US Vice President Joe Biden warned last year that then President-elect Barack Obama would early in his term be tested by a foreign policy crisis. The crisis came quicker than even Biden may have expected and tests the very tenants of US foreign policy. The war in Gaza poses a multitude of challenges. How Obama responds will influence the president's ambition to restore US credibility, particularly in the Muslim world as well as efforts to resolve the Israeli Palestinian conflict.
- Converting the halt to fighting in Gaza into a sustainable, more permanent arrangement. The stakes for the Obama administration are high. Obama this week signaled his understanding that failure to engage would embolden both Israeli and Palestinian hardliners and reinforce widespread perceptions in the Arab and Muslim world that the US continues to uncritically support Israel and therefore is not an evenhanded mediator. He will have to underline his sincerity by investing significant political capital to push for a two-state solution.
The current ceasefire is likely to hold for some time as Israel focuses on its Feb. 9 election and Hamas seeks to exploit its survival of the Israeli onslaught and empathy for the Palestinian plight generated by the images of the carnage to ensure that it is granted a seat at the negotiating table on terms more favorable to the Palestinians. The appointment of Senator George J. Mitchell as Middle East envoy warrants the assumption that the Obama administration may seek, however cautiously, to come to grips with the post-Gaza war reality of the Middle East. Mitchell demonstrated diplomatic agility as well as toughness and fairness in his successful mediation of an end to the conflict in Northern Ireland by bringing the Irish Republican Army and Protestant militias to the negotiating table. Already, one major American Jewish leader has expressed concern that Mitchell may be too fair and evenhanded and not sufficiently pro-Israeli.
The United States has a critical role to play in defining the terms of a more durable ceasefire, monitoring its implementation and providing incentives for both sides to stick to it. To do so, Hamas will have to be a party to any arrangement made. A failure of efforts to reunite Palestinian ranks could complicate efforts to stabilize the ceasefire. Prospects for reunification are dim given that the Palestine Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas has by its own admission been marginalized by the Gaza war. Hamas, despite playing lip service to Palestinian unity, may conclude that Abbas has been so discredited that reunification no longer is an option. Speaking at a news conference this week, Abu Ubaida, the spokesman for Hamas' military wing, the Martyr Izz al Din al Qassam Brigades, asserted that Hamas rather than Abbas' Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) had become "the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people".
The Obama administration as well its partners in the Quartet – the European Union and the United Nations who refuse direct talks with Hamas – can work indirectly with Hamas through Egypt and Russia, the fourth party to the Quartet, which maintains relations with Hamas, to bring it further into the fold by initially focusing on humanitarian and security issues. A likely Israeli demand that Hamas release Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured in 2006, as part of any deal to lift the blockade of Gaza, offers another opportunity. A further, more significant avenue to create needed incentives would be a quid pro quid that is difficult to swallow for Israelis and Palestinians: a commitment by Palestinian security forces must commit to doing everything in their power to prevent attacks on Israel in exchange for an Israeli halt settlement construction on the West Bank and support of humanitarian relief and economic development in the West Bank and Gaza.
Speaking at the State Department on Thursday, Obama reiterated conditions for direct talks with Hamas: recognition of Israel's right to exist, renunciation of violence and adherence to past agreements made by Palestinian authorities. He stressed that aid to Gaza would be channeled through the Palestine Authority in a bid to revive its credibility as the only acceptable interlocutor for the international community. Obama did however say that Gaza's border crossings need to be open to support aid and commerce, a demand being touted by Hamas as a condition for perpetuation of the Gaza ceasefire that will be welcomed by ordinary Gazans and exploited by Hamas as more evidence of the success of its steadfastness.
Middle East peacemaking has a track record for finding ways for parties who refuse to talk to one another to sit at the same table without necessarily acknowledging the fact. Richard Murphy, a Council of Foreign Relations fellow and former Assistant Secretary of State for the Middle East and US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, draws a comparison to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)'s participation in the 1992 Madrid peace conference at a time at which Israel still refused contact with the Palestinian movement. "There is the same strong Israeli opposition to (Hamas) as there was toward the PLO. But Israel found a way to deal with the PLO. Israeli Prime Minister [Yitzhak] Shamir with great unhappiness put up with the PLO presence within the Jordanian delegation at the Madrid conference in 1992," Murphy recalls.
