The damage that the last eight years of the outgoing administration of President George W. Bush inflicted on the Middle East was so deep that any change in Washington will be widely welcomed in the region.
Realistically speaking, however, expectations must be tempered by the reality of US Middle East policy constants, particularly American commitments to Israel. Those constants dictate that only small changes can be expected from Washington. These can nevertheless make a difference.
One such change in policy is the need for immediate and extensive engagement with and attention to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Another is the need for a fresh and comprehensive approach that appreciates the strong interrelationship among the different regional conflicts.
Finally, there is a need for an inclusive approach; one that will encourage dialogue and negotiations among all parties to conflicts and that will put an end to the present approach, which is based on exclusion and boycott.
It is probably not a coincidence that after just over three weeks, the Israeli war on Gaza appears to be coming to a gradual end two days before Barack Obama's inauguration. However, there are some other reasons for the timing.
International public outrage at Israel's actions in Gaza was mounting along with the tragic images, statistics and testimonies from international organizations, mainly the United Nations relief organizations, working in Gaza. Those statistics were indefensible. Some 1,300 Palestinians were killed, two-thirds of them civilians and one-third children. Over 5,500 people were wounded and some 4,000 private homes were destroyed.
In parallel to this, and perhaps as a result, Egyptian mediation efforts started to gain momentum in the last week of the war. A Hamas delegation, made up of two representatives each from Gaza and Damascus, as well as an Israeli delegation shuttled back and forth to Cairo to ensure that Egyptian efforts gained traction.
Other countries with influence also contributed in paving the way. A statement by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the BBC on January 16 essentially declared Syrian support for the Egyptian efforts by calling for the firing of rockets, the smuggling of weapons, the blockade and the Israeli offensive to end. This is more or less the substance of the Egyptian initiative.
Assad's prominent statement can also be interpreted as an invitation to the next American administration to think of the Syrian-Israeli political track as more ripe for cultivation in the political process that is expected to follow the war on Gaza.
The Obama administration will be faced with a new reality created by this war, and in more ways than one. There was life in the Bush administration right up until the last moment. In a sudden and dramatic American move that can be interpreted as an attempt by the current administration to create facts on the ground that Obama will tread on, the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signed an agreement with her Israeli counterpart Tzipi Livni. The agreement filled gaps in Egyptian mediation resulting from the Israeli demand for guarantees to end the smuggling of weapons and the Egyptian refusal to allow an international presence on its border with Gaza.
Hamas, meanwhile, has been weakened militarily and therefore its room for maneuver in terms of direct confrontation with Israel has been narrowed. This may usher in a year of calm around Gaza. But the Islamist movement is going to come out of this war strengthened politically vis-a-vis its rival Palestinian factions, including Fateh, and the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. Hamas may find, therefore, that in the next phase of the conflict it can more fruitfully operate on the political level and in the West Bank arena.
The complete failure of the American-initiated Annapolis peace process and the significant increase in Israeli measures to consolidate the occupation in the West Bank on the one hand, and the Israeli war on Gaza, which increased public sympathy with Hamas, on the other, have further shifted the balance of power against Fateh in the West Bank and left the Palestinian Authority politically very vulnerable.
Complicating the situation further, 2009 is a year of elections and expiring mandates. Israelis vote in February, while Hamas has already withdrawn its recognition of President Mahmoud Abbas as the legitimate head of the PA. Palestinian Legislative Council elections are due early next year.
These factors all leave the Obama administration with great and immediate challenges to both its intentions and abilities.- Published 19/1/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president for community outreach at Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning. He holds a PhD in Middle East politics from the University of Durham.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
The meaning of the Gaza war
by Yossi Alpher
The Gaza war rendered an Israeli-Palestinian two-state peace agreement more difficult and more distant. And it probably changed the incoming American president's order of priorities in ways the government of Israel--both this one and the next one--will have to adjust to quickly and flexibly.
The Israel-Arab-related issues that Barack Obama will face upon assuming the presidency now begin, unexpectedly, with the ugly unfinished business of Gaza. The efforts being made to ensure that rockets and other ordnance can no longer be smuggled into Gaza have yet to bear fruit. It is lamentable that it took an ugly war to prod Egypt and the international community--led by the United States, which signed a memorandum of understanding with Israel in this regard on the eve of Obama's presidency--into acting on this issue. But nothing has happened yet, and if Obama wants to avoid another round of fighting in Gaza, he will have to ensure that the effort succeeds.
By the same token, there is only a temporary ceasefire in and around Gaza, the IDF is still deployed inside the Strip, and the Gaza passages remain closed to all but humanitarian aid. Here too, the road to renewal of the fighting is short. One way to ensure that the ceasefire holds is for Obama to reevaluate the heavy restrictions that Israel and the Quartet, with Egyptian and PLO support, placed a year and a half ago on contact with Hamas and on open commerce with Gaza. This war demonstrated that Hamas, even if (hopefully) defanged, is here to stay. Obama, the new leader on the block, is well situated to effect a new departure with regard to engaging Hamas--just as he intends to engage Iran and Syria--and opening the Gaza-Israel passages to commerce, thereby reversing a foolish and counter-productive policy.
