Israel’s massive blitzkrieg of the Gaza Strip, which has killed nearly 330 Palestinians so far and injured more than 1,000, continued Monday with no end in sight.
The carnage inflicted by “Operation Cast Lead”—ostensibly in retaliation for the death of one Israeli in rocket attacks by the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas)—is the largest Israeli action in Gaza since 1967. It has raised political tensions across the Middle East and pushed the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to the forefront of the foreign policy challenges facing the incoming U.S. administration of Barack Obama, which is already saddled with a global economic crisis, unfinished wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a looming nuclear threat from Iran.
There is a real danger that the Mideast peace process, already in a coma in the last days of George W. Bush's presidency, could be killed off by renewed violence.
There is a real danger that the Mideast peace process, already in a coma in the last days of George W. Bush's presidency, could be killed off by renewed violence, which will make it more difficult to overcome divisions within both the Israeli and Palestinian camps. The split among the Palestinians between the mainstream Fatah movement, controlling the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and Hamas, which controls Gaza, has been further deepened by the PA’s apparent complicity to rid Gaza of Hamas. And Israel is likely to tilt further away from the pro-negotiation stance adopted by the centrist Kadima Party in power today if, as expected, hardline Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu wins February’s elections there.
Mindful of Washington’s strategic alliance with Israel, and aware of the need to maintain a measure of neutrality that would enable his administration to be an effective mediator, President-elect Obama did not immediately comment on the airstrikes and may choose to let the crisis play out before he commits the new administration to a specific position.
Once he takes office on January 20, Obama would appear to have two narrow options. First: Send Hillary Clinton to restart negotiations from the point they reached in 2000, when her husband, President Bill Clinton, brought a historic peace agreement as close as it’s ever been. But that deal collapsed, largely due to miscalculations by then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak (the current defense minister) and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and the second Palestinian intifada broke out instead.
Second: Manage the immediate crisis by brokering a new cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, with the help of regional powers, thus abandoning any grandiose hopes of a peace agreement until political circumstances improve.
In the meantime, the political climate in the Middle East will improve or further deteriorate depending on how the Iraq war pans out. If the U.S. appears to be withdrawing from Iraq and abandoning the region to Iran’s designs, it is likely to harden the hostilities between Israel and Palestine. If the occupation of Iraq looks more like a success, this may encourage radicals on both sides to join the bandwagon of so-called moderate regional powers such as Turkey and Egypt.
For now, the Arab world is expressing outrage at the Israeli action, while most Western powers are urging restraint all around. On Saturday, the Bush administration cautioned Israel to avoid civilian casualties in airstrikes on Gaza and said Hamas must stop its rocket attacks into Israel for the violence to cease. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States "holds Hamas responsible for breaking the cease-fire and for the renewal of violence in Gaza." She added that the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, which expired more than a week ago, "should be restored immediately"—a plea seconded by PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
The spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana also called for both sides to declare a cease-fire, and this plea was echoed by France, Russia, and Britain. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown reportedly contacted his Israeli counterpart, Ehud Olmert, and made it clear Israel must stick by its humanitarian obligations in Gaza.
Arab League head Amr Moussa called for an emergency meeting of all Arab foreign ministers in Cairo Sunday, while the Egyptian government summoned the Israeli ambassador to express its condemnation of the airstrikes, and King Abdullah II of Jordan called for an immediate halt to all military actions, saying the attacks targeted innocent civilians in Palestine.
Lebanon's prime minister, Fuad Siniora, described the Israeli attacks as a "criminal operation,” and Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a religious decree ordering Muslims to defend the Palestinians. But there was no indication that Iran would give the green light to its proxy Hezbollah militia in Lebanon to launch rocket attacks across the border into Israel.
A Syrian official said Sunday that Damascus was suspending its indirect peace talks with Israel, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that he, too, had frozen his contacts with outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Olmert.
On Monday, Israel bombed the Islamic University and government compound in Gaza City, centers of Hamas power. By the end of the day, Israel was close to exhausting its target bank for aerial bombing, according to Israeli military analysts quoted by the Haaretz newspaper. Now it will have to either launch a ground operation or bring the campaign to a speedy conclusion.
Thus far, however, Israel has been sending conflicting messages about where the operation is headed. Asked whether Israel would follow up the airstrikes with a ground offensive, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said, "If boots on the ground will be needed, they will be there."
But Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told the foreign media that Israel does not seek to reoccupy Gaza, and government sources said the Foreign Ministry is already working on an exit strategy—though this strategy would not involve stationing an international force in Gaza. Livni, who hopes to defeat the right-wing hawks to become prime minister in the February elections, has also said the rule of Hamas in Gaza must be ended because the Islamists will never make peace with Israel.
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Salameh Nematt is the international editor of The Daily Beast. He is the former Washington bureau chief for the international Arab daily Al Hayat, where he reported on US foreign policy, the war in Iraq, and the US drive for democratization in the broader Middle East. He has also written extensively on regional and global energy issues and their political implications.