- Addressing the political fallout of the Gaza war in the Arab and Muslim world. President Obama and a prominent Saudi on Thursday expressed two dramatically different views of the future of US relations with pro-US Arab governments. In his remarks at the State Department, Obama stressed Israel's right to defend itself, expressed empathy for Palestinian suffering and reiterated the need for a peace process leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. He called on Arab states to act on their peace plan drafted by Saudi King Abdullah, endorsed by the Arab League and embraced by Israeli leaders as a basis for negotiation by normalizing their relations with Israel.
Obama's remarks contrasted starkly with a warning to the United States by Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, chairman of the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies and a former director of Saudi intelligence and ambassador to Britain and the United States. Obama may be getting off with Saudi Arabia on the wrong foot. Saudi King Abdullah was not listed among the Middle Eastern leaders Obama was reported to have phoned nor did he include the kingdom on his swing through the region last July. Al-Faisal warned in his article for the Financial Times that "unless the new US administration takes forceful steps to prevent any further suffering and slaughter of Palestinians, the peace process, the US-Saudi relationship and the stability of the region are at risk… (Saudi) King Abdullah spoke for the entire Arab and Muslim world when he said at the Arab summit in Kuwait that although the Arab peace initiative was on the table, it would not remain there for long. Much of the world shares these sentiments and any Arab government that negotiated with the Israelis today would be rightly condemned by its citizens. If the US wants to continue playing a leadership role in the Middle East and keep its strategic alliances intact – especially its "special relationship" with Saudi Arabia – it will have to drastically revise its policies vis a vis Israel and Palestine.
"The incoming US administration will be inheriting a "basket full of snakes" in the region, there are things that can be done to help calm them down. First, President Barack Obama must address the disaster in Gaza and its causes. Inevitably, he will condemn Hamas's firing of rockets at Israel. When he does that, he should also condemn Israel's atrocities against the Palestinians and support a UN resolution to that effect; forcefully condemn the Israeli actions that led to this conflict, from settlement building in the West Bank to the blockade of Gaza and the targeted killings and arbitrary arrests of Palestinians; declare America's intention to work for a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction, with a security umbrella for countries that sign up and sanctions for those that do not; call for an immediate withdrawal of Israeli forces from Shab'ah Farms in Lebanon; encourage Israeli-Syrian negotiations for peace; and support a UN resolution guaranteeing Iraq's territorial integrity," Al Faisal said.
In a stunning revelation, Al-Faisal suggested the major divide in the Middle East between pro-US Arab governments such as Saudi Arabia and Israel on the one hand and Iran and Syria on the other hand may become a casualty of the Gaza war. Al-Faisal disclosed that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad last week in a letter to King Abdullah recognized Saudi Arabia as the leader of the Arab and Muslim worlds and called on him to take a more confrontational role over "this obvious atrocity and killing of your own children" in Gaza. "The communiqué is significant because the de facto recognition of the kingdom's primacy from one of its most ardent foes reveals the extent that the war has united an entire region, both Shia and Sunni…So far, the kingdom has resisted these calls, but every day this restraint becomes more difficult to maintain…Eventually, the kingdom will not be able to prevent its citizens from joining the worldwide revolt against Israel. Today, every Saudi is a Gazan, and we remember well the words of our late King Faisal: "I hope you will forgive my outpouring of emotions, but when I think that our Holy Mosque in Jerusalem is being invaded and desecrated, I ask God that if I am unable to undertake Holy Jihad, then I should not live a moment more," Al Faisal said.
By contrast to Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah of Jordan may be charting a very different course. The monarch replaced in early January Muhammad Dahabi, who as head of the General Intelligence Department (GID) had initiated a dialogue with Hamas, as well as his top aides with Muhammad Raqqad, The move signaled a return to the GID focusing on its core business: internal and external threats to the kingdom." "Raqqad's appointment may be an indication that the government has decided to end its brief flirtation with Hamas and turn inward to protect its domestic front. The suppression of demonstrations around the Israeli embassy in Amman and the severe beating of the Amman-based correspondent of al-Jazeera satellite TV who earlier had spearheaded an anti-Israeli campaign are evidence of this policy change. Ultimately, it is unclear how this security change will affect the issue of civil liberties and reform in Jordan. There is little doubt that the new GID director is a professional who will confront the Hamas challenge in the kingdom. It is less certain, however, whether Raqqad envisions how to balance the requirements of security with the demands for reform," says Washington Institute for Near East Policy fellow Matthew Levitt.
