x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Gaza crisis imperils Obama's efforts

Analysts believe the president-elect may find himself boxed in by his desire to improve US standing with Muslims and support Israel.

Palestinian relatives of Haya Hamdan, four, and her sister, Lama, 12, who were killed in an Israeli attack, mourn at their funeral in Gaza Strip.
Palestinian relatives of Haya Hamdan, four, and her sister, Lama, 12, who were killed in an Israeli attack, mourn at their funeral in Gaza Strip.

WASHINGTON // As the Israeli offensive in Gaza continues, it could hamper efforts by Barack Obama to breathe life into what was already a slow-moving US-backed peace process, some analysts say. Mr Obama has vowed to play a more active role in the region - and begin earlier in his administration - than the current US president, George W Bush. And he has pledged to "reboot" the US image in the Muslim world, raising hopes in many countries for a fresh approach to the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Now, however, with Israel's massive assault on Gaza that has left more than 350 dead, some fear those goals and hopes will have to be pared down. Analysts worry, for example, the bloodshed could lead more Palestinians to reject negotiations with Israel or the rising death toll could stoke anti-Israeli passions across the Middle East - as they already have - undermining the broader impetus for peace just as Mr Obama is taking office. Some also fear the violence could weaken the moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, a key negotiating partner, while strengthening Hizbollah and Iran, which have condemned the United States as being complicit in the suffering of Palestinians. "It clearly, clearly complicates any effort to engage in a vigorous diplomatic effort," Steven Cook, an expert on Middle East politics at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said this week during a phone briefing with reporters. Still, it is too early to tell what the long-term effect of the violence will be on US peace efforts; conditions could be dramatically different by the time Mr Obama is sworn in on Jan 20. Some even say the clash could give Mr Obama a fresh opportunity to focus on the conflict, one of several pressing regional matters he will inherit. For his part, the president-elect has remained silent as he continues a family holiday in Hawaii. Mr Obama talked with Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, and his national security team last weekend, but his surrogates have sidestepped questions related to the violence so far, instead deferring to Mr Bush. "The fact is that there is only one president at a time," David Axelrod, Mr Obama's senior adviser, said recently on one of the political news shows. Like Mr Bush, who relaunched the stalled peace process in 2007 with the so-called "Annapolis agreement", Mr Obama backs a two-state solution and negotiations with moderate Palestinian leaders. Both leaders also reject discussions with Hamas, which the United States has branded a terrorist group. Despite his reformer image, Mr Obama's policies may not be that different than those of Mr Bush, who has unwaveringly supported Israel's aggressive military policies and placed the blame for the recent violence on Hamas, which launched hundreds of rockets into Israel after a six-month ceasefire expired this month. "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," Mr Obama said during a July visit to Sderot, the Israeli town where many of the militant rockets have landed. "And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing." But now that Israel has gone on the offensive, a move it says is necessary to protect its people, it may become harder for Mr Obama to make diplomatic progress. David Newton, a former US ambassador to Iraq and Yemen, said such policies are more likely to strengthen those who perpetrate the violence than they are to coax militants to the negotiating table. "The Israeli policy is to do so much physical damage and create so much hardship - much like they did in Lebanon - that it will make people give up," he said. "But in the Middle East it just makes people dig in." Given the recent bloodletting, Mr Obama may now find himself boxed in between his desire to improve US standing among Muslims and his pledge of support to Israel, analysts said. If Mr Obama outright condemned the attacks, a move that would mark a departure from previous presidents and please much of the Arab world, he could risk losing Israel's commitment to the peace process, said Dan Senor, a former foreign policy adviser to Mr Bush. "I think the whole notion of a two-state solution, as far as the Israelis are concerned, is on the line right now," Mr Senor said in the conference call. "If Israelis can't be convinced that the US and the international community will let them, if you will, defend against Gaza, then I think the West and the international community can forget about a serious process that would also involve disengagement from the West Bank." On the other hand, if Mr Obama strikes a decidedly pro-Israel tone, some analysts said, it could put off many around the world who are looking to Mr Obama to be an agent of change. "It will dampen a lot of popular enthusiasm in the Middle East," said Mr Newton, the former diplomat. Ori Nir, a spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, a group that favours land concessions in exchange for peace, said the going could get even tougher for Mr Obama, if images of the violence whip up anti-government fervour on the streets of such countries as Egypt and Jordan that are crucial US allies. "If citizens of Arab countries, Muslim countries, keep seeing those very harsh, very disturbing and painful scenes coming from Gaza of blood and tears, it may create situations that are risky to Arab regimes," he said. Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah's leader, has already called on the people of Egypt - a key partner for any future negotiations involving Mr Obama - to take to the streets in protests of their government's support of Israel. Some members of the Jordanian parliament have called for a review of their peace treaty with Israel. And negotiations between Syria and Israel, which many believe would strengthen the peace process, have broken down since the fighting erupted. Still, many experts doubt the offensive will continue until Mr Obama's inauguration, and some say it may even have a long-term positive effect. "In any of these times of crisis, there is also opportunity because things will be fluid, the opportunities will be clear," said Graeme Bannerman, a policy expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington and former state department official. The Obama administration, he said, "may focus more on the Middle East than they otherwise would have". Others say the scale of the offensive, the largest since the 1967 war, could cause many in Gaza to renounce Hamas's policies once and for all and declare support for a two-state solution. "Perhaps the initial flush of anger and nationalism gives way to a more realistic appraisal," said Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine in Washington. The offensive "could actually promote the idea that the reliance on rockets and suicide bomb attacks is absolutely a dead end". Still, Mr Ibish cautioned, nobody knows the final effect of the Israeli offensive. "It's very hard to judge anything right now because events are still playing out. The one thing we know is that the situation is likely to deteriorate further before it resolves itself." sstanek@thenational.ae