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POLITICS: Obama Enigmatic on Mideast Crisis

Daniel Luban

WASHINGTON, Jan 6 2009 (IPS) - As U.S. President-elect Barack Obama settles into Washington and meets with congressional leaders about his stimulus plan, he and his incoming administration remain silent about the intensifying crisis in the Gaza Strip.

Obama’s silence, combined with outgoing President George W. Bush’s passive support for Israeli military actions, has resulted in the United States largely remaining on the sidelines while Middle Eastern and European leaders take the lead in pushing for a diplomatic resolution to the crisis.

But although Obama’s unwillingness to speak out about the Gaza situation is unsurprising to most experts, it points to a deeper uncertainty about what stance his administration will take toward the Israel-Palestine situation in office.

Since Israel began bombing Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip on Dec. 27, Obama has deferred to the Bush administration, reiterating through a spokesperson that “there is only one president at a time” and that he will not take any action prior to his Jan. 20 inauguration.

Nevertheless, Obama has shown himself willing to engage in political affairs during this time, visiting with congressional leaders on Monday to push his economic stimulus plan. He has also spoken out on foreign policy, issuing a statement on the Mumbai terrorist attacks in December.

While European officials such as French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Czech Foreign Minister Karl Schwarzenberg have traveled to the region to lead diplomatic efforts, the Bush administration has blamed Hamas for the conflict but avoided taking an active role. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cancelled a planned trip to China Monday in order to deal with the crisis, but currently has no plans to travel to the region.

In the absence of any statement, however, analysts have struggled to figure out the president-elect’s position. Some have looked back to a July statement made in the Israeli town of Sderot that “if someone 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”, seeing it as an endorsement of Israeli military retaliation against Hamas.

At a panel on the Middle East held Monday at the Brookings Institution, observers paid particular attention to the remarks by Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs under the Bill Clinton administration. He is considered a likely candidate for a top Middle East position under Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton and therefore a possible bellwether for the views of the Clinton State Department.

Indyk avoided assessing responsibility for the crisis or making immediate prescriptions on how to respond, however. His call for a “sustainable ceasefire” was carefully worded to avoid giving offence to either side. Indyk also claimed that Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak will likely end the military campaign before Obama’s Jan. 20 inauguration, making the new president’s task somewhat easier.

“This week is going to be intensive operations, next week is going to be intensive diplomacy,” Indyk said. “I think Obama will find himself in a situation where he can pick up that diplomacy and try to get both sides to agree to a ceasefire.”

Also at the Brookings panel, University of Maryland political scientist Shibley Telhami praised Obama’s decision not to speak out about the Gaza situation before the inauguration.

“The president is not going to have a second chance to make a first impression,” Telhami said. “If you say something about this crisis first thing… then you’re tying your hands in a way that’s consequential. I think it’s a big mistake for him to intervene in this crisis, as much as many of us want to see some nuanced policy.”

While many analysts seem to agree with Telhami that silence is the best course of action until the inauguration, Obama’s response highlights the ambiguity concerning his administration’s attitude towards Israeli-Palestinian issues. Perhaps by design, he has surrounded himself with top advisors whose records on the subject are difficult to read.

Clinton earned a reputation in the late 1990s for being open to Palestinian concerns. She called for a two-state solution in 1998, well before it became a consensus view, and in 1999 aroused controversy when she appeared with Suha Arafat, wife of the late Palestinian National Authority president Yasir Arafat, during an event at which Arafat denounced Israel. Clinton also won support in the Arab world for her husband’s efforts to broker peace between Israelis and Palestinians in the last years of his administration.

But since joining the U.S. Senate in 2001, she has taken a more hawkish pro-Israel line. Analysts have wondered whether this stance is a product of changes in her own views, or of the demands of being a senator from New York, whose disproportionately Jewish population tends to be pro-Israel.

Similarly, Obama’s National Security Advisor-designate James Jones generally has a reputation for hawkishness and centrism. But as a special envoy to the Middle East in 2007 and 2008, he drafted a report that was apparently harshly critical of Israel’s West Bank policies and was eventually suppressed by the Bush administration. And Robert Gates, who will stay on as Obama’s Secretary of Defence, is a Russia specialist by training without much of a record on the Israel-Palestine situation.

When combined with Obama’s own sparse record on foreign policy, this has led to widespread disagreement about how the new administration will handle Israel-Palestine upon taking office. While Obama was initially thought to be sympathetic to Palestinian concerns and viewed with suspicion by some hawkish Jewish groups, the conventional wisdom appears to have shifted in the wake of his foreign policy appointments, and many now see him as broadly sharing the pro-Israel views of the Bush administration.

Still others believe that Obama has chosen advisors with unquestioned hawkish credentials to give his administration political cover and allow it to push for a peace agreement in Israel-Palestine.

Author and political blogger Glenn Greenwald cautioned against drawing conclusions either way until Obama takes office.

“I have little appreciation for those who believe, one way or the other, that they can reliably predict what Obama is going to do – either on this issue or others,” Greenwald wrote on Friday. “That requires a clairvoyance which I believe people lack…there is simply no way to know until Obama is inaugurated.”

In the meantime, Obama remains silent and European and Arab nations are filling the diplomatic void left by the United States. Still, few expect the U.S. to remain on the sidelines for long.

“Essentially what I think is going to happen is that [these other nations] are going to be teeing it up for Obama,” Indyk said. “Because in the end, it is the United States that has influence with Israel”.

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