Israel’s continuing attacks on Gaza serve as a reminder that President-elect Barack Obama and his nominee to be secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, will not get to choose the world they inherit January 20.
The incoming administration had planned to focus on the economic crisis and recalibrating U.S. policy in Iraq and Afghanistan in its early months – but the Israeli assault on Hamas may have instantly changed that calculus.
"For all the talk of putting the (Middle East) conflict on the back burner, it's going force itself onto the front burner," said Daniel Levy, a fellow at the New America Institute. Levy said that if the conflict in Gaza is still ongoing when Obama takes office, he will face regional and international pressure to broker a settlement.
"It could involve the administration very early,” Levy said.
Obama’s views on the Israeli action remain opaque. Even as the attack continued into its third day Monday, with a Palestinian death toll topping 300 and Israel threatening a ground invasion, Obama had yet to say a word about the crisis, on the grounds that President Bush (who has also been silent) must take the lead.
There were growing signs Monday that the air strikes — which came in response to increased rocket fire from Gaza, which is governed by Hamas — could be accompanied by a ground incursion. Israel’s leaders signaled that this could be an extended conflict, while emphatically denying any intention of reoccupying the independently governed territory.
Though both sides in the Middle East are intensely aware that this battle will establish facts on the ground in the region for the new administration, Obama’s advisors have sent only vague signals, with David Axelrod on “Face the Nation” Sunday calling Israel a “great ally” and citing America’s “special relationship” with the Jewish state.
In a visit this summer to Israel, Obama did appear to give implicit approval to such a strike, saying that, "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.”
When Obama does speak, his words will be carefully parsed – particularly by decision makers in Jerusalem weighing how long to continue the offensive in the face of worldwide calls for a ceasefire.
“His choices will be pretty clear: He can either say he supports Israel in its efforts to neutralize Hamas in the Gaza Strip or he can say that he emphasizes restraint on both sides, which puts the onus on both sides and attempts to bring both sides back to the table,” said Jonathan Schanzer, the director of policy at the Jewish Policy Center in Washington.
A well-worn geopolitical cliché holds that every crisis contains an opportunity. But for Obama – a president-in-waiting who faces daunting dilemmas across the domestic and foreign policy spectrum – the Israeli crackdown on Hamas seems unlikely to do anything but complicate his approach to a region that he had clearly hoped to keep low on his to-do list for awhile.
Israeli leaders see the faint possibility that, on one hand, the attack could weaken and further isolate Hamas and its sponsor Iran, paving the way for a return of its more moderate rivals. But that was also one of the goals in the 2006 invasion of Lebanon – an action many believe only served to strengthen Hezbollah.
Some observers who are more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause think the conflict could clarify the depth of Hamas’s support and lead Obama or his allies to bring them to the negotiating table. But the early consequence of the attack has been the collapse of peace negotiations between Israel and both the Palestinian Authority and Syria, and analysts on both sides say the likeliest consequence is an increasingly bitter and intractable conflict.
Then there’s the collateral damage for Obama of February elections in Israel almost certainly producing a new prime minister who is significantly to the right of the new American administration.
"This is a crisis without any real benefit, and a tremendous headache for the next administration," said a former State Department Middle East official, Aaron David Miller, of some of the likeliest outcomes.
"If it ends with Hamas getting re-involved in suicide terror and Israelis in Gaza for the next few weeks, it will be extremely difficult for the next administration," said Miller, the author of a recent work on diplomacy in the Middle East, "The Much Too Promised Land."
"Obama's going to inherit a crisis without the capacity to do much about it," Miller said.
Obama has huddled with advisors on the conflict, and spoke on the phone with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Saturday about the air strikes in Gaza as well as concerns about the movement of Pakistani troops away from Afghanistan and toward the Indian border. The conversation lasted about eight minutes, according to a transition aide who also said the president-elect will continue to closely monitor these events from his vacation home in Kailua, Hawaii.
"President-elect Obama is closely monitoring global events, including the situation in Gaza, but there is one president at a time,” said Obama spokeswoman Brooke Anderson.
American leaders on both sides of the aisle generally backed Israel’s attack.
The White House put the onus for the Israeli strike squarely on Hamas, with spokesman Gordon Johndroe calling the rocket attacks "completely unacceptable,” and calling the group's leadership "nothing but thugs."
"Israel is going to defend its people against terrorists like Hamas,” he said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a close Obama ally, offered a similar assessment. "Peace between Israelis and Palestinians cannot result from daily barrages of rocket and mortar fire from Hamas-controlled Gaza,” she said. “Hamas and its supporters must understand that Gaza cannot and will not be allowed to be a sanctuary for attacks on Israel.”
Within Obama’s transition, Democrats say there is a subtle division between foreign policy advisers. One camp holds out hope for a directly negotiated peace, culminating with a signing ceremony on the South Lawn – while another group has argued for a more oblique approach aimed at a negotiated peace between Israel and Syria, thereby weakening Syria’s ties with Iran. The latter group of advisers — which include former Clinton aides Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk — see weakening the role of Iran, which is closely tied to Hezbollah, as central to establishing an Israeli-Palestinian peace.
The hostilities between Israel and Hamas in Gaza may strengthen their case, according to analysts on both sides of the divide. But the success of the attack may have the reverse consequence in Israeli politics, strengthening foreign minister and Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni, who is seen as being somewhat more open to negotiations with Palestinian leaders than her main rival, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.