- Balancing Obama's ambition to restore the credibility of the United States as a nation of values with political realities in the Middle East. Sacrificing democratic reform in Jordan for a hardening of attitudes toward Hamas highlights the contradictions Obama will need to resolve attempting to achieve his goals of improved US credibility and Middle East peace. As does Hamas' claim to legitimacy by virtue of the fact that it won a democratic election universally accepted as free and fair.
The dilemma is reinforced by what Rami G. Khouri, editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, describes as "the deeper reality that plagues the Arab world," namely "that the average Arab citizen faces an unsatisfying choice between a brand of Islamist-nationalist military resistance that triggers enormous Israeli attacks and Arab death and destruction, and a brand of Arab autocratic governance that breeds mediocrity, corruption and perpetual vulnerability and dependence. The choice is stark: Hamas or Fatah in Palestine; Hizbollah or Hariri in Lebanon; Mubarak & Son or Muslim Brothers in Egypt -- and the list continues through every Arab country. The slow gravitation and polarization of the modern Arab state system over the past three generations into two broad camps of status quo conservatives and resistance fighters is more apparent than ever, and equally frustrating.
'Resistance' rings powerfully in the ears of ordinary Arab men and women, as we can witness on television screens throughout the region these days. Resistance will continue as long as oppression and occupation persist. But perpetual resistance means constant warfare and repeated Israeli destruction of Lebanese and Palestinian society, given Israel's superiority in conventional weapons and its barbaric willingness to inflict severe pain on civilian populations. The world's powers largely turn a blind eye to, or tacitly support, Israel's savagery against Palestinians and Lebanese, as we witnessed in 2006 and today. Europe and the United States actually joined Israel in its long-term material blockade and political strangulation of Gaza after Hamas' electoral victory in 2006," Khouri says.
The inability of Arab governments to come to grips with Israel in war or peace as well as their inability to establish a modus vivendi with the Islamist opposition renders governments effectively paralyzed. Islamist movements thrive on this. The Gaza ceasefire perpetuates the choice confronting ordinary Arabs. With Hamas likely to resist pressure to make the full transition from a militia to a political movement, its perceived victory will reverberate throughout the Arab world.
The dilemma for Obama is that America needs to be seen to be true to its own values to restore its credibility. But like in Palestine, pressing even delicately for greater freedom and democratic reform in the Middle East means engaging with Islamists and realizing that the legacy of support for autocratic regimes means that the people's will may not be to Washington's liking.
- Exploiting competition between rival internationalist and nationalist Islamist factions. The aftermath of the Gaza war highlights divisions in the Islamist movement between those pursuing nationalist goals such as Hamas and Lebanon's Hizbollah and those with a global agenda aimed at the United States, European nations, Israel and Arab governments. "There is nothing to negotiate with the global jihadists, but the Islamo-nationalist movements simply cannot be ignored or suppressed," says Olivier Roy, a research director at the French National Center for Scientific Research and lecturer at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences. "Hamas is nothing else than the traditional Palestinian nationalism with an Islamic garb. The Taliban express more a Pashtu identity than a global movement. The Iraqi factions are competing not over Iran or Saudi Arabia, but over sharing (or monopolizing) the power in Iraq."
Roy argues that former President Bush's failure to distinguish between Islamists with global ambitions and those seeking to achieve national goals had stymied any effort to seek a political rather than a military solution to national conflicts such as the Israeli Palestinian dispute. He notes that the political approach proved successful in Iraq where it drove a wedge between Al Qaeda and other armed Sunni insurgents by recognizing them as political actors pursuing an Iraqi rather than a global agenda.
Adopting the principle of the enemy of my enemy is my friend, the International Herald Tribune reasoned in an editorial that the "deep-seated hostility between the Al Qaeda current of Islamism and the more nationalist tendency represented by Hamas suggests that Israel, the United States, and others might do well to shape policy with these distinctions in mind. If Hamas acts as a barrier against something much worse - the undeterrable fanatics of Al Qaeda - then the political eradication of Hamas might not be a desirable goal,"
The rivalry between global jihadis and Islamist nationalists is clear in their responses to the Gaza war and Obama's taking office. Al Qaeda this week called for attacks on Western nations and their Arab supporters, in retaliation for Israel's offensive in Gaza. "It's high time that this criminal country, I mean Britain, paid the price of its historic crime," Qaeda leader Abu Yahya al-Libi said in a video posted on an Islamist website, holding Britain responsible for Israel's creation. "There is no child who dies in Palestine ... without this being the outcome of the (country) that handed Palestine to the Jews ... Britain…"Make them taste the bitterness of war and the tragedies of homelessness and the misery of horror," he said in a call to militant fighters. "They should not be secure while our people (Palestinians) are scared. "O, mujahideen (holy strugglers) everywhere rise like an angered lion ... do what you can to make the infidel capitals of the West and America and the Arab Tyrants taste what our brothers and weak folks in Palestine have been tasting," Al-Libi said in the 31-minute video.
