The violence in Gaza adds a new foreign policy crisis to the top of the political agenda for Barack Obama and his incoming Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and dashes hopes for easy, early progress in the Middle East peace process.
Mr Obama declined to comment on the situation today, sticking to the formula that the “the US has only one president at a time”, but he was being briefed on developments. The incoming administration now faces the prospect of having to help shore up a short-term security solution, instead of focusing on the long-term peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians that was promised during the election campaign.
The issue will be particularly delicate for Mr Obama, who faced considerable scepticism in the Jewish community in the US ahead of his election about his commitment to Israel. In a bid to win them over, he travelled to the country in July to insist that Israeli government had an obligation to defend its citizens. "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,” he said on that visit. “The state of Israel faces determined enemies who seek its destruction, but it also has a friend and ally in the United States that will always stand by the people of Israel.” Underlining his point, he held a press conference next to a collection of spent rockets in Sderot, the Israeli town near the Gaza border, which has been a frequent target of rocket attacks from Hamas militants.
Today as the Israeli military pounded targets in Gaza for a second day, Mr Obama’s key strategist David Axelrod, appeared on political talk show Meet The Press and reminded viewers about the president-elect’s visit to Sderot.
“This is a very serious situation,” Mr Axelrod said, “and we will consult Secretary Rice, the president and the administration on that, and be ready to take over on 20 January... But we have said repeatedly that there is only one president at a time and President Bush speaks for US until 20 January.”
George Bush's late-game efforts to sponsor talks between Israel and moderate Palestinian leaders this year had until recently appeared to have prevented relations from backsliding. Upcoming elections in Israel mean Mr Obama will have to start afresh, however, and analysts believe the task has now been further complicated by the new Israeli offensive.
"This takes the already slim chance of an early, active and successful Obama engagement on Israel-Palestinian peace and lowers it to about zero," Aaron David Miller, a Middle East scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, told the Washington Post.
A less gloomy view was expressed by some White House insiders yesterday, who said that Israel may have timed its offensive to be over before the new administration gets in. That would avoid a confrontation in the early days of the Obama presidency and weaken Hamas in advance of what could be renewed American pressure for restraint, concessions and meaningful progress in the peace progress.
Mrs Clinton has long taken a hard line against Hamas, describing them as a terrorist organisation whose administration in Gaza cannot be recognised until it renounces violence and recognises Israel’s right to exist. She has also spoken out against the International Court of Justice when it questioned the security fence Israel has built along its border.
Mrs Clinton is planning to reinstate the practice, from her husband’s administration, of appointing envoys to certain troubled countries or regions, and has begun considering a high-profile envoy to the Middle East to kickstart the peace process. Dennis Ross, Bill Clinton’s Arab-Israeli negotiator, is among the names being mentioned in Washington, along with former assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke and Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel.
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