The Gaza post-war humanitarian situation, too, will need Obama's attention. As matters currently stand, the provision of western aid--intended not only to help Gazans rebuild but to counter Iranian aid and influence--requires a PLO presence in Gaza, which Hamas may or may not be persuaded to concur with. This issue may dovetail with Egypt's hopes to bring Hamas back into unity government talks with Abbas' PLO. If those talks succeed, they could within the year produce new Palestinian elections that Hamas might win, thereby putting paid to any near-term aspirations to negotiate a two-state solution. Those who speak approvingly of "Palestinian unity" should now beware of what they wish for.
The conventional wisdom in some quarters holds that the Gaza war will oblige Obama to award the Israeli-Palestinian peace process higher priority on his Middle East "to do" list than he originally might have intended. I doubt it. Obama will quickly discover that the war weakened Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). And Israel's Feb. 10 elections are liable to produce a new Israeli government less interested in removing settlements and negotiating a final status agreement than its predecessor or, if interested, no more capable.
Meanwhile, Syria beckons. The prospects for a Syria-Israel peace process weathered this war well; the only casualty may have been Turkish mediation, reflecting the vociferous anti-Israel pose struck during the war by Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan. If the ranks of militant Islam in the Middle East were struck a blow in this war by the damage done to Hamas and by Hizballah's refusal to open a second, northern front, a successful Israeli-Syrian peace process would make a far larger contribution by blunting Iran's drive for hegemony in the Levant, weakening Hizballah, contributing a quiet Syrian-Iraqi border to facilitate a US withdrawal from Iraq, and removing Hamas' headquarters from Damascus.
This would be good for Obama's Iran and Iraq agendas and, by weakening Hamas, good for his Israeli-Palestinian agenda. Of course, success with Syria and Israel is far from a certainty. But it is definitely more feasible under current circumstances than success with Abu Mazen and the next Israeli government.
Apropos Turkey's performance during this war, Obama now confronts a Middle East even more divided. Egypt, backed by Saudi Arabia and the PLO, cooperated closely with Israel and reestablished its traditional claim to courageous Arab leadership, while Israel reinforced its role as primary regional military power. On the other hand, Qatar and Turkey seemingly sided with the Iran-Syria-Hizballah-Hamas camp and Jordan sat on the fence. Obama's Middle East strategy requires a large measure of regional cooperation; in this regard, his job just became a little harder.- Published 19/1/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons.org family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Barack Hussein Obama is human
by Sam Bahour
Barack Hussein Obama is human--he is also a young and ambitious politician that likely already has his eye on a second presidential term. This all may sound self-evident, but listening to the expectations Americans and much of the world have for him, makes one wonder.
Seeing what Israel did in Gaza over the past three weeks--as if in a rush to complete their crime against humanity before President-elect Obama is sworn into office--seems to indicate that Israel is fearful that its 60-year free ride with the US may be coming to an end. Thus, Israel decided to set the terms--in Palestinian blood and destruction of Gaza--of its relationship with the Obama administration. On the other hand, listening to the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah building up hopes that this US president is going to come to its rescue makes one sick to the stomach yet again. For sure, President Obama is making history by being the first African-American president, but as far as the Palestinian issue is concerned all would be well advised to look deeper into how US government policy is formulated before expecting a superman-like US president to come to our salvation.
Compared with the past eight years of President Bush, I can understand the excitement that someone saner will now be at the world's helm. Likewise, having a new president who is young, articulate and able to connect with the masses is a feature long missing from US politics and is bound to create a buzz in America and abroad. However, in the excitement of the moment people are forgetting that US policy formulation has little to do with the likeability of the person sitting in the Oval Office. The US model of democracy has a deep separation of powers. The dynamics of each power are so complicated, and the divisions between the powers so distinct that influencing US policymaking has become a science--a science that Israel has mastered long ago and the Palestinians refuse to engage.
The Palestinian people have been on the receiving end of the US-armed and financed Israeli military machine for over 60 years. Yet ever since 1974, the Palestinian leadership has looked toward Washington for justice to be served. Instead of understanding and accepting that the US has long ago taken the Israeli side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, many Palestinian leaders continue to reach out to every incoming US administration as if one day the US will wake up to be the neutral mediator we all desire. That day is not coming--it has not come with 11 US administrations since the creation of the state of Israel, nor will it come with the twelfth, President Obama's.
Since its first 11 minutes of existence, Israel has pulled off the largest heist in US politics to date; it was successful in converting what should have been a US foreign affairs issue--how to deal with Israel--into a largely domestic issue. This shift should never be underestimated and can be seen in all 50 states, whether you are running for mayor, congressperson or senator. In each such case, and in many more, candidates and appointees across the US are brought to task to register their blind and inviolable support for Israel and everything Israel does, or otherwise be forced to compete with the well-oiled, ruthless pro-Israel lobby.