The Arab world may well be where the global jihadis seek to make their mark. Ibrahim Eissa, editor of Al-Dostor in Cairo warns in an editorial entitled 'The Coming Terrorism' that the Gaza war is likely to fuel religious extremism as younger, more religious Arabs conclude that their government's tacit siding with Israel and rejection of Hamas amounts to opposition to Islam. "The people are repressed. They will not raise their swords against their governments but their hearts will be stronger than their swords," Eissa says, predicting that terrorism will adopt a new form. This could well be scattered, uncoordinated attacks perpetrated by people with no connection to Al Qaeda or other globalist jihadi groups and not exposed to discussion on Jihadi Internet forums.
Some moderate Islamists are willing to give the Obama administration the benefit of the doubt. Mohammed Essam Derbala, a leader of Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiyya, which employed terrorism from 1981 to 1997 to topple the Egyptian regime, urged Al Qaeda in a statement to declare a four-month truce with the United States in response to Obama's call to improve relations with the Islamic world.
In a similar vein, Damascus-based Hamas Political Bureau chief Khalid Mashaal this week sought to exploit the aftermath of the Gaza war to ensure that Hamas would be included in diplomatic efforts to achieve a durable ceasefire with Israel. "I tell European nations ... three years of trying to eliminate Hamas is enough. It is time for you to deal with Hamas, which has gained legitimacy through struggle." Describing the Gaza wars as the "first and great real war that our people won" in which "Hamas and the resistance emerged as an indispensable part, Mashaal said. He said "there are (still) two battles to gain. Those of the lifting of the blockade and the opening of crossing points, including Rafah, which is our window on the world."
Speaking barely an hour after Obama's appearance at the State Department, Hamas spokesman Osam Hamdan welcomed Mitchell's appointment, saying he believed the former senator "could make a change" and that his appointment was "a good sign." Hamdan was careful not to reject Obama's conditions but said Obama should have also demanded that Israel recognize Palestinian rights. "To achieve a peaceful solution, we need to talk about recognition of Palestinian rights and a clear definition of the realization of those rights," Hamdan said.
Hamas is certain to hold on to its mantra of resistance. But popular sentiment in Gaza may be pushing it to focus on politics rather than resistance. While a majority of Gazans hail its steadfastness in public and would probably vote for it in an election, in private they may be less willing to sacrifice in the wake of the Gaza war. Jordanian counter terrorism expert Abdul Hameed Bakier suggests that the fact that Hamas launched few suicide attacks against Israeli forces while they were in Gaza is an indication that the Islamists have difficulty recruiting volunteers.
Retired Col. Shmuel Zakai, who commanded Israeli forces in Gaza until 2004 and in the 1990s was sent to Britain to study counter-insurgency in Northern Ireland, argues that the groundswell for Hamas could have been predicted. Winning hearts and minds is as import as battlefield victories in the struggle against Hamas, he says. "We just keep creating bigger problems. Military power alone is not enough. We should be the first ones on the ground helping to rebuild Gaza and making sure Hamas isn't."
Perhaps, the biggest challenge to Middle East peacemaking is the need for a fundamental shift in the way Palestinians and Israelis look at one another. For Palestinians, this means accepting that Jewish Israelis are a people that have struck roots in Palestine and are there to stay with the attributes of nationhood and national identity that come with that. Israel can play a major role in changing Palestinian perceptions. "We Israelis must begin to realize this simple fact: the Arabs are not metaphysical creatures, but human beings, and human beings have it within themselves to change. After all, we Israelis change our positions, mitigate our opinions, and open ourselves up to new ideas. So we would do well to get out of our heads as quickly as possible the illusion that we can somehow annihilate Hamas or eradicate them from the Gaza strip. Instead, we have to work, with caution and good sense, to reach a reasonable and detailed agreement for a lasting ceasefire that has within it the perspective that Hamas can change . Such a change is possible and can be acted upon. Such fundamental changes of heart and mind have happened many times in the course of history," says A. B. Yehoshua, one of Israel's most prominent literary figures.