Obama team faces trial by fire in Israel-Hamas conflict

The Gaza strife will quickly test the new president's national security team, which is still missing key players.

January 17, 2009|Paul Richter

WASHINGTON — For years, Democratic leaders excoriated the Bush administration for what they saw as its long neglect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, vowing that should they win the presidency, they would play a far more active role in brokering Middle East peace.

Now, as President-elect Barack Obama and his secretary of State-designate, Hillary Rodham Clinton, prepare to take office, they confront a Middle East in deepening distress. The Gaza Strip is smoldering amid a 3-week-old Israeli military offensive, America's moderate Palestinian allies have been critically weakened, and Israel may soon choose a prime minister markedly less enthusiastic about a peace process.

The latest Middle East crisis will swiftly test Obama's national security team, which is still struggling to fill key positions and has yet to work out many of the basics of its diplomatic approach.

Clinton is weighing whom to name as "super envoy" for the Middle East, and whom to pick as assistant secretary of State for Near East affairs, traditionally the chief diplomat in the region.

The general contours of the Obama approach are clear: The new administration will reach out to Syria, seek to foster continued Israeli-Palestinian talks and try to make a new opening to the Muslim world that will strengthen its diplomatic position.

But decisions await. Officials haven't decided, for example, to what extent they will follow the Bush administration's approach to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, or what gestures they will make to show that they are more deserving of Arab support than was outgoing President Bush.

"There's so much they haven't worked out," said one advisor, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue. "This will take time."

Middle Eastern diplomats have been urging the Obama team to take care in its approach to the Gaza crisis because the ramifications are so broad. A perceived victory by the Islamic militant group Hamas would strengthen its allies in Iran and Lebanon and weaken the Palestinian Authority and the moderate Arab governments that have been criticized as being too passive in the face of the Israeli offensive.

Gaza "is on a seam line of a series of conflicts," Martin Indyk, a former Clinton administration official and Middle East advisor to Hillary Clinton, said recently. Obama promised during the campaign to make resolving the Palestinian issue a priority of his presidency, but the outbreak of war has changed the magnitude of the challenge.

"I don't think he, or any of us, ever imagined they would be facing such a difficult crisis on Day 1," Indyk said.

Incoming officials have been hoping the Bush administration would work out a lasting cease-fire before the inauguration. But even if basic elements of a truce are in place, it will take a long time to complete the deal and ensure that it holds.

Obama also will be under pressure to quickly respond to militants in the Middle East who have been saying that his silence to date on the Israeli offensive shows that he is no different from Bush.

But doing so would require Obama to call for an unconditional cease-fire or pressure the Israelis to halt West Bank settlements. Such actions would threaten ties to a nation he says is the foremost U.S. ally in the region.

European diplomats already are talking about an international campaign to rebuild Gaza. But development aid involves ticklish diplomatic questions. If the aid is funneled through Hamas, it would give the organization more influence and legitimacy -- just what the United States and Israel want to avoid, noted Aaron David Miller, a former American peace negotiator now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

Clinton acknowledged as much in her confirmation hearing Tuesday. More telling, in response to written questions from the Senate, she said that the Obama administration wouldn't be able to begin formulating policy on some key points until it held discussions with Middle East leaders.

In reply to a written question from Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), she said the administration's approach would be determined "as an outgrowth of consultations with the parties" that hadn't yet even begun because of Obama's view that there should be "one president at a time."

Clinton has been moving cautiously in choosing her Middle East envoy, a decision which in itself will reflect certain policy choices. Transition advisors said she has been weighing whether to choose a respected career professional or a well-known former elected official with knowledge of the region, along the lines of former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell.

If she chooses a career professional who is not well known, some could see the move as downgrading the job. But if she chooses a well-known former politician, she could lose some of her influence over the peace process, analysts said.

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