Barack Obama becoming president does not change the basic political foundations of the institution called the United States of America. However, given the renewed political interest and involvement of millions of Americans due to Obama's march on the White House, time is ripe for Palestinians to finally play US politics. The US politics game requires real leadership, real resources and a sustained institutional effort to engage America from the grassroots--the only place where change can start to be made. Such an approach would require more than outsourcing narrow-focused, ego-driven, Palestinian-run non-governmental organizations in DC to fawn to US administration officials. Understanding and linking into the fabric of America, while working to bridge American citizens' interests into realizing a just approach to Palestine, is the most prudent way to support President Obama to lead America on the right (as in correct, not politically right) side of history on this
President-elect Obama's website opens with a quote of him saying, "I'm asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington.... I'm asking you to believe in yours." Let's hope the Palestinian leadership understands that he is talking to them as much as to every American citizen.- Published 19/1/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American businessman from Youngstown, Ohio who lives in the occupied West Bank and is co-editor of "Homeland: Oral History of Palestine and Palestinians."
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Gaza: change we can believe in
by Alon Pinkas
It is a truism of international relations in the last several decades that the Middle East has an endearing quality of imposing itself on the international agenda. It inserts itself forcefully into news cycles even when uninvited and thoroughly unwelcome. The case of President-elect Barack Obama is no exception. In the past three weeks, and predictably rolling into his first weeks in office and irrespective of a ceasefire, he will find that you can pretend to be running from this violent and intractable region, but you cannot hide for more than a few days. Especially if you are the president of the United States of America.
What the new Obama administration wants in the broader Middle East and what Israel would like to see taking shape in the Gaza Strip are essentially the same thing, but on a different scale: "Change we can believe in". Obama wants this change to occur gradually throughout the region. Israel will be content with a significant change in its relations with Hamas in Gaza.
The current crisis in Gaza has two clear implications for US policy at this almost pre-introductory phase of its formation. First, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has dramatically moved up on the priority list and may very well be the number one foreign policy issue that requires Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's immediate attention and policy planning. In a sense, it is also an early test of their resolve and commitment to change outgoing President George W. Bush's foreign policy.
Second, it positions the Israeli-Palestinian issue ahead of the Israeli-Syrian track. Many in the incoming foreign policy establishment in Washington entertained the thought of a "Syria first" policy. Syria is a country with which, supposedly, Israel has only a territorial dispute. Negotiations are
simpler, the contours are clearer and the issues have already been more or less explored, studied, negotiated and exhausted. The Syria-first option's relation to a possible "isolate Iran" policy is almost self-evident. Simply put, all the administration has to do is to wipe the thin layer of dust off the December 2006 Baker-Hamilton "Iraq Study Group Report" and adopt it verbatim.
However, the Gaza crisis notwithstanding, the Obama-Clinton administration will quickly find out that Israelis in general, and the new prime minister elected in February in particular, are more inclined to deal with a Palestinian process than with Syria. Evacuating 85-95 percent of the West Bank is perceived as a political and demographic imperative by roughly 70 percent of Israelis, including substantial parts of the political right, provided the agreement is durable and sustainable. The Golan Heights are a different story. Israelis feel they understand the concrete value of the Golan and value the price of relinquishing control over it, but find it naturally difficult to envision the amorphous positive strategic returns, a much more intangible concept called "peace with Syria". They also feel no urgent need to do so at this moment.
Consequently, the Obama administration will be impelled to invest original thought, expend political energy and capital, spend time and perhaps risk international reputation and stature in this complex and almost insoluble conflict. It is axiomatic that Obama will be looking for a Middle East policy that is perceived as a clear departure from that of George W. Bush. Therefore, he will feel compelled to act quickly on Gaza so the Arab world will not interpret his policy as a continuation of Bush's.
It is safe to assume that several basic tenets of Obama's foreign policy will be in play here. First, he will actively seek multilateralism and try to engage other countries: France, Egypt, the EU as a bloc and later perhaps even Russia. Second, Obama will strive to reassert American power in the Middle East. Engaging other countries is a gallant and smart idea, but not at the expense of American dominance. Despite an economic crisis and financial meltdown of historic proportions, America effectively remains the world's only superpower for the time being. It is the only country capable of projecting diplomatic, political, military, technological and, yes, even economic power simultaneously. Third, Obama (and Hillary Clinton) believe in the power of diplomacy and will--at least at the beginning--exhibit more consideration and lend more weight to international institutions than Bush did.
There are 20 days between Obama's inauguration and the Israeli elections. Three or four weeks after that, circa mid-March, a new Israeli prime minister will take office. By early April, he/she will be unofficially ordained by virtue of the traditional first visit to the White House. (It should be noted for Obama's sake that he will also inevitably have to meet the prime minister elected in Israel's following elections, too, while still in his first term of office.) This means that there are a full 75 days between now and then, 75 days in which the crisis has to be diffused before a broader policy can be crafted and presented.
Obama, and to a greater extent his potentially dominant secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, will be expected to act swiftly and convincingly in front of a watching world.- Published 19/1/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Alon Pinkas is president of the US-Israel Institute at the Rabin Center and former consul-general of Israel in New York.
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Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.