Opinion: Gaza – Obama’s First Generated International Crisis

Vice President-elect Joe Biden was mocked during the Presidential campaign when he said as President, Barack Obama was going to face a generated crisis to test his mettle. Could he have guessed it would be generated by a supposed allay?

National security and foreign policy were two of the hottest topics of this past election race. When Barack Obama takes his presidential office on January 20, 2009, the President and his foreign policy team will have to deal with two major military campaigns and a host of other major other national security and international problems. Among those include: Genocide in Darfur; The aftermath of the recent Mumbai incident in India; Nuclear energy and alleged state-sponsored terrorism in Iran; State sponsored terrorism in Pakistan; Zimbabwe. But the most urgent of them will be Obama grasping the challenge of peace between Israel and Palestine.

The new president has the pressing issues of American citizens to attend to, like the US economy and Iraq and Afghanistan. But it can be the current Israel – Hamas conflict that starts his administration on a running halt. Certainly it was already too much to ask for the Obama administration to make considerable strides towards major breakthroughs in these areas during one term as President, but with new Israeli air-strikes on Gaza this past weekend, the Israeli – Palestinian issue will pose as particularly troubling international problem for the new administration. The recent escalation of violence could scuttle any hopes of an Obama administration forging an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal now, in the near future or as part of a potential second term. Some go as far to say that it makes any Obama plan unfeasible.

No one is laughing at Joe Biden now.

This will prove to be Obama’s first major international challenges. An international crisis generated by ‘America’s Greatest Allay’. During his presidential campaign, Obama held a news conference in the southern Israeli town of Sderot, a town that has borne the brunt of the Gaza rocket attacks, and stated he does not “think any country would find it acceptable to have missiles raining down on the heads of their citizens.” Obama said at the time. “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 also told the nation’s pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, on June 4 that he had an “unshakable commitment” to that country’s security and described himself as a “true friend of Israel.” Still, Obama has made it clear since his Nov. 4 election that under his leadership the U.S. would be actively involved in the search for peace. Now the Israeli’s have apparently set out to test those statemets from the President-elect. It’s a safe guess that the answers to the test will be answered not too far down the road.

The operation is “likely to take time,” warned outgoing Israeli Prime-Minister Ehud Olmert, who appears to want to leave office in a blaze of military glory. He stated to Israeli’s that it “is likely the number of rockets will increase and they will hit farther into Israel than they have until now.” There reportedly have been rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel during the past year which before the air campaign killed nine people. The Israeli attacks have killed substantially more since the inception of the air-strikes, and can potentially grow higher if reports about a ground offensive are true. This aggression comes amid an election campaign in Israel, with voting scheduled for Feb. 10. Most of the candidates seeking office have taken a hardline stance and perhaps are engaging in what can be called a pre-Obama strike against the Gaza government. Arab-Israeli’s have accused the government of waging a war for electioneering purposes.

Meanwhile, the United States has vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution that called for an immediate end to the bombardment of the Gaza Strip by Israel. This is the 40th time since 1972 that the United States has come to the aid of Israel, and used its veto power to kill a binding UNSC resolution critical of it. It is also the 5th time since 2004 the U.S has prevented the passing of resolutions aimed at ending Israeli Gaza offensives. The UNSC was forced to settle for a non-binding statement which was read out by the Ambassador from Croatia that “called for an immediate halt to all violence” and on the parties “to stop immediately all military activities.”

The massive Israeli response to the Hamas rocket attacks, provide an early lesson to Obama that he will have to make room on his agenda for plenty of unexpected developments. How the incoming Obama administration handles this crisis could unfairly be the determining factor in whether or not Obama wins a second term as US President. If Obama responds to the situation by taking an active role, it would differ from the tact of George W. Bush. The president disengaged from Middle East peacemaking until the last year of his administration, then failed to hammer out an accord as Israel dealt with political crisis and the Palestinians remained divided. “The problem is for eight years, there’s been no adult supervision, which is what the United States can do,” said James Zogby, president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute. Obama also has a political need to break away from President George W. Bush in order to regain America’s popularity in the world.

Many Arabs say their initial hopes that Obama would usher in a new era in the Middle East have dimmed some with his choices for key positions in his administration. His appointments of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state and Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff have drawn harsh criticism. Clinton has expressed far more hawkish views on the Middle East than Obama, while Emanuel is Jewish, and his father had links to a militant Jewish organization in the 1940s. Further complicating these concerns is the troubling shift of the Israeli electorate to the right and the possibility that extremely hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu will become prime minister after the February 10, 2009 election. Obama has pledged to involve himself in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and will not back away from Bush’s commitment to the two-state vision. However, Netanyahu’s rejection of final-status negotiations and his insistence on the territorial status quo are bound to put him on a collision course with Obama.

There are potentially many points of contention between an Obama administration and whomever wins the elections in Israel. Some of the points come down to hard choices that Israeli’s must make if they truly desire a real peace. One regards the use of force which Israel’s Army deploys. Bush backed Israel in its forceful crushing of the Palestinian intifada, encouraged it to fight Hezbollah in 2006 and approved Israel’s bombing raid against Syria’s suspected nuclear site in 2007. The Bush administration has also adopted Israel’s method of airborne “targeted killings” of terrorists, applying it in Yemen, Pakistan and Syria. Will Obama follow this policy? Can he allow Israel to maintain its siege of Hamas-ruled Gaza? Or will he follow Europe’s lead and act to restrain Israel and force it to remove obstacles to normal Palestinian life?

Another area could involve the West Bank settlements. Many UN Resolutions have been passed to prohibit Israel from building settlements in Palestinian lands which Israel has ignored. Bush supported the Gaza pullout but allowed Israel to build new housing in areas “within the fence” and accepted Israel’s reluctance to remove the outposts, despite its repeated pledges to the contrary. Obama will probably be more resistant to new settlement construction, especially near Jerusalem. There is growing unrest among the extremist settlers that translates into violence against Palestinians and Israeli security forces. Such incidents, and ongoing Israeli government hesitation, may give the Obama administration an opening to demand stricter law enforcement and recognition across the “green line.”

Iran also comes to mind. Barack Obama’s pledge to engage with Tehran is seen in Israel as a sign of softness toward extremists, and is worrisome to Tel-Aviv. Israel is concerned with American acceptance of Iran’s nuclear status. Israel is also worried about preserving its interests in an American-Iranian dialogue given the Obama camp’s goal to resume multilateral arms control. But Israel is likely most worried about preserving its independent deterrent (nuclear ambiguity) which is even more crucial under the alleged threats from Iran and its allies.

Many Israelis who welcome Obama as the new hope for American engagement in the peace process, in stark contrast to the hands-off Bush and for the most part, the Clinton years. Many Israeli’s have concerns that Obama will have neither the time or energy to wholeheartedly engage due to Iraq, Afghanistan and the looming US economic crisis. There is a question of if he had the interest to be involved in the issue during his first term. Among their concerns is that a rare opportunity for peace will be missed, and also that the volatile situation on the ground will be neglected, allowing it to deteriorate into another Arab-Israel war.

Obama’s test in the Middle East will be to end this current war if it is still raging when he takes office, or to leverage the crisis into successful diplomacy in the region. Several American presidents accomplished this in the past: Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, Richard Nixon with Henry Kissinger in 1973, and George H.W. Bush in 1991. The current US President however, has failed mightily in his inept effort in launching the “road map” process after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It is something Barack Obama had wanted to work on, but perhaps not quite this early.

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