Mideast Change You Can Believe In?


The fierce fighting in Gaza could push the incoming Barack Obama administration to accelerate its promised plunge into Middle East peacemaking and possibly expand back-channel contacts with Hamas. With the Obama administration set to hit the ground running after next week’s inauguration, a broad spectrum of observers predict a sharp increase in the intensity of U.S. diplomacy in the region — both a fulfillment of Obama’s campaign promise and a response to the ongoing Gaza crisis. But few expect radical changes in the content of that diplomacy.

“I’d say the indications today are of a return to the [Bill] Clinton style of Middle East diplomacy,” said Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum.

Pipes, a strong critic of land-for-peace negotiations, said a revival of Clinton-era peacemaking is “not the policy I would have chosen,” but that it is preferable to the more radical approaches he said are favored by some of the new president’s supporters.

Even on the question of diplomatic openings to Hamas, few observers are predicting the kinds of abrupt policy lurches that could generate friction between Washington and Jerusalem. In fact, such diplomacy would be consistent with current Israeli policy. This week there were reports of accelerated cease-fire negotiations with Hamas, with Israeli leaders using Egypt as a go-between. Just days before the inauguration, pro-Israel forces are scouring every statement from the president-elect and every foreign policy and national security appointment in an effort to anticipate changes in U.S. Mideast policy.

While the conventional wisdom once held that the new administration would put off serious Middle East peacemaking as it concentrated on the economic emergency at home, the Gaza crisis may force that issue back to the front burner even if a cease-fire is in force by Tuesday.

“If it is still going, it will be the first foreign policy crisis of his presidency that he can’t avoid taking a position on,” said Daniel Levy, director of the Prospects for Peace Initiative of the Century Foundation. “If the administration was hoping to start by saying, ‘Let’s take a deep breath and look the situation over before we do anything,’ obviously they aren’t going to be able to do that.”

Obama himself has hinted of ratcheted-up involvement but, citing the reality that America has “only one president at a time,” offered no details.

In a widely reported statement on Jan. 6, the president-elect said “the loss of civilian life in Gaza and in Israel is a source of deep concern to me. After January 20th I’m going to have plenty to say about the issue, and I am not backing away at all from what I said during the campaign, that starting at the beginning of our administration, we are going to be engaged effectively and consistently in trying to resolve the conflict in the Middle East.”

In an ABC interview last weekend, he said he is “putting together the team so that on January 20th, starting on day one, we have the best possible people who are going to be immediately engaged in the Middle East peace process as a whole … that will work to create a strategic approach that ensures that both Israelis and Palestinians can meet their aspirations.”

Without revealing any details, he said the Gaza crisis has affected his planning. “When you see civilians, whether Palestinian or Israeli, harmed, under hardship, it’s heartbreaking,” he said. “And obviously what that does is it makes me much more determined to try to break a deadlock that has gone on for decades now.”

On Tuesday Obama’s choice as secretary of state, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, testified in confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and echoed his broad-brush statements. “As we focus on Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, we must also actively pursue a strategy of smart power in the Middle East that addresses the security needs of Israel and the legitimate political and economic aspirations of the Palestinians,” she told the panel.

Some analysts say that very reticence of Obama and his top foreign policy officials to offer details of their Mideast policy portends sweeping change.

Joe Klein, blogging for Time, said last week that “Obama’s silence on Gaza is a sure sign, I believe, that his administration will approach this problem differently from the Bushies,” putting greater pressure on Israel to move toward a Gaza cease-fire.

But most pro-Israel leaders say the pattern of administration appointments reinforces the impression of intensified U.S. activism without any sharp shifts in policy.

In addition to Clinton, Obama is expected to appoint Dennis Ross, America’s most experienced peace negotiator, as a kind of Mideast czar, with special responsibility for dealing with Iran. Ross will be joined by a lower-level envoy focusing on Israel-Palestinian negotiations.

Reportedly the leading candidates for that position are Daniel Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Egypt and Israel who participated in Mideast negotiations during the 1990s, and Martin Indyk, who also served in the Clinton administration State Department and as U.S. ambassador to Israel.

That lineup suggests “there may be more of a focus on increased humanitarian assistance for the Palestinians once a cease-fire is in place,” said Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn. “The new administration may move into the area of trying to create some kind of international cordon sanitaire along the Rafah border. But I think those who are expecting huge changes will be disappointed.” Judith Kipper, director of Middle East programs for the Institute of World Affairs, rejected claims that the new administration will return to the policies of Bill Clinton, arguing that he will take a broader view of Mideast peacemaking.

“He’s not going to be tactical; Clinton was 100 percent tactical,” she said. “He will not jump into this quagmire, which can devour any presidency, without a strategic view that can succeed.” And part of that, she said, may be indirect contacts with Hamas aimed at finding ways to overcome the biggest single impediment to ongoing peace talks: the splits between Fatah and Hamas, the West Bank and Gaza.

A recent Council on Foreign Relations/ Brookings Institution study called for a push to engage Hamas, but other analysts say such a policy shift would undermine longstanding policy aimed at propping up the Palestinian moderates who control the West Bank — and who have been Israel’s uneven partners in ongoing peace negotiations.

“The current crisis exposes the soft underbelly of the whole Annapolis process,” said the Century Foundation’s Levy. “How can you have a two-state solution without Gaza? Who does [Palestinian leader Mahmoud] Abbas speak for? This crisis puts those questions front and center.” The results, he said, are likely to include a more active but highly private exploration of indirect contacts with Hamas. Hard-line pro-Israel groups don’t seem particularly alarmed by the likelihood of indirect openings to Hamas — largely because most believe such contacts will fail.

Talk about advancing peace through contacts with Hamas is “mostly wishful thinking,” said Robert Lieber, a Georgetown University professor of government. “Hamas’ Damascus-based leadership, not to mention their own covenant, suggests they are intractable. The room for maneuver is very constrained, since Hamas still aims to destroy Israel and since the Palestinians are still so bitterly divided.”