even in the face of mounting world criticism of civilian deaths.
If the war ends quickly, Obama would be left to help administer whatever cease-fire terms or other international arrangement Israel agreed to, and to choose a response in the very likely event that the truce proves imperfect.
Even if Obama isn’t talking, there’s no shortage of Mideast hands hoping he is listening.
The advice includes a position paper provided to The Associated Press that carries the signature of one of Obama’s own transition advisers, former diplomat Wendy Chamberlin.
"The Obama administration should lead an international effort to arrange a two-phase process: an immediate cease-fire, followed by a longer term armistice," the paper from the Israel Policy Forum said.
"Thus, if a cease-fire has not been established by the time Obama takes office, his team should work assiduously, through intermediaries, to establish a viable cease-fire," said the paper signed by Chamberlin and a dozen others.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.
Anne Gearan covers national security affairs for The Associated Press.